The DeanBeat: My favorite games of 2019
Games grew to a $148.8 billion market in 2019, up 9.6% from 2018 and reaching over 2.5 billion people across the globe. Console games, the lion’s share of the industry a decade earlier, were smaller than mobile games in 2019, a continuation of a multi-year trend, according to research firm Newzoo.
We watched the further growth of esports and game watching expand this year, and we saw the introduction of subscription gaming for Apple Arcade, Google Play, and Google Stadia’s cloud gaming service. Hyper-casual mobile games that last 30 seconds emerged, but big mobile titles like Call of Duty: Mobile emerged to hold their own against the nanosecond attention spans.
I didn’t think we could match last year’s brilliant titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, and Marvel’s Spider-Man. For me, last year was the triumph of traditional narrative triple-A games that blended open worlds with deep narratives.
But the highest end of the industry didn’t rest on its laurels in 2019. As usual, I didn’t have enough time to play it all. But I enjoyed everything across the board, from Sandbox VR’s Star Trek: Discovery — Away Mission virtual reality experience to episodic games like Life is Strange 2 to mobile titles like Call of Duty: Mobile and Apple Arcade’s Where Cards Fall. I re-engaged with favorite maps from years past in Call of Duty: Mobile and plunged into battle royale maps with squadmates in the multiplayer action of Apex Legends. And I was scared out of my wits playing titles like The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan.
It felt like I had less time to explore indie experiences that my peers played, so I wasn’t the first to stumble on titles like Untitled Goose Game. But I enjoyed delving into my own passions, such as the World War II real-time strategy game Steel Battalion 2 from Eugen Systems, where I could zoom in on a single tank in a battle or pan out to see an entire division marching across the Russian landscapes. Toward the end of the year, I rushed to finish titles such as Remedy’s Control and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
For the sake of comparison, here are my favorites from 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011. In each story below, the links go to our full reviews or major stories about the games. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s own votes for Game of the Year and the best individual favorites of the staff soon.
Check out our Reviews Vault for past game reviews.
10) Sayonara Wild Hearts
Above: Sayonara Wild Hearts takes you on an impossibly fast ride.
Publisher: Annapuana Interactive, iam8bit
Platforms: Apple Arcade/iOS, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Windows, MacOS, tvOS
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this dream-like game, as music games don’t usually get me dancing. But Sayonara Wild Hearts has an artsy combination of dance-fighting, pop music, and high-speed motorcycle chases that clicked for me. I played it on an iPhone with Apple Arcade‘s $5 a month subscription platform, and I used a Rotor Riot wired game controller to play it rather than brave the untrustworthy touchscreen. You can also play it on an iPad or Apple TV.
It’s a high-adrenaline game where you tap, jump, and maneuver to collect little hearts in a beautiful neon-and-black landscape. And it isn’t that long with 23 levels. The neon-on-black art is beautiful. It’s hard to believe a small game studio put it together, because the art is so well-crafted. There isn’t much of a story, but the developers tell you what you need to know.
The fusion of music and gameplay reminds me of music games like Rez from 2001 or that wacky and artistic “Take On Me” music video by A-Ha in 1985. The gameplay in Sayonara Wild Hearts seems impossible, and it takes a lot of skill to avoid crashing. But it’s whimsical and forgiving at the same time, as you can start up right where you crashed to try again. I thought songs like Begin Again were catchy and hard to get out of my head. I’m not going to say that this was far better than many of the triple-A games that debuted this year, but this is my nod in the direction of creativity, fun, and the indie spirit on mobile devices.
9) Rage 2
Above: Rage 2 couldn’t fight the dying of the light.
Developer: Avalanche Studios and id Software
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
When id Software’s Tim Willits visited Avalanche Studios in Stockholm, he told his new compadres to ignore constraints. “When I met with the team in Stockholm on the whiteboard, “More crazy than Rage” That was the first pillar of this game,” Willits said.
And he got what he asked for. Rage 2 didn’t get the best reviews, but I thought it was underrated, as I played it through the end of the single-player campaign and played a lot of silly side missions as well. Rage 2 had a lot of environments, ranging from the Mad Max-style desert to jungles and cities. The script was a bit weak, but the enemies were tough and the weapons were glorious. The “nanotrite” capabilities that you discovered along the way are critical to defeating the biggest bosses. The art style was absolutely wild, with plenty of bright pink and yellow colors splashed across the punk habitats. And I enjoyed reuniting with my old friend, the Wingstick, which is like a boomerang that could slice an enemy’s head off.
If it had flaws, it was that it wasn’t Red Dead Redemption 2. It often littered the landscape with side missions and enemies to kill, to no purpose. You could get damaged on your way to an important mission, and then have to figure out a way to recover. It’s good if you stayed on track, built your capabilities up, and stuck to the good stuff.
The final part of the game lasted a lot longer for me because I had trouble taking down General Cross, the bad guy, and his pet monster. But to me, it was a thrill when I finally succeeded.
8) Days Gone
Above: A horde of Freakers chases Deacon St. John in Days Gone.
Developer: Sony Bend Studio
Platforms: PlayStation 4
The amazing success of its first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) hampered this game, as did a couple of years of delays. By the time it came out, many were sick of it, and it suffered from having some of the worst bugs I’ve ever seen in a triple-A game. Others wrong wrote it off as a copycat of The Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Last of Us.
But I admired Sony’s guts in standing by Bend Studio, and I stuck by it too as my colleagues ragged on it. I played it for perhaps 50 hours over several weeks, and I was quite possibly the last critic to review the game. I rated it only as a 75, because of the bugs. But without them, it would have been more like a 90, based on the quality of its story and the thrill of fighting the hordes of zombies, or Freakers.
I was drawn to the story of Deacon St. John, a bounty hunter in the Oregon woods and a broken man in a fallen world. He had a death wish and could ride a motorcycle through a horde of zombies just to get them to chase him. But Bend Studio delivered on the big scene where a few hundred zombies chased the biker through an abandoned lumber mill. It was a thrill to figure out how to beat that challenge, and I was hooked on the story of how Deacon was haunted by the memory of his lost love Sarah.
The adventure took me across the beautiful Oregon landscape into horrifying creature battles, motorcycle chases, infected crows, memorable horde battles, stealth missions tracking the secretive government agency, and just plain-old surviving in the wilderness. It was kind of an art to orchestrate your escape from several hundred Freakers. And it was good to see Deacon change and become the person that Sarah would have wanted him to be.
7) Steel Division 2
Above: Your forces appear as icons when you zoom out in Steel Division 2.
Developer: Eugen Systems
Publisher: Eugen Systems
There are no Metacritic reviews for Steel Battalion 2. I may have been the only one who played it. But I saw the game being played on YouTube by some dedicated influencers with tiny audiences. And I was fascinated. I’ve been playing the Total War series of real-time strategy games since they first debuted more than 15 years ago, and I played Total War: Attila for hundreds of hours in 2015.
And I was glad to pour scores of hours into it this summer into Eugen Systems’ real-time strategy World War II games, which are a niche within a niche. It dwells on a bit of war history I didn’t know much about, Operation Bagration. It was the Soviet Union’s huge summer offensive in Belarus to take back big chunks of Eastern Europe from the Nazis, as the Allied invasion of Normandy was gathering steam in 1944. It was a massive set of tank, infantry, and air battles that left the German Wehrmacht in full retreat on the Eastern Front.
It has a steep learning curve. The game has more than 600 historically accurate units, 18 divisions, and an astounding level of detail in its graphics. You can focus in on an individual scene, such as above, or zoom out to get a birds’ eye view of an entire battle with thousands of soldiers. Your job as general is to constantly feed the right kind of troops into the fray to make the enemy’s forces melt away from you. This is easier said than done, as you can dislodge well-trained enemy squads from a forest trench, even if you’ve got superior armor. The enemy AI is smart, taking out your anti-tank guns on a hill with artillery or air power.
I lost dozens of skirmish matches against the AI before I figured out how to win. On top of the tactical battles, I also got hooked on the Army General mode, where you moved around divisions like chess pieces on a map. But you can still choose to play those huge campaigns, one tactical battle at a time. That’s what is amazing about the title.
6) Gears of War 5
Above: Kait gets here close-up.
Developer: The Coalition
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One
Coalition head Rod Fergusson humbly said that Gears 5 was the best entry yet in the Gears saga. And he wasn’t making that up. I was gratified to see the developer get the balance right when it came to creating a wild action game with an emotional story with strong characters such as the hero, Kait Diaz.
Gears 4 got pretty goofy at certain points in its narrative about the human race losing its battle for survival against the Swarm in a world gone mad. But this story balanced that goofiness that brought us chainsaw bayonets with the moments where you mourn the death of a lost friend. These are tough moments because the cast of characters has survived some very tough times, and they’re a close-knit group. When you rip a character out of that group, it leaves deep wounds.
The campaign’s longer than usual, and it features cool features such as a skiff that sails across both the desert and ice. shoot out the ice under the feet of the Scions, the heavy tank bosses that carry a heavy weapon and are often shielded from attack by flying drones. This was very different from past Gears games. I remember spending an hour battling a blind boss, slowly figuring out a kind of choreography to stay out of its way, replenish my ammo, grab new weapons, and spray it with the frosty freeze guns. The title also had some cool additions to multiplayer and co-op play.
Gears 5 delivers a sense that you’re losing a big war at the same time it delivers the blow of a personal loss. And it generates a resolve to hit back. I like how this team outgrew its urges to be goofy and shocking and instead opted for something closer to fine art.
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