2019 was a tough year to be a gamer, particularly for those of us who mark the hours creeping by until the release of Cyberpunk 2077 delivers us from our fleshy existence. Still… a few notable things happened in the gaming industry over the last year, some of them bad, but surprisingly, a few of them were good too.
So, as the year draws to a close, I thought we could look back, in no particular order, on some of the high and low points that defined the gaming landscape in 2019.
Join me, won’t you?
1. Control brought brutalism back
It’s a rare delight when something turns out better than you expect. And that’s why Control deserves a spot on this list. But not because of it’s aesthetic, though relying on bare squared-off concrete for much of your game environment is a bold move in its own right.
Control, which borrows its core idea from the concept of the SCP Foundation, focuses on the Bureau of Control which appears to shield humanity from meta-physical threats. You play as its mysterious new director during a crisis for the organisation although the circumstances for your promotion are rather unconventional.
While it does borrow from internet-based lore, this isn’t some low-effort Slenderman game. Control is genuinely compelling and does a great job of juxtaposing the mundane interiors of an '80s era government office with all the supernatural and multi-dimensional goings-on as you delve deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine building to uncover the many mysteries it holds.
While Control might not be the most visually interesting game out there, stick with it and you will be rewarded, the sense of mystery and discovery is great, the writing is good, even if the inner monologue of your main character is a bit strange at first and the combat is fluid and intense, forcing you to keep moving and use all your abilities. While this last bit can be occasionally frustrating, it’s never dull and some of the more powerful abilities late in the game are fun to use.
What’s The Board up to? And why are they in a pyramid in another dimension? Or are they the pyramid? Who are the Hiss? Where is your brother? Why are you in charge? Some of these questions may or may not be answered if you choose to play Control. Good luck Director.
Tell me your secrets Pyramid! | Remedy
2. The true cost of loot boxes is worse than we knew
What’s even worse than paying to get in-game items in a game you already paid for? Why paying for the chance to get in-game items in a game you already paid for of course! Enter loot boxes (or surprise mechanics if you’re a mouthpiece for Electronic Arts).
Yes, loot boxes, the gift that keeps on taking. We have seen their like before in several games, but we had rarely seen them implemented as viciously as we did in 2017 with the release of Star Wars: Battlefront 2 from Electronic Arts. Thankfully that display of blind avarice was two steps too far, and the backlash from customers was loud enough and long enough to get the attention of the governments of several countries prompting multiple investigations into the ethics and legality of loot box mechanics in games, particularly those targeted at customers under 18-21.
Fast forward to 2019, and the results of some of these inquiries have revealed some fairly grim numbers, with many players spending hundreds or, rarely, even thousands of dollars on loot boxes in games. Unfortunately, some of those doing the spending were children as young as seven and eight, many of whom didn’t quite understand they were spending real-world money as they steadily drained the bank accounts of their parents.
While some publishers did issue refunds for these incidents, others (like EA) instead chose to issue statements calling for greater parental supervision… while remaining curiously silent regarding their responsibility to not heavily push gambling on young players (FIFA, for the record, is rated for ages three and up).
On the brightside, it looks like loot boxes are finally falling out of favour as consumers and governments wise up to it. A recent report from a UK parliamentary report has called for loot boxes to be either completely banned or restricted to sale in games rated 18+ until they can be proved to have no detrimental effects on child development.
It’s not yet a victory, and the industry will almost certainly find loopholes or lucrative alternatives, but at least it’s a much-needed reprimand of industry practices with the scope for real change in the near future.
3. We finally got a good new Star Wars game Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
The Star Wars name has been going through a bit of a tough time recently. The spin-off films did poorly, with Solo becoming the first Star Wars film to lose money. The Last Jedi left audiences heavily divided and while Rise of Skywalker did unite them again later on, it was only because no one really liked the movie.
Even in games, Star Wars: Battlefront2 was a bit of a disaster early on, with its almost spiteful monetisation blowing up in the face of parent company EA while the development of the promising Star Wars: 1313 was quietly cancelled.
Still would have been cool to see Star Wars from a non-force user perspective | IGN / EA
But just when all hope seemed lost for Star Wars, Respawn Entertainment, fresh off their success with Apex Legends, was able to deliver a game that was finally worthy of the franchise… probably the first one since Knights of the Old Republic 2 back in 2004 (You can add the force unleashed games if you want but they never really clicked with me).
Essentially a dark souls style game with force powers, the combat is where Jedi: Fallen Order shines. While the story is just about serviceable, the gameplay and cast are good enough to keep you invested from start to finish although having some areas sealed off from you, forcing you to come back when you have the necessary force powers broke the flow and the enjoyment in ways the developer probably didn’t anticipate.
Along with The Mandalorian, Jedi: Fallen Order is helping keep Star Wars alive through these tough times and proving that the franchise is capable of much more than just what you see on the big screen.
Plus BB-1 is the cutest of all the droids
That’s a good boy! | Respawn/EA
4. The gaming industry’s China problem
It is well known that historically, the Chinese authorities have been less than receptive to anyone who espouses views that are critical of the government or the ruling Communist Party of China. It is less well known that China was, at the start of 2019, the world’s biggest videogame market, only recently being edged out by the United States.
These two points came into sharp focus recently during an e-sports tournament when the winner, who went by the moniker Blitzchung used his victory as an opportunity to support the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Before the Chinese government could even complain, Blizzard, who organised the tournament for its game Hearthstone, had banned Blitzchung from competitive play for a year, withheld his prize money and just for good measure, fired the two hosts who had the bad luck to be interviewing him when he made his statement of support for the Hong Kong protests.
While some of these decisions were walked back over the following weeks after backlash from the community and even a letter of reprimand from a number of US political representatives, the idea that the Chinese government has such an overbearing say on what can and cannot be said by foreign nationals playing a game owned by a US company is and should be a cause for concern. The fear of being seen as permissive of such behaviour and having their access to the Chinese market cut off, as a result, is enough to get companies to pre-emptively self-censor in an effort to maintain good standing in Beijing.
When you add to that development, the fact that many companies based in China are becoming major shareholders or outright owners of foreign game publishers and studios, the implication is clear, if you have a criticism of the PRC, you had better enjoy playing solo and offline.
5. Untitled Goose Game is wholesome destructive fun
Probably the best thing to come out of Australia since Tim Tams, Untitled Goose Game is surprising in its simplicity and the satisfaction you get from a job well done. The premise of Untitled Goose Game is simple, “It’s a lovely day in the village, and you are a horrible goose.”
My reign of terror begins now | House House
The art direction is great and the control system more responsive than games with budgets more than 50 times the size. As the eponymous goose, you will sneak, steal, honk and flap your way to victory over the unfortunate citizenry of the village.
It’s a delightful and humorous romp that can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone… anyone who doesn’t have a phobia of geese at least. There’s no serious violence, no politics, fate-of-the-world-narrative, you’re no destiny driven hero, you’re just a goose out to get into trouble and raise some hell.
There’s really not a lot to say about this game except that I highly recommend it and it’s nice to be reminded that indie developers are still fighting the good fight in an industry that seems to be increasingly focused on all the wrong aspects game making when it comes to products from the huge so-called triple-A development studios.
6. Anthem became BioWare’s second flop in a row
BioWare is (or was) a beloved studio among many gamers, delivering critical and commercial hits such as the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchise and widely regarded as one of the best western RPG developers in the business. After the disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda, fans of the company’s products were hopeful that Anthem would be a welcome return to form.
Being a studio that specialised in story-heavy single-player experiences is not exactly where you would expect the next contender in multi-player shooters to come from, but stranger things have happened. However, even before release things seemed to be amiss and when it finally did release it arrived with all the grace of a rocket exploding on re-entry… it grabbed your attention, but there was soon very little to see.
But being an overhyped game, that ultimately disappointed fans is hardly what qualifies it for a spot in videogaming’s hall of shame. Half of all major releases today could probably qualify for a spot in this list if you went by that reckoning.
No, what put Anthem on this list isn’t the fact that it’s a boring, repetitive grind. It’s not that it’s a game about “looting and shooting” with dull combat and stingy loot. It’s not the many bugs and performance issues that plagued the game during its initial release.
For a game that essentially makes you ‘Iron Man’, you need to work hard to make it dull | BioWare/ EA
What did do it is that after selling the game on a ‘road map’ of future content and updates, BioWare and Electronic Arts, after looking at their rapidly dwindling player base appear to have walked away from all this planned content. With their roadmap to future content being quietly deleted along with an assurance that they have big plans for the game in the future, the studio and publisher may be saying what players want to hear… if indeed there are any players actually left playing this turkey, but every action they actually take seems to hint that the plug is very close to being pulled. For a game with a planned lifetime of several years, seeing it circling the drain just a few months from release is indicative of just how big a blunder this game really is.
And while there are rumours that the game is being completely rebuilt in secret for a relaunch, it’s uncertain if this will ever materialise or if there will be anyone who wants to give this title a second chance. BioWare may be hoping they can walk the long road to redemption similar to Hello Games and their miserable-failure-turned-success No Man’s Sky. But they work for EA… a publisher with little patience and a reputation for rewarding any failure with destruction, and which could fill a mass grave with all the studios it has decommissioned over the years.
7. Fallout 76 is an endless parade of failure
Remember when people thought it was a bad idea for a company like BioWare, with a storied history in making immersive narrative-driven single-player games, to bet the farm on a multiplayer shooter?
There’s a reason for that.
Now putting Fallout on this list may seem unfair, since it was already many peoples’ top choice for worst game of 2018 shortly after its October release last year. But honestly, it is still a front runner for worst game of 2019, a truly amazing achievement since it is extremely rare for a game to get even worse after more than a year of constant development.
Developed by Bethesda Softworks, which is also known for The Elder Scrolls franchise, Fallout 76 is a multiplayer survival game and an offshoot of the previously single-player survival role-playing game series Fallout. Now something you should know about Bethesda games if you didn’t already, is that they are buggy. Very buggy. Like dragons flying backwards buggy.
Majestic! | UnitedGamer / Bethesda
Their games run on an ancient game engine which is, to put it politely, rather rubbish compared to modern engines. As a result, their games are clunky, imprecise and never look as good as anything coming from the competition.
But they have always been forgiven by their loyal community, of which I am (or at least was) a member, because of the excellent world-building and interesting lore and narratives that these games contain.
So, what happens when a studio with below-average technical skills release their first-ever multiplayer game without any of the great storytelling or user-created content that their games are famous for? Well, you get Fallout 76. A product that thoroughly lays bare the shortcomings of its creators.
Uh, Hello. | Bethesda Softworks
A whole year of broken promises, delayed content and updates that introduced as many new bugs as they fixed and what have those who stuck with the game got to show for it? A premium subscription model that can cost over $100/year so that you can give them even more money to get basic features that you should have had at launch in a product you already paid for. And even better, those premium features were incompetently implemented, often seriously hampering those eager enough to pay for the privilege.
But with multiplayer games also comes trolls, griefers and hackers and Bethesda, as many would have expected by this point, have utterly failed to stop trolls from making the servers a terrible place to be. As recently as last week, hackers have found a way to ‘remotely pickpocket’ anyone they can see in the game, effortlessly relieving other players of their items, weapons, money and armour.
Fallout 76 is a terrible game, especially since it does nothing better than its predecessor. But I am completely honest when I say that Fallout 76 is the best game I’ve never played, because I’ve never gotten as much entertainment out of a game I don’t own. And with the first big update coming to Fallout 76 in 2020, the schadenfreude is sure to keep on coming. In fact, I think it’s safe to call it right now and say that Fallout 76 is going to be a frontrunner for worst game of 2020 as well. It’s not a hattrick most people would want, but it’s hard to think of a game or a studio that deserves the “honour” more.
8. The Outer Worlds showed us Obsidian still has our hearts
While Bethesda drags its feet on developing the games that people actually want them to make, like The Elder Scrolls, an actual Fallout sequel or even the new Star Field game they have announced, it’s nice to know that the banner of immersive, single-player, story-rich RPGs is still being carried by other studios and Obsidian Entertainment, with their newest game The Outer Worlds is one of them.
Obsidian is a workhorse studio in the gaming industry, developing many notable titles for several developers and franchises. They’ve even made a Fallout game, Fallout: New Vegas, which is considered by some to be the best in the entire series. They were also the team behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 (which I mentioned earlier). In this new game, they appear to have blended their love for both these titles to give us a space-western set in a distant solar system owned and overrun by corporations busily exploiting the inhabitants for all they are worth.
We traded Fallout’s nuclear hellscape for a capitalist hellscape. Not sure which is preferable. | Obsidian
It’s not a perfect game by any means, the plot is fairly simple and honestly is over far too soon. Combat, while acceptable, isn’t particularly engaging or nuanced. It’s not even a truly open-world game, with gameplay spread over a handful of maps that are just large enough to give you a few places to see, but not so big that getting anywhere actually requires you to plan a route between locations, just wander towards them and you’ll get there in a minute or two.
But where the game does shine is in its dialogue and characters. This is a funny game, and not funny like the often infantile, cringy humour of Borderlands 3, I mean actual wit. The portrait it paints of corporate-controlled worlds struggling through late-stage capitalism is comically absurd… but probably closer to the truth than I’m comfortable admitting.
The Outer Worlds is short but very sweet, effectively a 20-hour demo of what Obsidian could do if they had the resources… and given how successful The Outer Worlds has been, hopefully, they now have what they need to make a worthwhile successor.
That was cathartic. I could probably go on, but if you’ve read all the way to here, I’ve held you up long enough. And now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest it’s time to spend the last days of this year doing something fun with people I like. You should do that too.