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Our PC Games of the Year 2019

A good year for games

Featured post

Apex Legends

Matt: In my Apex Legends review, I declared Apelegs “the best battle royale game we’re going to see for a long, long time.” Such hubris shouldn’t have gone unpunished, but we’re ten months on and nothing has come close.

A lot of that has to do with the grappling hook robot. It’s not just about the raw thrill of mobility, and the way that hook transforms the world into a vertical playground. That’s brill, but it’s made better by exclusivity. Pathfinder is the only character that can look at the top of a cliff and think ‘I’ll have you’, then sail past and over it and into the midst of too many enemies. I have played for a hundred hours and I am still too brazen, but I am fast and I can fly.

My best moments haven’t been about murder, they’ve been about avoiding it. When my pals perish, Apelegs turns into a stealth game where my sole job is to survive, recover my friends’ souls, and scarper to a respawn point. It lets me bask in the glow of a day I’ve saved, despite there being far too many kids who are far better at clicking heads than me. I rarely win fights, but I’m a dab hand at escaping them.

Apelegs raised the bar for battling royally, and then it added dragons. What more could one ask for?

Nate: As was the case when I wrote about the Legs Of The Apes in our best of the decade list, I’m going to start talking about how much I like it by talking about how much I don’t like another game: Plunkbat.

Well, I ought to qualify that by admitting I’ve probably sunk ten times my total Apelegs play time into the battlegrounds of Mr. Unknown. Which means I can’t hate it that much, can I? Well no, I suppose I don’t. For a good chunk of 2018 it was the place where I stayed connected with a good friend, and it acted as a weird modern analogue for the long, rambling phonecalls of my teenage years. We would spend hours chatting while holed up in dilapidated Russian bathrooms, and only very occasionally would we stop shooting the breeze in order to shoot at distant strangers. More often than not, the only way anyone listening in would know we were playing a game at all would be the occasional barks of sudden alarm, as packs of balaclava-clad maniacs burst into our hiding places and murdered us in cold blood.

I tried playing without my mate a few times, and while something about the Battle Royale formula really appealed to me (the initial chaos, I think – I love huge, confusing battles with many different sides), the game itself felt as cold, inhospitable and joyless as a sunday evening in February. There was, in short, not much fun to be had, besides the brief, frenzied sadism of beasting a stranger with a crowbar out the back of a ruined barn. Maybe I would have liked it more if I had been better at it.

Then, as my Plunkbat phase was reaching an end, along came Apelegs. I’d just finished Titanfall 2, which had properly reinvigorated my love for a good, meaty single player FPS campaign, and so the idea of a Battle Royale game from the same developers seemed promising. Plus, hey, it was free to play, so I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know anyone else who played at the time (probably the one reason it didn’t stick with me as long as Plunkers), but even playing on my own, I had a grand old time.

Where Plunkbat was turgid, drab and rough around the edges, Apelegs was fast-paced, colourful and polished – and it never went too far, into the headache-inducing hyperactivity of Fortnite. Where Plunkbat was set in a series of dismal, collapsing generic Failed States, Apelegs was painted in Titanfall’s bold science fiction hues, complete with giant alien elephant things walking around on the horizon. And where Plunkbat had zero element of character – at least beyond the occasional muffled, racist shouting of your assailants – Plunkbat borrowed from Overwatch with a fun, varied roster of space brawlers, and a pointedly diverse one at that. It was clear Respawn had hopes for a different sort of playerbase, and I appreciated that.

I was no better at it than I had been at Plunkbat, mind, and without anyone to play with I did end up drifting away when other games stole my attention. But it left a good enough taste in my mouth that I keep intending to come back, maybe this time with Matt to ferry my soul around when I inevitably die. I’m happy to see the game’s doing well – while it gained the lion’s share of its playerbase in its opening month, it has at least continued to grow, with around seventy million people currently apelegging at present. That’s still barely a chimp’s shin, compared with Fortnite’s two hundred million dabbers, but it leaves me quietly hopeful that it’ll still be going strong when I eventually find time to play again.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Katharine: Red Dead Redemption 2 does many things to an exceptionally high standard. Not only does the world look incredible (especially in silly ultrawide), but it’s just so gosh darn detailed as well. For this declaration of advent joy, though, I want to give a shout out to Red Dead’s lovely, lovely horses.

They are the best horses in all of video games. Fact. They have such heft and oomph and POWER. Oh, the power! Every trot, canter and gallop feels like you’re riding on the back of a goddamn steam train, I tell you. They’re so much horse-ier than, say, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s weedy stick freaks, whose joints are so stiff and mechanical that you can barely even call them horses (listen, I love Phobos, but only because I can chuck him off the edge of a cliff and have him incur zero injuries as a result). Heck, even Roach from The Witcher III can’t compete with these majestic beasts. And yes, I did just 100% go there. If you’ve got a problem with that, you can find me in the town of Valentine where we shall dual with pistols at dawn.

Nate: Hey, boah! Eeeeasy there. Yerr a strawng one, aincha?

Luckily for me, I had something of a refresher course in Red Dead Redemption 2 yesterday, because I was streaming it as part of the RPS Christmas charity livestream thing (seriously, take a look – it was a right old lol). I will talk about it in a second, but first I want to share something a bit cute. While I was playing, my family at home decided to put the stream on the telly, and my sixteen-month-old daughter LOST HER MIND at the fact I was on TV, but all small and in the corner. Squealing with excitement, she ran up to the screen and tried to give my tiny face cuddles and kisses. Then, when I didn’t react to her, she started waving and shouting “dada?”. Eventually, she fell into a rage because I wouldn’t come out of the telly. Bad Dad Rejection 2 :(

Anyway, yesterday reminded me that although RDR2 is very beautiful, well-written, deep, huge and all the other things people say about it, where it really excels – for me at least – is as a strange, surreal horror game.

My favourite thing to do in RDR2 is just roam the land, with the vaguest of goals (“get to the swamp”, “find a bath”), but make sure to let raw impulse take precedence over long-term planning at every turn. I try, essentially, to let my subconscious – my Id, if you like – play the game through me. Adding spice to this is the game’s immensely complex and liquid control suite, where pretty much any button-bungling makes the cowboy do something, but it’s often not at all what you’re expecting.

I might decide it’s funny to crouch down and follow a gentleman around, holding a lantern and muttering provocations until he finally snaps and decides to fight me. But then, whoops, out comes the dynamite. Eight seconds later, I’m strangling a policeman over the carcass of a horse. What adds a real dark humour to playing like this is how unpleasant and visceral RDR2’s violence is. Smashing a bullet through someone’s sinuses from a foot away, or jamming a hunting knife into the pebbly rubber of a turtle’s neck, is genuinely harrowing – the fact it can all happen so casually, and with so little reason behind it, makes sessions play out like anxious fever dreams.

Indeed, over hours and hours of playing the game like this, I’ve come to think of the Cowboy as a sort of lost soul – a befuddled, reeking beast-man who was once perhaps well-meaning, but through endless acts of unthinking brutality, has become a kind of demon by default. He’s forever trying to wander back to civilisation, and he’ll get right to the cusp of rejoining the human race – but then he’ll catch sight of a train in the corner of his eye, and decide to chase it and skin it. The cycle of blood begins again. Lovely stuff.

Eliza

Matt: Eliza is a virtual counselling program. You play as Evelyn, who burnt out of her tech job and now works as a human proxy to deliver Eliza’s computed therapy suggestions. At the end of the game, I abandoned my grand ambitions to change the world. Not because I thought no good could come from trying. The plans of tech giants like Soren and Rainer had their pitfalls and their privacy problems, but stemmed from a genuine and potentially achievable goal to improve people’s lives.

Neither plan was truly disruptive. They both treated their treatments as stopgaps, plastering over the broken society Eliza takes great pains to reflect. They might help people with their problems, but the root of suffering lies so often in the system, and always unaddressed. It’s not irrelevant that tech stands to profit.

The people you meet in Eliza have had their views and values warped by a world that doesn’t want them. Evelyn’s ability to recognise that, to provide a connection in place of an algorithm, made my final choice an easy one. It was clear which route she’d find more fulfilling, and clear that I’d never dream to deny it to her.

Eliza is a game about figuring out what’s important. By the time I’d spent three hours doing that with Evelyn, I cared most about what was important to her.

Sin: I’ve spent most of the last five days alternating between coping, and falling on the floor crying. I wish I was exaggerating. Eliza is about people like me.

This last year or so, I’ve been like Evelyn, committing myself again to the current of the world after years of isolation and grieving. That slow, invisible process of clotting and stitching and opening fearfully up to the world that let you down so badly before.

At my worst, like this week, I am like Darren. The one-off client who is simply too overcome with awareness of how terrible the world is, how bleak the outlook is for so very many people, for no good reason, to function without falling apart. Everything can be going fine but then suddenly you have to get the hell out of here, and try to run home, give up and collapse in the street 50 metres from your house, half hoping some passer by will save you somehow, half hoping you can just lie here until everything stops.

I’ve often felt like Maya, the anxious artist who half believes in her work but struggles so hard to like herself that it never sticks. She reminds me of a dear friend too, especially in one conversation she has with her friend that could have been taken straight from one of our own, years ago.

Once in a great while, at my very best, I’ve been like Nora. I’ve had my shit figured out and I’ve listened, and reached out, and been there to help someone else find their own way, without imposing mine on them.

Mostly though, I’m like Evelyn. Lost, but marking a path. Lonely, but needing solitude. Wanting to help people, but not knowing how, and being too wounded to support anyone else anyway. It hurts to know how much more you could be doing, if only you weren’t hurting so much. But she’s getting better.

Evelyn reaches a crossroads at the end of Eliza, and it’s up to you to decide which way she goes. Most of the time when visual novels ask for this kind of decision it feels very artificial. In Eliza, it feels right. This was always about Evelyn coming back to life and deciding what to do with it.

A few of the endings are, I think, deliberately absurd. There are no bad endings, but a couple are so contrary to the spirit of the story that if you choose them, it almost feels like it’s taking the piss. They’re technocratic solutions to problems that can’t be solved by inventing the right toy or starting the right business. Magic potions given a science fiction spin. But the men selling the potions are part of the problem.

The other endings work for me. My dear friend Deborah went with the noble ending, in which Evelyn tries to take even more on her shoulders so she can help people. Classic Deborah. I admire that ending but I couldn’t do it. My Evelyn had been through enough. She ran off with Nora. Friends, lovers, it’s not made explicit and it doesn’t matter. It was a decision to reconcile, to bring the best of her past into a new future, with someone who cared for her. It was a decision to get better.

I want to be like Nora again.

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