It’s pretty common for critics – movie critics in particular – to end the year with twin best / worst lists. That’s a good way to organize things, but it doesn’t really suit my habits. I’m not obligated to cover particular games by an editor. I pay for the vast majority of my games, and I’m not keen on spending $60 and a week of my life on something I know I’ll hate. Which means I rarely play games that could qualify as “terrible”. So instead of WORST games of 2019 we get “disappointments of 2019”.
I realize that’s not nearly as fun or enticing, but feisty hyperbole isn’t really my style.
Now that your expectations for excitement have been sufficiently lowered, let’s talk about what I didn’t dig…
Untitled Goose Game
Yes, I know this was a beloved indie darling this year, and only a complete monster would put it on a “Worst of 2019” list. But see, this isn’t a “Worst of 2019” list, remember?
I’ll admit that this game is clever, charming, and innovative. The world is wonderfully built and the titular goose is beautifully animated. Indeed, it’s probably the greatest waterfowl to ever appear in any video game on any platform.
The problem is, I just didn’t like playing it.
Two things bothered me. One, I wasn’t really into the ultra-specific laundry list of goals the game gave you. I would have preferred something more open-ended and exploration based. Instead of “Steal all the items for a picnic and bring them to this location”, I would have preferred something more like, “Frustrate this person so they leave”, with the game giving you lots of ways to do that and allowing you to discover them on your own. I also didn’t like how vague some of the goals were.
The other thing that annoyed me was the long reset times. When the game tells you to “make the kid wear the wrong glasses”, it takes you five seconds to solve the problem conceptually and five minutes to enact that solution. I immediately knew I had to steal glasses from the store, honk at the kid as he was cleaning his glasses, and then swap the glasses when he dropped them. But then you end up standing there for minutes on end, watching the kid cycle through his activities and waiting for “clean glasses” to come up. Oops. I missed the timing window and he recovered his glasses. I guess I’ll just stand here doing nothing for a couple more minutes until the next window opens up.
The most enjoyment I got out of the game was when I watched a speed run of the whole thing. The punchline at the end got a laugh out of me, and the goose will go down in history as one of the greatest villains in video game history. It’s a clever game, but it’s not one I enjoy playing.
Ugh. The writing in this game was atrocious. It wasn’t just bad in the sense of having boring characters and a dumb plot with no stakes, it was bad in the sense that it really interfered with the gameplay. Like I said in my Escapist column:
It takes about 23 minutes from the moment after you start a new game for Rage 2 to cut you loose to explore the open world. In that time, there is, at best, about three and a half minutes of actual gameplay. Everything else is static cutscenes, scripted events where you have no input, or moments where you stand around with nothing to do while someone takes an exposition dump on you. If story doesn’t matter, why is there so much of it?
I’ll do a longer analysis on the writing in this game at some point in the future. The important thing to note here is that this ID Software game has lots of story, that story is mostly terrible, and the game itself is filled with bugs. It’s very clear that the corporate culture and priorities of parent company Zenimax have been creeping into ID Software since the buyout a decade ago. In a few more years they’ll probably be indistinguishable from Bethesda.
EDIT: I forgot this game was made by Avalanche, not ID. Still, same publisher, same problems. But it’s important we put the blame on the right studio.
Dragon Age Inquisition made it clear that BioWare was a technological mess. Then Mass Effect Andromeda made it clear that the magic had left BioWare in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling. Now we get Anthem, revealing that the company is also bereft of leadership. Jason Schreier’s expose was heartbreaking. I wanted to believe this was a project that went astray due to too much ambition or executive meddling. Maybe their problem was that the team was just… you know… too creative? Maybe we can blame those villainous suits at EA?
But no. In the end, it was the product of a team with no leadership, no coherent vision, and no identity as a creative group. Are we interested in making shooters? Creating characters? Storytelling? Worldbuilding? Fostering multiplayer co-op communities? Building a numbers-driven loot grind? Apparently the answer was “none of the above”. Anthem was a game that nobody asked for and nobody wanted to make. The game had lavishly produced cutscenes that told the bare minimum of a stock story. It had characters that barely mattered and an antagonist that was the plain, lowfat, no-salt, gluten-free cracker of villainy.
It was a looter shooter without any exciting loot and with broken shooting mechanics. It was an open world game with excruciating loading screens and very little to do in the open world. It was a game about grinding dungeons for loot that only had three dungeons. And only one of them was worth running.
When I was in high school, we spent a semester of phys ed playing volleyball. Because we were all conscripts, the league was somewhat… uneven. Some teams would end up with several ultra-competitive jocks who dove for the ball in search of glory. And other teams – like the one I was on – were populated by people who had no passion or aptitude for sport. The ball would come over the net and everyone would remain rooted in place, assuming that someone else would step forward and handle it. The ball would land in the empty space between players and we’d all look at each other accusingly, “I thought YOU were going to get it!”
This is what Anthem feels like. It’s a game where everyone stood by and waited for someone else to make it interesting. This is a leadership problem, and those are very hard to cure. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your artists are. If you can’t get everyone to embrace a singular vision, then you wind up with a confused mishmash like Anthem.
The most heartbreaking thing about it is that you can see how expensive the dang thing was. This isn’t a lazy AAA asset flip like Fallout 76. Anthem wasn’t boring because the team cut corners. EA didn’t force the developer to rush the game out the door. The budget was there. The time was there. The problem is that the budget wasn’t put to good use.
Circling back to the topic of blame: I don’t know what to think of this mess. The bulk of the BioWare leadership all departed a few years ago, leaving the team without a unifying voice. So we can blame BioWare, right? Except, part of EA’s job as a parent company is to keep an eye on its subsidiaries and make sure they’re running properly. In the book Significant Zero by Walt Williams, we see that 2k Games dispatched Williams to various developers to make sure their projects were on track. If the EA leadership knew anything about game development, then they would have an equivalent person on their team. You need someone to stop by every few months and see how a project is going. Is it on time? Is it suffering from feature creep? Are they making the game they pitched or have they drifted off-mission? Are there any messy office politics or toxic people that are causing problems? Is there a lot of staff turnover? How is the budget? Do the low-level people seem frustrated, mistreated, and disloyal in a way that might encourage them to talk to Jason Schreier?
This is all part of running a company. If Andrew Wilson can’t do it personally, then he should know how to hire someone that can do this job.
This means the question of “blame” becomes a bit murky. If BioWare was healthy, then the lack of support from EA wouldn’t be a problem. If EA was engaging in proper due diligence as a parent company, then the problems at BioWare could have been corrected.
It’s a bit like someone that contracts cancer, and then the cancer weakens their body so that they get pneumonia and die. Do we blame the pneumonia, or the cancer?
It seems like the most truthful answer is, “It’s complicated.”
I didn’t finish this game. I’m not even sure how long I spent playing itThis game came out on the Epic Game Store, and EGS doesn’t track hours played.. I do know that it completely failed to grab me. I can’t put my finger on any specific flaw that made me quit playing. I just didn’t care.
I play Metro games for the tension and paranoia of being isolated and crawling through dark spooky tunnels in a hopeless world. So when Exodus dumped me into a brightly-lit open area and told me my goal was to escape this desolation to find the safe, non-destroyed parts of the world with my friends, I felt like I had too much confidence, too much hope, too much companyAlthough I bet a bunch of them would have died if I kept playing., and way too much sunlight.
Maybe it was a fine shooter, but for me it was like a Tomb Raider where you spend the whole game hanging out in hotels and chatting up attractive people. It might be good, but this isn’t what I’m here for.
The Outer Wilds
Like Goose Game, this is yet another indie darling that just didn’t work for me. Outer Wilds (Not to be confused with Outer Worlds) has you playing as a space explorer. You jump in your ship, explore your miniaturized solar system for twenty minutes, then (spoiler) the sun blows up, time rewinds, and you find yourself back on your ship just before takeoff.
My experience with the game went something like this:
- Fly around for a bit with no sense of purpose.
- Finally find something interesting to check out.
- Land, get out, and approach the novelty.
- The sun explodes and I realize I don’t know where I was or how to get back there.
Like Goose Game, I often felt like Outer Wilds was going out of its way to waste my time. I found the twenty minute reset to be immensely annoying, and I didn’t care enough about the world or the characters to push through it.
It’s a shame. I waited for this one for years, and I really thought this was going to be a contender for GOTY. I’ve already summed up my feelings with this game and where I think the team went wrong, so there’s no need to re-hash that rant here.
Not a Disappointment But Also Not a Favorite: Warframe
I played Warframe this year. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t dislike it enough to put it on my disappointments list. I don’t know.
It’s weird. It’s different. It’s obviously the product of a team with a very strong artistic vision. This isn’t a clone of any other MMO like WoW or Black Desert Online. It’s not a clone of looter shooters like Destiny 2 or Division 2. It’s sort of a looter-shooter but also sort of an MMO but also an RPG but also kinda a story-based space adventure with characters and dialog? Warframe defies categorization and genre labels. It’s very much its own thing.
I have a lot of gripes with it, but who cares? All of my suggestions / requests would make the game more mainstream, and that’s the last thing Warframe needsActually, a better progression guide for newbies is probably a good idea.. I don’t like the weird pointy designs of the warframes themselves, but saying they should be more like Anthem is missing the point. It’s like saying The Old Guitarist would be a better painting if the old man wasn’t in that weird angular pose. That’s the entire point of the work! It’s not my style, but the designers made it this way on purpose and it’s apparently good enough that the game is now into its fifth year. The developers are clearly doing something right.
I’m glad these developers were able to create this weird and idiosyncratic game. They’re apparently good people who care a lot about the community. I’m not into Warframe and I doubt I’ll ever go back to it, but I’m glad it exists.
Next time I’ll talk about what I liked in 2019.
 This game came out on the Epic Game Store, and EGS doesn’t track hours played.
 Although I bet a bunch of them would have died if I kept playing.
 Actually, a better progression guide for newbies is probably a good idea.
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