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Best games of 2019: CNET's staff picks

From Death Stranding to Apex Legends, this year was the last hurrah before the next-gen consoles.

death-stranding-analisis-ps4-2

It was a kind of weird year in gaming.

Kojima Productions

2019 was an interesting year for video games. Both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will launch in 2020, and as a result, game studios are turning their focus to the next generation of consoles

Still, the year was dominated by games with long production times, fresh franchises and a return to the past in the form of remakes. 

The following is a selection of the CNET staff's favorite games of 2019. 

Classic WoW

WoW Classic

Party likes it's 2006. 

Blizzard Entertainment

Of all the games I played this year, including several of those loved by my coworkers, there was one game I came back to on a daily basis:  Classic WoW. It almost feels like cheating to say the MMORPG -- or massively multiplayer online role-playing game -- that addicted millions of people for more than a decade provided me with the most fun this year, but it's hard to deny its pull. 

Classic WoW is a 2006 version of the MMORPG, before the first expansion was released. The rerelease is full of charm, without the extensive amount of content found in the current version of the game. In the past, I tried my hand at the game, but that "Warcrack" never stuck until now. The game transports you back to your younger days, although there are far more tools to help get you to level 60 at your disposal such as online walkthroughs, Discord chat and YouTube videos. 

To put it simply, Classic WoW gave me a sense of wonder and community that was far more common back when MMORPGs were dominating PC gaming

-- Oscar Gonzalez

Resident Evil 2 Remake

resi

Nostalgia shouldn't be this good. 

Capcom

This one was a loooong time coming -- Capcom announced it back in 2015 and then went dark for nearly three years. Resident Evil 7 proved to be a terrifying return to form for the series, but it seemed like the remake of 2 might be lost in the ether.

When it finally came out last January, my fear that it'd disappoint was washed away by joy at how much fun it was ... before that was replaced by the sheer terror caused by the lumbering Tyrant pursuing me throughout the Raccoon City Police Department. This familiar environment that I'd explored endlessly in the 1998 original felt fresh and scary again. Even the zombies seemed completely different, lurching about unpredictably and requiring a whole lot of shots to take down.

Stressful though it might be, I am absolutely in love with this game and replayed a chunk of it over the weekend to get Jill Valentine's letter. Capcom added it in a surprise update shortly after the announcement of the Resident Evil 3 remake (which will likely be my most-played game of 2020).

-- Sean Keane

Death Stranding

death-stranding-analisis-ps4-2

Good luck understanding this game before 2019 ends. 

Kojima Productions

You can critique it as a walking simulator or a self-indulgent marathon of celebrity cameos and nonsensical plot turns, and you'd be right. But Death Stranding is also a game that subverts the great joy of blockbuster games, the carefully designed series of Things You Enjoy and Things That Provide Instant Satisfaction. Instead, to win you must embrace tedium. You must embark on thankless tasks, wandering wastelands wondering if anyone will even use the zip line you're constructing. Following its central themes of connection and building community, it's a game you can choose to play not for yourself, but for others, in a way few games have ever tried.

In a year in which the world continued its descent into fractionalized, barricaded tribes, there are few feelings in gaming more satisfying than booting up Death Stranding and realizing that yes, people used your zip line. They liked it. They contributed to its improvement. Their journey was made easier because of your labors, and you receive nothing but those warm and fuzzy feelings in return.

And BB > Baby Yoda.

-- Morgan Little

Outer Wilds

Outer Wilds

Explore space and a mystery in Outer Wilds.

Annapurna Interactive‬

The worst thing about 2019 is that it confusingly granted us two very different Game of the Year contenders with the word "Outer" in the title. The Outer Worlds probably garnered more press attention and sales, given it's essentially Fallout in space. But Outer Wilds was the better game. 

Actually Outer Wilds was the best game.

Outer Wilds is essentially a mystery story that combines space exploration with environmental story-telling Whereas most video games set in space, like No Man's Sky or Elite, tend to focus on scale, Outer Wilds is technically small. It's a perfectly constructed snow globe of a universe that operates on its own meticulously designed set of rules. Every planet, every rock, has its own orbit patterns and its own gravity. 

It's beautifully designed and beautifully written. It's mind-bogglingly imaginative in the way that all good science fiction should be and it's easily my favorite game of the year.

-- Mark Serrels

Control

Control

Everyone is floating on air for Control.

505 Games

After a tumultuous few years coming off of Quantum Break (which I personally think is better than most people give it credit for), Remedy Entertainment is back with one of its strongest games to date. Control takes the best of what we've seen from this Finnish studio and compiles it into an adventure that's equal parts spooky and engaging. The lessons learned from Quantum Break's combat are extended, while the mood and atmosphere that elevated Alan Wake to such great heights are out in full force this time around. 

As Jesse Faden, you explore the uniquely obscure Oldest House, an office building plucked right out of a season of X-Files or Twin Peaks. Traversing the seemingly fully-destructible environments -- full of floating bodies that never stop chanting their hypnotic warnings -- is only eclipsed by the insane amount of lore-dripping collectibles. In fact, Control might have some of the best audio logs, backstory videos and random notes I've ever seen in a game. 

Hurling chunks of concrete walls around or mind-controlling enemies during a shootout are great aspects of the game, but they don't hold a candle to the bizarre and, often, hilarious collectibles hidden in every corner. Partnered with some of the most striking visual and auditory aesthetics inside each new wing of this labyrinthian office make Control something you won't forget.

-- Sean Booker 

Sekiro Shadows Die Twice

sekiro-gamescom01

Samurai Dark Souls is hard to beat. 

Activision

I almost never play games more than once. I played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice through four times. It's just absolutely brilliant. I'm a fan of the From Software games like Dark Souls in general, but Sekiro mixes up the formula by focusing more on action than deep role-playing mechanics. In the process, the company redefined combat to fit a samurai/shinobi style. It's breathtaking and so exhilarating. Sekiro has the best close-quarters combat in any game I've ever experienced, and I expect other games to be mimicking this for years. 

On top of the combat, exploring the world is incredibly gratifying (as usual for From Software games), and the bosses are punishingly brilliant puzzles to solve. Each boss pushes you to get better, and if you're willing to learn the lessons this game teaches, you'll find yourself significantly more capable of facing the challenges ahead. It's a game where you yourself improve as much as your character, and it's just so satisfying to experience. On subsequent playthroughs, I beat tough bosses on the first try that had killed me ten plus times in my initial run. 

Despite my unfettered love for this game, I'll admit it isn't for everyone. Sekiro is brutally difficult, but you don't have to be a great gamer to beat it. You just need patience and a willingness to learn. I get that not everyone wants to push themselves while relaxing with a game. But if you're willing to make that investment, Sekiro will reward you with one of the most expertly designed games I've played in a long time.

-- Andrew Gebhart

Apex Legends

Apex Legends

There was a new battle royale contender in 2019. 

Respawn Entertainment

I've played a LOT of FPS games, having started with the original Doom, and only a couple of titles have stuck out in the proceeding 20-plus years. One of those is Titanfall 1, a game I'm pretty good at, ask anyone, and though Apex Legends isn't quite as accomplished as the Titanfall series it shares a lot of its predecessors' DNA. While I might (unexpectedly) suck at Apex Legends it's still a very satisfying title. It takes the best bits of Overwatch (unique characters and abilities) and PUBG (Battle Royale, need I say more) while adding a couple of Titanfall gaming mechanics tweaks. 

It's not as intense as the heart-stopping PUBG thanks to the three-player teams and the ability to resurrect your pals, but that just makes it more playable in the long term. If you come from the Minecraft side of gaming there's none of the Fortnite-like building, and instead, players use a series of zip lines to get them in or out of trouble. 

Though a number of tentpole titles have come out in the past twelve months or so, including Battlefield 5, Apex Legends is the one I keep coming back to. Just one more game, then time for bed, I promise.

-- Ty Pendlebury

Ape Out!

Apt Out

Don't forget about the indies for great gaming.

Devolver Digital

Truly one of the best uses of dynamic, programmatic music I've seen in a game. The art style, the pacing. Ape Out is one of the most simple, most entertaining, most artistic games I've played in recent memory.

-- Trevor Taylor

Link's Awakening

Link's Awakening

Another great year for Link.

Nintendo

Link's Awakening is a simple pleasure, a reminder of what can be accomplished with well-designed gameplay loops -- finding new items and gaining new powers, then using them to uncover new areas and temples. The game looks like a tiny Zelda-themed diorama, and the small, carefully designed world is a joy to explore.

One of the most surprising and refreshing features of the game is its focus. When you're done, you're done. There's a purity to a game with only one collectible: If you want to complete it, just hunt down the 50 hidden shells. Otherwise, don't worry about countless uncompleted challenges, niggling at the back of your mind, like you might find in those massive, open-world games on PlayStation or Xbox.

Link's Awakening is a gem. So break open the jar in your local item shop and collect it now.

-- David Priest

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium is a lot of things, and it's all great. 

ZA/UM

Disco Elysium is a work of art. From the hand-painted world to the incredible writing, Disco Elysium is a mesmerizing game to exist in. You're thrown into the deep end of a murder case, hungover and amnesic and have no choice but to simply reacquaint yourself with the fascinating world you woke up in. And it's not an easy world. This game does not shy away from politics or the Big Questions: How do we think? How does power and privilege work? Should I rebrand as a rockstar? 

To me, the real stand-out is the writing. It's a story-driven RPG, and it involves a lot of reading. Basically, anything outside of walking from point A to point B is conveyed to you through the writing. It can be confusing at first, but you get the hang of it quickly. I didn't even mind having to read that much -- the writing is just so good that it made me angry that I didn't write it myself. I'm simultaneously jealous and in awe of the brains that came up with this. It's easily the best writing in a game that I've played in a long, long time, and without a doubt, the best game I played all year. 

-- Nicole Archer