Gaming in 2018 had its high points and it had its low points, but no one can deny that it was an exciting year for gaming. We were treated to thrilling titles like God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Spider-Man, all of which earned high praise from gamers and critics alike while defying the games as a service model that continues to dominate the gaming landscape. No game is evidence of that trend so much as Fallout 76, 2018’s multiplayer-only iteration on its typically single player franchise. Nintendo seemed to falter after its breakout year in 2017, releasing almost no exciting titles on its new home-mobile console hybrid except for the divisive Pokemon Let’s Go games, though they slid in Super Smash Bros Ultimate just under the finish line, punctuating 2018 with one of the most embraced games of the year. Through its ups and downs, 2018 developed a strong identity: as some games pioneered ways to give gamers what they wanted, others found new ways to implement anti-consumer practices.
So where does 2019 stand? Which patterns are we seeing continue, and which chains are we seeing broken? It’s a hard question to answer. In a lot of ways, it still feels like 2019 has only just begun. But in reality, we’re deep into the first quarter of the year. There have been some stand-out titles in the first three months of 2019, and they vary widely. Kingdom Hearts III arrived after years of anticipation, while Apex Legends emerged seemingly out of nowhere, though it appears to have left the Titanfall franchise in its dust. Amid controversy and bugs but still persistent hype, EA released Anthem, an online-only Iron Man romp. Metro Exodus brought the Russian subway horror franchise into the current gen, and Resident Evil fans were treated to a well-received remake. The Division 2 is highly anticipated, and many more games loom on the horizon.
But somehow, it still feels like we are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. I find myself impatiently looking ahead for the Big Game of 2019. From what we’ve seen so far, though, early 2019 is not very different from last year. Much like how the Battle Royale format was iterated on by various different companies, each trying to put their own spin on it, Anthem seems to be a rather big-budget attempt by EA and BioWare to enjoy some of the looter-shooter success acclaimed by Destiny 2. While it would be unfair to call Anthem a rip-off or a cash-grab on par with Fortnite abandoning its main game to completely dominate the battle royale genre, the javelin-flying squad shooter is a sign of the times. Released with bugs and with the promise of future improvements and content, Anthem is the natural continuation of gaming in the 2010’s.
Apex Legends is probably the game that has most defined the first quarter of 2019. It’s a battle royale game with randomized loot boxes, purchasable cosmetics, and elements obviously “inspired” by already-established successes (in this case, Fortnite and Overwatch). Not only that, but it has explicitly replaced Titanfall 3, a title many gamers were looking forward to with anticipation. On paper, Apex Legends should have been torn apart. Instead, it has blown up and became one of the most popular games of the year, even rivaling the Twitch viewership of the very games it took inspiration from. Through its rewarding gameplay loop, dynamic mobility, and innovative communication system, it has become a point of comparison, leading gamers to point at the long-neglected faults of our current titanic titles and ask-- “Why?” This new free-to-play title is more than just a competitor in the game; it’s actively changed the game, and you can believe that if games like Overwatch and Fortnite don’t take notes from Apex, they’re going to hurt.
The fact that the highest profile release of 2019 was a surprise free-to-play battle royale title is pretty telling and, while I enjoy Apex, I can’t help but feel like 2019 hasn’t hit its stride yet. I’m still waiting for a game that can rival the end-of-year quarter 4 releases that blew my mind. Pokemon Sword and Shield are on the horizon, and Animal Crossing 2019 is coming… maybe? We’re only three months in, so there are still plenty of opportunities for game developers to surprise and thrill us with new announcements and releases, but so far, 2019’s games-- the good, the bad, and the ugly-- have mostly not made a big splash yet.