Friday, December 31, 2021
Here it is then. The end of another year, when it’s time to take stock and perhaps make some New Year’s resolutions. But sod all of that for now - we’ve got some Game of the Year winners to get through, and despite what’s been another crappy year in so many ways, we had some cracking video games to play in 2021.
You know the drill by now: we have a chat, put together the nominees, then squabble about which games should be declared winners and which get to have a runner up nod. Rest assured that not everyone leaves the conversation entirely satisfied, and we suspect that you too won’t agree with everything here. That’s what makes the world such a wonderful place - the ability to have a civilised conversation, agree to disagree, then get on with our lives without any further need for discussion. Lovely.
Anyway, we had a hard time whittling down this list and reaching a compromise, but we bloody managed it somehow. It’s a good thing we’re still working from home, so we no longer have to engage in the bloodsoaked gladiatorial battles that normally ensue with the making of these GOTY lists. No one had to die this year. So without further ado, here are our 2021 Game of the Year winners. Enjoy!
Once you’ve finished reading, do leave us a nice comment, won’t you? And be sure to have a fantastic New Year! Here’s to a prosperous and kick-ass 2022!
Erika Mori as Alex Chen in Life is Strange: True Colors
Remember the name Erika Mori, folks, because if her performance as Life is Strange: True Colors’ protagonist, Alex Chen, is anything to go by, it'll be a name you’ll be hearing again and again in the coming years.
Mori absolutely nails bringing the troubled and adrift Alex Chen to life, and breathes such empathy into True Colors’ already impressive narrative, that it’s hard not to feel every emotion that Chen herself is feeling. While Life is Strange’s Max could rewind time, True Colors’ Chen is a powerful empath, an empath whose twists and turns you’ll feel yourself at every turn due to the exquisite nature of Mori’s performance. Every betrayal, every moment of anger, every moment of vulnerability, Erika Mori brings it to life, and without her, it’s hard to see True Colors’ moments hitting as hard as they do. The depth and range of her role was second to none in 2021, and she absolutely aces a tricky role, that can flip between solemn isolation to uncontrollable rage in an instant. Her performance as Alex Chen was absolutely flawless, and while Mori might be a newbie to voice acting, she’s most definitely a natural.
John McLaren as Star-Lord in Marvel's Guardians of the
With Chris Pratt cemented in many people's heads as the definitive on-screen Star-Lord, actor John McLaren faced a tall order in making the character his own. Massive kudos, then, to McLaren for putting his stamp on Star-Lord and Peter Quill, delivering the whip-smart wisecracks when required, while dialling things back for the quieter, more emotional beats. Able to brilliantly convey the floundering leader of the Guardians, McLaren essays heart in his performance as Peter, breathing life into a character that we've come to know all too well in numerous movies. And with strong performances all around him, McLaren also manages to make his turn as Star-Lord stand out, breathing life into a character whose journey in Eidos-Montréal's take on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most memorable to be found this year.
Lenval Brown as The Narrator in Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
One of the best additions to 2021’s release of Disco Elysium: The Final Cut on consoles is by far the fully-voiced narrator, played by musician turned voice actor, Lenval Brown, who perfectly manages to bring Disco Elysium’s protagonist’s inner thoughts to life.
Brown’s cadence, his sultry tones, easily made the Final Cut the definitive version of Disco Elysium. When Brown speaks, you sit up and listen. He really manages to capture the emotion, the anguish, the pain and contempt of every single thought. With around 350,000 recorded words, he’s probably one of the most vocal video game voices of all-time too, and the fact that just before the final credits roll, his words carry as much power as the opening minutes is testament to the quality of his performance. You seriously just can’t avoid getting swept away and enraptured by his hypnotic intonations! Disco Elysium is a great video game as it is, but it hits a new level with Brown at the helm, it really does.
Where the first Judgment dealt with a serial killer whose calling card was to remove the eyeballs of their victims, Lost Judgment opens with a similarly grisly discovery, then broadens its scope with a sprawling, interconnected case that goes far deeper than you might expect. Delving into the rabbit hole during the main case is utterly compelling, but it's the surfeit of School Stories and side content that keeps you coming back to private detective Takayuki Yagami's latest tale, encompassing activities like boxing, robotics, dance club, and skateboarding, as well as all manner of shenanigans in the game's 42 Side Cases. As a sequel, it's above and beyond anything we expected, expanding upon practically every facet of what made the original Yakuza spin-off such a remarkably engaging crime story. Fantastic stuff.
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
As far as whodunnits go in 2021, there is no finer example of how to spin a narrative than developer ZA/UM’s Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, which finally made its way to consoles after what seemed like forever.
That two-year wait for the previously PC-exclusive title was completely worth it, though, with ZA/UM delivering its absolute definitive version to consoles, the studio giving the notorious narrator a voice, one that changes the game tenfold. Beneath its glorious art-style is a fabulously complex world and narrative that will dazzle, delight, and bewilder at every turn. That story is only enhanced by a cast of seriously complex characters, especially the game’s troubled protagonist, who as the story unravels, so does the RCM detective’s past. His troubles, his inner thoughts and darkest feelings, all beautifully told, as he and his sidekick, Kim Kitsuragi, try to unravel the mystery that unfolds before them. Disco Elysium is an expertly crafted narrative, and easily one of the year’s best.
Life is Strange: True Colors
There’s no disputing that after the indifferently received Life is Strange 2, developer Deck Nine had its work cut out to return the Life is Strange feeling to the Life is Strange franchise. While Life is Strange 2 was a harrowing experience, one that was far too bleak in nature for a franchise that made its name around friendship and togetherness, Life is Strange: True Colors was a fantastic return to form for one of Square Enix’s flagship franchises.
Life is Strange: True Colors’ story was a tale of hope, a tale of togetherness, a narrative about finding somewhere to belong, to call home, in a crazy, ever-changing world. What Deck Nine managed to achieve with True Colors’ story was to instill in the player a message of hope through a story set in the beautifully idyllic mountaintop town of Haven, with a diverse cast of characters from all walks of life. From the opening minutes to the closing moments, Deck Nine managed to keep the player guessing, with classic Life is Strange twists and turns at the heart of every major - and minor - decision. It’s hard not to feel moved by True Colors’ narrative, and to truly care for its characters, and that’s why it’s 2021’s best story.
Call of Duty: Vanguard
Each year, it's with great trepidation that we gingerly dip a toe into Call of Duty's multiplayer. The expectation is that, given the fast pace and level of skill required to play, the entire experience will be a torturous, thankless one, and, more often than not, we're happy to be proven wrong. Call of Duty: Vanguard saw developer Sledgehammer Games (and numerous other sister studios) delivering a cracking suite of multiplayer modes, an arsenal of authentic World War II weaponry, and a strong selection of neatly designed maps. New addition Patrol takes the simple idea of a constantly mobile capture zone and creates a wonderfully chaotic fracas, while weapon handling feels wonderfully robust. Zombies might not have delivered the goods, but we've been lapping up Vanguard's other multiplayer offerings, and will no doubt continue to do so.
It Takes Two
Built entirely around co-op, It Takes Two is a masterly piece of work, and a natural progression from director Josef Fares' previous projects, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out. The tale of parents going through a difficult time in their relationship, It Take Two's narrative might be the stuff of subpar Disney, but as an excuse to shrink down protagonists May and Cody, turn them into dolls, then force them to work together, after their daughter Rose makes a wish, it hits all of the right notes. Anthropomorphised 'Book of Love' Dr. Hakim might be an irritant, but it's hard to care when there are so many expertly constructed puzzles, incredible set pieces, and such gloriously inventive, utterly memorable moments. A truly sensational, must-play experience, if ever there was one.
Out of nowhere, weeks before its official December 8th launch, Halo Infinite’s multiplayer dropped out of the shadows on November 15th, much to the delight of everyone, everywhere. And not just because it launched early (we say early, but it was actually delayed from last year) but because 343 had gone and done it. The studio had delivered a Halo multiplayer experience that was worthy of the Halo name.
Halo Infinite’s multiplayer was the perfect blend of Halos from yesteryear, the more methodical and level battlefield-type affairs, combined with the newer, more agile Halo shooters of today. It was a blast of nostalgia, given a kick up the arse to bring it up to speed with more fast-paced shooters. There’s no doubt about it, Halo Infinite’s multiplayer is straight-up brilliant. It’s genuinely what we’ve dreamed of for years for the Halo franchise, and while it had its issues in beta, 343 has been quick to address the issues presented at every turn. More playlists, better Battle Pass progression, and so on. But the truth is, that all becomes background noise, because the truth is, 343 has nailed the minute-to-minute gameplay, the competitive nature of a proper Halo game, and while the maps aren’t as iconic as those of the Halo 2 and 3 era, they are incredibly well designed, which is all you can ever ask for. Halo is back, baby, and you know what, it’s perhaps better than ever!
Forza Horizon 5
It should come as no surprise to see Forza Horizon 5 grab a podium finish when it comes to visuals. In the first full calendar year of the Xbox Series X|S, we’ve been blessed with plenty of excellent looking games, but Forza Horizon 5’s depiction of Mexico is perhaps the best the series has ever looked. The cars are gorgeous, of course; sleek and hyper-realistic, gleaming in the desert sun. And the open world offers up a wide variety of environments, with stunning sandy beaches, colourful cities, and dense jungles. Playground Games has managed to eke out the best possible performance from the aging Xbox One, and on Microsoft’s new consoles, the series has never looked better. There might be a lot of games more artistically interesting than Forza Horizon 5 this year, but in terms of pure graphical power, very few can compete with Xbox Game Studios’ latest open-world racing game.
Resident Evil Village
While we felt that the Resident Evil VII follow-up fell somewhat wide of the mark, there's absolutely no disputing how unreservedly stunning Resident Evil Village looks, once again an eyeball-bursting showcase for Capcom's mind-blowing RE Engine. From the very beginning of Ethan Winters' unrelenting nightmare the visuals dazzle; whether it’s the imposing spires of Dimitrescu Castle, the confines of the Beneviento Dollhouse, and the snowy village itself, every environment is a grim, macabre treat. Its denizens, too, are rendered in startling detail – you can almost feel the stale breath of the lycans on your face when they grab Ethan by the scruff, the sting of the lashing snow, the cold steel of Lady Dimitrescu's claws sinking into your flesh. Resident Evil Village is disgustingly gorgeous, and further proof that the RE Engine is one of the most accomplished game engines around.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
2021 will forever be the year when developers started to get a feel for the power of the next-gen consoles, and while the likes of Forza Horizon 5 and Resident Evil: Village had that incredible sheen that other games didn’t, it was Asobo Studio’s Microsoft Flight Simulator that truly blew us away with its sheer scale and ambition.
With its live weather systems and Bing Maps satellite imagery, Microsoft Flight Simulator became the perfect getaway in a time when we were stuck inside our homes. It became an adventure simulator, a chance to escape into the unknown - in a fairly perfectly mapped world - without a care in the world. Microsoft Flight Simulator has to go down as one of the most ambitious games of all time, and a game that Asobo absolutely nailed. Whether you’re flying through the Himalayas at dawn, or skirting around Tokyo at night, Microsoft Flight Simulator is most certainly a game that will take your breath away. It’s staggeringly beautiful and makes you appreciate the wonderful world that we have all around us, at a time when we perhaps needed that most. It’s a bloody looker, folks, it really is!
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Setting aside the fantastic licensed soundtrack, comprising an array of 1980s pop hits, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy also has its own original album of tunes, recorded especially for the game by fictional band Star-Lord, from which protagonist Peter Quill derives his superhero name. As well as fantastic rock songs created specifically for Peter's cassette player, composer Richard Jacques' orchestral score brilliantly accompanies the action. Enter a Huddle to boost the Guardians' morale, meanwhile, and you'll be randomly served an '80s tune, like 'Take On Me' by A-ha, 'Never Gonna Give You Up' by Rick Astley, or 'Since You Been Gone' by Rainbow. It works brilliantly. Marry all of that to stellar voice acting, and the audio melange at work in Eidos-Montréal's version of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, seldom puts a foot wrong.
There are few soundtracks out there as iconic as Halo’s. Its early years under the stewardship of Marty O’Donnell created an identity for the franchise that other games could only dream of. It’s safe to say that the franchise’s original score has waned a little in recent years under 343 Industries, and while there was nothing specifically wrong with Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi’s original scores, they just didn’t hit home like the earlier games did.
In comes Ori & The Blind Forest and Ori & The Will of the Wisps composer, Gareth Coker, along with Curtis Schweitzer and Joel Corelitz, and what you have is something that is definitely akin to the Halo soundtracks of yesteryear. It was the perfect balance between fresh and familiar, with Coker and co. clearly looking to the originals for inspirations. The iconic drums intertwined with the flowing harmonious notes, was the perfect homage to the franchise’s roots that is perfectly in keeping with what you’d expect from a top-tier Halo game. In many respects Halo Infinite was a return to form for the franchise, but perhaps none more so than Coker and co’s outstanding arrangements.
Life is Strange hit the ground running in 2015, setting a new standard for what we expected from licensed music in video games. Every track nailed the mood for the respective scenes in the 2015 original, and elevated the scene tenfold, injecting it with a boost of emotion that added to the performance by the cast, a perfect example of that is none other than Angus and Julia Stone’s Santa Monica Dream.
Life is Strange: True Colors takes that game-defining formula to the next level thanks to a full album of Life is Strange goodness from Angus and Julia Stone, perfectly complemented by not only a great selection of songs, but also the mesmerising voice of mxmtoon, who provides the singing voice of Alex Chen. Life is Strange: True Colors perfectly epitomises everything that we’ve come to know and love about the Life is Strange franchise, whose song choice and timing is at the absolute pinnacle of the industry. The truth is that Life is Strange would be half the game without the musical selection of songs, and True Colors is no different. In fact, it’s taken the formula to a new level. Simply outstanding.
While director Josef Fares and developer Hazelight Studios have previously shown what they can do with a purely co-op endeavour, nothing quite prepared us for just how remarkably creative It Takes Two would be. Its lovely, tactile world is a dangerous place, but also one brimming with smart, fiendishly constructed puzzles, and two oddly appealing characters, in squabbling couple May and Cody. If nothing else, It Takes Two cements Hazelight's status as a studio to keep an eye on, its work since A Way Out growing increasingly assured, deftly blending tight platforming and traversal mechanics with elegantly composed conundrums and set-pieces. One of the year's freshest and most memorable games, It Takes Two represents a studio at the height of its powers, offering something unlike anything else we've seen in a long while. Ignore it at your peril.
An anime-style 'Brain Punk' action RPG, Scarlet Nexus possesses all the hallmarks of a great IP. In July, the game was given its own tie-in anime series, and given its rich, tangled narrative, Scarlet Nexus is ripe with sequel potential. Crucially, Bandai Namco made a game that's fast-paced, yet immediate: a hack-and-slash action affair with plenty of depth, its complicated-sounding 'Struggle Arms System' anything but, enabling you to share abilities with your allies. Meanwhile, your character's telekinetic powers give you carte blanche to throw objects around at your leisure, which is never not enjoyable. Recklessly throwing buses, cars, and lumps of rubble at the game's bizarre enemies, known as 'Others', is ludicrously good fun, which, coupled with the game's spectacularly frenetic combat, makes Scarlet Nexus a uniquely exciting experience. Surely a follow-up is all but assured? We certainly hope so.
Back 4 Blood
We’re so happy to have Left 4 Dead back. Except, we don’t actually have the Valve-published series back, do we? Instead, we’ve got the new (and legally distinct!) IP Back 4 Blood, and developer Turtle Rock really managed to craft something that feels new and familiar at the same time. Taking that classic Left 4 Dead structure, and adding customisable weapons, collectable ability cards, and random AI-generated effects to each mission equated to one of our very favourite co-op experiences of the year. There may be some kinks to work out and some balancing issues to fix, but hey, that’s the whole point of a new IP, right? It can only get better in the next game. Or so we hope.
Not only is Sable remarkably pretty, it's also a wonderfully meditative desert jaunt that makes you feel a bit like the Mandalorian on a speeder bike. You play as the eponymous heroine, embarking upon a pilgrimage known as 'The Gliding' – a coming-of-age rite of passage, which takes you across the sandy expanses of Midden, a world harbouring all manner of secrets, be it buried ancient temples, the abandoned hulks of beached spacecraft, or helpful cartographers suspended high above the plains. In Sable, there's no combat to engage in; it's all about immersing yourself in its enigmatic earthen-toned environment, revelling in the shifting of the sun, watching as colours gently change with the time of day. Quests are varied and interesting, while zipping around on Sable's hoverbike is a constant joy – marrying uniquely beautiful, stylised visuals with an intriguing world brimming with opportunities to get lost and explore, Sable was one of the year's most interesting indies, by far.
Supergiant’s latest title, Hades, finally made its way to home consoles this year, and it was certainly worth the wait. Indie roguelikes aren’t exactly difficult to find in the modern marketplace, but Hades stands apart from the crowd with its genius narrative structure, which sees each and every death progress the story forward, giving you new characters to talk to, new revelations to discover, and new relationships to develop. Add onto that some amazing combat, with plenty of unique weapons to try out, and a bunch of satisfying godly powers to unlock on each run, and you’ve got something really special here. Oh, and even if you struggle with it a bit, there’s plenty of progression to be found here, even if you do keep dying, meaning that it never feels impossible to reach the credits. We may have had to wait a year to play it on Xbox, but now that it’s here, it’s one of the best games on the system.
It’s really difficult to find pretty much anything to criticise about Death’s Door. The art style is gorgeous. The music is top notch. The combat is crunchy and challenging, and the puzzles are really well designed. Everything just comes together so well as a whole. Not to mention the game’s boss fights, which are some of the very best of 2021 - perhaps not surprising, considering Death’s Door comes from the studio behind Titan Souls, the 2015 indie title that was all about boss fights. Telling a story about the lighter side of death, Death’s Door is an effortlessly charming and immensely polished combination of 2D Zelda and Souls that is never anything but a joy to play. If you’ve not already tried it, what are you waiting for?
Unsighted's Meteor Dust
Unsighted, a 2D Metroidvania with a hint of Souls-y combat, already had plenty to make it stand out. Great dungeon design, cool weapons, and an interesting sci-fi world to explore make it a great title in its own right. The most interesting idea that Unsighted brings to the table, however, is also its most dividing - its time limit. More than being a simple ticking clock, Unsighted (played in its default mode) sees every single automaton NPC character in the game, as well as your protagonist and their fairy-like companion, given a set amount of time to live. This timer ticks down at the same rate for each character, and as days pass in the game world, every character moves closer to becoming ‘unsighted’ - essentially becoming a mechanical zombie. Luckily, you can offer characters an item called Meteor Dust to extend their time limit by 24 hours, but there’s only a limited amount of it in the world. Do you use it yourself, to give you more time to explore the world and complete the game, or do you give it to a useful merchant? Maybe you just want to use it on a character you like? It makes the entire game far more tense and stressful than it would be otherwise, and the Unsighted developers have added the option to turn off this mechanic. But no matter how you feel about the time limit, it’s certainly one of the most interesting additions in a game this year.
Lemnis Gate's Turn-Based Time Looping
Lemnis Gate is a turn-based first-person shooter. That in itself is something you don’t see much of at all, but hearing that, you might think “oh, a bit like XCOM, but in first person, maybe?” No! Instead, Lemnis Gate is all about the time loop, like so many games this year. Players take it in turns, each given 25 seconds to try and complete an objective, picking a different character each turn. The twist? You and your opponent’s previous attempts are still on the map in your future turns, running around, shooting, placing turrets or whatever. The actual match never lasts longer than 25 seconds, but each turn you and your foe make, adds more and more activity to the arena, until there’s five versions of you and five versions of them running around and completing their loops. This completely changes how you think about the game - do you attempt to kill your opponent’s previous loop to stop them grabbing the objective, and take it yourself? Or do you spend your earlier turns setting up turrets and placing shields at strategic points, in an attempt to scupper their future plans? It’s a borderline genius game mechanic, and Lemnis Gate executes it really well, too. Just don’t play it for too long, unless you want to get a headache trying to think about all the possible outcomes.
The Medium's Dual Worlds
According to developer Bloober Team, creating The Medium's real world and hellish nether-realm was only possible thanks to the advent of SSD hard drives on Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5. Being able to seamlessly move between the material and spirit worlds is not just a neat trick; it's an integral part of The Medium, as protagonist Marianne solves puzzles while travelling between the real world and the really brown one, where twisted monsters dwell. And, in fairness, it's a thing that feels next-gen, in a similar vein to Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart's alternate dimensions, you can switch between areas instantly, but in The Medium, you can also explore both simultaneously, as Marianne's material self and her platinum blonde spirit world counterpart. It works remarkably well, and provides a unique hook for a memorable psychological horror experience.
Given the quality of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that developer Hazelight's It Takes Two was a similarly excellent game. What did come as a surprise was just how good It Takes Two turned out to be. Giving each player unique tasks to complete and marrying up the duo for complex - but never anything less than entertaining - puzzles contributed to an experience that constantly keeps throwing new things at you. Few games manage to muster such energy, invention, and pure unbridled verve at every turn. With thrilling set pieces, fun mini-games, and smart contraptions to play around with, It Takes Two proved an absolute joy, and about as pleasant a surprise as you could ever hope for.
After the lukewarm response from critics and the community alike to Life is Strange 2, for a minute it actually dawned on us that the original Life is Strange, and its follow-up, Before the Storm, might have been a one-off. A flash in the pan where all the pieces just seemed to fall into place – thanks to the game’s rich setting, fascinating cast of characters and gripping plot – and that DONTNOD (and Deck Nine) would be trying to recreate that magic to no avail for years to come.
Well, Life is Strange: True Colors was Deck Nine’s response to the doubters. Proof that it can recreate that magic at will and the first time wasn’t just a fluke. In fact, in many regards, Life is Strange: True Colors is actually a far superior game to the much-loved and already brilliant original, and the truth is, it had all the key ingredients that the original had, and then some. While Life is Strange 2 was a touch too bleak, what it really lacked was a place called home to protect and a cast of esoteric town characters to get to know, but not only that, True Colors delivered what Life is Strange 2 couldn’t: it delivered a tale of hope, a redemption story, and one that tugs on the ol’ heartstrings, making it one of the year’s biggest and most pleasant surprises.
After Crystal Dynamics fudged the launch of Marvel's Avengers last year, faith in Square Enix's next Marvel project wasn't exactly at an all-time high. Enter Deus Ex studio Eidos-Montréal, ensuring that its messaging for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy was resolute: it was to be a single-player game, devoid of microtransactions or any DLC fripperies. What you bought was what you got, pure and simple. That's all well and good, of course, but it counts for nought if the game is rubbish. Happily, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is sensational stuff, its planet-hopping story never anything less than an unbridled joy, the developer's own take on Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot striking the perfect balance between MCU familiarity and comic book accuracy, while bringing its own flavour to proceedings. Like Insomniac's Spider-Man games, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel game we can really get on board with.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla
With a good 100+ hours of content in the base game, Assassin's Creed Valhalla wasn’t exactly crying out for anything extra, but Ubisoft went ahead and made a whole bunch of new stuff anyway. River Raids offered some roguelite activities to complete, casting off from your settlement in Ravensthorpe, and with the changing of the seasons, you'd see your home made over with decorations and various mini-games to mess about with. Add to that two cracking expansions in the shape of the Ireland-set 'Wrath of the Druids' and 'The Siege of Paris', as well as 'Tombs of the Fallen' and a free crossover quest tying the game to Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and you've one of the most generous suites of post-launch content ever. Oh, and on top of that, there's another colossal expansion on the way in March 2022, titled 'Dawn of Ragnarok'. It just keeps on coming.
Call of Duty: Warzone
2021 has been a massive year for Call of Duty: Warzone. The hugely successful free-to-play battle royale has launched not one, but two new maps this year, each one tying into the last mainline Call of Duty release. First we got Verdansk ‘84, a rebuilt version of Verdansk, with entirely new locations and reworked ones, in order to keep everything fresh. And then, right at the end of the year, Warzone got the new Caldera map, set on a Pacific island, to tie into Call of Duty: Vanguard. It’s not all been plain sailing - there’s been plenty of issues with Caldera in particular - but Warzone has also just consistently been updated with new events, game modes, mechanics, and more across the entire year. Since Call of Duty: Warzone launched last year, the game has gone from strength to strength.
We can't get enough of developer IO Interactive's murderous 'World of Assassination' sandbox, Hitman III providing another six missions in which to cause the untimely deaths of numerous targets – unscrupulous, horrible people, who, more often than not, deserve it. But what to do once you've taken care of all those targets? Exhausted the myriad ways to off them? Going above and beyond, IO has not only supported Hitman III with constant free updates since launch, including new Elusive Targets, Escalation Contracts, and seasonal events, but also released appealing paid DLC in the shape of The Seven Deadly Sins. While the latter provided a selection of themed content encompassing Greed, Wrath, Envy, and everything in between, it's the frequency with which new stuff has been rolled out for no additional cost that's really given Agent 47's latest outing a long tail. Great stuff.
Danish developer IO Interactive, pretty much picked up where it left off with Hitman support when they dropped Hitman 3 earlier this year. And by that, we mean showering our favourite assassin with a selection of fresh drops. Content updates left, right and centre is a fair assessment of IO Interactive’s Hitman 3 support, despite early reports from the studio suggesting that support might not reach Hitman 2 levels.
As far back as February 2021, a mere few weeks after launch, IO Interactive had come out and said that they weren’t planning map DLC for the game that signified the end to the World of Assassination trilogy, with players expecting support to shift from Hitman 3 to the upcoming Bond title in the coming months. But alas, that was not the case. IO has pretty much carried on the same kind of enthusiasm for Hitman 3 that we saw for the previous instalments, with consistent monthly updates, all of which were free for the player. And on top of that, we’re even getting new maps and modes next year too, which is quite frankly music to our ears! IO Interactive’s support for its games thus far has been absolutely top notch, and Hitman 3 is just an absolute perfect example.
Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio
Given a well-deserved nod in the same category last year, for Yakuza: Like A Dragon, developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio had another busy time in 2021. Not only did it follow up 2018s Judgment with superb sequel Lost Judgment, but it also remastered Super Monkey Ball 1, 2, and Deluxe as Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania. The studio also found time to remake Virtua Fighter 5 using its Dragon Engine, releasing the Ultimate Edition of AM2's arcade fighter as a PlayStation Plus title in June. On Xbox, meanwhile, it released the original Judgment so fans could catch up ahead of the launch of Lost Judgment, then capped things off with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life for Xbox Game Pass, making the saga available via the service in its entirety. Should RGG give us Yakuza Kenzan and Ishin remasters next, it’ll be a shoo-in for another award next year.
There’s no doubt about it, 343 Industries was at a crossroads prior to the release of Halo Infinite. Halo as a franchise was teetering on the precipice of no longer being relevant, a light slowly diminishing with every passing year and thus, 343 needed a hit. It needed to make a statement, and after one of the most ballsy delays in the history of video games - which left Microsoft’s new next-generation console without a launch title - 343 couldn’t afford a slip-up, especially with the negative press around the game’s unveiling prior to the delay last year. What a difference a year makes, though.
Thankfully, Halo Infinite turned out to be the game that not only Microsoft desperately needed it to be, but the game that Xbox players the world over deserved. From the shadow launch of the game’s multiplayer in November, to the quick fixes made to the game since some teething issues at launch, Halo Infinite has finally put Halo back on the map after so long, and given 343 Industries a game that they can truly call their own. The pressure on their shoulders to deliver must have been insurmountable, and the Seattle-based developer stepped up to the plate to deliver, to put Halo back on top. Despite everything working against them, they did it. It’s a true redemption tale, and we have no doubt that Halo Infinite's most excellent multiplayer offering will only go from strength to strength in the coming weeks and months.
Another solid year for SEGA, 2021 brought with it another trip to Kamurocho and Ijincho for Lost Judgment, the western release of Persona 5 Strikers (via SEGA subsidiary Atlus), Virtua Fighter 5: Ultimate Showdown, an oft-requested remaster of Sonic Colors, and more Yakuza titles for Xbox Game Pass. What could be better? How about a whole bunch of super monkeys in balls? Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania might have been another remaster, but as remasters go, chucking the best three Super Monkey Ball games into one package with a bunch of extras proved pretty darn generous. A steady and consistent year, SEGA paced itself with more high-profile releases, too, including the well-supported Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Hinokami Chronicles, the Jumbo Edition of Two Point Hospital, Football Manager 2022, an Olympic Games 2020 tie-in game, and the HD remaster of Shin Megami Tensei III. Nice.
EA certainly hasn’t had a perfect year - the disappointment of Battlefield 2042 is still lingering a little - but before that, the much-maligned publisher had managed to put out a string of really good titles this year. Mass Effect Legendary Edition offered excellent value for money, wrapping up three top RPGs and making them look gorgeous on modern hardware. F1 2021 offered a best-in-class showing for the Codemasters series, while Lost in Random brought great art design and intriguing gameplay from the EA Originals labels. Knockout City was a surprisingly engaging multiplayer dodgeball game, and of course, we can’t forget It Takes Two, the effortlessly inventive co-op title from Hazelight that turned out to be one of the very best games of the year. EA might have disappointed in some areas, but it absolutely knocked it out of the park, for the most part, and on balance, it's a deserving runner up.
Xbox Game Studios
Microsoft might have left it late this year to really hit its stride, but that’s exactly what it did with the release of two blockbuster titles at the end of 2021 - Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite. Both of these games are among the best to release in this calendar year, and could have catapulted Xbox Game Studios to the top alone. Add on the excellent Psychonauts 2, breathtaking Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Age of Empires 4, and Microsoft had a great year for software. Outside of games, though, Microsoft also made strides in other areas, bringing more classic titles to its backwards compatible program, and making Xbox Cloud Gaming more accessible to a wider audience. With titles like Perfect Dark, Fable, and Hellblade 2 all still on the horizon, it finally feels like Microsoft’s acquisitions are beginning to bear fruit. It’s an exciting time to be an Xbox fan.
Over fifteen years in the making, Psychonauts 2 had a hell of a lot of expectation to live up to. Given that, it’s a minor miracle that developer Double Fine actually managed to deliver, for the most part. Once again letting players ‘psychodive’ into the minds of the game’s characters, Psychonauts 2 offers up a huge amount of variety, in both gameplay styles and visual styles. Each person’s brain is just a little bit broken, but in different ways, making each level feel distinct and memorable. In the mind of a gambling addict, you’ll be attempting to beat the house of a neon casino, while the cranium of a writer has you riding boats across rivers of ink. Psychonauts 2 is endlessly inventive, but also tackles mental health in a thoughtful way, never taking the piss, even when it could be played for laughs. Add on the fact that it’s also one of the most solid 3D platformers released in years, and you’ve got yourself a real cerebral treat.
Halo Infinite could be likened to the infamous football saying, “it’s a game of two halves,” because while the campaign half of 343’s latest attempt to get Halo back on top was decent enough – although infinitely better than Halo 5 – it was the game’s fantastic multiplayer offering that completely blew us away, setting a new standard for the series.
As someone who grew up obsessed with Halo’s multiplayer arenas in the mid-noughties, Halo Infinite gave us those exact feels once again. It transported us back to a time when every evening we’d duke it out in Big Team Battles, trying to climb the infamous ranking system – I’d even argue the ranking numbers in Halo 2 still haven't been bettered to this day. Halo wasn’t just a grand homage to the classic Bungie Halos, it was its own beast, and was a perfect balance between old and new. The shooting and balance of the weapons is perhaps as good as it’s ever been, and thanks to things like the grappleshot, Halo Infinite feels completely fresh in myriad ways. Not only is Halo Infinite the best multiplayer experience this year - by some distance - it’s probably one of the better multiplayer experiences in the last 5-10 years. Yes, it’s that good, and more than worthy of its place on the podium in 2021.
Forza Horizon 5 is the perfect example of a studio working at its peak, taking everything in its stride with staggering ease and just rolling with the punches. With Forza Horizon 5, developer Playground Games made everything look so completely effortless. So bloody stylish.
Over the past decade, Playground Games has truly perfected its craft in making open-world racing games, and Forza Horizon 5 is the fruits of that labour. Sure, as Brits, we were sad to see the Leamington Spa-based studio move from the seasonal perfection of Britain depicted in Forza Horizon 4, but the life it breathed into Mexico is nothing short of staggering. And Forza Horizon 5 isn’t just a case of all the looks and no substance, it’s a game chock-full of both substance and style; it’s the cumulative efforts of a studio that really knows what its audience wants. From the opening moments, when you’re dropping out of a plane and bouncing across Mexico, until the curtains fall on the finale, Forza Horizon 5 will blow you away - it's not just the best racing game of the year, but is 2021’s best game.
Friday, December 31, 2021 @ 09:57 AM
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Sunday, January 16, 2022 @ 03:09 AM