All things considered, 2021 has been a pretty good year for gaming. The continued effects of Covid-19 have once again seen plenty of disruptions, with several games being delayed or at least suffering the consequences of a fragmented development process. However, we’ve also been treated to a variety of excellent releases, from the best of the Indie scene to the latest triple-A blockbusters, proving once again that there’s no shortage of creativity, technical wizardry and all-round excellence in the gaming industry right now.
We know this list of our own picks from the year is far from conclusive, and through various limitations there may well be several games that we’ve missed or perhaps under-appreciated in one way or another – bearing in mind that (despite our best efforts!) we can’t play everything – but that’s what the forums are for! So, by all means get involved and share your own favourites from the past 12 months, or even which games others loved that, for whatever reason, you just didn’t get along with.
Oh, and it was tough enough breaking our choices down to just 10 games (apologies to the likes of Little Nightmares II, Hitman 3, Bowser’s Fury, Ratchet & Clank and so many more), so we’ve avoided the internal angst and petty squabbling of ranking our final selection in any kind of order – other than purely alphabetical. Feel free to plant your own flag in the comments!
Initially released as a PS5 exclusive, Deathloop is a slick and stylish FPS from the talented team behind Prey and the excellent Dishonored series. The game’s hook comes in the form of a time-loop that resets itself every time our hero, Colt, an assassin, dies or fails to kill everyone on his eight-name hitlist. Fortunately, Colt has the ability to remember everything that’s happened before each reset, leaving you free to adopt new skills, powers and gadgets, while also learning more about your targets (and your in-game nemesis, Julianna) with each subsequent revival.
This intriguing set-up gives you the freedom to adapt to a variety of playing styles as new powers are unlocked and fresh pieces of the wider puzzle come to light, which couples nicely with the game’s tight gunplay for some delightfully cool and often brutal combat. Tied in with a delicious art style that nicely riffs on the 1960’s setting – with a much brighter and warmer palette to distance itself from Arkane’s previous games – and an absorbing all-round narrative (backed by some great lead performances) and Deathloop quite rightly stands as many people’s choice for the top spot in 2021.
Forza Horizon 5
One of the best racing franchises of recent years, arguably surpassing the Forza Motorsport series that spawned it, Forza Horizon 5 is undoubtedly top of the podium when it comes to wheel-to-wheel action in 2021 (F1 2021 was great as always but far from as polished as this). Not only does it deliver more of the same great arcade action, combining the coolest cars with a vast and diverse backdrop to race around in, but it also gave us one of the first real visual showcases of just what Microsoft's new-gen consoles can bring to the table.
Perhaps what Forza Horizon 5 does best, though, is what the series always has – and that’s in giving you the option to play it straight as a very well-oiled racing game boasting a sublime handling model, but also with the total freedom to embrace the chaos and carnage of smashing your way around a gloriously playful sandbox. With more than 500 cars and a huge map to explore – complete with dynamic weather throwing up sandstorms and even an active volcano to add to the thrills – Forza Horizon 5 is packed with relentlessly entertaining and rewarding gameplay that simply cruises past the competition.
Guardians of the Galaxy
We have to admit that after the rather more underwhelming gaming adaption of The Avengers, our hopes weren’t too high for this spin on the Guardians of the Galaxy universe. Thankfully, though, everything that the former got wrong, the latter pretty much nails, with a near pitch-perfect riff on the films and comics, delivering a fun and largely story-driven adventure that wouldn’t have been out of place on the big screen.
As you’d expect, you take on the role of Peter Quill/Star-Lord and are joined by the usual suspects for a rich supply of gags and snappy dialogue, as well as for the intense combat sections where you can send them out to help in the fight (sadly there is no multiplayer option but it’s not a huge miss). With a great script, backed by some excellent vocal talent, rich visuals and a typically (inter)stellar soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy is every bit as fun as the films and a great respite from games that take themselves a little too seriously.
First things first: Yes, we know that Hades was actually launched last year on PC and Nintendo Switch (having been on Early Access since back in 2018) but we didn’t get on board until the wider console release this summer – and it’s just so good we didn’t want to leave it off the list. We can appreciate that not everyone will understand quite why it’s proven so popular, given its somewhat limited and highly repetitive gameplay. However, if you’re a fan of classic rogue-like hack-and-slash dungeon-crawlers then Hades really is at the peak of its game.
You play as Zagreus, trying to escape your titular father’s realm only you’re doomed to repeated failure, with death sending you right back to the start. Fortunately, as with Deathloop, every attempt brings rewards that make your next effort in this randomly-generated world that much easier, with new weapons to unlock and the support of your friendly neighbourhood gods and Olympians to call upon. It’s a simple concept that doesn’t over-complicate the gameplay, but with award-winning design, a great evolving narrative and some slick and highly satisfying combat, Hades is an underworld that’s very easy to lose yourself in for hours at a time.
Originally planned as a showcase launch title for the Xbox Series X, Halo Infinite was one of those that suffered extensive delays, but there was quite a nice symmetry that saw it released just a few weeks after the 20th anniversary of the original Xbox and our first introduction to Master Chief. While 343 Industries has done a sterling job with Halo 4 and 5 since Bungie pursued its Destiny elsewhere, Infinite really feels like a new beginning for the franchise that has become synonymous with the Xbox brand, once again combining excellent FPS mechanics with its usual cinematic flair, plus a couple of neat tweaks to the winning formula.
Picking up from the ending of Guardians, Infinite takes you to the Forerunner ringworld, Zeta Halo, equipping our now iconic hero with the usual weaponry along with a few new tricks, such as a grappling hook for added verticality and combat options. There’s also more of an open-world feel, coupled with the usual linear dungeon-crawl combat sections, adding optional side-quests and exploration as a new string to the series' bow. With gunplay as rich and robust as we’ve come to expect of the Chief, both in the campaign and free-to-play multiplayer, Halo Infinite sets things up brilliantly for a whole new generation of gaming – making it very well worth the wait.
It Takes Two
It Takes Two is one of those games that might have been easily missed at the time, falling under the EA Originals banner and getting only a fraction of the hype that the likes of FIFA 22 had showered upon it. However, pretty much everyone we know who has been fortunate enough to have stumbled upon this highly creative platformer built entirely for co-op gameplay has nothing but good things to say about it (as do we), and not a mention of microtransactions in sight!
As a two-player experience, It Takes Two shines because it gives both players the freedom to operate and explore independently, while at the same time forcing them to join forces to navigate the super-sized world you’ll find yourself in - acting as a not-so-subtle contrast for the married couple who were previously drifting apart. With your special powers changing with each chapter (always being complimentary to your co-op comrade) and the action shifting through a broad spectrum of platforming styles, there’s a constant variety and creativity to the gameplay that makes the game consistently fresh and entertaining. Perfect for some Christmas couch co-op!
Quickly dispelling any disappointments that this wasn’t the hotly anticipated Metroid Prime 4, Metroid Dread instead does a great job in bringing the old 2D franchise up to speed for the latest generation of Nintendo hardware. Acting as a sequel to 2002’s Metroid Fusion, Dread was developed by the same team that gave us 2017’s Samus Returns, and with our suited and booted heroine once again returning for this new adventure it was no surprise to see a lot of her more recent combat tricks brought in to combine brilliantly with the classic side-scrolling action.
By focusing more on combat and navigation, rewarding exploration with new abilities, upgrades and other assorted collectibles, while keeping the surrounding storyline rather more understated than we’ve seen of late, Metroid Dread plays like a constantly evolving race through its brilliantly designed levels. It can be as tough as ever, with some brutal boss fights, precision platform sections and the threat of some relentless and ruthless killer robots on your tail (often requiring some nimble stealth work to avoid), but clearing a section and picking up a fresh upgrade has rarely felt as fist-pumpingly satisfying. Metroid Prime 4 can wait for just a little bit longer…
Not unlike Metroid Dread, Psychonauts 2 is also a sequel that’s been a long time coming, and one that also absolutely nails the charm and style that made the original so good, while bringing its double-jumping into the modern arena. The game actually picks up from 2017’s VR spin-off Rhombus of Ruin, but you don’t need any previous experience of the series to enjoy one of the most creative platformers of recent years as Raz once again dives into the most surreal corners of many a mind.
As well as delivering the absolute basics of the genre with sublime style, Psychonauts 2 feels like it’s never content to stand still. Whether it’s adding new abilities or upgrades as pure fuel for your exploration of its wonderfully designed levels, dropping plot twists into its compelling storyline that handles heavy issues with a charmingly light touch, or throwing in gameplay curveballs that literally changes the playing field, Psychonauts 2 is a pure delight from start to finish – and beyond for those of you who can’t leave a collectible left unfound!
Resident Evil Village
With 2017’s Biohazard marking a welcome return to form for the franchise, Resident Evil Village almost certainly feels like it's back in its prime. While continuing the tortuous saga of Ethan Winters, Village transports the action away from the dark and oppressive game of hide and seek seen in Biohazard to a more open rural setting and rather more trigger-happy gameplay that took us back to the likes of Resident Evil 4. There’s a welcome illusion of freedom in what remains a largely linear first-person survival-shooter, but within it the developers have created a brilliant labyrinth full of locked doors, puzzles and mysteries to unravel as you work your around the landscape dominated by a typically eerie and Evil-esque castle.
What really makes Village tick is that it finds a hugely satisfying sweet spot between that near constant state of dread in what lurks around the next corner and the need to carefully manage your inventory to patch up your many wounds, with the cathartic relief of routinely blasting monsters in the face with a shotgun. It really is the best of the both worlds, with new tools and upgrades providing plenty of motivation to explore this beautifully crafted hellhole even further (and for repeated playthroughs). From Lady Dimitrescu to its creepy dolls and that baby, Resident Evil Village is packed with moments that will stay with you long after the credits and it’s certainly among the very best in the series.
Returnal is a game that proved rather divisive at launch, possibly because a fair few gamers weren’t really sure what to expect from a previously indie developer being given the triple-A resources of a showcase PS5 title. Certainly not everyone was expecting a notoriously difficult but utterly beautiful third-person action-survival experience where death is not only the end, it’s inevitable and absolutely necessary. Combining elements mentioned previously in Deathloop and Hades, Returnal sees you playing a stranded pilot forced to replay events from scratch each time you die against an ever-changing backdrop – and it’s not exactly sunshine and rainbows out there.
As with those other titles, the trick is that each attempt through this beautiful but often brutal bullet-hell landscape provides fresh rewards that will deliver upgrades and new kit to make your next attempt that much easier, and carry you a little bit further into the narrative. However, with a long road to the end and no save points (though the devs have since changed this), every mistake could prove very costly – but that was also what makes the game so compelling, as you’re forced to take care with every step and manage your itinerary accordingly. It might not be what we’ve come to expect from Sony’s usual portfolio of exclusives, but with great visuals, an excellent soundtrack and some intuitive DualSense feedback, Returnal certainly delivered a standout PS5 title for 2021.