The Best & Worst Games of 2021
2021 was a solid year for games.
We had a steady stream of quality releases, but there were few compelling reasons to own new hardware. Most of the best games on PS5 and Series X/S could be enjoyed on previous-gen consoles, albeit at a slightly lower framerate, with marginally less pretty graphics, and minus the smugness that comes with ownership of a new console.
Despite being a year removed from the launch of a new generation, shortages and delays continued to dominate the news cycle. An unwelcome carry-over from an awful year and a problem that shows no sign of abating. Anyone secure their Analogue Pocket preorder for 2023?
But not every holdover from 2020 was depressing. Game Pass remained my favourite part of modern gaming, and Microsoft continued to delight with their commitment to backward compatibility, even if that commitment has now been capped. Nintendo continued to do Nintendo-y things, which is nice. While my longstanding preference for the PlayStation brand took a hit in 2021, Sony did at least make some early efforts to release AAA games that were only possible, and only available, on new consoles.
2021 also brought changes, specifically to the way I play. I began to divide my attention more evenly between PlayStation and Xbox, and my games-played list is almost a 50/50 split between the two for the first time ever. What wasn't an even split was the ratio of my physical to digital purchases, which has shifted almost 100% to the latter. Game Pass is a huge part of that, but I've also lost interest in owning boxed copies of modern games. Soulless, empty plastic shells, demanding shelf space that I just don't have. I'm still a retro-game box pervert, however, and I may have recently started buying vinyl, so rest assured my hobby-clutter will continue for years to come.
In 2021, I played games of all descriptions, and for the most part I enjoyed them, as I'm about to explain at length. I hope you're sitting comfortably.
Here are the games I played on contemporary consoles in 2021, to completion or at least for a significant chunk of time.
Played: Art of Rally, Astro's Playroom, Cyber Shadow, Deathloop, Demon's Souls Remake, Doom Eternal, Final Fantasy IX HD, Forza Horizon 5, Genesis Noir, Halo Infinite, Hotshot Racing, Katamari Damacy Reroll, Mafia: Definitive Edition, Mario Party Superstars, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Mass Effect 2 Legendary Edition, Mass Effect 3 Legendary Edition, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Monster Hunter Rise, NHL 94 Rewind, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Panzer Dragoon Remake, Radiant Silvergun, Resident Evil Village, Returnal, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars: Squadrons, Super Mario 3D World, Tetris 99, Tetris Effect: Connected, The Medium, The Procession to Calvary, Unpacking, Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Currently Playing: No More Heroes 3
Bought but have yet to play: Guardian Heroes (Xbox)
These are the best and worst games of 2021, according to me.
Enjoy your games and have a very Happy New Year.
1. Game of the Year: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Like Vince above, I have a soft spot for well-written, linear, narrative-driven action games. A rare thing in an age of games-as-a-service and open-world time-wasters.
Guardian's of the Galaxy happens to be one such game, and I did not see it coming. I'd ignored the trailers and previews and had no intention of playing it, that is until I started hearing encouraging things from other people. This was very much a word-of-mouth game, and it always makes me happy when something unexpected takes my GOTY award.
I don't read comics and I'm at best a casual viewer of the Marvel movies. Of those that I've seen, Guardians of the Galaxy 1-2 are my favourites, because they're genuinely funny and filled with interesting characters. A solid 8.0 and an easy re-watch if you just want to be entertained for a couple of hours. My familiarity with the movie Guardians made the prospect of an off-brand game an unappealing one. For the first hour, the differences in character design did bug me, but then it passed. Over the course of fifteen or so hours, these became my preferred versions of Drax, Gamora, Star-Lord, Groot, Rocket and Mantis.
This is a special crew of misfits. There's an effortless dynamic between the Guardians, one that I'm sure was in no way effortless to create. They joke and snap at one another in entertaining ways; their relationships are believable, even though the situations they find themselves in are ludicrous, and they each have their own mini-arcs that I was fully invested in.
Narrative threads switch from amusing to genuinely touching with surprising speed and effectiveness. One minute I'm laughing at one of Drax's painfully literal observations, the next I'm stifling tears as a child is forced to accept the loss of a loved one. Within only a few hours, I'd fully bought into these characters, their flaws, motivations, humour and emotional fragility. The writing is exceptional, which is a relief as there is loads of it! These characters never shut up, but it's not just noise - it enrichens the experience at every step. I was hanging around our ship, delaying starting the next mission, just so I could hear the next mini-conversation. Mantis and Drax in particular had my undivided attention at all times.
The action isn't on par with the writing, unfortunately. I almost didn't want to start battles, because I knew it would cut-off the back and forth between our leads, and the chatter that does exist on the battlefield is nowhere near as interesting. The action isn't bad by any means, it's just less interesting. It's fast, and deep enough to keep things fairly fresh without bogging you down in unnecessary tactics and upgrades. It does just enough to avoid letting down the rest of the game - it's functional, and fun more often than not.
The story and action unfold at just the right pace and the highlights are always proffered in just the right measure. You never stay in any one location too long, and there's next to no backtracking or recycled settings. It knows when it has something good, and when to give it and when to take it away. Mid-battle huddles trigger hits from the 1980s that become the soundtrack to your skirmishes, and blasting space maggots to Wham! was a 2021 highlight. But this mechanic is given sparingly, making it a lovely treat when it is offered. The on-ship banter is short and sweet, cutting off after a few sentences, but is fleshed out enough to register as full and satisfying conversations.
I consider Uncharted to be the pinnacle of narrative-driven action games, and I use it as a benchmark against which I judge similar games. Guardians of the Galaxy is not on the same all-time tier as Uncharted, but it does share many of its qualities. It's an imperfect game, yes, but most importantly it is a joyous experience which does some very crucial things exceedingly well. A very welcome, end-of-year surprise.
Honourable Mention: Forza Horizon 5, Monster Hunter Rise, Deathloop
2. Best pre-2021 Game Played for the First Time: Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Who knew Yakuza needed reinventing?! And who knew it'd be this good right off the bat?! Certainly not I, and I consider myself the pre-eminent Yakuza-liker. I loved the switch from hyper-violent, super-silly action game to hyper-violent, super-silly RPG, and was instantly sold on Ichiban and his rag-tag bunch of friends. It retains all the best bits of Yakuza, while infusing it with new blood and new ideas. It is probably my favourite Yakuza, and had I played it last year, it might've taken my 2020 GOTY. With the exit of producer Toshihiro Nagoshi, it's clear the series is entering a new phase, and I'm excited to see what that'll look like.
Honourable Mentions: Katamari Damacy Reroll, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
3. My Daughter's Game of the Year: Animal Crossing New Horizons
Just like last year! And just like last year, I'll let her explain why: "Animal Crossing is still good because it's got a Christmas thing and I like buying stuff like beds and DIY recipes. I love Shari and Pinky because Pinky is a Panda and Shari is a squirrel monkey. In my house, I like to use blue stuff and I like putting Christmas stuff inside. And sometimes other characters come inside my house, which is a good thing. Halloween was the best event this year because you can get pumpkin clothes and if you put those clothes on the other animals will think you are a real pumpkin and give you sweets! Oh, I made some new stairs on my island and added a new room to my house so I can do lots of stuff there. I don't really want to go to the new (DLC) island, because my favourite characters won't be there. If they are there, it'll be different."
4. Best Revisit: Mass Effect 2 Legendary Edition
If we ignore the categories and criteria that make it ineligible for my GOTY (it's a remaster), Mass Effect 2 Legendary Edition is the best game I played in 2021. And it's not even close. The tidiest action-RPG you'll ever play, it remains as irresistible as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the trilogy, playing the entries back-to-back-to-back over the spring/summer and never once getting sick of it. It was my first full playthrough of ME1, and I was suitably impressed. Mass Effect 3 in no way deserved all the shit it received at the time, and I finally got to play all of the excellent DLC. Mass Effect 2 is still the jewel in the crown, however, and I'm sure I'll revisit it yet again in a few more years.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3, Demon's Souls
5. Best Gameplay Mechanic: Deathloop - Time loop manipulation
It took me a few hours to really get into Deathloop. It initially struck me as a standard shooter with an interesting setting and a somewhat unlikeable protagonist and foil. However, once the time loops started to mount up, I began to better understand what was expected of me and how I could end said loop. You are tasked with killing eight bosses in the space of one day, which is impossible at first until you start to mess with their surroundings and routines over the course of numerous days, or loops, into which you are reborn each morning. Thanks to your meddling, they are unknowingly forced into situations where you can end them and end the loop once and for all. Working through a developing to-do checklist in each loop adds variety to a core mechanic that, had it been handled less deftly, would've grown tiresome. You feel like you are putting the pieces together and outsmarting everyone else, and information is given in just the right amount, and at the right time, that you have your eureka moments just before the game spells it out for you. It's very satisfying, once it all starts to come together.
Honourable Mention: Forza Horizon 5 - rewind
6. Best Character: Drax and Mantis - Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
I'm penalizing Garrus, Wrex, Liana, Mordin etc. here for starring in a remaster. I already said plenty of nice things about the Mass Effect crew in the early 2010s, so lets give some different aliens a chance to shine. Drax's literal take on absolutely everything, and his inability to understand sarcasm or metaphors, make him one of the most entertaining and endearing game characters in recent memory. He's also hugely sympathetic, due to the depths of his grief at the family he lost. Mantis exists between varying realities, and her poor attempts at explaining and remembering what may or may not be about to happen never wore thin. Her stories are a constant tease and a welcome window into other realities. She and Drax were the driving forces behind the funniest scenes in my GOTY, and I hope we'll get to play with them again.
Honourable Mention: Take your pick from the Normandy crew
7. Worst Character: Any human in Forza Horizon 5
In Forza Horizon 5, if it ain't got wheels then it's probably an annoying prick. The people of Forza are overly enthusiastic, loud for the sake of being loud, and appallingly voiced. Especially the Brits. The Mexicans are contractually obliged to refer to your avatar as "my friend!" at least twice per sentence. Watching player avatar after player avatar doing bad robot dancing on the podium must've taken several years off my life. Did I mention that everyone is really fucking annoying in this game? Because they are, they really are. Great game, though, apart from the people.
8. Most Respectful of my Time: Monster Hunter Rise
Rise marks a very clear shift in approach from the established MH formula. Gone are long, drawn out battles, replaced by hunts that are resolved far more swiftly. Everything has been streamlined, and made more arcade-like than World, for example. In a single sitting, I could get through several hunts, fashion new armor and speak to the town residents, something that would've been impossible in previous games. Despite the brevity, each hunt feels complete and satisfying - the only downside is that I was finished with the game much quicker than previous entries, and the lack of repetitive hunting means it hasn't stuck in my memory the way the 3DS games and World have. But in the moment, I loved Rise, and I wonder if I may have forever lost my appetite for the old way of doing things.
Honourable Mention: Forza Horizon 5
9. Least Respectful of my Time: Returnal
Oh, how I wanted to love Returnal. Housemarque making a truly next-gen action game - it sounded so very up my street. However, the entire experience was sunk by its pairing of punishing difficultly with a punitive respawn mechanic. When you die, no matter how far you have progressed or how many hours you invested, you are dumped back at the beginning with little to nothing to show for your efforts. Play again and be better, it says. But I just wanted Returnal to be better. The shifting, procedurally generated levels add some variance, but the stages remain recognizable and reliant on the same set of features and topography. A simple save system would not have broken Returnal, nor would a more meaningful option to bank progress, and I have no doubt that it would have improved it.
Dishonorable Mention: The Procession to Calvary
10. Best Multiplayer: Forza Horizon 5
I was far more active online this year than last. I played a ton of Monster Hunter Rise, mostly with strangers, and even subjected myself to repeated humiliations in Halo Infinite. As good as they were, Forza Horizon 5 was better. It has gifted us a persistent world of colourful, racing shenanigans, one that feels alive even offline, but truly sparkles when you're sharing it with other players. I'd probably enjoy it even more if I could get out of the habit of instinctively pressing the rewind button to undo mistakes during online races, which unfortunately rewinds only you and no one else. I'll git 'gud eventually.
Honourable Mention: Monster Hunter Rise, Halo Infinite
11. Best Shooting at Things: Halo Infinite
Shooting things is a lot of fun in Halo Infinite. In particular, shooting things into aliens. Naughty aliens, with their soft bodies and extremely shoot-able faces. This is the first Halo I've finished, and while the lore is lost on me and I don't understand the appeal of Master Chief, I've been thoroughly won over by the smoothness and satisfying nature of the gunplay. Each gun has a reason to exist - apart from the plasma hand gun - and it makes sense to keep cycling between different loadouts. Each firearm hits with such satisfying thwacks, squelches and KABOOMS, that they beg to be found and fired again and again.
Honourable Mentions: Returnal, Deathloop
12. Most Next-Gen Experience: Returnal
While Returnal may have caused me a great deal of grief, it certainly looked and sounded great. All those particle effects, bright lights punching through darkness, and the way those creatures slink about in the shadows, all-tentacles and insatiable hunger. It also felt quite unlike anything I've experienced before, making full use of the impressive features of the DualSense, including the adaptive triggers and haptic feedback. In particular, I was impressed by how it conveys the feeling of rain as it splatters on your exo-suit. It is next-gen in every way, apart from it's overly punitive core mechanic. Let's move on before I get upset again.
Honourable Mention: The load times in pretty much every made-for-the-new-gen game
13. Standout Moment: Forza Horizon 5 coming to Game Pass
It felt like everyone was playing Forza the week it came it. The first shared-moment of this new generation, something we could all enjoy together. Twitter was full of screenshots and video clips, and the entirety of my friend list seemed to be playing Forza. Offline-racers take their names from people on your friend list, which convinces you that everyone is into Forza, even when that might not be the case. Forza Horizon 5 on Game Pass in November felt like an event.
Honourable Mentions: Guardian's of the Galaxy - Wham! + combat; Resident Evil Village - early stages of the Dimitrescu castle
14. Strangest Moment: Guardian's of the Galaxy - the encounter with Lipless
Lipless, an erratic alien with no lips, corners you in a bar. He knows you, claims to be your friend, but you don't recognize him. And you'd think you'd remember that face. He struggles to get his words out, and he's clearly quite disturbed that you don't seem to remember the blood oath that you and he made. You and he are the STORM RIDERS, which old Lipless sings in his best hair-metal falsetto. He draws his gun on you and thus begins an attempt to bullshit your way through a singalong of a song you can't recall. There is also some very weird dancing, some gyrating, talk of animal husbandry, and a lovely hug at the end. It is all very silly, very funny and somehow also very unsettling, because Lipless is one bizarre, corpse-looking motherfucker. This encounter occurs a couple of hours in, which is about when I realized that I was really enjoying Guardian's of the Galaxy.
Honourable Mention: Most of Genesis Noir
15. Biggest Disappointment: PlayStation Plus
Game Pass definitely soured me on PS Plus, though Sony was already doing a pretty good job of that on its own. I haven't played a PS Plus game since either Fall Guys or Battlefront 2, both of which were back in summer 2020. The games aren't of enough interest to warrant spending time on, and they pale in comparison to what's on offer on GP. Granted, that may be an unfair comparison, as they are two very different services, but PS Now fares no better when held up against GP - it has some great games, but very little in the way of current titles. I'm encouraged to hear that Sony is considering new features, including a tiered access to their impressive backcatalogue, but it remains to be seen how comprehensive or expensive that is. I rarely play online on PS5, and while cloud saves offer peace of mind, I can't justify paying fifty quid a year for it.
I might've chosen Returnal here, but I wasn't that interested in it until just before launch. The PS Plus disappointment runs deeper, and unless 2022 brings some convincing reasons to keep paying, I'll probably let my membership expire at the next renewal. The end of a ten-year run.
Dishonourable Mention: Returnal
16. Biggest Surprise: Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
This was a fairly easy one, given its selection as my GOTY. I had no interest in it whatsoever. I didn't even know it existed until a few months before release, at which point I started to pay enough attention to decide that it wasn't something I needed to play. That was silly, obviously, but it did set me up for a pleasant surprise. I hope something catches me similarly unawares in 2022.
Honourable Mention: Deathloop, news of a TimeSplitters revival
17. Most Relaxing: Unpacking
What a delightful little game. You must unpack someone's life and arrange it as best you can, without limits on time or resources, and it's presented in a charming and simple style. My daughter enjoyed this one too, though not as much as year two of Animal Crossing, obviously. The perfect wind-down game after a few rounds of Halo Infinite or a half dozen races of Forza. Lovely and relaxing, apart from when you reach the end of the stage and one item is flagged as being in the wrong room, and you have no idea what that item is supposed to be. It looks a bit like a sandwich toaster, but it doesn't belong in the kitchen? Minidisc players weren't that big were they? Fuck, this is stressing me out.
Honourable Mention: Art of Rally
18. Cheekiest Little Scamp: Weapon, Halo Infinite
What a cheeky little scamp! She could be telling you that you're bleeding out, but she'd do it with such a winning smile that you'd be absolutely fine with it. She is the personality that Master Chief lacks, someone who knows when to crack a joke or deliver a line with more than the bare minimum of tonal variance. She even seems quite happy about the prospect of being deleted, when you first meet her. Don't worry, it'll be fun!
19. Worst Fucking Swearing: Deathloop
The swearing in Deathloop is awful. It lacks rhythm and feeling. It misses the beats where the curses should be and is devoid of joy or depth. It is perfunctory at best; childish and ill-advised at worst. Julianna is the number one offender, though Colt isn't much better with the effing and blinding. Julianna speaks at such speed that her words fail to carry weight and her swears don't register in any meaningful way. Swearing should help a sentence flow, bridge ideas or clauses that don't necessarily belong together, express joy or despair, add humour, provide emphasis, shock, or at the very least sound really fucking awesome. It should feel good coming out of your mouth. Someone should've told Deathloop's writers.
20. Fastest Shelving: The Falconeer
I just could not get on with The Falconeer. There's every chance it's a good game, but I struggled so completely with it in those first, critical 20 minutes that I turned it off and immediately deleted it from my HDD. I can't really put my finger on what exactly it was that I found so unappealing, but I put a lot of stock into first impressions these days, and won't persevere unless I have a good reason to do so. I couldn't find one here.
Dishonorable Mention: Quake (slight motion sickness)
21. Best Game Pass Sampler: The Ascent
One of the best things about Game Pass is that I'm encouraged to sample games that I would never buy otherwise. There's no commitment beyond an install, and I can abandon them guilt-free as and when I'd like. Of all the games I played for an hour or less, The Ascent was my favourite, and the one I'm most likely to return to somewhere down the line. A lovely looking game, with that filthy retro-future style that we all like, and one that I could see myself sinking many hours into. It's only mistake was coming to GP around the same time that I had a stack of higher-priority games to enjoy.
22. Best Kick: Deathloop
Deathloop has loads of inventive weapons and abilities, but nothing is more satisfying than putting your boot up some unsuspecting goon's arse. In Karl's Bay, there's a masked villain standing on a outcrop overlooking the town, playing a screeching guitar solo. You can use the din to mask your approach, before launching him into the air with your foot. The solo comes to a grinding halt as he flies halfway across the town. He lands with a thud, attracting the attention of his colleagues in the area. Another dead bastard, soon to killed anew when the next loop starts; an infinite victim of my impressive foot. Who needs guns when you have a foot like a rocket launcher?
23. Most Repetitive Monster Closets: Halo Infinite
I really enjoyed portions of Halo Infinite. For the most part, those portions were outdoors, when you are able to find fun and rewarding things to do between mission markers. Claiming FOBs, taking down installations, experimenting with different weapons, hopping into the Warthog and taking a few marines along for the ride (RIP every marine who came along for the ride). In the wide open spaces, the limited roster of aliens isn't a big deal. However, that changes drastically when you move indoors. The final third of my playthrough consisted of room after room, corridor after corridor, of the same enemies in very similar situations. And the surroundings - metallic space cathedrals - are the height of tedium. I'm glad I stuck with Infinite to the end, and overall I did enjoy it, but I was very close to abandoning it on several occasions.
24. Best Retro Revisit: Nights Into Dreams and Christmas Nights Into Dreams
I must've dipped into Nights dozens of times over the years, but I'd never sat down and focused on trying to play it from start to finish. That it is until this year, when I developed a new found appreciation for this Saturn gem. It's such a simple yet compelling game, and you'd have to be pretty cold-hearted to not be charmed by all that colour and pomp. I of course continued my tradition of playing Christmas Nights on Christmas Eve, and this year I reached the final credits for the first time. You are rewarded with this once you've completed the level enough times to have accumulated all the presents. I also learnt that there is a Sonic Nights level - how did I not know this before?! - so that'll give me yet another reason to go back to it next Christmas. That's soon right, Christmas?
Honourable Mentions: Panzer Dragoon Zwei
25. Best Retro Game Played for the First Time: Blur
I'll get this out of the way first: PS3 is now retro. Not retro-retro, but junk-retro. It's at that stage where it clearly belongs to a very different moment in time to current machines, yet it hasn't started to gain the value, monetary and nostalgic, that retro-retro systems and games have. OK? So with that in mind, I'm picking Blur - Blur Racerz here in Japan - for this category. I stayed with it far longer than I expected, and at the expense of games on my new consoles, which is always a clear sign that an older game is doing something right. It's exactly how you want an arcade racer to look and feel, and it's probably one of my favourite racing games of that era, behind Burnout Paradise and one or two of the Need for Speed standouts. Highly recommended.
Honourable Mentions: NBA Street Vol. 2 (PS2), Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (DC)
26. Best Resident Evil: Resident Evil Village
This isn't the first time I've had to invent a category to celebrate a Resident Evil that I really enjoyed. As I explained a few months ago, RE is one of the longest running constants in my gaming life. I've been playing and enjoying them since RE1 on the Saturn, yet I wouldn't count any of them among my all-time favourite games. At least not at the very top-tier. Village continues this tradition, not being outstanding in any one area, but very good in most. It's not the best of 2021 in any category, but it was in the running for several of them. So I'm recognizing that ability to be very good at several things, here and now. Long may RE's level of competency last.
Honourable Mention: Resident Evil Village
27. Best Back Compatibility - Panzer Dragoon Orta
I purchased TimeSplitters 2 as a Christmas Eve treat and only spent twenty minutes with it that evening. A nostalgia-fueled, sublime twenty minutes, but not enough to take this category away from Panzer Dragoon Orta. I went on a bit of a Panzer Dragoon bender this year, finishing the remake on Switch, going back to the original on Saturn, followed by the sequel, and then finally Orta. I hadn't played Orta before, and was blown away by how good it looks on my Series X. Its art style has aged very well indeed. It feels like the best type of sequel, building upon and improving what had come before, without completely re-inventing things. Maybe 2022 will be the year I finally commit to playing PD Saga?
Honourable Mentions: TimeSplitters 2, Lost Planet 2, Radiant Silvergun
28. Wish I'd Made Time For: Nothing, probably
I managed to get through pretty much everything I wanted to this year. I think this was in part thanks to my narrowing interests, but also due to a light release schedule for games I really care about. I fancy playing Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart, Lost Judgment and Disco Elysium - The Final Cut, but I'm quite content to wait for considerable discounts on all three before taking the plunge. No great rush on any of them. No More Heroes 3 might have taken this category, had I not just started it. Slim pickings.
29. Most Looking Forward to in 2022: Shatter Remaster
There's a bunch of interesting-looking games coming out next year, but nothing that has me too excited. I'm sure I'll play Elden Ring, Starfield, God of War: Ragnorak, Suicide Squad and countless other big releases at or near launch, but I wouldn't say I'm anticipating any of them. However, I am pretty excited about the Shatter remaster, even if I'm not 100% sure that it's real. The Arkanoid-like star of the PS3-era PS Store is supposedly getting re-released for new consoles sometime in early 2022, according to a developer on the project who spilled the beans on that online industry forum that some of you seem to like. I loved Shatter, and still return to it every so often, so the prospect of having it to hand on current gen consoles is an extremely attractive one. Also, while we're on the topic of things that might not exist, I think I'll be playing a Final Fantasy Tactics and/or Tactics Ogre remaster before the end of next year, so let's add that to my possibly-exists-in-2022 list.
Honourable Mention: Starfield