2021 has been a great year for video games, no matter what some people might say. And I’m not just talking about indies – there are great indies every year that fall under the radar of many – there have been some ace triple-A titles, too. While I spent a lot of the past 12 months dropping into Apex Legends and building my FIFA 22 Ultimate Team, I also carved out time for some new games (FIFA doesn’t count).
Honourable mentions go to Metroid Dread which narrowly missed out on a spot, Deathloop which had the best gunfeel since Doom Eternal but I ultimately bounced off, and Solar Ash which looks like my kind of thing but released just too late for me to play. But enough of those that didn’t quite make the cut, here are the top ten games I played this year.
10. Forza Horizon 5
Forza Horizon 5 is like those trainers you have by the front door, that aren’t nice enough to wear out out, but the heels are all worn from the amount of times you slip them on to take the bins out or nip to the shop. What I’m saying is, I never expected a racing game to be on my Game of the Year list, but somehow I’ve racked up more hours zipping around Mexico than most other games here. Part of this is due to the nature of the game – endless beautiful roads to speed down and picturesque corners to drift through make for compellingly rewarding gameplay. But part of this is also because Horizon 5 is just so damn good at everything it does.
It’s got the perfect mix of stunning vistas and loud motors, plenty of map icons to keep you interested but not so many as to overwhelm you, and a careful balance between arcade racing and in-depth engine tuning to cater for every preference. Too much compromise could make everyone unhappy, but somehow Forza finds the balance. After hours of racing across snow-capped mountains and splashing through glistening rivers, I can’t wait to see what Playground Games does with Fable.
9. Halo Infinite
Halo Infinite came out last week, and I was planning to go all out and play nothing else all weekend so I could potentially put it on my Game of the Year list. I’m a dab hand at ignoring all my responsibilities and loading up a new game, but I decided I didn’t actually want to crunch my way through Halo Infinite. I was excited for it and want to play it at my leisure, so that’s what I’ll do. List be damned, maybe I can slip it in next year.
The opening two missions are great, I can say that much at this point, but Halo has earned its place here due to its multiplayer alone. The only competitive FPS game that I’ve been really gripped by since Apex Legends, I’ve been having a ball skewering, sniping, and shredding opponents. Sure, there are some progression issues, but there’s not a lot better than jumping into a Halo Infinite battle with a group of friends.
Inscryption is a deck-builder, an escape room, and a roguelike all rolled into one. I was a little reluctant to play, due to the fact that escape rooms aren’t my thing at all and I only enjoy certain roguelikes, but I’m so glad I did. The first half of the game mostly involves sacrificing squirrels and overcoming bears using stoats – all cards of course – all while crafting and upgrading your deck to beat fishermen and traders you come across on the board.
The whole game changes when you’re about a third of the way in, but it’s nigh impossible to talk about this without giving away major spoilers. All I can say is that Inscryption is one of the most stylish indie horror games that I’ve played in a good while.
Unpacking has the cleverest storytelling I have seen in games this year, possibly even longer. How do you tell a story without dialogue? And with only a few sentences of text? With only household items? Unpacking doesn’t just manage to do this, it excels, and in a beautiful manner. I won’t spoil any more of this clever, clever game, but it’s worth trying out for the vibes and the sound design if nothing else.
6. Hitman 3’s Berlin Level
Hitman 3 was a great game that’s largely been forgotten because it launched so early in the year, but IO Interactive crafted the best Hitman ever, perfecting its stealth formula as well as creating the first meaningful story for Agent 47. The final level was strangely linear for Hitman, and felt like an audition for the James Bond game that IO is working on more than an actual part of the game it inhabits, but everything else was close to perfection.
The perfect distillation of the Hitman formula was never clearer than in the Berlin level. Set in a warehouse club that is Definitely Not Berghain, 47 is tasked with taking out rival assassins who have been sent to kill you. The twist on the usual Hitman formula makes this level a classic of the World of Assassination trilogy, built upon by the sheer number of instruments of death available in the sandbox. Do you want to poison a marijuana growing operation, electrify the DJ’s lighting setup, or provoke a biker gang? Pick which enemies you want to target, and – most importantly – have fun.
5. New Pokemon Snap
I had to have a Pokemon game on my list, and let’s face it, Brilliant Diamond wouldn’t even make my top 50. However, I was in safe hands as New Pokemon Snap was the best first-person shooter released this year right up until the moment Halo Infinite came out. Spinoff games are some of the most innovative Pokemon titles and Snap is no exception. While the weird appraisal system is a minor downside, just watching monsters interact in their natural habitats makes it feel like you’re truly diving into the world of Pokemon.
4. The Forgotten City
You’ve probably seen this on a few lists by now, but I can’t exclude The Forgotten City just because it’s popular here at TheGamer. I ignored ex-lead features editor Cian Maher’s cries to play this for as long as I could, but when it came to Game Pass I couldn’t hold out any longer. And boy am I glad I buckled, as The Forgotten City is one of the tightest time loops I’ve ever had the luxury to be stuck in.
The game’s eponymous city is small and easy to traverse, and our good pal Galerius can take care of mysteries you solve on subsequent loops. This is important, as I bounced off larger time loops like Deathloop this year due to their inherently repetitive nature. Galerius’ actions also impact the story, too, and the multiple endings make your choices actually mean something. The Forgotten City is a game that you actually want to explore with mysteries that you actually want to solve, and that is a feat sometimes easier said than done.
3. The Artful Escape
The Artful Escape is on here purely because it’s beautiful in every possible way. From the psychedelic space vistas and improbable aliens made entirely of eyes, to the soundtrack that adapts whenever you decide to harmonise with your guitar at the push of a button, to the wholesome story of self-discovery, it’s a stunner. There’s some light platforming and simple rhythm sections in this stylish side-scroller, but you mostly want to play for vibes alone.
A psychedelic adventure of galactic proportions, The Artful Escape is an all-timer that I can see myself replaying for years to come – not despite the fact that my experience will be identical, but because of that.
You stare across the horizon, listening to the sounds of the desert. Your bike hums as it hovers above the golden sand. The ruins of a cubic spacecraft smoke to your left. Hills rise up in every direction, and at the very edge of your vision a fungal pillar looms over the horizon – or at least, that’s what you think it is.
Sable takes a lot of DNA from Breath of the Wild, and it’s best experienced in the same way. Pay attention to the quests if you want, but the best thing to do is point at something in the distance and head towards it. Find a giant statue you want to climb, get lost in a forest and stumble across a hermit who started a religion. When I neared the end of my journey I ensured I found every Chum Egg and completed every achievement, but that’s not really how the game should be played – and I had the least fun doing so. Navigators don’t put markers on your map for a reason – they describe landmarks and nearby areas to force you to actually explore. And that’s what I love about Sable – despite taking so much inspiration from Zelda, it forgoes gaming conventions like map markers to make you feel like a real explorer – of the world around you, and of yourself.
1. Before Your Eyes
You’re dead, and looking back over the story of your life. Blink. Every time you blink, time moves forward. It’s a shame I can’t delve into how deep this mechanic is intertwined with the story without giving away spoilers, but the more you blink tears out of your eyes, the faster time moves past you. Blink. And no matter how hard you try, you’ll have to blink eventually. Time marches ever on. Blink. Are the tears in your eyes because of the story unfolding in front of you, or because you’re trying desperately and futilely to keep your eyelids from closing even for a second for fear of time passing and your memories being lost forever? Blink.
It’s rare that you come across a brand new game mechanic. Like really brand new, that you’ve never experienced before. The most recent for me was probably shaking the DualShock to charge up your torch in The Last of Us, and the little rattle that came from the controller. Now, I’m not saying Before Your Eyes is as good as The Last of Us. I’m saying it’s better. An adept exploration of memory and how we will be remembered, the story is more than equal to the unique manner of controlling the timeline. I won’t spoil any more, but I urge you to take a couple of hours out of your day to blink your way through Before Your Eyes, the best game I played this year, or possibly longer.
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