it has been, once again, a year. Set aside the pandemic and you still had the chip shortage, console resellers, and the seemingly never-ending saga of Activision Blizzard. While a few of the year's most anticipated games were pushed back to 2022 (like Elden Ring and Horizon Forbidden West), there were still a lot of great games released in 2021.
From indies to AAA titles, mobile games to PC and console, here are the games that got us through the madness. They're definitely worth checking out.
Courtesy of Arkane
DeathloopPlatforms: PS5, PC
$60 $35 at PC, PlayStation
I was on the Deathloop train long before the game’s September 2021 release, and I’m still on it today. I know the hype cycle moved on from it pretty quickly—and don’t get me wrong, Deathloop isn’t a perfect game—but there’s a lot to love in this time-looping, mod-aesthetic stealth shooter, and I think it deserves a place on everyone’s Games of the Year list.
Maybe it’s just my absolute love for the post-'60s modern aesthetic that the game embraced. Or maybe it’s the absolute joy I felt seeing not one but two Black lead characters in the game at a time when the decision to include them is more important than ever. (Mixed in with a pinch of starry-eyed joy from the little Black boy who still lives in my heart, wishing he could see himself as the protagonist of anything, much less a big, popular action game like this.) But the game took me on the kind of interactive journey that a lot of people like me don’t get to experience that often.
Beyond that, though, it’s just a solid game and brought my mind rushing back to the days when I would load quick-save after quick-save playing Dishonored. I toggled between my instinct to cut into a level like a hot knife of death and destruction through the soft butter of the game’s levels and my better sense, reminding myself of the consequences of doing so—and to keep to the shadows for everyone’s sake, including mine later on in the game. If you’ve played it, I hope you pick it up again and enjoy it. If you haven’t, don’t let the restless hype machine fool you—this one has staying power, and it’s worth your time.
COURTESY OF PLAYSTATION
Death Stranding: Director's CutPlatforms: PS5
$50 $37 at PlayStation
Like Pathologic, Death Stranding is one of those games that hits way harder during a pandemic. Kojima’s only mildly divisive masterwork stars a package delivery man as the sole hero able to keep an isolated world together, while everyone is stuck inside, disconnected from the outside world except through a futuristic internet. It came out in November 2019.
Two years later, Death Stranding Director’s Cut offers a chance to revisit the story with fresh eyes—and it’s much easier to overlook the game’s flaws now. The simple, cathartic challenge of figuring out how to walk from one place to another, with peaceful, gorgeous landscapes as your only entertainment on the way, strikes somewhat more optimistically now. When a couple in an isolated bunker enthusiastically thanks you for stopping by with a package of supplies and a way to download some new movies, it touches a nerve that wasn’t quite as raw in 2019.
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Director’s Cut adds new game mode options like stealth missions and race tracks, as well as new buildable structures like jump ramps and a cargo catapult. But if I’m honest, I could live without these additions. What I appreciate more is a chance to revisit an environment that prizes those little connections—the strands, if you will—between us all.
Courtesy of ZA/UM
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is a fantastic game to play late at night with a comfy pair of headphones. As a cigarette-craving detective, you attempt to solve a grotesque murder through Dungeons & Dragons-inspired gameplay. It was first released in 2019, but a new edition expands the voice acting and spotlights an enchanting performance by Lenval Brown.
If you want to avoid long load times, opt to play the game on a more powerful console or PC instead of the Nintendo Switch. The mature content and sharp satire may not be for everyone, but the electric narrative of Disco Elysium: The Final Cut captured my full attention in a year stuffed to the brim with distractions.
Also, check out WIRED’s interview with the game designer for a more in-depth look at Disco Elysium.
COURTESY OF YOUTHCAT STUDIO
Dyson Sphere ProgramPlatforms: PCBuy at PC
I have never felt more German than when playing Dyson Sphere Program, and I do not regret it one bit. If, like me, your idea of a good time is making processes slightly more efficient, then this is the game for you.
Released into early access for PC in January, Dyson Sphere Program is a space factory simulation game. Yes, you heard me. In this game, you pilot a mecha on distant fictional planets and use it to collect resources. You then use these resources to build machines and conveyor belts and all sorts of other goodies—including researching new technologies, which you can use to upgrade your machines and conveyor belts so they work just that little bit faster, so that you can research a bit faster, and—well, you get the point. While it has a ways to go until it's completely polished—there are a number of funny or slightly off in-game descriptions—it's still thoroughly enjoyable in early access.
In a chaotic world, setting everything in order and making progress in Dyson Sphere Program is oddly very satisfying. And maybe a touch addicting. You’ve been warned.
Courtesy of Xbox Game Studios
Halo InfinitePlatforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC$60 at Amazon (Xbox)
This was a nostalgic year—mostly because we had to come to terms with the fact that the pandemic will just not end. The only true way of escaping it is through memories of the Before Times. In this bleak vein, the games I enjoyed this year were games that made me feel like a kid again. One was Age of Empires IV, with its resurrection and refinement of the still-golden gameplay of Age of Empires II. And the other is Halo Infinite.
In a year when shooters like Deathloop and Returnal took creative risks, I enjoyed that Halo Infinite played like Halo 3, the last Halo game I played religiously. (Specifically, Halo Infinite’s multiplayer; I’m not really a campaign person.) Playing with old friends, many of whom have not played games for years, has been a truly great experience. The combat is smooth and compelling; the maps are awesomely designed. And, yes, the progression system is horrendous, but it's getting less horrendous as the developer, 343 Industries, responds diligently to criticism. And now 343 has put in a dedicated playlist for SWAT …
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Courtesy of Frontier Developments
Build a zoo, fill it with dinosaurs, and cross your fingers that nothing will go horribly wrong. (It will, of course.)
This sequel to the 2018 dino management sim Jurassic World Evolution offers a thematic twist to the usual theme park simulator formula. Rather than operating your Jurassic parks solely for profit and entertainment, you're tasked with coordinating a series of damage control and rescue missions. Wild dinos now roam the modern globe, and it's your job to try to corral the prehistoric returnees before they wreak too much havoc on the world’s supposed apex predators (us).
I knew this game would be a roaring good time by the second campaign mission, when a CIA agent demands that you stop some rampaging carnotaurus from fleeing to Canada. The tone throughout the game strikes a wonderful balance between cozy building sim and carnivorous lunacy. It's the perfect pastime for someone who never grew out of their dinosaur phase.
Construct habitats to suit the varying needs of each picky critter, take care of their health problems, and generally just make sure they’re not too freaked out by this strange new world they find themselves in. For some moments of genuine serenity, hop behind the wheel of a ranger mobile and drive through herds of triceratops grazing out in the wilderness of Washington state. Then, the next thing you know, a tornado has whipped through your park, toppled a fence, and now a T. rex is eating every human in sight.
COURTESY OF RIOT GAMES
I’ve been waiting until Wild Rift is out of open beta to officially review it, but I’ve played it nearly every day since it became available in March. Back in 2012, I installed League of Legends on my computer and was immediately hooked. Eventually, the game (and its often toxic community) grew stale, and developer Riot Games did too.
While Riot is still facing some scrutiny, its mobile game Wild Rift is like a breath of fresh air—and better than traditional LoL in nearly every way. There are some differences between the two, like shorter matches and fewer champions, but so far Wild Rift is the most robust mobile game I’ve ever played. The objective is the same as the desktop version: destroy your opponents’ Nexus before they destroy yours. But the gameplay, and the community, couldn’t feel more different.
It’s easy to earn new champions and try them for free in low-pressure settings. It’s also easy to mute the errant tilted troll or two. There are tons of events and frequent free rewards, plus intuitive customizable controls and settings to adjust the player interface. Wild Rift is fast, frenzied, and way too much fun—even if you’re a support main, and even if you’re playing on your phone.
COURTESY OF GAME MILL ENTERTAINMENT
There’s no reason for Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl to be as good as it is. But as they say, “Only '90s kids will understand.”
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is like Super Smash Bros, but with Reptar (Rugrats), CatDog (CatDog), and over a dozen other beloved characters from nostalgic Nickelodeon shows. It’s absolutely bananas to blow SpongeBob’s bubbles at space freak Invader Zim and, if you’re a try-hard, there is a special thrill that comes with Nigel Thornberry wave-dashing.
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Come for the game’s delightful '90s TV heroes, but stay for its deep and satisfying platform fighter mechanics. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is one of those low-barrier-to-entry, high-skill-ceiling games that is easy to pick up and rewarding to keep playing. And as people begin to gather again, I’ve found that it’s less intimidating to throw on the TV than Super Smash Bros, or any other competitive game. Everyone has fun with it, even if they suck, and that’s the best sort of game.
Courtesy of Humble Games
Who would have thought that a semi-puzzle game about taking things out of boxes and putting them in the right places in your home would be so heartwarming, charming, and emotional? I certainly didn’t.
When I stumbled on Unpacking—long before it was the stream-favorite, award-winning indie game it turned out to be—I thought it would be a fun little chill game to play on our Twitch channel while chatting with the folks who come by to hang out. What I got was a masterclass in environmental storytelling. Each box you unpack, each move your character makes, and each home they try to build for themselves tells you a lot about them—where they are in their lives, what they do for work, for fun, and who they spend their time with and why.
I absolutely refuse to spoil any elements of the game for you, but it can be played in one sitting (if you push it) and two if you take it slow—or if you like to linger, as I do, as long as you like—and it’s incredibly rewarding. Wait—I’ll spoil one thing: If anyone ever tells you there’s no room for your framed diploma in your new shared home, it’s a red flag. That’s all.
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