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Ars Technica’s top 20 video games of 2021 – Ars Technica

In the world of video games, 2021 may forever be remembered as the year of COVID’s great reckoning. 2020 was already rough, but many of its biggest games were mostly completed in a normal development cycle. Projects slated for the following year weren’t as lucky.

Thus, this year’s gaming news was rich with delays, piping-hot launches, unfinished messes, and game publishers scrambling to fill their schedules with undercooked backup plans. And that says nothing about gamers themselves, wondering if crucial chips and parts might ever be plentiful enough again so they can buy the latest in console and PC gear.

Yet against all odds, fantastic games still crossed 2021’s finish line, ranging from big-budget behemoths to surprising indies. This year, in an effort to reduce ranking-based ire and celebrate every game on our list, we’re removing numbered rankings, with the exception of crowning a formal Ars Technica pick for Best Video Game of 2021 at the list’s very end.

This alphabetical-order list includes everything from breathless praise to caveat-filled considerations, but each game’s ability to crack this 20-strong list is, in our opinion, indication enough that each game merits a second look.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Setting xenos on fire is my new favorite way to pass the time.
Enlarge / Setting xenos on fire is my new favorite way to pass the time.
Cold Iron Studios

Aliens: Fireteam Elite

PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, Best Buy, PSN, Xbox, Steam

If you’re a regular Ars reader with a decently powerful PC or game console and hot opinions about the convergence of Ridley Scott, HR Giger, and Dan O’Bannon, you’ll likely find something to love about the first truly fun co-op game in the Aliens universe. Fireteam Elite keeps it simple: you and two friends use gadgets and big guns to take out waves of even bigger foes, mostly in the form of xenos but eventually with Working Joes in the mix.

How does such a simple pitch compete with dozens of other co-op shooters on consoles and PC? AFE lands on this year-end list not because of refreshing new ideas but because of solid execution. Cold Iron Studios strikes a careful balance between twisty battle-arena design, compelling enemy patterns, interesting co-op strategy options, and variable combat pacing, while stringing together a lengthy, varied campaign with increasingly dire stakes that (shocker) Weyland-Yutani has made a mess of. During each campaign mission, momentum rises and falls in a way that perfectly befits leaving your mic on and catching up with your squadmates between intense firefights, while class-specific perks and weapons force teammates to keep tabs on each other and interact meaningfully.

The latter quality stands in stark contrast to the lonely feeling I get in Back 4 Blood, a 2021 co-op combat candidate that struggles to catalyze collaboration between squadmates. I need more reasons to interact with online gaming teammates in 2021, not fewer. AFE gets this right in a nicely executed package, even if its difficulty spikes will likely push your squad to die-and-retry extremes.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Flipping past a technicolor dinosaur in a shiny, blue sports car: that's the <em>Cruis'n Blast</em> lifestyle at work.
Enlarge / Flipping past a technicolor dinosaur in a shiny, blue sports car: that’s the Cruis’n Blast lifestyle at work.

Cruis’n Blast

Switch | Buy at: Best Buy, Target, Nintendo eShop

Many racing games have crises of identity; they commit to neither realism nor ridiculousness and wind up nowhere. This is not the case with Cruis’n Blast, which embraces the loud, garish, and playful spirit of the arcade to its fullest. This makes sense: the game was originally developed as an arcade exclusive in 2017 before being ported to the Switch this past September.

Cruis’n Blast is purely devoted to speed. You never have to take your finger off the accelerator once you’ve pressed the gas. When you hit a wall, you don’t stop; your car simply does a 360-degree spin and keeps pushing onward. There is no mini-map in the bottom corner, because even when you’re turning, the only direction you go is forward. This is a game where you can still zoom straight at 145 miles per hour while drifting and angling your car sideways. It’s all lovingly absurd: you can drive a tank or hammerhead shark and race through dinosaur-ridden jungles or UFO-invaded cities. You can drift and pop wheelies in a stealth chopper (complete with accompanying car engine noises). You can do a barrel roll.

There’s no online multiplayer—though there is split-screen for up to four players, which Ars appreciates—and plenty of other racing games have more cars and tracks. (Forza Horizon 5, which nearly made our 2021 list, is a better bet on that front.) Each race is more of a ride than a competition: the AI has a heavy rubber-banding effect, and every track has scripted events that occur right on cue. Winning is about using your nitrous oxide at the right time and doing Mario Kart drift-boosts as often as possible, not taking turns correctly. Still, playing Cruis’n Blast is a rush, each race a two-minute burst of effects and colors and mayhem. You get in and go, and the game never pretends to be something it’s not. It’s a big, honking, joyous dose of unreality.

Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor

Isometric traversal, puzzles, and combat with gorgeously rendered creatures await you in the 2021 gaming delight <em>Death's Door</em>.
Enlarge / Isometric traversal, puzzles, and combat with gorgeously rendered creatures await you in the 2021 gaming delight Death’s Door.

Death’s Door

PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: GOGSteamNintendo eShopPSNXbox

As you scroll through this list, currently arranged in alphabetical order, you’ll find other games that arguably breathe more life into familiar gameplay conventions than Death’s Door does. By the time you get through roughly 15 minutes of this top-down adventure game, you’ll likely remark on its fusion of Zelda-like traversal and puzzles and Dark Souls-like mix of brutal battles, dodge-and-attack mechanics, and dead enemies’ spirits as currency.

But as 2021 wound down to a close, we at Ars couldn’t let go of Death’s Door as a top-notch spit-shine of both combined concepts, much in the way that 2017’s Hollow Knight took our breath away as a familiar-yet-brilliant retread of all things Metroidvania. Death’s Door coaxes its players along with a Tim Burton-caliber plot about faking like the grim reaper, but the real fun comes from how the studio Acid Nerve, which previously released Titan Quest, combines masterful combat controls with gorgeously rendered stop-motion-like worlds and monsters. So what if it’s familiar—when the execution is this snappy to play and gorgeous to look at?

Even better, after its debut earlier this year on PC and Xbox, Death’s Door has since trickled down to Nintendo Switch in the form of a solid 30 fps port—and we can’t say the same for other similar games on this year’s best-of list. So if your year-end gaming plans will largely be spent on Switch, perhaps because you’re lugging one along on vacation, you’re better off committing to Death’s Door than Nintendo’s own Switch-exclusive 2021 re-release of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Goldeneye 007 (remastered Xbox 360 edition)

The <em>Goldeneye 007</em> remake project, made for Xbox 360 consoles and then canceled, is now in our hands. Yes, that's a higher-res version of N64-era Pierce Brosnan, aiming and shooting at us in much higher resolution than in 1997.
Enlarge / The Goldeneye 007 remake project, made for Xbox 360 consoles and then canceled, is now in our hands. Yes, that’s a higher-res version of N64-era Pierce Brosnan, aiming and shooting at us in much higher resolution than in 1997.

It shouldn’t have been this way. Goldeneye 007‘s top-to-bottom remaster should have launched years ago as an easily purchased downloadable game, with all involved parties shaking hands and making millions of dollars.

Instead, fans have been left with awkward access to Rare’s N64 classic, as retouched for the Xbox 360 over a decade ago. An ethically dubious leak of the project’s near-final code, playable on either modded 360 consoles or PC emulators, is better than nothing, but we can’t tell you how to find and play the game. That’s an unusual pick for a year-end list.

Still, the project stands out as a tasteful combination of original assets, animation routines, retouched textures, and character models, attached to a faithful translation of the original game. Its 60 fps refresh rate, even in split-screen modes, is still hard to believe after spending so many ’90s nights tanking the N64 game’s performance with endless grenade launcher explosions. And its single-player campaign is still a refreshing reminder of Rare’s forward-thinking design vision in terms of how it reimagined the first-person shooter concept with accessible gamepad controls and tricky, course-altering objectives.

Thus, despite its iffy availability, this remaster of Goldeneye 007 merits inclusion on this year’s best games list and is one of the best versions of Goldeneye 007 ever made. Plus, in a year like 2021, we could all use a slam-dunk return to the old days of Goldeneye‘s brilliance. And this outweighs the weirdness of how exactly it arrived. For more on how the Xbox 360 port got made, then canceled, check out my interview with some of its original devs. And if you somehow manage to source a copy of the remaster, look for the Community Edition Updater as a way to smooth out some kinks left in this project’s near-final code.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Halo Infinite

PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, Xbox, Steam

Did you notice all of the big, unwieldy first-person shooter games that came out in 2021? Ars Technica sure did. We wrote about many of them, usually with heaping helpings of bug reports, missing features, badly paced campaigns, and general disappointment.

Supercharged powers and stylish designs may make you optimistic about <em>Deathloop</em>, but upon further review, this journey is rougher than you might expect.
Enlarge / Supercharged powers and stylish designs may make you optimistic about Deathloop, but upon further review, this journey is rougher than you might expect.
Bethesda

As an “honorable mention,” I’ll clarify that the best first-person shooter to miss Ars Technica’s year-end list is Deathloop, an ambitious time-loop evolution of Arkane’s Dishonored series. Some of Deathloop‘s ideas are fantastic, but those highlights couldn’t save the total uneven package at launch. While Arkane and Bethesda have since patched the game’s previously lacking AI, I’m still left unimpressed and annoyed by how the game plays. In particular, the game regularly snatches creativity away from sneak-and-assault players, and its plot hinges on awkwardly chained-together, hyperbolized characters. The game has brilliance and polish, at least, and it doesn’t suffer from sprawl, but it still feels like a game that got cut down at the last minute to make it out the door in 2021.

On that final point, I could say the same about a game that did make our list, Halo Infinite—that its meager open-world portion feels like a shadow of a larger, original scale and that some copied-and-pasted sections in the campaign and bizarrely one-sided narrative beats suggest other creative cuts that were made to finish the fight. I will probably always wonder how much bigger and more compelling certain parts of Infinite‘s campaign might have turned out if production had been more efficient or less interrupted by COVID. (Perhaps I’ll cool my jets on that front whenever Infinite‘s co-op functionality is finally patched in, assuming the current “May 2022” estimate is actually feasible.)

Chief and "The Weapon" bond through adversity in <em>Halo Infinite</em>—and not just in the game's plot or firefights.
Enlarge / Chief and “The Weapon” bond through adversity in Halo Infinite—and not just in the game’s plot or firefights.
Xbox Game Studios / 343 Industries

But there’s no getting around the fact that Halo Infinite‘s campaign, even as a solo-only adventure as of this list’s publication, is the best game from current Halo handlers 343 Industries. And if that sounds like faint praise, I can add that it’s legitimately fun, as anchored by the series’ best weapon spread yet, along with a thoughtfully executed slate of special abilities (way better than Halo 5‘s silly dash-melee gimmick) that is headlined by the series-changing grappling hook. I love when Infinite‘s open-world sections open up to offer a mix of vehicles, grappling bounces up walls, and multi-faceted assaults on divinely designed enemy outposts. I love how it mines Halo CE‘s revolutionary wide-linear missions inside of a modern combat ecosystem. And on a plot level, I love how Master Chief and his AI companion play off of each other throughout the campaign’s combat and discoveries.

But wait, there’s more: Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer mode lops all of the cool stuff from the campaign and puts it into a rad, free-as-in-beer sandbox, which currently rocks in terms of combat modes and arena options (with more to come whenever the series’ “Forge” functionality arrives, hopefully by May 2022). Matchmaking and progression issues at launch may have felt annoying to anyone used to a F2P game’s grind for cosmetics and experience points, but it sounds like 343 is responding to fans and scrambling to deliver a better experience there. As someone who plays Halo for the fun, not the outfits, I am through the, uh, Zeta Halo about how it works. In particular, I can set up fantastic, seamless four-on-four combat with friends, either online or through system link, without anyone having to pay a single penny.

What’s more, each of my friends can join me via Xbox, Steam, the Windows Store, or even a high-speed online connection and Xbox Game Streaming on a cheapo netbook. Twenty-years-ago Ars Technica would have never believed that one.

Thus, the entire Halo Infinite package delivers enough to merit placement on our year-end list as the best first-person shooter of 2021, whether accessed through the fully free multiplayer side or the uneven-yet-satisfying campaign.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

How many people can we assassinate from the very top of a Dubai skyscraper? Agent 47 seems poised to find out in the opening mission of <em>Hitman 3</em>.
Enlarge / How many people can we assassinate from the very top of a Dubai skyscraper? Agent 47 seems poised to find out in the opening mission of Hitman 3.

Hitman 3

PC, Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Stadia | Buy at: Amazon, Humble, Nintendo eShop, PSN, Xbox, Stadia

IO Interactive’s Hitman trilogy is funny: not because these stealth-action games tell jokes—though sometimes they do, and those are usually good—but because they understand the inherent absurdity of trying to make a video game player feel cool.

Here’s the setup: you’re Agent 47, the world’s most ruthless and efficient assassin, the slayer of power abusers, the professional killer who always gets his man. Go back and watch the reveal trailer for the first game in this series—it’s downright sexy.

Which makes the reality all the more hilarious: you, the person controlling 47, are still you. You’re not sexy. And when you first dig into the interlocking Rube Goldberg machine that is a Hitman level, you have absolutely no clue what you’re doing. So you screw up, again and again. You miss key opportunities; you accidentally wander into restricted areas; you set off alarms; you run away scared; you get shot; you kill innocent witnesses in a panic. Sometimes you disguise yourself as a Florida Man or a big flamingo to save your hide. Mastery of these levels always comes with time, but Hitman is interesting because it teases the idea of James Bond, only to reiterate you’re Frank Drebin.

At its core, Hitman 3 is more of this, so it has many things going for it. It does take some risks, though. Sometimes, those work: one level set in a Berlin nightclub almost totally does away with player hints, leveraging the player’s usual cluelessness for high tension in the process. Other times, the risks really don’t work: a linear slog of a final level is easily the most misguided in the trilogy. In general, the game goes harder on the overarching “47-vs-the-Illuminati” plot, which I can’t imagine many people genuinely care about. (I sure don’t.)

Hitman 3 is a bit more linear than its predecessors as a result—though the array of free content added to the game over the course of 2021, designed to tease out even more macabre laughs, helps. But even if it’s not the best Hitman, it’s still Hitman, which means it can’t help but be weird and goofy and entertaining most of the time.

Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor

Inscryption launch trailer.

Inscryption

PC | Buy at: GOG, Steam, Humble

Build a deck of virtual playing cards. Use its randomly dealt contents as tools in battle against virtual enemies. Earn more cards, face greater challenges, and adapt with a mix of hard strategy and randomly shuffled luck until you reach the top of a challenge mountain.

We’ve been down this road a lot in recent years, ever since Slay the Spire translated the addictive qualities of Magic: The Gathering into a progression track that makes more sense for single-player video games. While Slay-like clones have proven fun and unique in their own right, I’ve been holding out for something that transforms the concept with both truly revised gameplay and oodles of style. In 2021, this genre finally got its jolt in the form of the gritty, moody Inscryption.

On a mechanical level, Inscryption differentiates itself with a “sacrifice” system at its core. The cards in your deck often demand that your existing cards be temporarily destroyed, which can come in the form of “blood” (remove cards that you’ve already put on the board in order to put a new, stronger one on the board), “bones” (if your opponent killed one of your cards, it becomes a skeleton that can be spent on your future cards), and more. Thus, you must constantly account for a circle of death while populating a small army on a grid-shaped table, primed to attack the cards directly in front of them or, even better, directly attack the person dealing those cards.

But while that sounds Magic-like, the health system is quite different. The object of each match is to tip a series of scales in your favor, which reflect both your health and your opponent’s. Each successful attack dealt directly to your opponent puts stones on their side of the scale, and once the scale touches their side of the table, they die. Same with you. Thus, either player “heals” by reversing the direction the scale is going.

There’s much, much more to how Inscryption mechanically differs from other card-like games, but the other big difference is how the game’s trappings toy with you. You always face off against a glowing-eyed narrator who can transform into different personalities, pull out new cards, and taunt you in new, darkly hilarious ways. Between your card-battling successes, you can get up and explore the room you’re trapped in by walking around in virtual 3D space. This not only tugs away at the plot’s strings but also includes puzzles that open up new gameplay possibilities when solved.

Going any further gets into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say, Inscryption has quickly become an Ars office favorite. It’s the most clever spin on virtual card combat since Slay the Spire shook up the genre, and it comes highly recommended on our year-end list.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

<em>It Takes Two</em> requires a second player to function, either in person or via playing online, and the game will always show both players' views on each screen. Here, we see a duo working together with two slightly different types of guns.
Enlarge / It Takes Two requires a second player to function, either in person or via playing online, and the game will always show both players’ views on each screen. Here, we see a duo working together with two slightly different types of guns.

It Takes Two

PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, TargetHumble, Steam, PSN, Xbox

Watching his many interviews and appearances over the years, you get the sense that Josef Fares, the head of Hazelight Studios and he of “f— the Oscars” fame, doesn’t like to sit still. His team’s latest game, the co-op-only platformer It Takes Two, exudes that spirit. One moment you’re shooting explosive tree sap at killer wasps, the next you’re navigating a makeshift plane to safety, then you’re platforming in a 2D anti-gravity zone, then you’re reversing time to solve environmental puzzles. The good-hearted if clumsy narrative and asymmetric co-op play want to make this a game about the importance of patience and empathy in a functional relationship. They do, to an extent, but what It Takes Two is mostly about is one thing after another.

It Takes Two has trouble getting out of its own way. That narrative—about an unhappy couple forced to resolve their issues while trapped in the bodies of miniature dolls—is all over the place tonally, and many levels drag their genre-shifting ideas out for a third too long. Also, be warned: if you hear “cartoony co-op” and expect something you can share with young kids, I urge you to screen certain spoiler-filled YouTube moments first.

But most of the time, Hazelight’s co-op ideas are good. Movement has an “airy” quality, arguably bouncier than an average Mario hit but just as responsive, and there’s a whimsy to seeing how the next setting turns the mundane into the fantastical. What you’re doing often does speak to what the narrative is trying to say. It’s fun, mostly. The result is a game that lacks a clear identity but makes for a good theme park. And theme parks are always best enjoyed with a buddy.

Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor

The prettier side of <em>Kena: Bridge of Spirits</em>.
Enlarge / The prettier side of Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

PC, PS4, PS5 | Buy at: Amazon, TargetEpic, PSN

Ember Lab’s debut game embraces the core of what makes Zelda games special, yet it finds unique magic by reimagining Nintendo’s tunic-clad hero as a supercharged teenage grim reaper—and delivers the tight, combat-filled “dark Zelda” game I’ve been wanting for years.

The game’s storytelling thrust gives it a leg up in the Zelda-like genre, and Ember Lab’s expertise at CGI animation has arguably prepared the team to tuck storytelling details into a video game world. Here, players can understand and experience Kena‘s thematic and narrative thrust through exploration, not picking through text-filled diaries. This emphasis frees players to get to know Kena‘s range of battle and exploratory abilities, as broken down with the help of Pikmin-like critters and trippy puzzle-solving opportunities.

Though the game keeps its scope tight at roughly 15 hours of adventuring, Ember Labs still manages to pack in surprising environment variety, wild boss battles, a Spotify-worthy score, and truly memorable paths of traversal, combat, and discovery. I have to imagine a Kena sequel could be even more ambitious, but Ember Labs’ debut game doesn’t necessarily play it safe—and makes it easy to invest in, and fall for, the studio’s brand-new universe of adventure and discovery.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

You can practically hear the sound of a giant rubber ball smacking against a poor shlub in this capture from the thrilling online multiplayer game <em>Knockout City</em>.
Enlarge / You can practically hear the sound of a giant rubber ball smacking against a poor shlub in this capture from the thrilling online multiplayer game Knockout City.

Knockout City

PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, Humble, Nintendo eShop, PSN, Xbox

Knockout City is the best team-deathmatch game I’ve played in years. It celebrates and elevates the genre’s roots in ways that make me think I’ve somehow reinstalled my old Voodoo2 GPU. And the game elevates this familiar format all under the guise of family-friendly dodgeball.

The above paragraph comes from my May review of the game, and it still applies to a healthy online battling ecosystem, as boosted by a consistent cadence of updated arenas and gameplay modes. Everywhere you turn in this game, teams can expect a rock-paper-scissors split between various battling strategies, and this has kept the game’s balance and meta fresh, instead of those aspects succumbing to, say, “dodgeball from above” attacks as overpowered spam.

In other words: as a publisher, EA did not “EA” this game into a mess of microtransactions or fracture the community with bad production decisions. I do wish the game had received an update by now with split-screen modes on more powerful current-gen consoles to make it easier for parents and kids to come together within this cartoony, E-10-rated universe, but that general wish seems to fall on deaf ears with every major gaming publisher these days, not just EA. (And with cross-play, you can scale your multiplayer sessions with friends on everything from high-end PCs to the Nintendo Switch.) Other than my split-screen quibble, I have no complaints about the continued support and fun I’ve found within the primary-color candyland that is Knockout City. I heartily suggest anyone who loves the grittiest, gun-filled online combat consider this a divinely designed alternative.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Loop Hero

PC, Switch | Buy at: GOG, Steam, HumbleNintendo eShop

After nearly writing off this March 2021 game as another uninspired, lo-fi indie game, I decided—admittedly, upon a colleague’s prodding—to give Loop Hero a spin. Pretty quickly, I discovered a fascinating twist on the “idle” genre—thanks to how it gives players significant choices, secrets, upgrades, and even a compelling narrative. The results won’t be everyone’s cup of barely interactive tea, but if you like the idea of a “second monitor” game with tasteful dashes of tower defense and deckbuilding, you should seriously consider running Loop Hero in the background of your nerdy life.

To be clear, Loop Hero does require regular check-ins for players to succeed, as opposed to some of the lowest-maintenance idle-genre classics. But that difference makes this a more ideal entry point for anyone who might otherwise shrug their shoulders at the very inactive idle genre.

Every session I’ve played thus far has vacillated between simple comfort and tense experimentation, since success and failure alike hinge on a tower defense-like system of reacting to new boosts and problems, as attached to a never-ending loop of terrain that the game’s hero marches over. Whenever I alt-tab back to my progress, it’s an opportunity to obsess over whether my current equipped-item loadout is going to work on my current path. Maybe I began one attempt with a Dracula-style loadout, but now that the road has shifted, should I invest in more “vampiric” power to keep my health level stable, or should I keep my fingers crossed that I find other landmark-related ways to stay in the green?

By the end of a run, after erecting enough landmarks to make a “boss” monster appear, the game takes on a whole new level of last-minute management and second-guessing about how I reached this point. I should’ve combined certain landmarks earlier! I mutter to myself. I should’ve spread out my most dangerous monster encounters! Which is to say: even though the game looks like it plays itself, your choices and reactions throughout a given section are easy to learn and tricky enough to hide serious, gotta-try-again depth. That sensation only grows as you unlock more of the game’s classes, which each demand an entirely new approach to survival.

If you’ve found that your new work-from-home life has space for a game on a secondary screen, consider Loop Hero a surprisingly engaging option to pick up before you head back to the virtual office next year.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

The new EMMI droid can kill longtime space bounty hunter Samus Aran in one blow. Your job in <em>Metroid Dread</em> is to make sure that doesn't happen.
Enlarge / The new EMMI droid can kill longtime space bounty hunter Samus Aran in one blow. Your job in Metroid Dread is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Metroid Dread

Switch | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Nintendo eShop

Remember when seeing a “game over” screen used to mean something? Metroid Dread does a surprisingly effective job of capturing that panicky, better-game-carefully feeling without throwing out years of progress in game design or pacing.

The key to this feeling of (ahem) dread is the series’ new “EMMI” chambers and the hulking, nearly invincible automatons they contain. A single touch from an EMMI means almost certain death, so their relentless approach ratchets up the platforming peril in a way that’s uncommon to the Metroid series, even in boss battles. While the result of an EMMI abduction isn’t starting the game over from the very beginning, the prospect of starting an EMMI chamber over for the 10th time (after being discovered in your ineffective hiding place) can feel similar.

Thankfully, the rest of the game isn’t this tense. Outside of the EMMI chambers, Nintendo’s best game of the year delivers an action-heavy take on Metroid‘s threat-filled, maze-like corridors. Metroid Dread is probably the best-paced game in the series, gently nudging players toward their next objectives and path-enabling power-ups rather than forcing them to search high and low for a single, newly breakable block they overlooked three hours ago. Then, just when you’re getting into that map-expanding flow, a well-placed boss battle or EMMI chamber ratchets up the tension enough to keep you on your toes.

I’ll admit I gave up on Metroid Dread at the final boss, which is a punishing endurance test that spikes the difficulty beyond even the hardest parts of the rest of the game. Up until that point, though, Metroid Dread was the most fun I’d had on my Switch all year.

—Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

This image, as captured on Nintendo Switch during gameplay, is pretty representative of the average <em>MHR</em> graphical experience on Switch. In particular, the textures on walls aren't great, and the resolution of that water reflection is pretty abysmal. But the monsters and heroes look clear, and they animate at a mostly steady 30 fps during crucial combat segments.
Enlarge / This image, as captured on Nintendo Switch during gameplay, is pretty representative of the average MHR graphical experience on Switch. In particular, the textures on walls aren’t great, and the resolution of that water reflection is pretty abysmal. But the monsters and heroes look clear, and they animate at a mostly steady 30 fps during crucial combat segments.

Monster Hunter Rise

Switch | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Nintendo eShop

Monster Hunter games have a pretty simple gameplay loop: hunt a big dinosaur-like monster, kill that monster, carve up the monster to get crafting materials, use those materials to forge increasingly powerful weapons and armor, and then use that gear to kill even bigger monsters. Repeat dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of times. Monster Hunter Rise hews to this formula, but it introduces new mechanics that address some longstanding series concerns.

An understandable complaint about Monster Hunter games is that the movement and combat have historically been plodding. Thankfully, Rise brings in two additions that speed up both. First is the Palamute, a canine version of Monster Hunter’s iconic (and charming) feline Palico companions. Not only will your Palamute help you out in battle, but he or she also serves as your mount. Whizzing around maps has never been easier or more fun. (It is also an unassailable truth that dogs are better than cats.)

Secondly, we have the game’s new “wirebugs,” which we described in our review as “mystical grappling hooks.” They allow you to fwip around like Spider-Man during combat, opening up a ton of tactical options as you maneuver around your fearsome quarry. New wirebug-enhanced abilities add even more oomph to the combos baked into your weaponry. Best of all, a well-timed “wirebug recovery” move lets you swing back into action when you get knocked around by a giant monster paw.

Naturally, the visuals aren’t on par with the previous mainline game, Monster Hunter World, but Capcom was able to deliver some genuinely impressive graphics on the Switch. Importantly, the game runs at an almost-locked 30 fps. Monster Hunter games and portable gaming systems go together like blazenuts and nulberries (that’s good), so the Switch is a perfect home for your monster-slaying adventuring.

It’s still a Monster Hunter game, with all the complicated menus and complex movesets that entails, but the series is more approachable than it’s ever been. Rise is also the best Monster Hunter game to date.

The game gets a PC launch on January 12, and an expansion, called Sunbreak, arrives next summer.

—Aaron Zimmerman, Copy Chief

"NERTS!" has been shouted, ending a round of the new, free Zachtronics game <em>Nerts!</em>. But how did we get here?
Enlarge / “NERTS!” has been shouted, ending a round of the new, free Zachtronics game Nerts!. But how did we get here?

Nerts

PC | Buy at: Steam

My affinity for Nerts existed well before its surprise free release on Steam at the beginning of the year. I first knew the card game as Pounce, the same game by a different name that I learned to play with a real set of cards among a group of friends years ago.

Like those friends, I quickly became addicted to Pounce/Nerts/Racing Demon. The game plays out like competitive Solitaire, forcing players to split attention between a private stack of cards (which alternate in the familiar red/black pattern) and shared stacks of suited sequences in the middle (which force players to compete for speed and positioning). While the basic strategy is simple enough to quickly learn, the reflexes and situational awareness that separate good players from bad ones can be honed endlessly. Yet thanks to the game’s randomly dealt nature, even novices have a chance against experienced experts.

Randomness turns Nerts into a true “one more game” compulsion, especially when playing with friends instead of strangers. Nerts has actually ended up being one of my most-played games of 2021 on Steam thanks to its role as an early ice-breaker during the weekly virtual game nights I’ve been hosting with remote friends during the pandemic. It’s a group favorite because of its low-key, stress-free parallel play, sprinkled with just enough interpersonal interaction to get even introverts to engage.

My main complaint about this computerized version is that it loses the physical thrill of picking up a real card and slamming it down on a central stack, microns ahead of an opponent. Clicking and dragging can never truly replace that experience. But that doesn’t stop Nerts from being my party video game of the year.

—Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

<em>Olija</em>.
Enlarge / Olija.
Devolver Digital

Olija

PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One | Buy at: Amazon, GOG, SteamNintendo eShopPSNXbox

Olija is yet another 2D action-platformer, but it uniquely excels at coaxing an air of mystery from its world. It follows Faraday, a shipwrecked lord trapped in a hostile, decaying, unknown land. He soon finds a legendary harpoon, which he can teleport to or have magically returned to him when thrown. Then he gets wrapped up in a sweeping adventure to rid the land of a hidden evil and get his crew home.

It’s a vintage “hero’s journey,” with puzzle sections, unlockable abilities, hidden areas, and boss fights. But Olija stands out in the details. It commits to presenting a foreign land and refuses to explain itself at every turn. Dialogue and music are sparse, often there to punctuate the brooding tone. Cutscenes end at off-beat times. Its flip screens are lush with expressions of history. What gave the harpoon its power? Who inhabited the skeletons hung about these caves? Why is this old ferryman helping you? The land has character, but the gaps are precisely sized. It leaves your mind room to color between the lines.

Olija isn’t difficult, but it has a real sense of place. Some screens are free of enemies or demanding jumps entirely, because sometimes, an area is just like that. While combat can have a satisfying zip and crunch, Faraday often tumbles and leaps in a way that borders on sloppy. Olija’s world isn’t there for you to master so much as it just is. It feels lived in, and died in.

At five-ish hours, Olija gets in, makes its point, and gets out. It looks crude, but it’s a throwback to games that didn’t relegate the “world-building” to checklists, audio logs, and journal entries. That’s rare nowadays.

Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor

Don't look so smug, the universe is falling apart.
Enlarge / Don’t look so smug, the universe is falling apart.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

PS5 | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, PSN

If you managed to find a PlayStation 5 this year, you probably noticed that few games take full advantage of the system’s current-gen capabilities right now. Rift Apart stands proud as one of those games, combining the “wow factor” of its warp-through-the-rift gameplay with some compelling action and strong character work.

Seeing the series’ PS2-era character designs lifted by the high-resolution HDR lighting effects of the PlayStation 5 provides a striking contrast and a stark reminder of just how far console graphics have come. The visuals pop even further when you’re bring out the “Dimensionator” gun to create a hole in the game’s universe, pull yourself through that rift, and land in a new, completely different area instantly. The sheer impact of this effect somehow never gets old over hundreds of repetitions.

Amid the visual spectacle, Rift Apart also draws a surprising amount of emotional depth from Ratchet’s interactions with Rivet, a female doppelganger who is also his first encounter with another member of his species. I was also drawn in by Kit—Rivet’s mirror-universe version of the robotic Clank—an anxiety-riddled ball of self-loathing that draws more sympathy and pathos than you’d expect from a token “robot sidekick.”

Taken together, the game’s visual and emotional heft do a lot more to merit its placement on this list than the gameplay, which is, at this point, merely par for the course for a 19-year-old series. (But, hey, it’s a fun action-blasting series, so that’s fine by me.) As a showcase for Sony’s still-young (and still hard-to-find) hardware, you could do much worse.

—Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

Unlike Housemarque's earlier games, <em>Returnal</em> cranks up the polish in the form of engaging exploration and much more intricate worlds—and they're all randomly generated.
Enlarge / Unlike Housemarque’s earlier games, Returnal cranks up the polish in the form of engaging exploration and much more intricate worlds—and they’re all randomly generated.
Sony Interactive Entertainment / Housemarque

Returnal

PS5 | Buy at: Amazon, Target, Best Buy, PSN

The PS5-exclusive Returnal combines the pure action of ’80s arcade games with the plot, production value, and world exploration of a full-blown “adventure” game. It’s as if someone at developer Housemarque looked at 1981’s Galaga running next to 2018’s God of War and said, “Can we somehow combine these two?”

The result feels like a statement game for Housemarque, arguably in the same way that 2019’s Control solidified Remedy Studios’ own reputation. At its best, Returnal delivers the studio’s finest-yet action and tension within a phenomenal 3D-shooting system. (For a company that has staked its reputation on amazing throwback arcade-shooter games, that’s very high praise.) I’ve gone to sleep thinking about the game’s best blasting moments, eager to wake up the next day and return (returnal?) for “one more run.”

The biggest catch comes from the game’s brutal approach to teaching players how hard Returnal can get. As a roguelike, Returnal can feel punishing when a death forces players to rewind after a long session, losing some (though not all) of their progress. Thankfully, Housemarque has patched this game many times since its April launch in order to make sure that its worst losses are your fault, not that of a PS5 crash. And the longer you play Returnal, the more its remarkable combat aligns with a wild, enjoyable story—as anchored by some of the best boss battles I’ve ever seen in an action game. Returnal won’t go easy on you, but anyone with the stomach for frantic die-and-retry combat should expect a once-in-a-lifetime experience out of Housemarque’s best game ever.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

You'd be surprised how much satisfaction and pathos can be derived from unpacking boxes in the simply titled <em>Unpacking</em>.
Enlarge / You’d be surprised how much satisfaction and pathos can be derived from unpacking boxes in the simply titled Unpacking.

Unpacking

PC, Switch, Xbox One | Buy at: GOG, Steam, Humble, Nintendo eShop, Xbox

In a bid for the most direct and appropriate game title ever, Unpacking is a game about unpacking boxes. Your only interaction with its colorful, isometric pixel environments is opening cardboard shipping boxes and placing the items that come out (a dish, a teddy bear, a sponge, etc.) around different rooms in a series of homes. The only thing resembling a goal comes when all of a home’s boxes are unpacked, when items placed in “inappropriate” locations flash red until you move them somewhere they “fit.”

Described so clinically, Unpacking probably sounds like the dullest game ever made. When I first heard about it, the game seemed particularly ill-suited to my mood, since I had just moved to a new home and therefore played the real-world “game” of packing and unpacking my life.

After a few minutes of testing Unpacking, I fully relented to the zen state of picking a pixellated, thoughtfully drawn knick-knack out of a virtual box and gently moving it around a virtual room to judge its aesthetic charms. Beyond the gentle, Tetris-like puzzle of finding space for everything, Unpacking elicits a feng shui satisfaction after arranging any of its rooms so everything is in its most perfect and harmonious spot. There’s even more satisfaction once the house is done, at which point the game presents a time-lapse-style replay of every item flying out of its box and into place in a matter of seconds.

Unpacking really sets itself apart in its masterful use of environmental storytelling. With barely an on-screen word, the mere act of unpacking gradually reveals details of the person whose life you’re helping to set and reset. As one spoiler-free example of what you can expect: one sequence, of moving into a tiny, ultra-modern apartment, ends with its walls so covered with brick-a-brack (from an implied new romantic partner) that there’s literally no room to hang your framed diploma, forcing you to squeeze it, unloved, into a drawer.

After playing a lot of Unpacking, I found myself taking a fresh look at my own physical space and what the items I hold onto say about me and my life. For me, no other game on this list gets close to that level of personal impact.

—Kyle Orland, Senior Gaming Editor

Fight it? Or tame it? In <em>Valheim</em>, you and your friends get to make this choice, and many others, over the span of a lengthy, randomly generated adventure.
Enlarge / Fight it? Or tame it? In Valheim, you and your friends get to make this choice, and many others, over the span of a lengthy, randomly generated adventure.

Valheim

PC | Buy at: Humble, Steam

The year began with Valheim, a Viking-themed survival-adventure game, launching as an out-of-nowhere Steam Early Access sensation. Less than two weeks after its launch, this retro-styled 3D game had racked up 2 million purchases, and even in an apparently “unfinished” state, the game has spent the rest of 2021 racking up accolades, players, and most importantly, updated content.

Maybe the throwback look of the PS1 engendered interest and adoration. Maybe the phrase “Viking survival simulator” has a certain universal appeal (we sure were tickled by the concept before playing the game even once). Or maybe Valheim filled a much-needed niche after the absolute doldrums of 2020: a virtual world with a ton of entry points that organically fosters a sense of community.

The game scales neatly to however you want to play it, which pairs with its default co-op multiplayer nature. Surviving and thriving in Valheim requires a mix of building home bases, expanding their operations to increase useful weapon and item production, and scouring a surprise-filled, procedurally generated landscape to discover rare materials and extract magical items from unique creatures and epic bosses. Maybe someone would rather hang back in town and commit to tasks like farming, item production, or manual architecture touch-ups. Maybe someone else would simply like to build and arrange elements in a makeshift town. And still others want nothing to do with those simulation aspects, eager only to solve Valheim‘s built-in mysteries and dig out its satisfying quests with not-so-subtle tools like axes and magic.

Valheim eagerly nods its helmet-adorned head “yes” to all of those playstyles and more. It’s certainly better as a community-driven co-op game, one worth renting a server for and parking your progress on, and that version of Valheim is the one I vote for as an easy member of Ars’ 2021 gaming list.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Raz is back in the long-awaited sequel <em>Psychonauts 2</em>.
Enlarge / Raz is back in the long-awaited sequel Psychonauts 2.

Ars Technica’s best game of 2021: Psychonauts 2

PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, TargetGOG, SteamPSN, Xbox

Psychonauts 2 is my no-brainer recommendation for a video game made in 2021, and that recommendation transcends my usual caveats about whether someone is experienced enough in the hobby or prefers specific genres.

The simplest explanation for that is how much humor and heart are packed into this game, since so few action-oriented games get that stuff right. Everything you do in Psychonauts 2 leads to Saturday morning cartoon-caliber whimsy, from formal cut scenes to wacky content tucked into the game’s hidden corners. Typical 3D platformers ask players to comb virtual worlds for collectibles like stars and bonus items, and Psychonauts 2 has some of those. But how often do you explore that way in a video game in search of interstitial dialogue and deeper connections with characters in your main hero’s orbit? And how often does a game constantly tease you into feeling like you earned true laughs or heart for doing so?

Everything that you do in Psychonauts 2 subtly directs your attention to this joy. Lead hero Rasputin feels easy to control and comes equipped with a diverse suite of useful telekinetic powers. Chaining these moves together opens up your ability to fully explore a series of trippy, cleverly designed levels, which surpass every generic Mario-like archetype you might expect in a cartoony gaming adventure. And your missions regularly take you to the deepest recesses of other characters’ minds, which, as a plot device, Double Fine nails all the more elegantly than in the original 2007 cult classic. You don’t need to know an iota about the original game to understand and care about this sequel’s old and new characters alike, which is greatly appreciated.

Even if you mash through the game’s spoken dialogue (which I strongly suggest you don’t), its progression and aesthetics do plenty to deliver appropriate amounts of laughs and silliness—which will butter you up for some of the most heartfelt and touching plot conclusions I’ve ever seen in a 3D platformer game. This is the unique stuff of masterfully designed video games. The game fully sells the feeling that you’re a hero whose actions fix problems and solve mysteries.

Psychonauts 2 understands how a good video game can immerse its player in a story—and builds its virtual world with remarkable depth to make sure we see only its thoughtful revelations and hilarious surprises, not frustrations and glitches. Whether you buy Psychonauts 2 outright or pick it up as a perk in Xbox Game Pass, don’t exit 2021 without letting Rasputin invade your brain and poke around in there. It’s easily legendary designer Tim Schafer’s best game yet.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Listing image by Aurich Lawson

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