HeadStuff Picks: The Best Games of 2021
2021, like any year in recorded history, was a weird one. But it’s certainly one of the weirdest in recent memory. A pandemic that was supposed to end didn’t. Billionaires that could cure world hunger or solve climate change on their own instead began a second, lamer space race. And on the gaming side of stuff things were just as weird as ever. Some companies like Ubisoft got really into and then quickly out of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Others like Activision-Blizzard saw their plans for their future go up in smoke as they faced lawsuits and open staff rebellion against a toxic workplace culture.
Things were just as surprising when it came to game releases themselves. A few highly anticipated games like Battlefield 2042 and Call of Duty: Vanguard were disappointments in that they either failed to deliver or delivered on outdated promises. Nostalgia proved popular as always with Resident Evil Village bringing the series shambling into the future while reflecting on its past. Elsewhere rogue-likes came into the mainstream with Returnal being one of the PS5’s first big exclusive smashes. Nintendo proved they still had what it took with Metroid Dread. Halo Infinite meanwhile proved to be the only big winner among FPS games this year. Indies like The Medium and Murder House showed that horror gaming had an exciting future even if Resident Evil still dominated the market. All this and more in the alphabetical list below. Be sure to let us know what you loved playing this year in the comments!
What exactly is Halo Infinite about and does it matter? I don’t know and not a bit are the respective answers. What matters is that it puts players, both new and old, back into the boots of the Master Chief and then throws them into an (almost) open world and lets them have fun with it. There’s a new A.I. companion, a new exasperated human ally and the Chief remains as sardonic as ever even if he is granted a bit more emotional heft this time around. There’s a Halo ring, a Spartan super soldier, a big, growling bad guy and – most importantly – it plays really well. Zipping around Zeta Halo on the grappling hook or trundling over hill and vale in a Scorpion tank feels great. The guns have real punch and each mini-boss is unique and challenging in their own way.
The free multiplayer is what will hook most new players in and even without its relatively inexpensive battle pass Halo Infinite is a blast to play either with friends or solo against strangers. Although right now it’s maps and modes are limited and its progression system leaves something to be desired the gameplay makes up for these flaws with its fast and frenetic energy. If that’s not enough then perhaps giving Halo Infinite the chance to become if not infinite than at least much bigger is best for the skeptical player. With co-op and Forge Mode due in May 2022 it’s safe to say that next year will be an even bigger year for Halo than this one. Andrew Carroll.
Looking at the position IO Interactive now finds itself in – a critically acclaimed and very well liked return to form for their flagship series finished, and moving onto the first 007 game in almost a decade – you’d be forgiven for thinking the last few years have been a ‘strength to strength’ story of triumph. In reality, that the World of Assassination Trilogy managed to reach its concluding chapter is a minor miracle.
Nonetheless, here we are. The third Hitman game in six years and another fine entry in this familiar format that doesn’t offer much in the way of altered gameplay but rather more new sandboxes in which to play with it. Honestly you’re likely well aware of what these games are like by now and if you’re into that or not. Everything that could have been said gameplay-wise about this game was also true of Hitman 2, this is still the definitive Hitman experience and immensely satisfying to converts of its action/puzzle/stealth machinations.
It essentially perfected its formula in the first entry and while there have been tweaks, the remaining two entries were happy and correct to simply give the players more of what they wanted and knew they liked. Hitman 3 can sometimes feel like a marathon sprinter gasping for air as they force their body over the finish line but when you look at where this franchise was immediately before the 2016 reset, this exercise has been a resounding success and Hitman 3 is a very satisfactory sticking of the landing. Richard Drumm.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition
Am I cheating? Perhaps. Do I care? Hell no it’s my gaming section. Mass Effect means more to me than almost any other game series barring maybe Resident Evil. The best thing about this newly polished version of the Mass Effect trilogy is that it brings everything – DLC, costumes, characters – together for the first time ever. No longer am I left out of the Batarians introduction on Asteroid X-57. No longer am I ignorant of the Shadow Broker’s true identity. At last I am part of a conversation that consists solely of the words Shepard, Wrex and Grunt ad infinitum.
Say what you will about BioWare, say they know how to write characters well. If we’re honest the true draw of Mass Effect, of any BioWare RPG really, was its story and characters not its combat though 2 and 3 hold up pretty well. Seeing the friendship with Garrus or Shepard’s relationship with Liara play out over three games played consistently and in a relatively short space of time feels a lot more natural than waiting two years or longer between games. What’s more this game gave me hope and the realisation that when given the right amounts of time and resources BioWare can make a brilliant game. The Citadel DLC proved that. Now we just have to hope that they can pull it off with the next Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Andrew Carroll.
Bloober Team, Bloober Team, Bloober Team… I struggle time and again to be underwhelmed by their back catalogue and The Medium is arguably their best release yet. Embracing the earliest beginnings of survival horror perfected by Resident Evil, Project Zero and Silent Hill, The Medium is a superbly crafted story driven horror that focuses primarily on emotion, atmosphere and dread.
There isn’t much combat within The Medium but that’s OK because Bloober Team are more concerned with letting this harrowing tale of trauma and abuse do the work for you. You’ll find yourself immersed in The Medium’s stellar visual cues and the heartbreaking characters that surround you. It all progresses into a final third that is one of the best in recent horror gaming and culminates in an emotional payoff that has you yearning for more. The Medium isn’t perfect by any means but if you are a horror gamer who wants a little more to chew on than just mashing the trigger then The Medium may just become one of your favourite horror experiences of the year. John Hogan.
After more years than it should’ve taken, an all new 2D Metroid game has finally released. And it was the long fabled Dread title that’s been teased and cancelled for about a decade now. Following the events of Metroid Fusion, galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran inspects a strange new planet after seeing footage of a live X parasite. But she soon encounters a much more menacing threat after landing.
Metroid Dread is a phenomenal Metroidvania and goes above and beyond reminding you at every turn why the genre is called that. Search action has rarely felt this good. For reference, it’s a genre I find difficult to get into as it can devolve into a lot of meandering and figuring out where to go, but Dread is so expertly designed that the player is always subtly led in the correct direction with fantastic level layout. Your goal is to reach the surface so the higher path is often the way to go unless you’ve to find an upgrade first.
Dread does an excellent job at power progression. Giving the player new and engaging powers, moves and maneuverability options, making Samus a joy to control. This alone can entice you to go for 100% of the items and search for hidden goodies because running and shooting feels so good. That’s not to say it’s a cake walk, Dread will straight up curb stomp you if you’re not careful or grabbing energy tanks as they become available to you. Smaller mooks can sneak up on you or dog pile you if you’re rushing too much and these bosses, my God, these bosses.
The big bads of Dread are going to paint the walls with you and there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re such challenging fights it must be nearly impossible to beat most of them on your first try. They are a major highlight of the game not just because of their challenge, but their spectacle, their scale, their cool factor. It’s not a stretch to say that these are some of the best boss fights I’ve faced in the last few years. A mix of character animation, action choreography and critical hit cut-scenes showcase just how much of a beast Samus is and yeah, it’s cool. There’s no other way to say it. Samus is just really cool and when you’re shooting 100 super missiles down a 50ft lizard’s throat, unloading charge shots into a giant scorpion while holding it in a headlock and nonchalantly lasering their faces off afterwards, you just feel so damn cool.
While not bosses necessarily, the most intriguing new force Samus must tackle are the E.M.M.I. robots. They essentially turn portions of the game into survival horror with their creepy sounds, heartstopping presence and musical stings. If an E.M.M.I. catches you, you have the slimmest of chances to counter and flee but even the game tells you it’s basically impossible. So get running and don’t stop, you can’t hurt them, let alone defeat them until you beat a mini boss in their area for a one use weapon. The E.M.M.I. are a great threat that always keep you on your toes in the tensest of situations. Each one has a different strategy, like one that’s much faster than the others or one that can see through walls. But they can all hear you, they can all cut through vents, and they are all a genuine threat. Luckily they’re kept within set areas so you can prepare and plan a route on the map but that won’t always be enough. The E.M.M.I. keep things interesting as that burst of energy every now and again for that “OH SHIT” factor.
Metroid Dread is a fantastic entry in the series and makes for a welcoming starting point for newcomers. It’s got all the bells and whistles of a Metroid game but it isn’t holding back or going easy on you. You’re getting the Metroid experience and that means you’re gonna get lost sometimes, you’re gonna die a lot and you’re gonna sit there and like it. From start to finish (especially that finish) it’s a highlight of Nintendo’s first party Switch library you owe yourself to try out. Multiple playthroughs are encouraged and each time you get to that one boss you spent an hour on and beat them in one try in half the time, you’ll know that Metroid is a name that deserves its place in gaming’s pantheon. Go out and play it and you’ll want to play it again and again. It’s rare for me to do such a thing but less than a week after beating it, I went back and marathoned the whole thing a second time in one night in less than a third my original time and wow. You need to know what that feels like. Go enjoy Dread and hopefully we’ll see you next mission. Dan Troy.
I knew very little about Murder House before its release on PlayStation 4 and given the high critic scores, I couldn’t help but give it a go and I’m so happy I did. Originally released as a PC title in 2020, Murder House is a gritty 80’s VHS styled slasher that sees you try and survive a Manhunt-esque killer bunny rabbit. Yep, you read that right.
It’s not exactly the longest of video games or the deepest of horror experiences but Murder House hits all its retro styled beats perfectly. When you need to be scared you are thrust into a fight for survival, when you need to test your brain, puzzles will peak out from anywhere and when you need a bit of backstory to satiate your intellectual appetite, Murder House has snippets of that in abundance too when it needs it. Being brutally honest, Puppet Combo’s Murder House might just be one of the perfect horror experiences of the year for what it aims to be. Consider yourself a horror fan? Then you are doing yourself an injustice by not checking out one of the true horror gems of the year…why are you still here already? Go buy it and play it! John Hogan.
No More Heroes 3
It may have taken a decade but the true sequel to No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle graced our Switch’s this year. After the mixed bag of the side game Travis Strikes Again, No More Heroes 3 takes the series back to its fast paced, hack n’ slash roots in a way that’s bigger, flashier and more over the top than ever. No More Heroes 3 is a psychedelic symphony of insanity that you don’t want to miss out on.
The stakes have risen to cosmic proportions for our beloved doofus passing assassin, as Travis Touchdown returns to take down a galactic federation of killer aliens and save Earth. And yes, it’s as dumb and amazing as you can picture. The story is consistently crafting manic and hilarious scenes, twists, set pieces and interactions throughout its run, rarely stopping to take a breath. A lot of the story asks you to just go with the flow and if you can manage to accept that the cat can talk now, the shoreline is being attacked by 100ft crocodiles and that the 4th wall simply doesn’t exist, then you’re in for a good time.
Presentation wise, it’s the series standout and has an aggressively flamboyant charm anyone can get into. Dripping with flair, No More Heroes 3 is out to make you dance in the splendor of its multicoloured mayhem. Rainbow blood spewing from sliced up aliens being starkly overtaken by the final swipe of battle, cutting the pitch black screen with a bold red line never gets old. It’s satisfaction incarnate.
No More Heroes 3 brings the series arguably to its gameplay peak, with quick and engaging, if admittedly repetitive combat.
No More Heroes 3 is the perfect gift fans of the series and Suda 51 enthusiasts have been crying out for. Sure it’s a little janky and some side missions can get annoying, but those little imperfections are strangely part of it’s charm. It’s nothing game breaking, but also nothing No More Heroes fans aren’t already accustomed to. If you’re new to the series, all previous entries are cheap on Switch and the numbered entries are a hell of a fun time. No More Heroes is just fun man. So don’t miss the last adventure of one of the past decades best gaming protagonists and join Travis one last time in the garden of madness. Dan Troy.
Persona 5 Strikers
After taking the world by storm, Persona 5 has become one of the defining RPGs of the last decade and an icon of modern gaming. With the series being no stranger to experimenting with different genres, Persona 5 Strikers is tackling the musou style of hack ‘n’ slash games. Developed by juggernauts of the genre Koei Techmo, known for the Dynasty Warriors series, Hyrule Warriors and Fire Emblem Warriors, Persona is a perfect fit for the formula.
The story sees The Phantom Thieves reunite for a summer road trip across Japan. However, with the metaverse seemingly returning, the gang must suit up once again to protect the people of Japan and take down the monarchs using the metaverse for evil. From an author corrupting the masses into praising his plagiarised work, to a politician essentially mind controlling voters, the new cast of villains are welcome and feel in place with the themes of villains in the original Persona 5. The gang also gets 2 newcomers in Sophia, an adorable AI studying human behaviour, and Zenkichi a police officer tracking the team down to learn of their involvement in the strange happenings across the country. While not as deep a story as the original, its a fun ride seeing these beloved characters again, meeting new ones, and seeing them face themes of free will and self reflection from different perspectives that they overcame in the original game.
The typical Warriors style gameplay of near mindlessly mowing down hundreds upon hundreds of enemies is still kept intact but has been brought down a bit to encourage a more strategic approach. Persona abilities, strengths and weaknesses return, along with specific character stats. So now, specific attacks, elemental advantages and stat buffing is more encouraged than the typical Warriors outing. And to emulate the feel of the traditional Persona turn based battles, summoning a Persona will freeze time to allow you to select a certain Persona, attack, and steer where it will strike. With this blend, you still have the fast paced assault of a Warriors game, with the strategy and uniqueness of Persona’s DNA within it.
Strikers is an amazingly fun time and the closest a Persona spin off had come to feeling like a true sequel outside the RPG genre. I’d encourage any fan of the original game to dive into this one as there is more than enough to satisfy their cravings for more Phantom Thief adventures, and the genre shift is eased onto players who’ve more than likely never experienced it before. If you haven’t played the original Persona 5, Strikers will not be very welcoming. But in that case, play Persona 5 already. Dan Troy.
Resident Evil Village
After revitalizing the franchise with the more survival horror focused Resident Evil 7, Capcom had big boots to fill with the inevitable sequel and luckily Capcom were more than capable of living up to the task. Feeling like a finely tuned balance of survival horror and over the top action that previous entries have become renowned for, Resident Evil Village is yet another shining example of Resident Evil’s recent renaissance.
Admittedly, Resident Evil: Village has less of a horror focus than its predecessor, but Village is a strong example of expanding on a working formula. The polished but feverish gameplay returns, the pulse pounding horror segments are there in satisfying quantity and the ridiculousness the series has become associated with is embraced to the fullest in the video game’s final third. Resident Evil Village works like a greatest hits and as far as horror titles released this year go – Resident Evil Village is easily one of the best on offer. John Hogan.
If you asked me for my honest verdict on game of the year – Returnal would most likely be it. Housemarque’s rogue-like shooter is a breath of fresh air among a sub-genre of video games becoming increasingly overcrowded (and desperately mediocre) thanks to the monstrous money machines that are Call Of Duty, Battlefield & Apex Legends. Granted, Returnal isn’t a first-person shooter but the shooter marketplace in general has become a stale environment with every major release (except for a select few) attempting to replicate the last and offer nothing substantial to push the boundaries beyond a simple copy and paste format.
With Returnal, Housemarque have created an adrenaline fueled, Lovecraftian nightmare that challenges its players to suffer countless times in the pursuit of sweet triumph and a devilish sense of reward. Returnal’s procedurally generated experience is addictive, emotional, infuriating at times but impressively taut with a story that remains one of the more underrated fables in recent years given its impressive layering of ambiguity and for those in search of a deeply rewarding but extremely tough shooter – Returnal is the cream of the crop folks and at the moment of writing this, the best action game of the year at The Game Awards 2021. John Hogan.