Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Nintendo, Bethesda, Coffee Stain Studios, EA Games, Toukana Interactive and Capcom
So far, 2021 is one of the weirdest years on record for video games. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on every creative industry, but the deeper we get into spring, the more it becomes apparent that the fallout from the global office shutterings and the economic contraction will be felt most acutely in the months ahead. Already, several high-profile games like Hogwarts Legacy and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum have been pushed into 2022. And other franchise megatons that were allegedly right around the corner have been conspicuously MIA. On paper, this makes sense. The games released in 2020 were already at the tail end of their production before COVID broke the supply chain, and they managed to slip into their shipment schedule undeterred. But studios that were counting on 2021 for the final stretch weren’t nearly as lucky, and the ramifications are disorienting. By the end of the year, it’s likely that many gamers will be sitting at home with two brand-new consoles that are mired in a historic dearth of software. What a strange fate.
This reality is reflected in the list below. With triple-A publishers regrouping and recalculating, a rush of indie studios has taken center stage. The pandemic may have afflicted Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, but it’s harder for a virus to stop a team of three wrestling with their own bespoke assets in home offices all over the world. It’s not surprising that the breakout titles of 2021 so far have been predominantly born of small budgets and limited scopes — the sort of gameplay experiences that could reasonably be attainable in a plague-ridden year. So maybe the barren holiday season should be taken as a blessing: Rather than chasing after every massive open world and interminable experience grind out of some grim professional duty, we can instead settle in with the games that actually spark joy. Here are the highlights from the year so far, listed chronologically by release date.
This was a shocker. The MCU’s early foibles with video games have been spotty at best. Last year’s Avengers packed a decent combat system and a compelling narrative into an absurdly dull grind — embodying all of the worst instincts of triple-A development. Publisher Square Enix was still licking its wounds when it unveiled Guardians of the Galaxy, once again recruiting an ersatz cast of not-quite-Hollywood actors to fill the roles of Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Gamora, and Drax. I expected the worst, and what I found was a genuinely moving single-player narrative that seemed desperate to atone for the sins of its forebearer. The combat is mediocre, and I endured a ton of technical issues during my playthrough on PC, but Guardians contains an intimacy that is rare for the medium. Rocket is afraid of water due to some long-standing phobias; unfortunately, there’s only one way across the river. Gamora is embarrassed about her action-figure collection, and it’s up to Star-Lord if he wants to be a dick about it. The Guardians films thrive when the stakes are small, and Square Enix mirrors the magic brilliantly.
Turtle Rock Studios freed itself from the yoke of its corporate overlords and immediately got to work on the exact same type of game that originally made it famous. As you can tell from the typography, Back 4 Blood is almost a one-to-one replication of the late-’00s classic Left 4 Dead. Four players take control of survivors lost in a zombie apocalypse. Together, you’ll oscillate between giddy bloodlust — laying waste to the herd with relentless firepower — or running for your life as your best friends are hilariously torn to shreds by a tidal wave of rotten flesh. Turtle Rock understood that its core Left 4 Dead design formula was already rock-solid, so most of the work applied to Back 4 Blood is on the margins. You can now build a “deck” of buffs, perks, and extra munitions, adding a faint twang of RPG-style talent-tree optimization to the journey. I’m particularly partial to the souped-up competitive multiplayer mode, where a rival team steps behind a suite of hulking undead monstrosities and sieges the terrified humans. (Once they perish, the players switch sides. Whoever survives the longest wins.) Those old Left 4 Dead games remain hugely popular more than a decade later. So if everything goes to plan, we’ll all be playing Back 4 Blood for a long, long time.
As the world turns, more people are coming around to a noble truth; Metroid was always better in 2-D than 3-D. Yes, plenty of people loved the Metroid Prime trilogy on the GameCube and Wii — the less said about Other M, the better — and I’m sure we’ll get that endlessly delayed sequel sometime this millennium. But the masses have spoken: Give us Samus Aran in an oozing, purple corridor, where she can shrink down into a ball and snake through a wormy crevice. That’s the only thing we’ve ever really needed. The Metroid Dread name existed all the way back in the mid-2000s, so unsurprisingly, the design feels like it has fermented deep within Nintendo’s coffers. As always, Ms. Aran is marooned on a carnivorous planet and fending off translucent, brain-sucking parasites. But this time, there’s a greater threat than the aliens afoot. Porcelain-white mechas, known as the EMMIs, are on the prowl, and they’re capable of one-shotting our poor bounty hunter. This gives Metroid a perverse element of cat-and-mouse covertness — suddenly, we’re no longer the most powerful being in the galaxy. The game is called Dread for a reason.
Deathloop takes place in a parallax 24-hour time loop on a frozen Nordic island that’s absolutely covered with burnt-orange, late-’60s decor. Arkane Studios has taken its first-person shooters to haunted spaceships and steampunk dystopias, but it’s finally hit its stride with its very own pulpy, elliptical spy story. The goal, of course, is to break the loop, which can only be done by assassinating several high-profile targets loitering around the compound within a single cycle. The longer you spend in this dapper Groundhog Day, the more you’ll begin to recognize the clockwork patterns. “If I sabotage the fireworks in the morning, I’m pretty sure this guy will blow himself up at night.” I think that’s what I like most about Deathloop; all of the goofy, oracular fun is punctuated by some thoughtful philosophical waxing. If I’m living the same day, every day, does that mean I’m immortal or long dead?
Tim Schafer has been trying to make a sequel to Psychonauts for 15 years, and he finally pulled it off in 2021. Yes, it’s been eons since sprightly, Nickelodeon-style platformers ruled the roost — particularly on a Microsoft platform — so I understand any cynicism about how well the Psychonauts mystique has aged. But within a few hours, you’ll be jumping into the minds of the various eccentrics, plucking at their sloshing brain chemistry, quietly altering their opinion about cilantro. Psychonauts has consistently managed to layer some fun, think-y questions about the nature of consciousness over its simple mechanics, and that bears plenty of fruit in the sequel. Explore the psychic landscapes and face off against the physical manifestations of panic attacks and schizophrenia! If only it were that easy in real life.
The average anime packs a ridiculous, mind-expanding premise designed to spirit its audience away to a brand-new universe rife with its own mysteries, paradoxes, and laws of physics. But even within the catalogue, Scarlet Nexus is audacious from the jump. In the far-flung future, humanity has discovered a lingering psionic gene in our brains that an elite fighting force (composed exclusively of teenagers) weaponizes in order to beat back the eldritch monstrosities bearing down on our last few remaining metropolises. All of that is revealed in the first five minutes, and it only gets crazier from there. Publisher Bandai Namco cycles through dozens of different sci-fi tropes at warp speed (body horror, public indoctrination, time travel) without ever settling on one long enough to become complacent. It’s a lot, and most of it sticks.
But really, what makes Scarlet Nexus stand out is its combat system, which brings a certain Devil May Cry–like flair to the standard action-RPG formula. The main character is psychokinetic; hold the right trigger, and they’ll elevate the detritus around them and send it flying toward an enemy’s face. I’ve smitten bad guys with floating cars, trash cans, oil drums, and steel rebar. Trust me, it never gets old, and those improvised projectiles fold neatly into all of your other face-button combos. There’s already a Scarlet Nexus animated series in the chamber, and I’m hoping that Bandai Namco blesses this fresh new IP with the institutional support it deserves. We should be so lucky for this series to become a big deal!
Insomniac has been cranking out excellent Ratchet & Clank games for almost 20 years without ever capturing a global critical Zeitgeist. That was a raw deal. These 3-D shooter-cum-platformers have been great since the PS2 days, but they never quite crossed the Rubicon enough to be considered in the Hall of Fame conversation. But all of those biases are shattered with Rift Apart, which is the single best-looking product available on new hardware. Insomniac leverages the PS5 to pump out a gorgeous, cyberpunk cityscape: The streets refract and reflect the piercing neon lights; loose cargo floats lazily in a deep, warm sea of stars; and big rubbery aliens — each of them with more personality than some main characters — mill about in the margins like the New Hope cantina scene. The game is a technical marvel, which pairs beautifully with the Pixar-ish tone that Ratchet & Clank has consistently aimed for. I can only hope this spurs on a renaissance for every other early-2000s Playstation mascot. Where’s our scintillating 4K Sly Cooper reboot, Sony!
The best multiplayer game of the year is a … competitive dodgeball simulator? Soaked in a Day-Glo, ’90s Nickelodeon veneer, no less? And published by Electronic Arts??? Knockout City is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Developers at Velan Studios clearly worship at the altar of the fast-casual games that came before them — think Psyonix’s Rocket League or Media Molecule’s Fall Guys — and they inject just enough gameplay tech into Knockout City’s DNA to be played both ultra-seriously and super-frivolously. Knockout City follows canonical dodgeball rules — throw something at your opponent, hope they don’t catch it — but it’s also equipped with just enough feints, jukes, and psychology to keep the competitive dynamic interesting. Of course, that all hinges on if you’re interested in those techniques in the first place. You’re more than welcome to get drunk, log onto Knockout City, pick up the Nerf football that acts as a sniper rifle, and laugh your ass off deep into the night. This city contains multitudes.
It’s been a tough few years for BioWare. The great, venerable RPG shop suffered through a disaster in Anthem — a Destiny-ish ripoff that was unceremoniously killed off by EA earlier this year after attracting tepid review scores and a nonexistent player base. That tragedy came after 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, a reboot of maybe the most beloved game series of the 21st century, which was rife with bugs and seemed dead on arrival. Legendary Edition, then, is a mea culpa. The original Mass Effect trilogy is restored and preserved in a single package, allowing pilgrims to relive the Shepard arc from start to finish. It feels like a homecoming.
If you’ve never played a Mass Effect game, you owe it to yourself to see if Legendary Edition grabs you. This is a vast sci-fi epic that — like the best space stories — thrives in its quietest, personal moments. As more lost souls join the crew of the starship, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the interstitial phases of straight chilling that come between world-saving moments. Standing on the deck, suspended in the void, chopping it up about life, love, and death with one of your buddies. No game has ever captured that same serenity.
Capcom went back to the drawing board with 2017’s Resident Evil VII. After years in the wilderness, with the series increasingly resembling a garden-variety shooter with a handful of jump scares, the studio discovered a newfound appreciation for its base instincts. Resident Evil Village, like the previous entry, is a straight-up survival horror game. Ethan Winters possesses limited ammo, limited healing abilities, and limited brain cells as he treks through a haunted Eastern European mausoleum. Capcom exchanges its traditional zombies for a whole gamut of classic Victorian evils — vampires and werewolves abound — as it once again discovers that gameplay sublimity can be found on a much smaller scale. Screw the unruly swarms of undead in World War Z or The Walking Dead; there’s nothing more brilliantly terrifying than being trapped in a castle with an eight-foot-tall lady who really wants to eat you alive.
People Can Fly, the studio behind Outriders, previously worked on the Gears of War franchise when it was owned by the megapublisher Epic Games. You can see those fingerprints all over its first new IP since regaining independence in 2015. Outriders is a third-person cover-based shooter, which will likely sit well with any veterans of E-Day out there. But People Can Fly also borrows liberally from Destiny, Warframe, The Division, and practically every other prominent shooter that shot up the charts over the previous five years. Players begin their journey in Outriders by selecting a class, which fits neatly into the standard warrior-caster-rogue triptych that has nourished every RPG since the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. You will earn a gradient of powerful loot to augment your abilities and soak down bosses who possess a ludicrous amount of hit points. That may sound fairly staid, but all these elements come together nicely. People Can Fly already has one of the best shooter pedigrees in the industry, and as it continues to accoutre its most ambitious game yet with expansions and updates, Outriders has a real chance to become a phenomenon.
Hazelight Studios (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out) has thoroughly dedicated itself to the art of the two-player cooperative game, and it may have its first masterpiece with It Takes Two. A marriage is on the brink somewhere in suburbia, and a heartbroken daughter cracks open a magical book that shrinks the battling couple down to Polly Pocket size for some bewitched relationship counseling. The would-be divorced pair is tasked with navigating a series of esoteric, inventive, and often hilarious platforming puzzles as they slowly rediscover the original spark that brought them together. Like the other games from lead designer Josef Fares, It Takes Two is simultaneously symbiotic and asymmetrical. In one level, a player will be loading their partner into a cannon so they can bash their head against a target. Later on, you may both be grasping the same oversize pencil, attempting to balance the graphite evenly through a cereal-box-style connect-the-dots puzzle. Nearly every gameplay idea in It Takes Two is a hit, further proof that there’s still plenty of creative juice to squeeze out of couch multiplayer.
There are two ways to play a Monster Hunter game. True diehards can spend hours researching the various weak spots of the kaiju they’re preying on before carefully constructing an airtight build that will bring the beastie to its knees. Other players tend to run into battle completely blind with a sword and a shield, throwing hands with a skyscraper-size dragon using guile and guts alone.
It’s a testament to Monster Hunter’s newfound emphasis on approachability that both of these tactics are generally effective, and with the latest sequel on Switch, the door has been cracked open even wider for any emboldened hinterlander acolytes. Monster Hunter Rise remains a video game about engaging in shockingly pugilistic combat with a colossal cast of jurassic behemoths, but many of the franchise’s early eccentricities have been ironed out. Rise introduces a grappling hook that revolutionizes the series’s plodding movement schemes. Your frontiersman now has the ability to saddle up on the back of a tamed beast, considerably reducing the downtime between fights. Capcom, the game’s publisher, has made a point of streamlining the resource-management heft, which means this Monster Hunter requires less of the same menu-screen navigation that previous generations endured. After five games, the powers that be have discovered that Monster Hunter is at its best when you’re actually fighting monsters. In that sense, Rise is a thrilling success.
Urban-planning games are finicky. Every SimCity veteran knows what it’s like to stare at your electricity tab for half an hour, evaluating just how annoyed your commercial residents might be if you opened up a nuclear power plant in their backyard. (The answer, invariably, is very annoyed.) But Dorfromantik ditches all of that upkeep; all you need to focus on is your next tile. The game works like the tabletop classic Carcassonne, in which players lay out hex after hex, slowly transforming their kitchen counter into a verdant European country village. You score bonus points for matching edges and building out biomes (forests slot next to forests, rivers connect into lakes, and so on), and Dorfromantik does a good job of egging players on with dynamic challenge thresholds that mutate the gameplay with new tile archetypes. Mostly, though, Dorfromantik has earned an audience by being preternaturally zen. There are no overwhelming spreadsheets, anxious food shortages, or rival clans encroaching on your territory. No, this is a video game about placing a pretty windmill on a map and watching it spin. Nothing could be better suited for 2021.
Loop Hero is one of the strangest games ever made. You could define it as a dungeon crawler — after all, an adventurer trudges through a desolate wasteland populated with carnivorous spiders, sinister vampires, and marauding goblins — but all of the action happens completely passively. The player will never raise a shield or cast a single spell; instead, every enemy encounter is automated by the algorithm. The only authority you have in Loop Hero is to make your lonely traveler’s journey incrementally harder in order to ensure that they grow stronger. Perhaps you drop an infected swamp or a haunted cemetery in their path to test their mettle and enrich them with more powerful suites of arms and armory. After all, when the champion eventually reaches the end of this sojourn and faces off with the boss, they better be seasoned for the challenge.
All of this likely sounds super-abstruse, and it is. Loop Hero is absurdly meta: a video game about the experience of playing video games. But once you eclipse the learning curve, it has a sublime way of sinking into your skin. There’s an anxious thrill in pushing your hero to the limits — and a calamitous grief after it becomes clear that you’ve gone one step too far. The forces of evil overwhelm the only protagonist this haggard universe has ever known, and it’s all your fault. Back to the camps, where the player plots the precise blend of kindness and cruelty that will lead them to the promised land.
Maquette is the latest game from the contemplative publisher Annapurna Interactive, and its recursive game world needs to be seen firsthand. The player arrives in a melancholy, Myst-like plaza built over a scaled-down model village that mirrors its surroundings perfectly. Everything is reflected. Drop a house key in a corner, and a much smaller key can be found in the same spot in the replica. Put the regular-size key in the model, and a humongous key falls from the heavens in the real world. This mechanic is the crux for all the puzzles in Maquette, and the deeper you sink into its vibrations, the more philosophical the game gets. Without spoiling anything, there’s a reveal halfway through the narrative that left me questioning what I could reasonably define as reality in this parallax, ever-expanding universe. Is there any better use of a few hours than contemplating the subjective nature of existence?
Nintendo reinvented the venerable Legend of Zelda franchise in 2017 with Breath of the Wild. The company abandoned the tired linear staples of the series in favor of a massive open world laden with furtive side quests and regional quirks, which allowed players unprecedented liberty to explore at their own pace. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t possess nearly the same scope as Breath of the Wild, but it is evidence that Nintendo is keen to apply those same retrofitting instincts to its oldest, and most famous, mascot.
Bowser’s Fury is bundled with the rerelease of Super Mario 3D Land on Switch (also a great game), and it represents the first major iteration of Mario’s core gameplay structure since the Nintendo 64 era. Mario is no longer sprinting through self-contained, static levels; instead, he’s hopping through a strange archipelago populated entirely by cats and being told that the world is his oyster. You collect the stars in any order you like and can hike off in any direction you want. There’s a feature in Grand Theft Auto that makes the names of the local municipalities (Vinewood Hills, Del Perro Beach) pop up on screen as you tool around Los Santos. Bowser’s Fury does the same thing, except that the provincial color of the greater Mushroom Kingdom includes districts like Scamper Shores and Pounce Bounce Isle. We’re still probably a few years away from the next formal Mario sequel, so we hope Boswer’s Fury is a taste of what’s next. Please, Nintendo, let us traverse the full expanse of the Donut Plains and the Forest of Illusion.
We rarely go more than a month without a new Minecraft disciple blowing up on Steam, but Valheim has already demonstrated some real staying power in Early Access. The fundamentals are familiar: The player takes the guise of a Viking who’s a fresh import to a virgin world (in this case, a Nordic purgatory) and is tasked with the simple burden of subsistence. Immediately, you start harvesting berries, cutting down trees, and propping up stone kilns to stay alive. What makes Valheim different, in my estimation, is the fidelity of the controls. The combat and traversal in other survival games are implemented as means to an end — something to do before getting back to the more important work of mining and grinding. But here, crouching through a marsh and tailing a deer for supper feels far more polished and emergent. It allows for a greater level of immersion in my quaint backwater hovel than I usually find in games of this ilk. Nobody will forget their first voyage across dark water, sail glistening under a handmade wooden boat in the moonlight, as they discover what lies beyond this mysterious continent.
You ought to savor this one. IO Interactive has already announced that Hitman 3 will be the last game in the series for some time, which means this entry serves as the conclusion to one of the most beloved trilogies in recent memory. 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 built profoundly detailed clockwork dioramas filled with zillions of dubious characters and interactive doodads that the titular Agent 47 needed to sift through in order to find his mark. Maybe we’re chasing down a pair of vicious socialites who happen to be tucked away at a Bilderberg-esque party on a rocky Nordic island? Perhaps we’re in Paris for the biggest runway show of the year and tasked with dispatching a supermodel turned intelligence merchant? As always, the player uses circuitous, often baffling assassination methods to get the job done. You haven’t lived until you’ve used an industrial wind machine to blow a target off a building to their death.
Hitman 3 honors the tradition laid out in the previous two games, this time sending Agent 47 to Berlin nightclubs and the neon streets of Chongqing to furnish his grim career. The whole trilogy exists in the same gigantic file on both consoles and PCs, which means players have access to a huge swath of legacy content at the click of a button. If IO’s brand of elaborate, MacGyver-style high jinks isn’t your thing, Hitman 3 won’t make a believer out of you. But it’s hard to imagine a better send-off for fans of the franchise.