Well, it’s that time of year again. The earth has travelled another 584 million miles or so, people are making all kinds of resolutions about how they’ll be different now that a number has changed, and we’re all looking back at the year just ended. Somehow COVID is still kicking around, although at least here in the UK things are a bit more open than they were, people still can’t get hold of the Playstation 5 or high-end graphics cards, and it seems like the world has gone daft for NFTs (including some game developers looking to get in on the action - please don’t).
Here’s my annual rundown of the games I’ve enjoyed playing in 2021 and the ones I’m looking forward to trying soon.
I remarked in my 2020 rundown that I felt 2020 had been a little light on big new releases. Looking back at 2021 I’d say it’s been anything but. As usual, I’m playing on Xbox so there’s a whole world of other great stuff out there on Playstation, Nintendo, and PC that I’ve missed, but here are a few of my favourites anyway.
Originally intended as an Xbox Series X|S launch title, Halo Infinite was delayed for a year following public outcry after a lacklustre campaign gameplay reveal showed a title that was nowhere near ready for launch. Even with the delay, Infinite is still missing a number of features at launch, such as campaign co-op and re-playable missions, and the multiplayer, while polished, has been criticised for its micro-transaction heavy model.
Despite this, what 343 Industries have released is a compelling evolution of Halo. The open-world feels like an evolution of the original’s large missions; open enough to allow you to explore and approach objectives in order, while retaining focus on the mission at hand and managing to avoid a lot of the typical pitfalls of huge open world titles.
The gameplay is absolutely spot on. It’s reasonably challenging, even on Normal difficulty, but the open world design allows a lot of freedom in how to approach objectives. Bringing a Razorback full of rocket launcher-wielding marines makes short work of any bad guys you might run into. Bungie may have evolved their Halo titles into the most buttery-smooth of FPS control systems in Destiny, but with Infinite, 343i have found a wonderful balance between mobility and weight. Master Chief is the most nimble he’s ever been, especially with the new Grappleshot adding verticality to the experience.
I’m still working my way through the campaign but it’s a massively enjoyable experience, and manages to feel like Halo, despite all the changes. Multiplayer is hectic, competitive, and simply great fun, especially in modes like Big Team Battle where you through vehicles into the mix.
We’ve waited years for a new Halo, and so far it’s been well worth the wait.
Despite having highly rated a couple of remasters in last year’s review, I’m generally not a big fan of remastered games. Very often it is a shameless cross-generational cash-grab, especially with the likes of Smart Delivery, or the backwards compatibility programme on Xbox. Every now and then though, a remaster dusts off an older game (say 10+ years old) and really gives it a fresh lease of life (see Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Day of the Tentacle, or Command & Conquer Remastered in the last couple of years).
Mass Effect probably didn’t need to be high up the queue for remastering. Parts 2 and 3 held up pretty well, and only really the first game was showing its age massively. But given the lukewarm response to Mass Effect Andromeda (perhaps unfairly), and the abandonment of Anthem (which I revisited earlier in the year), it’s perhaps understandable that Bioware and EA would want to go for a guaranteed win, which Mass Effect Legendary Edition most certainly is.
As well as the expected visual polish, the Legendary Edition adds some nice quality of life updates, such as streamlining some of the achievements and tightening up the control scheme. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the original Mass Effect, which was never the most proficient as a Third Person Shooter, leaning much more on the story and character and world building. At the time of writing I’ve completed the first two games which has been a wonderful trip down memory lane, especially as I rate Mass Effect 2 as one of my favourite games of last decade, if not all time.
A year plus change into its lifetime, few games have pushed the Xbox Series X hardware quite like the relaunched Microsoft Flight Simulator. Having launched in 2020 (I think) on PC, it’s clear how much of a massive undertaking it was to port this title across to Xbox, given the occasional stutters even with the power of the Series X. Not just an optimisation challenge, but also a logistical one, the developers had to find a way to map a huge amount of complicated controls onto the Xbox controller.
For the most part, the port is a huge success. The world is stunningly detailed, with add-on packs adding local detail to loads of locations, and realistic weather and day/night effects. Without the large number of input combinations available via mouse and keyboard, things can get a little overwhelming. Controls and instruments are hugely complicated and detailed, especially on larger aircraft, and without assists it is very easy to quickly find yourself on a wing and a prayer. It is a simulator after all.
But when you take to the sky, there’s an incredible sense of freedom that few games can match, and it can be a very relaxing experience taking a short haul flight on a beautiful day over some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
I slightly missed the boat with the Left 4 Dead series on Xbox 360 so I was delighted when I heard about Back 4 Blood coming to Xbox Game Pass in October. While B4B has some differences to the L4D series: more serious tone, modifier cards, progression throughout each run; the DNA of the originals is clear for all to see.
Back 4 Blood is a thoroughly enjoyable co-op experience. Some people complained of issues with randoms but overall I think I was quite lucky. I had the odd drop-out but was usually able to find another run fairly quickly. B4B is definitely at its best with three friends where you can communicate and strategise with one another (a requirement on higher difficulties), but even with randoms and no mics, it’s a chaotic, fast-paced thrill ride.
The zombies (what is it they’re called in this again, Ridden?) don’t stand a chance!
There was absolutely zero chance I was going to pass up a new Battlefield title. While the last couple of entries in the series have gone back in time, I really missed the modern combat sandbox of Battlefields 3 and 4. When Battlefield 2042 was revealed as being a near-future setting, I was delighted. It’s rare for any multiplayer AAA title to launch these days without server issues or bugs, and BF2042 has certainly not been an exception to that, with players being extremely vocal about the game’s issues, enough so to even get the game’s subreddit temporarily shut down due to the toxicity of the comments.
It’s a worrying trend how many games are launching in part finished states these days. Battlefield 2042 is missing a lot of features: there’s no VOIP (baffling considering it’s a cross-play title), squad joining doesn’t work, there are limited weapons and maps, no server browser (except in Portal mode). The list goes on and on. Add these issues to the conscious design decisions made by DICE such as removing the trademark class system and adding specialists (something I still find jarring - seeing multiple copies of Falck or Sundance running across the map on different teams), and it seems like BF2042 is a flop.
But even with all these issues which will take a long time to fix, there is one thing that Battlefield 2042 is still able to provide in spades: chaotic sandbox fun.
The Battlefield series is renowned for its crazy emergent gameplay as large player numbers collide with in-game physics in unexpected ways. Whether it’s an explosive-laden Tuk-tuk launching into a nearby tank, or base jumping from a skyscraper and taking out a chopper with a bazooka mid-freefall, these “Only in Battlefield” moments are all present and correct.
I expect Battlefield 2042 will find its feet eventually. Whether it will bring back the players it’s lost, only time will tell. I’m still having great fun playing it though, and will keep on deploying.
How do you follow up an almost perfect arcade racing game with a beautifully designed mini-UK to tool about in? That was the question facing Playground Games as they looked to follow up on the stunning success of Forza Horizon 4.
Amazingly, Playground have managed to refine the formula even more and have, in Forza Horizon 5, released one of the most stunning, immersive, and downright fun arcade racers of all time. Their version of Mexico is beautifully detailed and there’s such variety in the events it’s easy to keep things fresh. I still tend to play this as a drop-in type game: I spend maybe an hour on it once a week or two, and the number of icons blinking at you can get a little overwhelming. I’m glad I don’t have FOMO with this type of game as I could see this being hugely anxiety inducing!
There have been some issues with the servers (par for the course these days it seems) but even just sticking to the offline modes, there’s more than enough to do South of the border, down Mexico way.
I was intrigued by the E3 2019 trailer in which Twelve Minutes broke cover following several years in development. The unusual top-down perspective, polished visuals and Hollywood voice cast showed a really polished title but it was the core gameplay loop that grabbed my interest. A 12 minute time loop which changes and reacts to what you learn in each loop was a killer concept, and the E3 trailer sold it in style with Willem Dafoe’s cop bursting through the door and quickly going from Dafriend to Dafoe as things take an ugly turn.
Point and click adventure games have picked up some popularity in recent years thanks to some tidy remasters (I really enjoyed the Day of The Tentacle remaster in 2020). It was nice to see some innovation in this genre. The time loop concept worked really well and the story took some really dark and weird turns (no spoilers here). I really enjoyed this one as a change of pace from my usual sort of game and it’s a nice reminder to self to try something different now and then to break things up.
As always there are a few that got away. I’m planning on hitting a few of these games throughout 2022 so will no doubt be looking at some of these on next year’s list:
Other stuff I played that was from previous years:
That was my 2021 in games, but what did you get up to? Any hidden gems? Did you play any of the above and disagree? Let me know in the comments.