You possibly haven’t noticed, but we’re already over a quarter of the way into 2021.
In videogameland, it’s been an even slower start to the year than usual. While the pandemic might be the reason that more people are now playing games than ever, it’s also responsible for massively disrupting the industry and games’ development cycles, meaning delays, delays, delays, with more inevitable. But that’s not to say there haven’t been some exceptionally shiny diamonds in the rough.
As we reach this annual landmark, we thought now seemed like a good time to start rounding up the very best gaming has had to offer in 2021 so far. We’ll update the list again come the summer, and then again as we enter the traditionally busy post-August period.
Whether you’ve got more free time than you know what to do with or consider yourself lucky if you can find a 30-minute window in the day, everything in here is well worth the attention.
Words: Matt Tate, Sam Kieldsen, Chris Kerr
The 'World of Assassination' trilogy comes to a triumphant close here, with Agent 47’s globetrotting extermination tour taking in six new locations. Five of these are the kind of densely detailed sadist’s sandboxes that have made IO Interactive’s recent Hitman games such a joy, all filled with ingenious tools and traps for offing the odious targets – each of whom seems thoroughly deserving of whatever sticky end you visit upon them.
There’s not a lot of genuine innovation here, it’s true (aside from the ability to play the game in VR, currently restricted to PlayStation 4 and 5 owners), but when the core gameplay is this enjoyable, who cares?
Platforms: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch (cloud)
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
We were a bit miffed at the slight laziness of last year’s (now extinct) Super Mario 3D All-Stars anniversary collection, which offered little more than three straight-up ports of Mario platformers past. But 2021’s Mario double pack is anything but a quick and easy cash grab.
Not only did we get Super Mario 3D World, a top tier 3D Mario game that too few people played given that it was a Wii U exclusive, but an entirely new game in Bowser's Fury to boot. And what a marvellous little experiment it is. Its miniature open-world structure could well be a test run for a full fat open-world Mario game in the future, while the genuinely terrifying Kaiju Bowser appearances add a level of tension that feels brilliantly out of place in one of the plumber’s adventures.
Unmissable for anyone who didn’t play 3D World the first time, and more than worthy of a double dip for those who did.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Monster Hunter Rise
Adored by those who have spent years studying its dizzying array of systems and countless tutorials, and understandably terrifying to anyone who hasn’t, Monster Hunter is a fascinating thing indeed.
So is Rise - the series’ return to Nintendo hardware and its debut on the Switch - the entry that’s going to explode and reach Animal Crossing levels of mainstream success? Probably not, but it’s so good that we’d recommend it total newcomes and hardcore hunters alike. For one, it’s a technical marvel, squeezing every last drop out of the increasingly creaky Switch hardware, while new mechanics like the Wirebugs and Palamutes (dogs) are excellent additions that make it easier than ever to get hunting.
The core loop of prepare-hunt-craft-repeat remains as moreish than ever, and the hybrid nature of the Switch means you can jump into a hunt on Rise whenever you like.
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC (2022)
Valheim has become one of the breakout hits of 2021, selling over 6 million copies since launching in early access back in February. The sprawling multiplayer title essentially asks the question: what if Minecraft was set in a Viking-themed purgatory? The answer is an overnight sensation of a game that lets groups of up to 10 players build, battle, and conquer their way through a procedurally-generated Norse world filled with mystical wonders and legendary threats.
Although survival is the aim, the unbridled sense of possibility at the core of Valheim is what makes it so damn appealing. With enough time and effort, that ramshackle hut and quaint raft you started out with could be turned into a bustling port, impenetrable castle, legendary longship, or domineering trawler. Of course, that's assuming you can avoid being skewered by a boar or flattened by a tree. Hey, we never said the afterlife was all peaches and cream.
Platforms: PC, Linux
It Takes Two
Hazelight Studios made a pretty sizeable splash with its first game, the story-driven co-op adventure A Way Out, but its follow-up takes two-player gaming to heights we’ve possibly never seen before. You and your co-op partner (both couch co-op and online splitscreen are supported) play one of either May or Cody, a married couple soon to be divorced - that is until they’re transformed into their devastated daughter Rose’s dolls and forced to work together if they’re to reach her and return to their human forms.
Honestly, we’re not hugely keen on the tonally inconsistent story, with its often annoying characters and simplistic take on a very complex issue. A playable Pixar-worthy film this not, even if it often looks as good as one.
But everything else about It Takes Two is utterly brilliant, from its endlessly varied gameplay and expert weaving of new mechanics into the finely-tuned platforming action at its core, to the many ways it tests not only your individual gaming knowhow, but teamwork skills too. There’s no more enjoyable co-op game you can play right now.
Platforms: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Genesis Noir is a truly stunning achievement that almost defies description. On a surface level, it's an impossibly stylish and delightfully tactile point-and-click adventure through time and space that tackles heady concepts like love, loss, and that fleeting celestial dance we call life.
Backed by an intoxicating jazz score, players must prevent a bullet fired by a jealous god from reaching its target, all while unraveling their own connection to the bitter murder attempt unfolding before their eyes.
It's an unashamedly abstract affair that feels like Interstellar and La La Land made a little cosmic baby about the myth of creation, and despite occasionally fluffing its lines - hey, that can happen when you dream this big - is easily one of the most evocative titles we've dipped into this year.
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch
Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
An alcoholic, amnesiac detective awakes in a strange hotel room and is plunged into an existentialist socio-political fever-dream in ZA/UM’s fantastically written RPG – now available in its refined definitive edition across pretty much every gaming platform around.
The faded, shabby glamour of crumbling city Revachol is brilliantly realised by Disco Elysium’s hand-painted isometric visuals, but it’s the RPG system itself alongside the writing – caustic, ironic, grown-up – that makes the game so memorable and, despite its relatively short storyline, replayable.
It plays better on PC or Mac with a mouse and keyboard, but if you don’t own either it’s well worth struggling through the controls (and no shortage of bugs at present) on console.
Platforms: PS5, PS4, PC (now); Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (summer 2021)