You possibly haven’t noticed, but we’re already over halfway through 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 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 later this year 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)
Read more › Hitman 3 review
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
Read more › Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury review
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)
Read more › Monster Hunter Rise review
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)
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
The PS5 is the console everyone wants under their 4K telly, but there are still relatively few games that really show off Sony’s crazily powerful hardware. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, however, is a five-star blockbuster that could only exist on the PS5. The game is a technical masterpiece, regularly hurling the titular Lombax and his robot sidekick from one dimension to another, with completely different gameworlds requiring no load-in thanks to the PS5’s SSD. You feel every footstep, explosion and bullet fired in your hands with the DualSense pad, and with a pair of headphones on the action is more immersive thanks to the console’s built-in 3D audio capabilities.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is also just incredibly fun. Whether you’re blasting robot thugs with all manner of science-defying weapons, leaping across giant canyons on jet boots or just chuckling at the corny one-liners, you’re always having a good time.
Read more › Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition
Widely regarded as one of best sci-fi series’ in any medium, you’ve probably heard of Mass Effect. And as perfectly playable as the first three games in the franchise (we don’t talk about Andromeda) remain to this day, a 4K remaster for today’s hardware is very welcome indeed. All three games have been polished up with enhanced visuals and various performance boosts, while the first Mass Effect, the entry unsurprisingly showing its age the most, now plays better too, with improved aiming and weapon balance, and more sensible controls for the divisive Mako vehicle.
All three games in the trilogy can be booted from one launcher, with over 40 DLC add-ons included. So whether you’ve agonised over Shepard’s choices in this epic RPG saga more times than you can remember, or are stepping into his/her space boots for the first time, you won’t find a more engrossing 60+ hours this year.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Resident Evil Village
The Resident Evil series has been on a roll for a while now. We’ve had top-notch remakes of Resi 2 and 3 and in the last couple of years, as well as a truly terrifying return to form for brand new entries in 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.
It’s fair to say, then, that expectations were high for Resident Evil Village, and Capcom did not disappoint. Village sticks with Resi 7‘s first-person perspective and once again drops you in the blood-splattered shoes of Ethan Winters, but there’s more than a dash of the legendary Resident Evil 4 in here, with edge-of-your-seat ambush set pieces galore and a larger outdoor environment to shoot your way through. That’s not to say that Village doesn’t bring the scares though, and in the vampiric giantess, Lady Dimitrescu, it’s given us one of Resident Evil‘s most memorable foes.
The best Resi yet? Not quite, but while it peaks in the first half of the game, Village is a thrill ride from start to finish.
PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, Google Stadia
Read more › Resident Evil Village review
There’s an argument to be made that Returnal‘s uncompromising difficulty prevents it from being a game everyone can enjoy, but if you’re a PS5 owner you owe it to yourself to at least give Housemarque’s arthouse masterpiece a go. The developer may have cut its teeth in the indie space, but from the moment your space scout Selen crash lands on a clearly unfriendly alien planet. it’s pretty obvious that Returnal is the first AAA roguelike. The game looks absolutely stunning, and is probably the best showcase to date for both the DualSense controller’s next-gen rumbling and the PS5’s 3D audio engine.
The third-person shooting is always satisfying and varied throughout, but make no mistake: Returnal is hard as nails. Each time you die – and you will die a lot – your progress is largely reset and you’re once again left with little more than a pistol. Hours of effort can be undone in an instant, and with each run changing the layout of the world and what items can be found in it, you can never really master the game. Stick with it, though, and Returnal will give you some of the most rewarding gaming moments of the year.
Read more › Returnal review
You can guarantee that there will always be at least one indie gem that troubles the big hitters when the time comes for game of the year discussions. Last year it was Hades (Stuff‘s GOTY 2020 pick), and we’re pretty confident that Death’s Door will be up there at the end of 2021. With hints of Dark Souls and a generous dollop of old-school Zelda, Death’s Door is definitely inspired by gaming’s greats, but it has plenty of personality of its own.
You play a crow who’s employed to reap the souls of the dead and move them on to the afterlife. But when your assigned soul is stolen, you soon find yourself in a mysterious realm whose inhabitants have lived long beyond their expiry date, and only by reaping their souls can you open the titular Death’s Door and fix the mess.
There’s a familiar Zelda structure at play here, as you travel to different regions of the map exploring dungeons, solving puzzles, acquiring new items and taking on huge bosses. Combat can be unforgiving, but never feels unfair, and keeps things fresh by giving you new weapons to master. It’s Death’s Door surprising sense of humour and eccentric characters, though, that really stuck with us. Play it.
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Clap Hanz Golf
We got a new Mario Golf game this year, but for our money Clap Hanz Golf is the genre standout in 2021. Exclusive to Apple Arcade subscribers, it’s an Everybody’s Golf game for your iPhone in everything but name. Like the famous PlayStation series with which developer Clap Hanz made its name, Clap Hanz Golf is a relentlessly cheerful take on golf, striking a near perfect balance between arcade simplicity and simulation precision. Rather than playing courses with one character, you take an assortment, choosing a colourful golfer for each hole in quickfire games and levelling them up when they get the nod.
You can play with a controller for a more traditional golf game experience, but we’re a big fan of the native touchscreen controls, which have you slide your finger downwards and quickly up to swing, adding spin by pulling left or right and extra power by dragging a bit more before you release. It’s not perfect, but getting that elusive hole in one with a perfectly measured chip never gets old.
Platforms: Apple Arcade (iPhone, iPad, Apple TV)