Post by KostaAndreadis @ 12:19pm 01/01/22 | Comments
A countdown where we take a look back at the year that was…
Every year we post up our AusGamers Top 10 Best Games of “insert year here: _______”. It’s become an annual event that also includes the 10 games that fell just shy of the top honours mark, but that kept us up sipping Red Bull into the wee hours of the morning, pondering who should cross that Top 10 Best line, and why.
2021 in many ways has been a continuation of the tumultuous 2020 when it came to high profile delays, and even some rocky launches for titles we all but assumed would make their way into hearts. And this list. The past year was also the first year proper for next-generation hardware, with the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC graphics from NVIDIA and AMD pushing visual fidelity to the next level.
That is, for those that were lucky enough to get their gamer-dexterous hands on any of the above.
This year also saw the platform lines blur a little bit further with Xbox Game Pass and Microsoft Game Studios titles debuting across PC and console simultaneously. But regardless of the how, the why remains as strong as ever. That is, games still continue to surprise, delight and put us in a state of bliss year in, year out.
So here it is, our countdown. A celebration of the year ahead, highlighting the year that was, kicking off on January 1. The list’s logistics are simple enough. We talked among ourselves with the year’s best in mind, from there, a delineation crafted a Top 10 Best and an Honourable Mentions list, with 20 games in total across both. One reveal a day counting down to number two. On the penultimate day, we unveil the Honourable Mentions, and on the final day, with the overall list fully collated, we add in the coveted number one and present you with our findings in full.
All that said, Happy New Year to you all. Now sit back and enjoy 11 days of the AusGamers Top 10 Best Games of 2021.
10. Forza Horizon 5
The realistic racing sim has been a genre staple for a number of generations, and as such is something of a known quantity. You’ve got your cars, your tracks, and they all look and feel as close to the real thing as possible. With it’s fifth entry, the Forza Horizon series from Playground Games makes its biggest departure from the well-worn source material yet. You could even say that Forza Horizon 5 is as much of an open-world exploration game as it is a straight up racer. But, the genius is that at its core the connection to the realistic racing of the Forza branding is still there. The cars are plentiful, with makes and models you can find out on the street or in a fancy showroom. For anyone that has looked at a car with a sense of longing or admiration, there’s a treasure trove of goodness to be found. For everyone else, simply enjoying the drive through the game’s diverse and expansive digital Mexico is worth the price of admission. From its expansive desert to the active volcano to the dense rainforest, it’s a sight-seeing tour unlike any other. And in that sense, what you’ve got here is the ultimate driving game.
Immersion is born from many things, and when it comes to art direction you could simply look at how a digital environment is presented as an entry point and framework for a new experience. Mechanically, Chernobylite’s mix of survival elements, Fallout-style building and stealth shooting all come together in service of an ambitious sci-fi tale about loss and quantum oddities. But it’s the 3D-scanned and lovingly recreated backdrop of the infamous Chernobyl power plant and surrounding urban environment that sets the tone for its first-person adventure. From abandoned buildings through to overgrown countryside, there’s an eeriness that permeates through to every corner of the world. Born from a real-world tragedy and then used to great effect in presenting an engaging slice of sci-fi. Post-apocalyptic by the way of not moving on, Chernobylite’s branching narrative and character-driven progression are all given context within the story and setting. Make a mistake and you’re given the chance to go back and change the past thanks to a mysterious new element that gives the game its title. A clever storytelling device but one that carries the weight of one of the most infamous man-made disasters of the modern era.
The Artful Escape is everything it promises to be in name, and then some. The debut title for Melbourne-based studio, Beethovern & Dinosaur is grandiose in its vision, yet simple in how it lets you trounce through it. This is not a challenge-based experience, but nor does it proclaim any such position. Rather, The Artful Escape is an exercise in interpretation of the self. It’s a coming of age story in as much as it’s a coming of alternate personae; the mirror-practised debut of that little stage person we all create at one time or another in our lives to rise to the big occasion. And who also helps us realise who, and what, we are underneath it all. And it does all of this without limiting itself in the fun department, of which it delivers in wailing spades. An awesome, artfully-presented trip.
When Sony lifted the lid on the PlayStation 5 we not only got a glimpse at new hardware that could render more vivid and beautiful images, but early word about how the new super-fast storage would deliver something entirely different. On one hand you could simply say that the PS5’s internal SSD effectively eliminates loading times, so, nothing special, right? But the true game-changing effect came into the picture with Insomniac’s wonderful Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. Much more than a technical showpiece, the game’s ability to instantly switch between detailed locales sets the tone for cinematic spectacle with all of the pacing and beauty of a highly detailed animated film. Ratchet and Clank’s latest opus presents pitch-perfect action-platforming alongside a rousing adventure set across numerous detailed alien worlds. And if you were to insert a loading screen anywhere into the mix you’d immediately break, or pause, the cinematic immersion Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart so wonderfully creates. In a way that would remind you of the fact that you’re playing a game. And in not breaking this next-gen fourth wall of loading times, Insomniac delivered something that feels as fresh and new as a brand-new high-powered console.
In our review we talked about the more expanded nature of the RPG beyond the meta numbers game. Truly an RPG is about role-playing, and in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that concept is brought to the fore in a unique way -- one because in opposition to the concept on paper, you’re not role-playing a created character, and two because manifestly, the narrative experience here is built around pre-existing canonical ideas, relationships and settings. And yet the writing and gameplay is such that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy pulls into those worlds and begs you to learn more -- it asks you to uncover more of the Peter Quill adventure while secretly sharing with you an entirely new world built specifically for this experience. And you’re driving that. You’re role-playing a new Quill entry into said canon and thus the developer’s job of presenting you an RPG -- which does have a numbers game, mind -- you wholly want to invest in is achieved. Oh, and it’s stunningly presented, wonderfully written, brilliantly performed and paced to perfection.
Death’s Door is a fascinating delivery of tried and tested gameplay concepts and pillars from yesteryear, released and realised in a modern gaming landscape. A landscape, mind, that often overlooks, or outright ignores, what came before. It is a throwback experience in many ways, and an absolute love-letter to ARPGs of the past through and through. And yet it serves to offer up a unique narrative and setting that is modern. This is a tease, or a proactive step, towards a monumental shift in game-development from where it currently sits, to an amalgamated union between old and new. That is, an experience that is invitingly easy in terms of accessibility, difficult to master at a sliding scale from said point of access, and thoroughly engaging through all its important and peripheral parts. Games of this ilk do exist, but as more and more indies who grew up playing the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana et al, break on through, and build those memories with modern sensibilities, the Death’s Doors of the world will be as household as the Zeldas that inspired it. One of the year’s best.
There was a time when the real-time strategy genre (the RTS) was one of the AAA staples. High profile releases that featured story-driven campaigns and missions where you built barracks and trained little fighters to hold the front long enough for a siege vehicle of some kind to cause a little chaos. Although it’s been a minute since we’ve had a high-profile RTS hit the scene, Relic and World’s Edge’s Age of Empires IV is a reminder of how comforting it can be to lose several hours to learning the ins and outs of a historical faction while engaging in large-scale warfare. Mechanically it remains true to the RTS-style of the seminal Age of Empires II from the 1990s, though with its impressive “interactive documentary”-style campaign and well-designed missions Age 4 also doubles as a wonderful entry-point into the genre. For all of its micro-management-heavy stylings, you can still play it casually and be challenged and engaged. And in the tradition of some of the genre’s best, each battle becomes a lesson where you can just about feel your own skills improve inline with your Hardened Spearmen becoming Veteran Spearmen.
In talking a bit already about so-called “old-school” game-design throughout this Top 10 Games of 2021 list, Psychonauts 2 is partly that, by default (given it’s been in development for the better part of six years, and change). We mention it often across all media around the game, but that’s because it’s hard to ignore. Developer Double Fine is an older developer, and was one of the last true Indie holdouts before its sensational acquisition at the hands of Microsoft (which feels right, we might add), but we also haven’t forgotten how forward-thinking the studio was with each and every game it released. And while Psychonauts 2 is definitely a mature experience, explicitly in design, it doesn’t mean it’s strictly an old-school game to the core. More important to the platforming and power-ups and gated sandboxes that help justify the “old-school” descriptor, is the way in which all of this is delivered. Psychonauts 2 is a wonderfully-paced adventure with some of the best writing you’ll experience, in any year. And it’s only strengthened from its gestation in the presentation department. Long story short, Raz’s psyche-fueled exploits in his sequel proper are some of the most expansive in modern gaming, owing much to old-school design and roots but with just the right amount of Double Fine forward-thinking to offer it all up as fresh and new. This is arguably 2021’s most complete release.
As a studio Arkane’s pedigree in the first-person space is beyond reproach. With Dishonored and Prey we got some of the most tactical, versatile, and incredible slices of action in recent memory. That said, ahead of Deathloop’s release it was a little hard to grasp just what it was all about. That is, outside of the cool aesthetic and hyper-violent action seen in trailers and gameplay snippets, what did it feel like to play? This is true of a lot of Arkane joints, and in the case of Deathloop’s time-loop structure the result is as much a puzzle game as it is a stealth-shooter where you’re tasked with taking out a bunch of high-profile targets over the course of a single day. Another way to put it would be to say that the how takes precedent over the why, something that plays into both the fun ability-driven combat and mission structure that features rigid Hitman-like sandboxes where you slowly but surely begin to memorise each locale and approach each alleyway like a speedrunner approached World 1-2. Deathloop is also stylish through and through, with a ‘60s and ‘70s look that feels modern, cool, and wholly unique.
Samus’ return to the main stage was always one fraught with scrutiny. Whether it’s because Metroid Dread exists within the tumultuous shadow of Metroid Prime 4’s on-again-off-again development, or against the louder-than-life reverberation of the fan-required Metroid Prime HD Switchified trilogy, Dread breaking through at the outset looked insurmountable.
It wasn’t helped that often the throwback 2D side-scrolling Metroid outings are considered less when stacked up to the more expansive first-person adventure Primes. This flakey reasoning generally stems from these experiences living exclusively on Nintendo’s handheld platforms, and not on its flagship home consoles, a misconception that we’ll learn has helped Dread in the face of all its initial adversity.
And finally, in addition to all of this is simply that Dread would be helmed by MercurySteam -- a non-in-house Nintendo studio and, in fact, a studio not at all owned by The Big N, which is a “systems are not normal” type of scenario, especially among earnest Nintendophiles.
Still, the studio has a proven track record with both Metroid and Castlevania -- each a significant part of the overtly-touted “Metroidvania” equation. And so development in Dread -- the Switch’s first exclusive Metroid title and the first entry in the long-running franchise to exist in both a handheld and home console state, to a degree -- had at least a sense of pedigree behind it, and with that, one could only hope, fervour.
Naturally the final product speaks for itself, and while Metroid as a franchise is currently dominating the Nintendo conversation again with the above-linked rumour, speculation and basic hope, it’s Dread we really have to thank for that. MercurySteam’s love of the series shines throughout Metroid Dread, but we’d be remiss to simply call on terms like “love letter” when attributing the overall design of the game against all that came before it. As we wrote in our review:
Metroid Dread makes you feel cool. Like, everything Samus does; how she stands, how she aims, how she spider magnets, how she slides, how she now melee attacks, how she combines slide and the new melee attack -- all of it. Every little thing, including dying, looks fucking cool in Metroid Dread…
The default stance here is, well, she was always cool. And yeah, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean you can’t make her even cooler. Leon was cool in Resident Evil 2, but then Shinji made him infinitely cooler in Resi 4… but we digress.
Dread succeeds at being more Metroid than Metroid, if that makes any sense. It doesn’t wholly gate the player out of game-world and systems exploitation, and rewards players who know to do this first (the inclusion of the Morph Ball canon in the early Kraid boss battle is one example of this). Moreover, exploitation of these isn’t incidental, it’s deliberate by design, which shows the level of fervour MercurySteam brought to Dread. In our review, we also said:
There’s no hand-holding in this outing, and its pacing is a fundamentally different affair to the Primes of the gaming world. You can’t scan in Dread, which is a significant disadvantage as often things are simply marked on your map as “???” leaving you no real understanding of what they are, and often how to get by them. But this is glorious design, because you don’t have all the answers, and side-scrolling right be damned; look up, down, left, right and then beyond every one of those angles. Movement and navigation of this world, particularly when you’re stuck, is the absolute key to both progression and survival.
Metroid Dread’s level of challenge and indeed, its initially complex input system, is further proof of the game’s desire to speak to a core audience. In many ways, how you handle Dread is in antithesis to most other Nintendo game-design. This is a gamer’s game, and that fact shines throughout.
We could ramble on more and more about things like environmental storytelling and the potential future of Dread as a Prime-like staple moving forward where MercurySteam is given even more free reign, but we need to focus on ADAM’s [our] task at hand. And that is to say Metroid Dread is our Number One game of 2021, completing our Top 10 Games of 2021 and the Honourable Mentions that helped bolster the overall list and our deliberation process.
A massive thanks to all the devs and publishers. To all the PRs and marketing people and community leads and support who helped make another challenging year not just bearable, but at the very least, gamingly enjoyable. And finally to you, dear readers, for sticking by us, or even just dropping by. We're a wholly independent gaming site, self-published and forced to eat no-name cat food at times, just to get by. But we love what we do and we love sharing with you. Please keep visiting us in 2022, and be sure to tell your friends.