So many videogames treat their human characters as singularly good or evil, or worse, as disposable cannon fodder that exist only to be killed. In addition to its excellent platforming, puzzles, and action, Psychonauts 2 impresses the most because it treats human frailty and failure with warmth, compassion, and humor that is never cruel or demeaning. Inside our heads, we’re all just bundles of doubt, random connections, ill-considered motivations, and weird memories mixed with kindness, aspiration, and delight. I’m grateful to Psychonauts 2 for the reminder.
For anyone who has even the slightest interest in Formula 1 racing – and thanks to the Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive there may be many with their curiosity piqued – F1 2021 will become their new sports gaming pastime. Catering to both casual newcomers and the most exacting simulation-seekers, F1 2021 offers a mind-blowing amount of polished and entertaining content, whether your preference is to race alone or with others. With the new Braking Point single-player story and improvements and expansions to just about everything else, F1 2021 is that rare instance of an annual sports game that has managed to continue to get better with every release.
Setting aside it coming from such a small team, I think The Ascent is miraculous in a couple of ways. First, the detailed world-building, environmental storytelling, and atmosphere are maybe the best expression of the cyberpunk aesthetic I’ve ever seen in a game. Second, the developers have seemingly cataloged every annoying mechanic in RPGs and action games — from death to rapid travel to inventory management — and found a way to make them less onerous or disappear altogether. The Ascent is not an easy game, either mechanically or thematically, but it is completely engaging if for no other reason than to see into a very convincingly realized future.
Chivalry 2 marries ridiculously violent melee combat to a tone that completely undercuts any notion that the mayhem should be taken seriously. With that out of the way, it provides accessible but ultimately challenging swordplay and the promise of nearly endless multiplayer fun. It doesn’t try to do everything, but instead picks a lane and absolutely owns it.
Townscaper exists in that special chill vibe genre that includes games like digital coloring books and virtual bubble wrap, but it also nudges gently up against city builders as well, only without any of the complications or stress. It makes you feel like a creative, relaxed time traveler, bringing into existence a peaceful, little perfect town out in the middle of a perfectly calm sea. Townscaper doesn’t try to do a lot of things, instead it does one thing very, very well.
If you thought Groundhog Day would have been even more awesome with guns and assassinations or that Dishonored would have been a better game if only Quentin Tarantino had directed it, you’d probably enjoy Deathloop. Despite some issues with pacing, bugs, AI, and mechanical clarity, Deathloop is smart, funny, intricately designed, and driven by engaging action, cool puzzles, and relative freedom to approach its objectives in various ways. Deathloop is an addictive and rewarding shooter and one of the most ambitious action games this year.
Legacy of the Void is an excellent conclusion to Blizzard's trilogy. While one can get impatient with the familiar mission structure, it's impossible to argue with the excellent faction balance and action. As a genre, real time strategy games have lost a bit of appeal and the StarCraft 2 trilogy doesn't move them into new territory. Let's leave that for the next generation. Right now, there's Legacy of the Void. It's all good.
Although it doesn’t include all the PC game’s extra content, Civ VI comes to the PS4 and Xbox with both the Rise and Fall and Gathering Storm expansions and the latter in particular is a literal game changer. I can certainly imagine using Civ VI as an engaging educational tool to consider the many competing forces around climate change.
There’s no denying that The Outer Worlds bears the imprint of earlier Obsidian games and a number of other timeless RPGs as well, but those influences do little to diminish the accomplishment of some amazing worldbuilding, entertaining storytelling and brilliantly realized characters.