“It has been a bad year. A bad year with, mercifully, some very good video games”. That’s what I said this time last year as I tried to exit 2020 with some optimism. Womp. Turns out 2021 would be even worse, since this time around there weren’t even many “very good video games”.
Now is not the time for you to tell me there were very good video games. This is my list, from my perspective, based on my tastes. And when it comes to the games I like to play, 2021 was a historically barren year. I can’t remember a single game that truly got me hooked, that got me playing on nights and weekends outside work hours, that pulled me in like so many of my previous Luke’s Game Of The Year winners had.
Instead it was a year marked by disappointment after disappointment, as the games I had been looking forward to spending the most time with crash-landed onto the market in pieces. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s expansions
just kept on coming, and broke the last patience I had for the Ubisoft Formula (go to this tower —> expose map —> have missions unlock). Which might explain why I also did not enjoy Far Cry 6 one bit, even though previous games in the series had comfortably made my end-of-year lists. And also maybe why I bounced right off Halo: Infinite, which felt like a game from 2001 dressed up with the open world tedium of 2021.
Then there’s Humankind, my most anticipated game in years. I don’t normally get excited about upcoming video games, but it looked absolutely perfect to me, a game that was ticking every single one of my boxes. Only then it arrived and it didn’t. Battlefield 2042 is fucking amazing when it’s fucking amazing, but an unfinished piece of garbage when it’s not. Even sports games, my one guilty pleasure, had a very bad year: Konami’s PES series dug its own grave with a disastrous rebrand, NBA 2K now lives in the 7th level of hell and FIFA is just plain tired.
I’m sorry if this has been a downer. This is supposed to be a celebration of the best games of the year, not a recap of how much everything sucked. But for me 2021 was defined by these disappointments. We’re living through rough times, and I think it’s OK to feel down about things sometimes, to take stock and recognise that video games can’t always be perpetually improving, that things can’t always be amazing.
The pandemic has hit game development hard, and while we can try and pretend life got back to normal for a little while there, the fact remains games take years to get made, and every single title released in 2021 has been impacted at some point by serious challenges to the usual development pipeline. I think it’s important to recognise this in posts like this, to understand that alongside the good there’s a very good reason for so much of the bad, one that goes way beyond “oh there just weren’t many games for me this year”.
Anyway! Enough depression and disappointment. I still played some good video games this year, so let’s move on from all this gloom and celebrate them below. They’re in no particular order, but if you absolutely need a “winner” here, then my Game of the Year was Lost Judgment, because:
I get it, it’s thoroughly broken, and I have no idea if this game suffered greatly at the hands of the pandemic, broken management or both. But the one thing it gets right—its colossal 128-player battles, which is what I’m here for—it gets very, very right.
Having only just been released, this was a very late contender to make the list! This expansion landed very quietly (how appropriate), bringing all-new missions to one of the great stealth/tactics games of our age. With Desperadoes 3 having just begun to fade into the background of my consciousness, this was a timely reminder that nobody is doing this stuff better than Mimimi Games.
I’ve played most of these Forza games, and while they’ve always been fun, they’ve also always been weirdly disposable. For a few reasons—the racing, the setting, the crisp visuals—this one seems to have finally broken through, though it’s Far Cry-esque cultural tourism stuff remains a little on the nose.
I hate moving house in real life, and don’t ever want to do it again. I however love moving house in Unpacking, and have done it several times in a row after reviewing the game. Its insistence on putting everything in its place can get a little grating in certain spaces, but on the whole the way it was able to tell a story—while still giving the player the space to tell their own story—within the confines of an object-placing game was one hell of an achievement.
It’s really frustrating that the on-foot sections of this game are so terrible, because the rest of it is a simply magical experience. Evoking as many memories of Breath of the Wild’s loneliest moments as it does Moebius’ iconic comic style, Sable is a game where the destination has rarely been more irrelevant, because it’s the journey that’s the real star here.
I’m not normally someone who enjoys getting my ass kicked in a game, but like I said earlier this year, Highfleet does it in the best ways possible. It’s been months since I last played it, but I still think about it a lot, especially with Dune still on my mind as well.
It didn’t quite have the clarity of purpose that Mini Metro did, but the theme—and its gentle criticisms of the concept of motorways themselves—was only part of the appeal here. Mostly this was just a great way to enjoy more of Dinosaur Polo Club’s meticulous puzzle design, which is able to present each challenge as a canvas upon which the player can paint their wildest (transit) ideas upon.
I like building cities. I like board games. I like chilling out. I like things that look nice. And so it came to pass that I liked Dorfromantik, very much.
I just love Yakuza games so damn much, and so any time one of them drops it’s an automatic contender for my personal GOTY. I especially liked Lost Judgment though because with the whole franchise at a crossroads it was simultaneously the best of both old and new.
Wait, just how long has 2021 been? Hitman 3 came out this year? Jesus Christ.
Well, that’s good news for this list at least, because just like the last couple of releases, this was a fantastic exercise in murderous dress-ups, combining tense stealth action with some genuinely hilarious puzzles. Puzzles involving dressing up, and murder. The best of which involved a grape press, though the entirety of the Berlin level will also live long in the memory.