Friday, 31 December 2021

Games of the Year 2021

With my GPU going well past its fifth birthday (currently sitting next to a CPU that's a bit newer than that but still no longer exactly new), this was a great year for really focusing on older games and those 100 hour RPGs that seem to build up in the backlog. Because PC games will always look better next year, including the ones released years ago (thanks to nice 4K screens and the endless work of tweakers and modders to push what older engines can do). But, despite putting a few games down in anticipation of when the GPU market finally returns to normal prices and stock availability in the future, I did manage to complete some new games too.

    Beavers of the Year:


This little city builder game about beavers building up a post-human society while preparing for seasonal droughts has been eating up my time this year. In Early Access, plenty of things are going to change before it is completed but there's already something here worth diving into, starting from the question "what if beaver Banished?" The answer is both significantly more adorable and possibly going to end up being mechanically more interesting than that 2014 indie hit. You know the drill: place blueprints, assign jobs, and make sure the needs of your critters are satisfied so that you can continue on into the future. Do it right and you can grow a small community into a thriving town. Mess around and, like Cities Skylines, find out just how water simulation can ruin your day.

This game had public demos early in the year then went into full Early Access a few months ago, with the first major update to the stable branch hitting a few weeks ago and a public experimental branch for all owners if you can't wait for those changes to percolate down. The development process currently needs to figure out a few teething issues with later colony management (how do I efficiently get resources moved around storage zones and prevent all these beavers from doing lots of inefficient work rather than smartly managing jobs so haulers wait to move logs from the active chopping areas to where they are needed) but you'll take a dozen or more hours to get to the point where this is holding you back. Before that you already have two family types who have interesting tech trees to develop down and slowly master the various scenario locations by building plenty of dams and vertically arranging your cities.

    Civ of the Year:


I say I love Civilization (specifically that sub-genre of historical non-space 4X game) because I've played hundreds (thousands?) of hours of those games and loved my time with them. Civ 2 is very hard to go back to and the undifferentiated civs somewhat flattens it (just like going back to an RTS when everything was mirror matches rather than imbuing factions with mechanical character). I find Civ 4 is starting to get hard to go back to because so much has moved to hexes now and the death stacks plus AI spiral of hatred makes the latter game less than amazing. Civ 5 was my first "wait, do I like the last one more" but probably I'd say that despite the happiness mechanic brutally punishing expansion, it's probably the game I'd play the most today. Civ 6 feels like it tried to fix 5 and failed, even if merging units to create semi-stacks kinda works and the other changes help move it away from constantly butting against constraints (I have not played the expansions - I bounced off it that hard; especially when they sold a New Frontier Pass or Anthology Edition because they wanted even more paid DLC after the two full expansions shipped).

But before Civ 6 was introducing districts to expand your city on the actual map (despite still only allowing you to grow into the classic 3 tile range of your centre and not allowing more than one of any district type - making them little more than added costs before you could build up the specialist building stack in any city), a little game called Endless Legend was already doing districts. It was a fantasy 4X game which is definitely not a Civ-like: important hero units, customising equipment like a space 4X (MOO style), and turning quests into far more of an RPG layer to name but a few features. That team is now back with their own actual Civ-like and I found it excellent.

Humankind in some respects resembles Civ 6, although this is certainly not a clone (especially, as noted above, some of those Civ 6 similarities come from a previous game from this team doing their own spin on districts etc before Civ did). Another way to consider it is that this is a look at what an alternative evolution of Civ 4 might look like today. The path not taken by Firaxis. Unit stacks exist but are limited and work very differently as combat resolves in a mini turn-based battle on the hexes around where combat started (including options for reinforcements if any other stacks are close). Districts grow a city (bounded by population and local happiness) but are not unique or a storage block for other buildings but those cities are places on pre-defined geographic areas they control and automatically work by proximity not a population placement mechanic. Each area can be joined to a city to form larger blocks or put under provisional control via a cheap outpost where provisional control does not enforce hard borders so skirmishes happen far more often. The list goes on and on but every inch of this game feels Civ-like (as each actual Civ sequel may change any given mechanic but still retains the feel) - just not a Civ you've ever played before.

What feels so incredibly fresh about Humankind is the way you can actually have a bit of friction with other Civs without it becoming a diplomatic nightmare or some endless war that builds and explodes in the later game. Endless Legend modelled this as earlier encounters being flagged as in the age of skirmishes - when border conflicts were normal but not formally war between nations - before you developed formal relations technologies. The use of outposts to cheaply control land with only what armies you can muster to enforce a demand for a border there do much the same here. The casus belli mechanics here also feel a lot more like a Paradox title (in fact, I'd love an expansion that moved even further into Paradox war mechanics with preparing frontlines and supply lines when formal war does break out) than how it worked in Civ 6. You also have a pre-city era where you scout the map and hunt wild animals for resources before you establish yourself, so everyone starts out with far more local awareness than a Civ race to found.

But what I've also done here is buried the lede: each era (which you race towards via getting stars in various categories rather than just racing on scientific research) you get to pick a new civ which combines an eternal perk that lasts into the future with era-specific perks that make it a lot like a modern Civ game but you're not trapped chasing the win condition based on the perks you picked before the game begins. If you need to get a boost to science or your economy or are about to start a large war then you can tailor your perks to that, assuming your pick isn't already taken by someone else getting to the era first and taking them. There are also some catch-up mechanics to give slower players a bit of assistance despite having their choices limited, although I hear this works less well in an online game against other actual players (I primarily play my Civ games solitaire). This is a feature I will find it hard to go back to playing without in other games. But with Humankind and Old World showing there is more to Civ-likes than just Firaxis games, this sub-genre feels healthier than ever before.

    Time Loop of the Year:

The Forgotten City

A proven idea prototyped out as a finished game mod (here for Skyrim) then supported via various loans and grants for the arts so it can become a full commercial release (here moving to Unreal Engine)? This is a great example of where things are working the way we say they should from when it used to be a bit more common to pay attention to mods (and the free SDKs that enabled them were more prominent in AAA gaming). It may have taken five years to make but this small team have crafted something that feels both entirely itself and also the sort of thing you'd make if you prototyped everything inside Skyrim, right down to how the conversation camera zooms in to show who you're talking to (without worrying about the budget for a cinematic conversation camera system).

You are a modern day traveller who has awoken on the banks of a river as a mysterious figure asks you to explore the surroundings and find a missing stranger who just recently walked past. In very short order, you are flung back to a tiny Roman civilization trapped in an underground city and cursed by the Gods to ask what is the nature of sin, for breaking the rules will unleash an armageddon destroying everyone there. But the current leader has done a side deal with one of the deities and when that final day comes, they can rewind time back to the previous morning. This is where you come in: you must talk to everyone here, find out who is going to break the rules, and stop them. If you fail, run for the portal that brought you in and the day will restart.

What follows is an engaging adventure game that's almost entirely about talking to characters, working out what's actually going on, and making sure everyone does what you want them to on this loop or making sure next loop you have in your pocket the thing you're currently missing (theft is definitely a sin here, but what's one more iteration of the loop if you really need to pickpocket that trinket and know you can make it back to the portal easily from here). Where does the writing land? If this had come out when I was an undergrad, it would probably have topped my GotY list. There is also plenty of smart game design around making sure you rarely have to do things multiple times, because someone will give you a hand if you tell them what you did last time so they can effectively advance the loop how you need it without repetition. There is also about an hour of combat through what I found a very interesting side story, which is entirely optional and warns you that it can get a bit scary and involves lots of aiming (presumably finding that some people found the mod was otherwise fun without this chunk that mixes up the gameplay significantly). Everything here feels polished by having tried it all before during the mod prototype.

    Halo of the Year:

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

My game of the year 2019 finally got some DLC that expands that solar system with another celestial body while explaining another facet of the history of that mysterious universe? Obviously, sign me up for another trip to Timber Hearth.

What you get, after discovering how something you could never see before has been hiding in plain sight, is a miniature halo world which, like the rest of the game, runs on its own clockwork timer as you count down to the supernova. If you've played the main game then you know roughly what to expect with lots of discovery and only the computer in your ship tracking what you've found between loops. What you don't expect, unless you've seen the trailer for this DLC, is the significantly more immediate horror elements (rather than the pure existential dread of spelunking between the ruins of a long-dead race in the original) that creep into this world and then creep up on you as you explore into the second new area. I will keep it vague to avoid spoiling any of the major reveals because this game and DLC is all about discovery but I will say that the remixed and expanded mechanics on offer here keep things fresh and I couldn't wait to find out where the story of this particular halo was going. My only complaint is that this DLC integrates fully into the existing game without giving a real narrative close to things with a bespoke ending (how the story concludes didn't have the finality I wanted and the small addition to the main ending doesn't get me to where I wanted to get). Given the main game provides several early endings that provided alternative firm closes to various avenues, I was surprised to not see one more ending available here (unless I just missed the signs and couldn't work out how to unlock it).

    Survivor of the Year:

Subnautica: Below Zero

I came to this series a bit late (given it had an extensive Early Access period 2014-2018) and thoroughly enjoyed my time descending into the depths with Subnautica. Combining a single designed underwater world (no procgen or other randomisation more typical of this crafting survival sub-genre) with light narrative hooks (hints of Alien, but not aping that aesthetic at all) and a good mechanical progression through the various survival and habitat building paths, you get just enough discovery and crafted events in the original to feel a bit special. Explore the world, work out what's going on, then work out how you're going to solve it. Build then upgrade the submersible to enable you to travel deeper, which will unlock various parts of the story and access to resources you need to build the next tier of upgrades or a new thing. By the time they stopped patching it, everything was a bit slick and the modding community had even given you a few more options (from new crafting options to an entire map system that filled in the areas you'd travelled to rather than relying on just the navigational beacons and compass).

Below Zero is the standalone expansion that takes place on an entirely new area with significantly more above-water area and a lot more story. There are actual characters you will encounter and talk with along with a lot more story to discover about the planet the previous character was stranded on and what happened both before anyone arrived and after they left. A lot of the tech tree is back and lightly tweaked with new recipes to match the different resources available in this area. The visuals push things up to show off more land, demonstrate the colder climate and more varied weather, and make sure the different biomes always look their best. While billed as not a full sequel, I took about 20 hours to play through Below Zero (about the same as the original game) and cannot imagine playing an eventual sequel without knowing the story of this (which seems far more like the setup for that sequel, especially given what this one says about what happened after the original game). I will say that I did not hugely care for the new vehicles introduced in this but then my old Prawn was something I'd mastered in the original and took me through this handily. There is just enough of an edge of the horror part of survival horror (which the crafting survival sub-genre is linked to) in this series to keep you on your toes, although it is definitely not a combat game and most of it can be played at quite a leisurely pace, full of vistas that generate awe with only brief interludes of panicked fleeing. Putting this game right next to a section on Outer Wilds definitely gets my synapses firing, even if I'd not say they exactly shared a genre (but the Immersive Sim DNA is evident in both).

    Sequel of the Year:

Psychonauts 2

In the years since Psychonauts released in 2005, the abandoned result of a Microsoft publishing deal gone south, lots of people have discovered and loved it. I'm about 60% with them. The other 40% is that this was never a game that was good to play, even before we'd totally standardised joypad action-platforming controls, and something about the actual technical art is just supremely disappointing. You can kinda see what they wanted to do but couldn't, be that from budgetary restraints, trying to get a project to the finish line after being dropped by the publisher, or just tech limitations with the studio dev pipeline at the time.

In a supremely good turn of fortune, the sequel that was originally crowdfunded but later finished off with the backing of now-studio-owner Microsoft (funny how the circle turns) looks exactly how you'd want it to in 2021. What's more, it generally plays well too. I've never been a huge fan of the 3D platformer and related genres but sometimes the quality of the writing and interesting varied gameplay and visuals will keep me going and this is the perfect example of having more than enough ideas to sustain the duration of the game then also sticking the landing with actually implementing those ideas into something that plays well. No 60% agree on this one - it's a 100% banger!

We are getting to the place where "of course it looks like an animated movie" is starting to seep into our expectations but that shouldn't take away from how well Psychonauts 2 manages to capture some of the style behind the first game while actually making it look really good. Unreal Engine is once again doing a very solid job rendering everything in pop-out vibrant colours that the artists aimed for while also giving a cohesive set of effects to ground the various elements no matter how fantastical their inspiration. Even looking at it from a purely technical perspective, it's doing most everything right. Wrap it up in the narrative chops the studio is well known for (reaching into the minds of the various characters presented), shake with a few catchy musical numbers, and serve.

    RTS of the Year:

Age of Empires IV

Ensemble Studios made Age of Empires II in 1999. Over 20 years later, made by Relic Entertainment, this is effectively Age of Empires II-2. Everything you remember (possibly refreshed by the recent remaster of that earlier game) is basically here with a few new spins and a lot of new flourishes around the edge. The several faction campaigns (which I hope will be expended over time with campaigns for the remaining factions and even some new factions added to the game) draw you through some lavishly produced documentary videos explaining the history of the time and then dumping you into a short scenario map that allows you to have a bit of fun on something that approximates what the documentary was talking about, including with additional VO narrating the events as they occur in the scenario itself. It's a good binding layer that ties the RTS together while also offering little bites of historical facts about the actual events from primarily Northern Eurasian history.

We do not get many classic RTSs and this is as classic as you can possibly get. It feels like how you remember those old games looking and playing, while actually bringing them into the modern era (unfortunately this means the actual game looks a lot more like a nicer version of a 20 year old classic rather than the initial menu and interstitial loading screens, which have an amazing gold-lined style that could look really good if implemented into the game itself). You also get a bit of variation with the faction designs moving forward and offering something slightly different when it comes to things like a nomadic faction who can pack up every building and who are meant to slowly deplete rock outcrops rather than rapidly mining them with many workers. It never feels like you'd be better off just going back to the AoE2 remake from a few years ago.

AoE4 also ensures that new players who are brought into this series via the ease of GamePass will not feel completely lost. I've been obsessively playing RTSs since Dune 2 in 1992 or maybe even Mega-Lo-Mania in 1991 (depending where you call the origin of the current RTS design) so some of the tutorials are not really something I can fully judge. But giving them a quick look over, and how the first couple of faction campaigns operate as elaborate tutorials for most of the core mechanics shared by all factions, it all seems like the sort of onboarding that will ensure someone isn't lost. If anyone wants to take it further, the game quickly highlights online multiplayer and practicing for that via AI skirmishes. But even if you just go through the campaigns, this isn't light on content.

    Rest of the Year:
Forza Horizon 5 - The sequel to Forza Horizon 4 is exactly what you expect the sequel to that game to be. Some of the visuals are definitely a step up thanks to being a cross-gen title for a new console generation but the underlying engine is still having increasing issues keeping foliage shimmer and other sources of aliasing under control when it only has MSAA (which is way too expensive if you force transparency MSAA in the drivers on PC to be a realistic option on my current system) to work with. Imagine what this would look like with a DLSS/XeSS patch on PC to clean everything up while also reducing the internal resolution so that it can run at even higher framerates consistently. They also clearly tweaked AI difficulty somewhat, especially in dirt events and it seems even more "win by a mile or never even have a chance because you start at the back of the pack" than before (all assists off, top difficulty) so maybe that could do with a few more iterations (before the expiring car licenses permanently delists this and any accumulated content updates or DLC in a few years).

Outriders - Some have called this a B game or ripped out of the PS360 generation but with a large online endgame, modern look, and responsive gameplay, this felt completely current to me. The disconnect may simply be that the narrative doesn't aim for the Sony house style or where the Call of Duty crowd has ended up. But B game is certainly not an accurate assessment of the assets on show, which are right up there with other AAA releases from big publishers (everything about this is a step up from when this team made a Gears of War title). From a technical perspective, I do not understand calling this "budget" while remaining absolutely silent on how Metroid Dread is priced as a AAA game but competes almost entirely with $20 indie titles (which look no more constrained by budget). Outriders is a good loot shooter with plenty of optional missions to give you reasons to return to the quite linear path through their interesting world. My main gripe is the tone never quite settles down and this comes to a crescendo near the end when they choose to place some combat encounters in an abandoned concentration camp (which would have been a lot more effective as a hauntingly silent walk).

The Riftbreaker - Part base builder, part top-down action shooter. This is one of those little hits that bubbles out of nowhere and possibly will not be remembered by that many in a few years but was fun while it lasted. The use of persistent bases that you move between, with different environmental hazards in each region and a slowly explored tech tree, creates a good campaign flow that feels unlike a traditional RTS but also not just a tower defence level-based game. Layer the (chatty - with generally enjoyable VO) mech suit you pilot on top as a super-unit in a game otherwise devoid of controllable units while infested by a lot of hostile critters and waves of attacks - it's both quite frantic and something where you feel you can usually come back as long as you put your attention in the right place. We haven't had a lot of RTS games, classic or slightly weird variants, for a while so this was something to savour.

Sable - This really wowed quite a few people but I have to say it didn't hit me nearly as hard. The visuals reflect their influence well but something about the aliased edges really rubbed me the wrong way about how to digitise the original art style. To the point I injected FXAA and fixed it for myself (something the sparse graphics options do not offer). It's very much an open world game that's more about the act of traversal (both climbing and by customisable ship) than much of the actual fetch quests you get during your travels. What the story said about finding your place in the world: that bit was a big miss for me.

Exo One - This is just an incredibly visually lush experience. You control a probe, built to specifications beamed into the solar system, and have the power to increase your local gravity tenfold or reshape into a disc that glides on the breeze. Travel through several planetoids as you try to make sense of what happened after taking control of the probe but really this is a game about vibes and enjoying the act of traversal.

Next Space Rebels - I didn't see this bothering too many people's lists but I did want to just make a note of it because Kerbal Space Program but with a full narrative wrapper (around YouTube toy rocket stars and dark shadowy internet land-grabs, all done with FMV) isn't something you see every month. The 2D rocket designer never quite matched the precision of KSP and neither did the actual flight controls but at least people are trying to make their own spin on the formula. More of this sort of thing.

Myst (2021) - Name another game that has, for a single game world - so direct remasters/rebuilds only not stealth sequels or other offshoots - been rendered both by offline render (1993) + real-time (realMyst onward) during different iterations and has used their own internal 3D engine (realMyst using Plasma), Unity (realMyst: Masterpiece Edition), and Unreal Engine (2021). This 2021 rebuild of the classic 1993 game (based on the work done last year for a VR port) completely remakes everything once more and clearly eclipses the original offline renders in every single way. Is it the best adventure game for modern tastes? Not really but if you half-remember most of the puzzles and haven't played one of these 3D remakes in almost twenty years then it's quite fun to go back.

Twelve Minutes - I didn't hate this nearly as much as the eventual critical consensus but I also went in after the discourse had said it doesn't stick the landing so buyer (and pre-release hype believer) beware. I quite liked the VO performances, felt the eventual plot twist was gratuitous but no worse than what many reach for looking for shock value, and enjoyed working out the path through the loop - even if I possibly didn't find them all. (Why was Dafoe playing two different roles in an identical voice? Was that ever explained?)

Unpacking - This hit a lot of people's lists but was a bit too slight for me to rank it in my top games. A short sweet tale of environmental storytelling you can finish off in a single sitting.

    Waiting for a PS5 or New GPU:
Everything new in VR - The Valve Index deserves it; Scarlet Nexus - Something about how the PC port runs isn't quite right but hopefully a patch, mods, or brute force GPU power can fix it; The Medium - Beautiful survival horror slash adventure game? Can't wait; Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy - I didn't mind the story part of "the bad" Eidos Marvel game last year so looking forward to a universally liked one; Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart - PS5 exclusive is PS5 exclusive; Returnal - Run-based action shooter that dials the particles up to 11? Ok; Halo Infinite - A year of post-release patches and a new GPU should make this sing (please add DLSS/XeSS because the current TAA upscale is… definitely something); Deathloop - DXR visuals are worth waiting for, along with the online being reinvigorated by what I expect will be a big Xbox and GamePass release in a year; Resident Evil Village - RE7 was very good in VR and on PC but given the lack of the former here, I'm sat waiting for them to fully fix that completely broken PC port; Kena: Bridge of Spirits - Lovely animation and a consistent art design (worth playing looking its best); The Ascent - Top-down ARPG fun but a bit too heavy for my current GPU.

    To Play Next Year:
Even in another quiet year, some titles I just didn't find time to play. Luckily they will still be there next year, along with everything else in my backlog. The Artful Escape, Shin Megami Tensei V, Far Cry 6, Tales of Arise, Inscryption, Life Is Strange: True Colors, Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, Hitman 3, Lost Judgment, NEO: The World Ends with You, The Gunk, Oddworld: Soulstorm, Biomutant, Recompile.