Jeff Gerstmann is a professionally recognized anime expert who loves to "get fresh." You can follow him online via Tiktok at @freddurst2000.
OK, forget whatever I'm going to write about whenever I get to the top video games of the year later on down this page. The video game of 2021 is Outriders. Outriders is the 2021 of video games. Outriders is the game I played while I was waiting to get to the other side of wherever it was that I was then, in hopes of getting to something better on the other side. It wasn't a bad year, and Outriders was not a bad game. But in a lot of ways I was just trying to get through it and get on to whatever is next.
I never did finish Outriders, but then these first weeks of 2022 have felt a lot like 2021, too, so hey, maybe that balances out.
The release cadence and quality of video games felt a little herky-jerky all year. Many of the big games were things that had been delayed into their eventual 2021 release window, and a lot of stuff launched in weird states of not-quite-ready. The video game industry's transition to working from home happened in 2020, and things were probably smoother by 2021, but... not the sort of thing you'd actually call "smooth."
As for myself, I opened the year with a newly-pregnant wife and we immediately started making plans for how all that was going to go. Additional bedrooms would be needed if we were going to continue working from home while also filling the house full of kids. So I started eyeballing what could be done about that in January or so. I also started thinking about what we, as a site and as a team, might look like on the other side of all this. Remember that week or two there where it seemed like there was going to be another side to all this?
Well I won't bore you with the details of all the similarly herky-jerky plans that we went through all year here around staffing, physical locations, trade shows, and all that stuff. Let's just say I spent a lot of 2021 in meetings that ended up going nowhere.
THE GAMES OF 2021
10. Loop Hero
Loop Hero is a series of really cool ideas that work well together. It can be deceiving at first, because on one hand it looks like your typical indie deckbuilder. But then it also looks a bit like an idle game. And, in some ways, it almost looks like a board game. But it isn't quite any of those things. The process of placing your tiles, managing your equipment, and deciding how many loops you want to run before chickening out and cashing in your resources is thrilling. You can gamble and try to squeeze out one more loop, but the monsters you encounter and the bad luck that can swing your way at any given time make everything risky, which in turn makes all your decisions feel like they matter.
9. Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown
Virtua Fighter (VF4, to be precise) marks the first time I ever truly felt like I had to stop messing around and pick a main in a fighting game. Sarah is that main and I will never waver! VF5 is a terrific fighting game, and it was a really cool surprise to see a PlayStation 4 version of it pop up as a PlayStation Plus game last year. It still feels great, plays well, and this one had fairly decent online support, too. Ultimately I just want this to lead to a Virtua Fighter 6. I... I need this.
8. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
You could probably say this across multiple games in multiple eras, but Rift Apart feels like the Ratchet & Clank game that finally conveys what the series was always trying to do all along. It's got this seamlessness to its transitions that just keep the action moving, helping the pace of everything from the writing to the shooting. It also looks fantastic, like the sort of thing that you wouldn't have expected to be rendered in real-time on a console. It's a stupid cliche, I know, but this feels like that game Sony was talking about when they spent all that time in the run-up to the PlayStation 2's release talking about "Pixar-quality graphics" and stuff like that. I can't believe how good games can look now, it's easy to take that for granted, but... think about what your brain would have done if you had seen this thing 10 years ago. Just unfathomable.
7. Babble Royale
The idea here is to turn Scrabble into a multiplayer, battle royale style game. And it works shockingly well. It's easy to laugh about it for how ridiculous it seems on paper, but Babble Royale is an incredible idea that has been executed extremely well. This is the sort of game that just makes me feel like an absolute idiot. I would never come up with anything this smart. Me dumb in head, hit rock.
6. Forza Horizon 5
I don't think there's too much to really say about Forza Horizon 5 other than that it continues the legacy of the previous Horizon games while changing up its progression process in ways that make the game feel more inviting and open, rather than always funneling you into boring, pre-fab events. The game uses its environment really well and, you know what? It's just a pleasant, beautiful video game. It's joyous in the way more games used to be.
5. Hitman 3
Hitman 3? Also joyous in the way more games used to be. The thrills of choking out a chef, stealing his uniform, and then chucking a fire extinguisher directly into someone's face--that's what Hitman 3 offers. I'm going to just assume that you've played most of these missions before, we've been talking about it for years. Hitman 3 is more great Hitman. The only catch is that you need to dig through a zillion different little packages to figure out which one you're meant to purchase. I might've thought the recently released "Hitman Trilogy" roll-up would've fixed this, but on Steam anyway, it's still sort of a mess. Anyway, Hitman's thrills come from it sticking to its often-ludicrous ruleset. It doesn't go for real realism, it sticks to Hitman realism. Playing around in that specific sandbox is still amazing, even after three of these things.
4. Metroid Dread
I spent months of this year thinking that Metroid Dread was the best game I'd play all year, but after finishing it and reflecting back on it, I wish the environment was a little more open. It doesn't quite lead you around by the nose, but the game really tends to push you in the right direction more than I want a standard search action game to do. I think the difficulty is just right in ways that give the game stakes, preventing you from getting too complacent as you progress. Also, I'm not much for the Metroid lore or anything like that, but I thought the story moved along well enough, too. It plays great, with satisfying, timing-based moves that make you feel like you're an extremely tall bounty hunter lady in some kind of crazy space armor.
3. Cruelty Squad
Cruelty Squad is actively unpleasant to look at, listen to, and, at times, to play. It also has a depraved level of depth to it that, at first, you might think it doesn't deserve. Like what kind of monster would create such a game? What gives them the right to foist this onto an unsuspecting public? As you dig through the layers and layers of sludge on display it becomes warm. The sludge begins to feel like home. I've come to embrace it, from its body part stock market to all of its immersive sim trappings. More than anything, I love that gaming has expanded to a point where something like Cruelty Squad can not only exist, but seemingly thrive.
2. Axiom Verge 2
As a big fan of the original Axiom Verge, I really wasn't sure what to expect from the pre-release footage of Axiom Verge 2. It looks... completely different. It looks... melee-focused? It didn't look like it was scratching the same itch that the first game did. And... that's true, I don't think Axiom Verge 2 is especially similar to the first game, from a gameplay perspective. But the story, set in the same universe, is engaging on its own, and I found the world exciting to explore. Axiom Verge 2 comes up with interesting sorts of items and options that help you explore more of the world without falling into the same sorts of buckets that a lot of search action games attempt to fill. That said, if we want to break it down to some shorthand, here it is: Axiom Verge is a Metroid game, Axiom Verge 2 is a Castlevania game. I guess that's both of them, then.
1. Halo Infinite
I remember the holiday break I had in 2004. That week or two that I get to use however I want. I get to come home from the video game job and not think about the video game job. So, naturally, I played Halo 2. I... hated it. Halo's slow, floaty gameplay and its overwrought story--which was on full display in Halo 2--just rubbed me the wrong way. In a world where high-speed shooters like Quake III Arena existed, those early Halo games just felt like... I don't know, they felt like shooters for people who didn't play shooters or something. Maybe that's too mean. I remember getting to the end of the campaign and, even after loosely hearing that the ending was stupid, I still dropped my controller and started laughing maniacally at the screen. What a dumb game.
Halo 3 turned me around on all that. Moving to a new console helped the look of the game, the Xbox 360 controller was significantly better than the original Xbox controller, and it just felt like a good time, all around. The encounters felt well-paced and engaging, and the story, with all of its "finish the fight" marketing, finally felt like it mattered. It didn't quite turn me into "a Halo guy," but it turned me into someone who wanted to play just about everything that came after that. Reach was cool, ODST was the very definition of "a vibe," and then the 343 era began and... yeah. I mean, Halo 4 and 5 certainly aren't bad games, but for a trilogy that felt like it closed in a way that would need dramatic changes to happen in order to reopen it, Halo 4 sure did feel like it was smashing that "break glass in case of Halo" glass on the Master Chief's sleep pod for some questionable reasons.
Halo Infinite feels like the departure that you would have liked to have seen out of Halo 4. The open-ish world lends the game a renewed sense of scale and scope, something the series had been classically known for. And that time-tested combat felt extremely honed with some nice new options. Well... option. The grappling hook is great for both traversal and for getting into combat shenanigans. I wish it was just a standard item in the competitive multiplayer, but that might be too chaotic.
The multiplayer has had its bumps, but I feel like this is the best multiplayer Halo game I've played. The maps are nice, the weapons are exciting, and the modes are still great. Obviously it's a different beast now, what with it being free-to-play and all, but I think the developers have done a good job at maintaining the things you want out of a Halo game while finding ways to branch out and try new things. It probably doesn't hurt that every other big shooter release I played this year was extremely disappointing, but I'm still having a really great time with Halo Infinite.
OK, THE REST
I would like to send a special shoutout to Quake, a video game that came out on consoles and PC with crossplay this year. How nuts is that? It was fun to dip back into the original Quake via a fairly easy-to-use package, even if some of those source ports that have been kicking around for decades offer a few more bells and whistles. Also greets to Scarlet Nexus, a neat game that very nearly made this list.
Here are a few music video things I liked in 2021. I still like them now, I just liked them then, too.
OK, I'm going to get back to playing Dying Light 2 now. That's the thing about video games, there are always more of 'em! I hope you had a cool year and thanks a lot for riding with us. I do this for y'all. Stay safe.