Game of the Year 2021
A1. Halo Infinite
There are many well-deserved criticisms you could level at Halo Infinite, and it feels odd to be opening my pick for GOTY (even though it's technically second on my list...) with a list of caveats. Its open world is undercooked, lacks variety, and is rather barren and lifeless compared to the best examples of their kind, and it's a game that is clearly heavily compromised and pared down from its original vision. The story is, let's be frank, fucking rubbish, and why anyone thought hearing a growling space-monkey drone endlessly on and on about how he was going to kill you would be in any way compelling is utterly beyond me. It's ultimately a game that could have been so much more, and was almost certainly to some extent cobbled together in the end to get it out of the door after a torrid development, of that there's little doubt.
And yet despite all this, and in the face of the embarrassing stumble of its extremely underwhelming first showing that led to a humiliating year-long delay, I think 343i still managed to deliver something that was frequently brilliant and ultimately provided me with the most fun I had all year. In the ways that really count I think it achieved what it set out to do, which is provide a vastly expanded space in which to engage in the peerless core combat and a canvas that was ripe for creating emergent and chaotically fun experiences, of which I ended up having hundreds. It’s the mark of a great game to me that you can create your own fun by utilising the underlying systems and mechanics to tease out all the possibilities. Breath of the Wild is probably the ultimate exemplar of this, but I think it’s a triumph that Halo Infinite gave you such a broad and ever-present palette with which to play and consistently produced phenomenally entertaining and thunderous combat encounters as a result.
Ultimately it was that core combat sandbox, the fantastically smooth movement that was taken to the next level with the grapple, the brilliantly meaty sound design, the fundamental core aspects of what you’re doing from moment to moment in the game and the way it all felt in the hand that were just absolutely fucking superb. Whether it was sniping a Jackal across a mountainside meadow or smacking a Grunt in the chops in a Banished installation it never ever felt anything less than immensely satisfying. It was just pure, unadulterated fun to play and all the little niggles and missed opportunities just melted away when a chain explosion sent a vaporised Brute somersaulting over your head and a marine cheered in celebration, before you accidentally and unceremoniously blew him up with a rocket launcher. You just don’t get that experience anywhere else.
It’s the first Halo game in a very long time that had me grinning from ear to ear whispering 'Oh this is just fucking awesome' to myself as I rolled into an enemy installation with a full cohort of hooping and hollering marines riding along on a Razorback dishing out mayhem, and reminded me that at its best nothing quite matches the beautiful synergy of fighting Covenant as the Master Chief under the stunning vista of the Halo arcing its way far into the sky on the distant horizon.
On the multiplayer side there are some huge issues with the implementation of its abysmal battle pass and the desperate need for an anti-cheat and/or for crossplay to be switched off so that the hordes of cheating PC wankers don't ruin it. And BTB being fundamentally broken for weeks on end while 343i just shrugged their shoulders and said they'd have a look at it after Christmas was less than satisfying.
But when it all works it was by some distance the best competitive shooter experience of the year. It's taken all of the best elements from titles past and mixed and balanced them beautifully to create something that has been relentlessly compelling to play. The visual and sound design feedback is nigh-on perfect and everything from the movement speed, to the time it takes to pop an opponent's shield just feels right in the hand. Big Team Battle is my jam (when it works) and I've had endless numbers of tremendous matches and hilarious moments over the past few months. There are just so many fantastic elements at potential play in a match that when a Warthog comes flying in out of nowhere with its chaingun being rattled by some nutter in the back, and a Banshee explodes above your head after being Skewered, while a Plasma Sword wielder thought they'd grapple-fucked you but were instead sent hurtling skywards by a serendipitous grenade, you just have to sit back and laugh and marvel at the beautiful chaos of it all. It's just so much fucking glorious fun. If they add some more maps and sort out a more compelling and rewarding progression system I can see myself playing it for years to come.
A flawed game that is a long way from being a masterpiece, but it’s also the first 343i Halo that doesn’t feel like a second-rate ripoff and can stand on its own as a genuinely fresh and roundly enjoyable entry in the series. No-one’s been more critical of 343i’s often woefully misjudged efforts to recapture the old magic of Halo games of yore than me, and I was highly sceptical that they’d manage it at the third time of asking, but against all the odds I think this time they mostly pulled it off and delivered what feels like a proper Halo game and the best entry in the series in over a decade. They seem to have finally stamped their mark on the franchise and found a formula that is very much theirs, while managing to rediscover some of that old magic that the series had been lacking since they took ownership of it.
It's also responsible for the apotheosis of my elite pro gaming career:
A2. Forza Horizon 5
There's really nothing here in terms of gameplay and structure that wasn't already seen in Horizon 4, but Mexico was an inspired choice that provided a beautifully diverse and sumptuous landscape to hare and careen across in a huge array of cars. A graphical and technical tour-de-force that really felt like it was giving my Series X a workout for the first time and positively rammed with content, it was a generous package that provided many hours of automotive entertainment.
Whether bombing down the side of a volcano in a Robin Reliant, hurtling along the coastal desert roads in a sleek supercar or just taking in the sights and sounds of rural Mexico on a leisurely chilled drive in an open-topped classic, it's a game that presents a huge array of opportunities and events for you to partake in and simply lets you get on with it. Some have lamented its lack of a more clear and rigid structure and progression system but that's precisely what I love about it: you fire it up, pick a car of your choosing and just have some fun. Its sheer diversity and ability to offer everything from chaotic cross-country gauntlets to precise track-based racing via time trials, party games, stunts, dirt racing and everything in between is unsurpassed in its genre.
I've put over a hundred hours into it by now and like Horizon 4 it'll be one that I return to time and time again over the coming year. Playground Games have become one of Xbox's development crown jewels and they just don't miss. Brilliant stuff.
A3. Psychonauts 2
Wonderful game just bursting with character and imagination and evidently made with genuine passion and love.
I'd always been a little lukewarm on Double Fine's output and was fairly ambivalent when Microsoft purchased them, but this is by far the best game they've produced and serves as a great illustration of how some first-party budget and polish can really elevate a studio's output to the next level.
It's relentlessly inventive in its wildly conceptualised haywire environments and eccentric visual twists right up to the very end and there's some really fantastic ideas brought to incomparably quirky life. The zip and pop in the dialogue and cutscenes is very well done too and the music is superb throughout. Presentation-wise it's right up there with the best things I've played in recent years and has an identity all of its own. It also takes a delicate and sympathetic approach to themes of mental illness and anguish, and like so much else in the game is possessed of real heart.
I've always been a fan of those 3D platformers of the type that you don't really see very often these days but this was a nice callback to that era. And although it never really challenges or does anything mechanically that you haven't seen before, its levels are tightly designed, flow well and are each a joy to traverse and explore. Really enjoyable boss fights too and I just found the whole thing tremendous fun from beginning to end. Not one I'd anticipated to be on this list but it ended up being a delightful surprise, and the psychedelia level was undoubtedly one of the year's highlights.
A4. The Forgotten City
A really beautifully designed and well-written clockwork puzzle of a time loop game that is never too taxing but knows how to make those eureka lightbulbs ping above your head by gently guiding you to the correct solution.
Starting off life as a Skyrim mod, the janky stiffness that goes along with that kind of added to the charm in some ways and it’s a good example of how technical limitations just dissolve into the background when the underlying design is so strong. Watching a documentary about its creation featuring its lead creator, it's clear that this was a labour of love and he literally taught himself how to code in order to bring it to life. In these days in which mega-publisher shithousery abounds it's heart-warming to play games like this that are derived from a simple idea with a singular vision but have had real intelligence and insight threaded into their design.
The most thought-provokingly enjoyable and quietly memorable 5 hours I spent all year.
A5. The Artful Escape
I can see why some just shrugged their shoulders and found its very mechanically limited interactive aspects distinctly underwhelming, but when I was shredding my way through a beam of pure light arcing across the alien expanse of Glimmer City while dressed in a bright pink garter and turquoise space boots, rocking a beehive hairdo and launching balletically into the air in an orgiastic affirmation of the power of music and self-belief I just had a massive fucking smile on my face and thought that I was playing one of the most riotously colourful, engaging and downright wonderful experiences of the year.
I can see why it proved very divisive because if the central conceit and style didn't grab you then you're left with a very simplistic and garish curio that probably came across as some kind of smug, nightmarish, hipster fever dream that would have left you cold. If it did cast its spell on you though and the visual and audio style appealed, then there was nothing else quite like it and you'd be hard pushed to find a more memorable and extravagant 4-hour experience this side of the Cosmic Lung.
I'm just glad that there's room in the video game landscape for things like this to get made and find a captive audience, and its visual inventiveness and imagination were blazed across the screen in a wonderfully positive, fearless and bold audaciousness that stood out in what was another difficult year for many of us.
Game of the Year (premiered anywhere pre-2021)
B1. Microsoft Flight Simulator
This is my true number one but let's not go down that well-worn road...
Is this even a game? No, not really, as many of the borderline psychotically defensive middle-aged hardcore 'simmers' on dedicated forums will very angrily and vocally tell you, but I played it on my Xbox Series X, it was included in my Game Pass sub, and there's no question whatsoever that it was by far the most extraordinary, enchanting and incredible experience that I had all year on any format.
Dismissed by people who were ultimately nonplussed by what it has to offer as not much more than a prettified version of Bing Maps, I think that appraisal does it a massive disservice.
If you'd told me 6 months ago that I'd be able to look at this:
and understand and interpret every single number, abbreviation and annotation I'd have thought you were mad and yet here we are.
There’s literally years of ‘game’ to be had in learning the intricacies and subtleties of all the different planes and Flight Sim was responsible for teaching me the fundamentals of aviation concepts, nomenclature, procedures and practices, and all of a sudden I found this vast new landscape opened up before me in more ways than one. It was hugely gratifying to be hungering for knowledge on a previously unknown subject and faintly hilarious to find myself enraptured by 35-minute-long videos of a commercial pilot taxiing and taking off an A330 from San Francisco International while I sagely nodded along at their pre-flight safety checks, admired their smooth rudder control and just marvelled at the fact that I could understand what the avionics displays were actually saying, when a week previous I wouldn’t have understood a single damn thing. It's single-handedly responsible for turning me overnight into a complete aviation nerd and the coming year will see me shelling out hundreds of pounds on peripherals without an ounce of regret or shame. I guess I have to just accept that this is my personal midlife crisis but fuck me if it hasn't proved to be the most incredibly enjoyable one.
Most of all though, and where I find it hard to even begin to do justice to the experience it provided, Flight Sim enabled me to retrace some of the many journeys around the globe that I've taken in real life. Discovering the world in all its varied glory has been pretty much my passion in life since I was first able to buy a plane ticket and pluck up the courage to squeeze myself onto a packed 8-hour bus ride into the great unknown in some dodgy far-flung country, so although it's one thing to look at static photos of the many places I've been in the past, it's quite another to fly over a photorealistically rendered 3D recreation of them and pinpoint and contextualise the exact location where some of the most formative and memorable experiences of my life occurred. I wasn't quite prepared for how emotional I'd get and how incredibly evocative the experience would be when seeing some of those places magically appear far below exactly as I remembered them.
And that's before you even get to having literally the entire world that you haven't yet seen to explore and discover. We're blessed to live on an extraordinarily diverse and beautiful planet and it's all there contained in a black plastic box of electronics being driven by some very clever AI trickery that is indistinguishable from magic to my eyes. Flying precariously past the towering Southern Alps into Queenstown in a rickety single-prop as a raging thunderstorm reduced visibility to a few hundred feet and threatened to send me plummeting to my doom was one of the most nail-bitingly tense and electrifying experiences I've ever had with a controller in hand, but then it was balanced out the next day by the serene and tranquil calm that descended as I soundlessly glided across the vast volcanic lava fields of northern Iceland as the sun slid below the horizon. Nothing else comes close.
Even after many hours of flight time I still find it a uniquely beguiling, enchanting and at times almost transcendently moving and beautiful experience to play. It's one of the most extraordinary pieces of software ever created and to have squeezed that experience onto a mere games console is a thing of technical wonder.
A masterpiece, mate.
Biggest Disappointment of the Year
Z1. General video game industry awfulness
I always focus on specific individual gaming disappointments for this category but it really would be remiss to not call out the relentless stream of utterly depressing stories and news headlines about the video game industry this past year. Boardroom execs hungering after ever-growing profits with the absolute bare-faced scam of NFTs and shady business practices is one thing but an entire industry seemingly riddled with the most appalling examples of institutionalised sexism and horrific abuse is quite another. I'd like to think that some positives can be drawn from all of this and that this past year will prove to be some sort of turning point, but when the likes of Kotick and Guillemot shamefully remain in situ it's hard not to remain deeply cynical.
Z2. Battlefield 2042
I've put literally thousands of hours into previous games in the series but this was an absolute mess and fundamentally just isn't fun. Feels like a Battlefield game designed by people who don't really understand what has made the series so peerless in the past and has the stench of greedy EA execs chasing the latest monetisation trends all over it. A sad example of what happens when all the core talent deserts a previously first-rate studio and a clueless publisher tries to shoehorn in systems and mechanics from other more successful games in a misguided and vain attempt to attract some of their playerbase. I'm not remotely surprised that within a few short months the player counts have fallen off a cliff.
Unlike previous games in the series that launched in a parlous and sloppy state, no amount of patching this one is going to fix what is a fundamentally poorly designed game. The aimless morass of 128 players on such bafflingly wide-open maps coupled with a Specialists system that rips away one of the core pillars of the series in order to ape the latest hero-shooter du jour makes for a game that just doesn't flow together like the series' previous best at all. A crushing disappointment for a series that I have little faith will rediscover its mojo if EA's many past studio-destroying sins are anything to go by.
Z3. 12 Minutes
The premise was hugely intriguing but the eventual execution was incredibly poor. A tedious and frustrating chore to play with often illogical trial and error obstacles preventing progress, wrapped in a narrative that swerves so far off the road at its bizarre and rather distasteful conclusion that it ends upside down in a ditch wondering whether paying Hollywood stars their no doubt vastly inflated fees to act in such rubbish was really worth the bother. The sublime Outer Wilds and aforementioned The Forgotten City illustrate that a time loop game can be incredibly compelling when designed with careful consideration given to the core conceit. This illustrates the complete opposite.
Sound Design of the Year
S1. Psychonauts 2
Wonderfully voice-acted with a soundtrack that ran the gamut from jaunty, horn-led orchestral pieces to smooth, head-bopping, double bass lounge jazz via sitar-infused psychedelia and indulgent prog-rock wig outs. An aural delight.
S2. Halo Infinite
Pretty much solely for the weapons which sound fucking phenomenal and whose instantly recognisable refrains play a huge part in the pretty much perfect readability and situational awareness of the multiplayer . When you have one of the most iconic soundscapes in gaming to call on you can't really go wrong, and although musically it probably leans a little too hard on past glories, 343i's sound team did a fantastic job overall. The wealth of new Grunt voice lines (especially the hilarious propaganda towers) were the funniest they've ever been. Jen Taylor also did some fine work with a pretty awful script in making the Weapon a very endearing and likably naïve take on Cortana-but-not-Cortana.
Beautifully wistful, quirkily memorable, melancholic, reverb-drenched experimental pop soundscapes by Japanese Breakfast provided the perfect musical accompaniment to the offbeat tale of Sable's journey of self-discovery across the unknown wilds.
Visual Design of the Year
The abstract, pastel-hued vistas of Moebius' sweeping sci-fi landscapes brought to life in evocative and authentic fashion, this was the most visually distinct game of the year. Its sparse expanses of tangerine- and salmon-coloured deserts dotted with strange architectural oddities picked out on the horizon in stark black lines created a unique and memorable visual language. Technically a bit of a dog's dinner, which is probably down to it being made by a development team of just two people, but if I close my eyes and think of the most indelible images that this past year of gaming gave me, it's Sable's haunting and stark wastes flecked with strange wonders to be found that most readily shimmer into view.
V2. Forza Horizon 5
Firmly establishing themselves as one of the technical powerhouses of the industry, Playground Games delivered a truly gorgeous representation of Mexico that scaled remarkably well across multiple generations of hardware and looked glorious on all of them. You could make an argument for Ratchet & Clank (and there's no denying that Insomniac's artists delivered a beautifully sumptuous and dazzlingly detailed game, but I didn't actually play it so can't vote for it) or Flight Sim (which when you're in the Goldilocks zone at just the right altitude is genuinely indistinguishable from real life, but is essentially very clever AI algorithms working their magic on aerial photography) but on balance I'd say Forza Horizon 5 is probably the best looking game around at the moment in terms of sheer image quality and the wealth of graphical bells and whistles and post-processing wizardry flying past your eyes at over 200mph. I've spent hours playing around with the photo mode framing the most jaw-droppingly sumptuous shots, and if nothing else, Playground's upcoming Fable and the inevitable Forza Horizon 6 running solely on next-gen hardware are going to look eye-meltingly good. An absolute visual tour-de-force.
V3. Psychonauts 2
Worth the price of admission just for the stunning (and I can attest pretty damn authentic) psychedelia-inspired level alone, Double Fine delivered a visual smorgasbord that from first to last was absolutely crammed with brain-bendingly bizarre sights and often hilariously inventive concepts brought to outlandish life. It struck me early on how literally every single item and visual feature in the game had something twisted or off-kilter about it and I can only marvel at the amount of effort it must've taken to design it all and bring it all together into some sort of cohesive whole with its own utterly incomparable visual style.
Writing of the Year
From the trivial trinkets of childhood to the vacuous obsessions of adolescence, the giddy trysts of first love to the sinking realisation that they're most definitely not The One, the flailing uncertainty of the search for one's true self to the comfort of realisation that you may have finally, just maybe, found your own little place in the world and someone to share it with.
Unpacking told the tale of an entirely ordinary young woman's journey from childhood to that often nebulous point that we call adulthood, of her loves and losses, her quirks and foibles and her unbreakable love of little toy chicks, and it did so without a single line of dialogue and barely a few lines of text. Just some boxes of household objects to be neatly aligned on shelves and tidily placed in cupboards, tracing a line of familiarity as the years passed by. One of the most original and at times surprisingly poignant examples of environmental storytelling that could only be told through the medium of video games.
W2. The Forgotten City
Takes the central concept of a time loop mystery and uses it to present epistemological questions on the nature and logic of moral absolutes and personal ethics. It won't really present anything novel for anyone who's considered these conundrums before but it does it in a way that is gently thought-provoking nonetheless, and is written adeptly to make the player give careful consideration to just why and how they should resolve this seemingly insurmountable problem that they're faced with.
There was something very endearing about the vaguely aloof and contemplatively poetic musings of the many and varied characters that Sable met along her journey of self-discovery, and for anyone who's struck out into the wide unknown in search of some semblance of meaning and purpose in life there was much to recognise in the little pearls of wisdom that were to be offered by the scattered denizens of its often solitary and lonely world. At its core there's a really beautiful message in this game and it's presented in a delightfully understated way.
Format of the Year
It says it all that in a year that few would class as a gaming vintage, my ownership of a Series X gave me perhaps the most varied and consistently enjoyable year of the hobby that I've ever had. By year's end I'd played and completed a total of 56 games ranging from triple-A blockbusters to indie darlings and spanning just about every genre that you can think of. And the sum total of money that I spent on video games this past year was precisely £0.
After the dark times of the Mattrick-era Xbone years, Phil Spencer and his team have steered the ship firmly back on course while delivering a platform that's value with Game Pass is so far off the charts it's almost laughable. From having deserted Xbox for a generation and being a vocal sceptic around 18 months ago, it's a platform approach that has won me over and completely transformed the way I play, consume and most importantly of all discover games. They've been absolutely killing it so far this gen and if the hugely expanded first-party studios continue to deliver then the future is very bright indeed for Xbox.
Publisher or Developer of the Year
P1. Xbox Game Studios
Flight Sim, Halo Infinite, Forza Horizon 5 and Psychonauts 2 collectively make up my top 4 games of the year and they all came from the same publisher and were day one on Game Pass. An easy choice.