The top ten games of 2021 (so far)

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Oh, look, half of 2021 is gone already.  I hadn’t noticed that it was time to take stock of the best games of the year so far.  Note that anything that might have come out on or after July 1st, perhaps distracting me from other things, isn’t eligible.  So let’s take a look at the best game of 2021 that came out before midnight, June 30th.

10. Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart

I haven’t actually played this, because it requires a Playstation 5, and there aren’t any available.  But as soon as they are, I intend to buy one specifically to play Ratchet & Clank: The Playstation 5 Only Edition.  At which point, I figure it’s a safe bet that I’d like it at least as much as Galactic Mining Corp.  So, notice served, Galactic Mining Corps.

9. Galactic Mining Corp

Not much of a game, really.  You drive a drill deeper and deeper, collecting all the junk you drill through.  And then you spend all the stuff you collect to make a better drill.  Now you can drill deeper in more places to get more junk to make your drill even better.  It’s the gameplay equivalent of popping bubble wrap.  Crushingly mindless but curiously effective.

8. HuniPop 2: Double Date

Speaking of popping bubble wrap, this match-3 is a fine enough way to while away some time.  But it’s also a charmingly vulgar, well-written, and enthusiastically performed comedy about introducing women to each other and hoping they click.  And by click, I mean fuck.  You’re a matchmaker in more ways than one!  I couldn’t care less about the weird anime porn you unlock — frankly, it’s embarrassing, as if I’d walked in on someone who neglected to put a sock on the doorknob — but I did end up caring about some of the characters.  And as anyone who played the first HuniPop knows, the Sex Fairy would be a fine guide through any game.

You can listen to me talk about HuniePop 2 at the start of this podcast.

7. A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism

Who knew the Nintendo Switch would be the exclusive platform to host Artdink’s revival slash reboot slash sequel slash reinvigoration of its super-serious train logistics simulator?  And who knew it would actually work this well on a Switch? I’ve been dinking away at A-Train games for as long as they’ve been around, and I’m not about to stop now.

6. Imagine Earth

Let me take this opportunity to once again remind videogame designers that there is never a good reason to put something on a 3D globe, because now I can’t see half of the map despite the fact that there’s plenty of screen real estate where I could have seen more of the map if you hadn’t insisted on being cute and making me twirl a 3D globe around.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can get back to enjoying the boardgamey conventions of Imagine Earth, which is kind of like a sci-fi version of Settlers VII or Northgard.  You remember Settlers VII, right?  Did you at least play Northgard?  Part city builder, part competitive RTS, part colony management, with lots of asymmetrical angles to tailor your strategy and a boardgame-adjacent elegance.  I especially like Imagine Earth’s creative take on the usual resources.  Food, building materials, and energy aren’t just food, building materials, and energy; instead they’re each a category for several different options.  Yeah, sure, you’ll need energy, but will you get it from solar panels, oil rigs, fusion reactors, or coal mines?  Will you feed your cities from cattle ranches, greenhouses, seaweed gardens, or industrial farms?  Will you mine ore, manufacture chemicals, chop lumber, or assemble electronics? You’ll have to make difficult choices that matter.

5. Necromunda: Hired Gun

An endearingly sloppy and ambitiously sprawling expression of Warhammer sci-fi.  From the review:

The level design is a grunt’s eye view of gloomy Warhammer worlds in all their plasticky vastness.  Cathedrals toppled into underground lakes, gargantuan trains hurtling through spooky tunnels, skyscrapers without tops or bottoms, yawning caverns littered with industrial detritus.  Necromunda is an underground city, a Fallen London for 80s teenagers who loved Iron Maiden.  Down here, you can see how the Warhammer universe is supposed to be as dark as it is vast, as industrial as it is haunted, as thriving as it is decaying.  Streum On’s levels capture each in equal measure.  They are massive.  They are dimly lit.  They evoke the throb of rotting industrial might and the sickly glow of necromancy.  The geometry reminds me of the original Jedi Knight for its sense of scale, for its chasms and dizzying heights.  This is what a painted miniature would see.

4. Hitman III

Also known as “the set of new levels for Hitman II”, which is itself also known as “the set of new levels for Hitman”.  But that’s part of why my time with Hitman III has been among my favorite gameplay experiences this year: I’m finally digging into Io Interactive’s latest iteration on the series, as well as iterations on that iteration.  I’ve finally found the patience to explore the levels without the default interface options that undermine the feeling of exploration.  The latest Hitman series really comes alive when you play it as something other than a “follow the waypoint” game.

3. Wildermyth

I’ve thrown myself into plenty of drawn-out and detailed RPG epics like Baldur’s Gate, Pillars of Eternity, and Divinity: Original Sin, all presented as intricate computerized versions of the tabletop experiences I remember as a kid.  And while I’ve enjoyed them, they inflict a certain amount of, well, fatigue.  They demand investment, long-term commitment, careful attention.  They are not to be approached lightly.  Which is where Wildermyth somewhat shyly sidles up and offers something less intensive.  Some might say “stripped down”, or even “dumbed down”, and they wouldn’t be wrong.  But the point is that simple battles in a simple narrative can get the job done just as well.  Arguably even better given that they can hit the same story beats and character progression — often one and the same — in a fraction of the time.  

Of course, the real secret of Wildermyth is that it tells stories every bit as memorable as whatever epic arcs I’ve spent so long playing that I don’t even remember where they all started.  Is it still an arc if you can’t remember the beginning?  Furthermore, Wildermyth’s shortened epic arcs are dynamically generated, so there’s more of a sense that they’re mine.  And there’s nothing quite like a sense of ownership to recall those tabletop experiences I enjoyed as a kid.  This is mine.  I made it.  With these characters, who I also made.  Wildermyth gave me the pages, but I wrote the story.

2. Outriders

What looks at first like a Destiny me-too turns out to be nothing of the sort.  It is instead Painkiller in a modern looter-shooter’s clothing: lots of options for building, tuning, further building, and further tuning your character without the cruft you’ll find in games insidiously made to be played forever.  It presents firepower and crazy spell powers in equal measure.  It balances taking cover with running-and-gunning.  It’s non-linear but not pointlessly infinite.  Outriders even schools the latest Dooms when it comes to pacing the moment-to-moment action of shooting, healing, and using special abilities.  It’s the best time I’ve had building the perfect killing machine and slaughtering hundreds of bad guys since Shadow Warrior 2.

1. Slipways

I love getting stuff where it wants to go.  So naturally, a game built from intricate, but eminently manageable, logistical challenges is going to be Tom Chick catnip.  Especially when it’s as smartly designed as Slipways, a game as sleek, clean, and accessible as Logistical is sprawling, messy, and inscrutable (Logistical always struck me as more of a bad interface than an actual game).  

The real genius of Slipways is how it embraces one of my favorite elements of good game design: establish the rules, then break them.  Slipways’ relatively simple economy is mostly a matter of linking planets that supply to neighboring planets that demand.  But this economy will stretch, snap, and even shatter as you add perks and technologies.  However, you don’t get to just choose your favorites!  You don’t get to play your degenerate strategy of choice, over and over.  Instead, you have to roll with whatever is randomly rolled.  You have to find new degenerate strategies. And, hoo boy, does Slipways love showing you its degenerate strategies!  Slipways is all about teaching you new ways to break it.  And if there’s one thing I love more than getting stuff where it needs to go, it’s breaking rules.