Top ten games of 2021

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In 2021, I finally came to appreciate the Hitman games, although part of appreciating them is realizing how little they’ve progressed since their latest model. Hitman III is great, to be sure. But it’s also just more levels for Hitman I, so this would easily make my list of top ten games of 2016. When it came to roguelikes, I enjoyed Returnal’s dark sci-fi/horror aesthetic despite my inability to get past Housemarque’s trademark “get good” barrier. Imagine Earth was a smartly focused planetary development game based on head to head competition with other players. It was a realtime boardgame, really. Although unlike a boardgame, it’s hard to read, and not just because the developers thought it would be cute to make you spin a 3D globe instead of look at a map. Remember, developers, 3D globes are never a good idea. 

The goofy excesses of Outriders and Necromunda: Hired Gun were my gunplay of choice in 2021. Halo Infinite was a welcome change, focusing on what it does best in a sandbox instead of in corridors (at least until the end), with easily skippable cutscenes and multiplayer I can ignore because if Halo players are mad at it, I’m sure not going to want to play it. Speaking of, I have no intention of buying whatever iPad alternatives Microsoft is pushing, so I wish they would stop saddling games with godawful tablet interfaces in an attempt to get me to buy some dumb hardware. Jamming big square panels onto Age of Empires IV, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo: Infinite just reminds me that these games are published by the same people who thought the Kinect was a good idea. 

I was disappointed with Deathloop, a massive step backwards from the Mooncrash DLC for Prey that inspired it. Other notable disappointments include Riftbreaker for being a thrilling wide-open resource-management action-RPG…that had nowhere to go. SGS’ Halls of Montezuma and especially Heia Safari explored fascinating historical crannies wargames rarely visit, but they were undone by the usual wargaming bugbears of bad AIs and worse interfaces. Red Solstice 2: Survivors took the first games’ promising action RPG and turned it into an unsupported multiplayer boondoggle. Guardians of the Galaxy was all the splashly dialogue, the splashier color, and the gameplay of your favorite Marvel movie. 
Those are some titles that didn’t make the top ten, despite me spending a fair amount of time with them. Which leads us to the games that did make the list…

10. Midnight Protocol

This is the hacking game I’ve been looking for!  In Midnight Protocol, the hacking is the game and the game is the hacking. This isn’t a point-and-click adventure, or a series of minigames, or a programming language. It’s the single-player Netrunner I’ve been waiting for someone to make. Read the full review here.

9. Wildermyth

Stories don’t have to be written; sometimes they can happen instead. That’s one of the greatest lessons we’ve learned from videogames. They’ve taught us that if the game provides the tools, the systems, the possibilities…then a narrative will follow. Yet RPG after RPG after RPG has been plastered over the framework of some rigidly written story, with perhaps a fork here and an optional quest there. Narrative as an ingrown exoskeleton, hardly more interactive than a book with two endings. So what a joy to find an RPG — a story-driven RPG! — built from the ground up on the premise that stories happen. This is a slick fantasy XCOM, but instead of a strategy game shell played on an overworld map, it’s wrapped in a tapestry of emergent narratives. Who needs a map when you have a story?

8. Forza Horizon 5

The Forza Horizon games frequently appear on my year end lists! Just not the lists of my favorite games. So what happened this year? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say with confidence Forza Horizon didn’t change much. Instead, my approach changed. I stopped expecting a game and instead resigned myself to finding my own fun in yet another under-designed sandbox. Suffice it to say I found some! The key was to not think of Forza Horizon as a caRPG or even a racing game; the key was to think of it as a traversal game — along the lines of Steep, Riders Republic, or Flappy Bird — that happens to also have racing in it.

7. Rift Wizard

You know how you start with a pistol, a dagger, or a magic missile spell? Then you upgrade to a shotgun, a short sword, or a lightning bolt spell? And eventually you get a BFG, a Vorpal Blade, or a fireball swarm? One of my favorite things about Rift Wizard, a turn-based dungeon spelunker that looks like Nethack but plays like Doom, is that it lets you start out with the BFG, Vorpal Blade, or fireball swarm. They’re your spell points. Spend them however you want. Rift Wizard is an absurdly wide-open toybox of magical mesmerization, conjuration, summoning, thaumaturgy, bedazzlement, and destruction. Unleash this dizzying array of magical shenanigans against dungeons crawling with hordes of monsters. Rift Wizard is a clever mix of brain-burning tactical spellcraft with Ioun-stones-to-the-wall action. It feels like a lost design from the era of Dani Bunten, Toys for Bob, and Will Wright, like something I would have played on my Apple IIe, oblivious to its timelessness until 30 years later when I rediscover it and realize no one copied it because it was already perfect enough.

6. Beast Breaker

Here I am, playing Peggle again. All that trademark Popcap color and motion, the ebullient faux physics of bouncing and plinking and bursting, where everything is an onomatopoeia, even the numbers. Peggle was as inscrutable and pointless as pachinko, but the Peggle I’m playing now is called Beast Breaker. It is to Peggle what pinball machines are to pachinko, if pinball machines were turn-based. Take away the pointlessness, swap in character progression, gear, fancy rules, confounding limitations, overpowered synergies, all-too-scarce potions, game-busting weapon crafting, sidekicks with unique powers, and various other trappings of non-time-wasters. Now all the color, motion, and ebullience has context. Now every bounce, plink, and burst is a weapon in your arsenal and the colorful blocks are roiling monsters who mess up your bouncing, plinking, and bursting in unique ways. And it’s all played against the backdrop of a charming story told by affectionately written characters. Before Beast Breaker, I would have figured I was over Peggle. Instead, I learned that Peggle just hadn’t yet lived up to its potential.

5. Remnants of the Precursors

This pick is tricky for a couple of reasons. First, Remnants of the Precursors is a straight-up remake of 1993’s Master of Orion with some helpful interface changes, desperately needed exploit fixes and loophole closures, and the kind of artwork you’d expect in a modern release. All this is courtesy of Master of Orion fan and retired programmer Ray Fowler, who made Remnants of the Precursors as a free download (get it here). Second, I was hired to write the manual, so I have a potential conflict of interest. But it would be disingenuous for me to overlook the joy of rediscovering Simtex’s seminal sci-fi epic, from a time before Sid Meier’s Civilization DNA got into every other strategy game. And I would be remiss not to call out Remnants of the Precursors for avoiding bad AI, which is the leading cause of death in strategy games. Not only did Fowler rewrite the AI, he enlisted mod-makers with years of experience with Master of Orion to provide their own AIs. Remnants is the kind of game no one makes anymore: a clever one with 30 years of playtesting. I can understand some people not tapping into its spreadsheet simplicity, complaining that it’s too dry. Because it is dry, until it isn’t. A bunch of chickens pile out of a spaceship to furiously exchange animations with pinheaded tigers waving flaming spears. Rock aliens overrun the galaxy and you have to team up with a bunch of angry bears. You discover a derelict spaceship with crazy advanced weapons and now you’re winning. A space amoeba eats your homeworld and now you’re losing. Except no one can stop your new Death Ray, so maybe you’re still winning after all. Who could have guessed 1993 would hold up so well?

4. Slipways

What grabbed me first about Slipways was its quick-fix logistics porn in which you hooked up two planets and let their supplies and demands do their thing. Do it enough times and you’ve spun a web of giving and wanting, needing and getting, like the best parts of Star Ruler 2 without having to play a full-on 4X. But the more I played, the more I discovered a latent condemnation of late-stage consumer capitalism. I’m only partly joking, since I’m not qualified to use the phrase “late-stage consumer capitalism” as anything other than a way to pretend I have some insight into the economics of inequality. But whatever you call it, there’s a very real point hidden under these delicious logistics challenges: the zero-sum game of haves and have-nots pushing and pulling at each other, with the have-nots relegated to the fringes, waiting helplessly to be either bled dry or welcomed into the fold. It’s the inevitability of colonial power pushing its frontiers out and out and ever out, played with colored marbles spilled randomly into an infinite black space. And just to make sure you’re never satisfied, try to beat your high score.

3. Back 4 Blood

2021 was the year I jumped into the deep end of co-op shooters. In lieu of the boardgames I would have been playing, I found myself alongside friends playing Aliens: Fireteam Elite, World War Z, Outriders, and even Battlefield 2042. All of them had something to recommend them (it’s a minor tragedy that Aliens: Fireteam Elite didn’t end up on this list). But the one that really grabbed me was Back 4 Blood, and not because of any nostalgia I have for Left 4 Dead or even zombie killing. Instead, I’m hooked on the card system, which gives you and your team unprecedented flexibility for how to handle the hordes. Back 4 Blood hitches a strategy gamer’s mindset to a shooter’s game.

2. A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism

A-Train: All Aboard! Tourism, available this year on the PC or Nintendo Switch and equally at home on both platforms, has something you won’t find in any other city builders or train games: cultural specificity. The A-Train series is based on the uniquely Japanese model of railroads credited to a businessman from the early 20th century named Ichizo Kobayashi (after a brief introduction, the manual concludes that Kobayashi is “certainly a man worth researching”). Whereas most city builders are about growing cities, and most railroad games are about growing railroad companies, A-Train is about the interplay between both. You grow cities by integrating and optimizing transportation networks with the same care and patience you would cultivate a garden.  Move people and goods around with an eye not just on the bottom line, but for the greater good. Robber barons need not apply. It’s a relaxing, intricate, and upbeat experience and easily the most soothing game I played all year.

1. Old World

I’ve written more about Old World this year than any other game for which I didn’t write a manual. Yet there wasn’t a review in there, partly because I still struggle with my own thoughts about the game, and partly because there’s so much of the design I have yet to explore. But there was no other game I played so eagerly, curiously, even hungrily. No other game rewarded me in 2021 as richly as Old World, a watershed accomplishment every bit as significant as X-Com, Imperialism, and Civilization IV. Suffice it to say, I still have a lot to say about OId World. Stand by.