As the end of the year rolls around, it’s a time to reflect — in this case, on some of the games we played throughout the year. Most of us at ExtremeTech are gamers of one sort or another, and we’ve rounded up both what folks have played and what they liked. Note that games on these lists aren’t just titles that were published in 2021. Anything that caught a writer’s attention qualified for inclusion.
My own top games this year would be Hades, Orcs Must Die 3, and Dead Cells. Hades and Dead Cells are both roguelike games, while Orcs Must Die 3 is a hybrid tower defense / third-person combat game that tasks you with, well, killing a lot of orcs, trolls, and various other monsters.
Hades and Dead Cells are very different types of games, despite the fact that they both belong to the same genre. Hades is played from an isometric perspective and is relatively generous when it comes to invulnerability frames and dodge mechanics. It’s fairly friendly to brand-new players and the story advances each time you die and start another run. This helps ease the sting of losing, especially if you wind up stuck on a boss or level and need to run the dungeons more than once to move forward. Hades offers relatively few weapons, but the five weapons available all feel distinctive and the various unlockable “Aspects” change the way weapons work, necessitating a corresponding change in play style.
Dead Cells has much less of a story than Hades and far more weapons. Players have the option to carry either two weapons and a pair of secondary skills or a weapon + shield. Where Hades focuses on building a small array of weapons with distinctive aspects that change how they function, Dead Cells has a huge variety of melee and ranged attack weapons. The learning curve can be steep if you aren’t much good at platformers, but there’s a great game underneath the difficulty curve.
Orcs Must Die 3 is the long-awaited sequel to OMD and OMD2, and it introduces a number of Warzone maps that feature larger numbers of enemies and new, higher-end traps and NPC allies to defend with. Reviews on OMD3 weren’t quite as good as they were for OMD2, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had — especially if you haven’t picked up OMD2 in a few years and wouldn’t mind some new maps to play with.
Honorary mention to Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. While it’s a remaster of old games, it’s one of the best ones I’ve played. The updates to Mass Effect make that title look a bit more like later games in the series and add a cover system. Mass Effect 2 and ME3 remain some of the best RPGs ever built. While even the remastered game shows its age in places, the Mass Effect trilogy remains one of the best science fiction series I’ve ever encountered, in any medium. Bioware’s world-building stands on par with what Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars have offered at their best.
In this age of disappointing, buggy game remasters, I was worried Mass Effect Legendary Edition would fail to live up to my expectations. Happily, my fears were unfounded. I loved these games the first time I played them — yes, even the third one, which featured a silly online component and a disjointed final cutscene. Going back in the Legendary Edition, I found the story and characters held up, and the tweaks to gameplay made all three games feel more modern.
I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi plot, and the story in Mass Effect stands out as particularly well-crafted. Too many games that try to tell epic stories have crummy dialog or flat voice acting, but all three chapters of Mass Effect nail the storytelling. And your choices actually matter. The devs didn’t make any major changes to the gameplay, which is great because even the original still plays well. The biotic and tech powers make the games a real delight to play (take my advice and don’t choose the boring old soldier class). Plus, the quality-of-life improvements like simpler leveling and no mandatory online component in ME3 make an impact. You can even skip that damn elevator ride on the Citadel in the first game.
Whether or not you played Mass Effect the first time around, the Legendary Edition is worth your money.
Some people are confident, skilled gamers — people who know what a “rogue-like” versus a “rogue-lite” is off the top of their heads, identify with the title “gamer,” and don’t struggle with minigames and puzzles. I am not one of these people. But over the past year, I’ve sunk a ton of time and attention into a handful of games, including Satisfactory, Oxygen Not Included, Rimworld, and Foundation.
Satisfactory is a seriously meta, seriously addictive factory/automation game about building stuff so you can build more stuff in order to build more stuff. If you aren’t done enough with work when you get out of work, come home and get to work in your factory. Resource nodes are bottomless and nobody has ever heard of “carbon dioxide” or “pollution management.” Build increasingly complex factory lines, send increasingly complex stuff up the Space Elevator, and learn to hate spitter doggos but love shrimpdogs. Satisfactory is either ideal or a unique personal hell for those who need things to be symmetric. “Spaghetti” and “linguine” become terms of disdain.
While the game is still in early access, it is robustly mod-compatible and has a huge Steam Workshop mod library. The recent Update 5 rolled many of the most popular mod features into the game’s vanilla code, including signs, road markings and other decals, a universal grid, and even better clipping rules. Better still, there’s now a native mod manager.
Oxygen Not Included sure does mean what it says on the tin. Crashlanded on a hostile chunk of rock in the middle of the big empty, colonists (duplicants, in ONI parlance) have to dig up the raw materials they’ll use to create a home for themselves. Whether the colonist group chooses to stay on their asteroid or reach for the stars, the game features a realistic, intricate and unforgiving resource management simulator that goes right down to kiloDaltons and Kelvins. Thankfully, there’s a ton of tutorials baked right in. If math had been more like this, I’d have done my homework.
Rimworld is an open-ended colony-building RPG — much more like D&D than Final Fantasy, in that instead of following a plot already laid out, you choose characters and set them loose into the procedurally-generated world to help them write their own story. Like ONI, Rimworld features a small but growing group of colonists, scratching out a precarious foothold on an unknown rimworld. Instead of asteroids, though, these rimworlds are planets — inhabited by other factions who may be less than welcoming to newcomers. Hostile factions can launch raids, and there are other, more sinister late-game temptations and hazards. Like ONI, the game’s higher difficulty settings are unforgiving.
Foundation is somewhat like a medieval SimCity. To prosper in the long haul, the player must skillfully employ the map tile’s limited resources to create abundance for the citizens of their new nation. Residents need food of increasing quality, adequate housing, and sufficient access to houses of worship. Like ONI and Rimworld, it’s a meditative, easily modded ant farm that you get to design and shepherd along toward win conditions you define.
Honorable Mention: No Man’s Sky and Phasmophobia
There should be an award for games that started out underwhelming and got really good as the developers kept working on them over time. No Man’s Sky should be on that list. In the beginning, it was all pretty wonky and very obviously procedurally generated, and you could cheese the system pretty hard for infinite money, infinite chromatic metal and indium, elite ships, et cetera. But after years of work and listening to feedback, NMS is a polished, engaging game, full of new missions and craftables and characters.
The same goes for Phasmophobia. Phasmo is still in early access, but it’s gone from a glorified demo to a ghost-hunting game so genuinely creepy I mostly won’t play it alone. It started out with just a handful of ghosts and evidence types, with a ghost behavior AI that you could meme on by looping the ghost around the kitchen counter a few times. Over time, in close cooperation with streaming playtesters like Insym, the game has blossomed into something spookier and frankly more interesting. Ghostly behavior is much improved, quests and evidence types are more varied, and it’s a whole lot harder to be certain you’re safe. Ghosts can hear players now, and they’ll use noise and EM feedback to hunt down an unwary player with extreme prejudice. If you like whodunits and games that will spike your adrenaline with a sense of urgency and dread, Phasmophobia is a great pick.
I’m the type of gamer who only plays AAA FPS games on my gaming PC, no indie or console stuff for me, thank you very much. So as you can guess, 2021 was mostly a year of heartbreak for me. I spent most of my time this year enveloped in Cyberpunk 2077, Far Cry 6, and Battlefield 2042, all of which had their issues but were still relatively enjoyable, with one exception.
Yes, I know this game came out at this time last year, but I didn’t get into it much until 2021 and while there’s bugs, and a whole lot of jank, on the PC I didn’t see very much of it through multiple playthroughs. The game looked absolutely amazing on my 34″ 120HZ panel, so much so that I ended up buying a pre-built PC with an RTX 3080 just for Cyberpunk. Once my new GPU was installed, I was able to run the game at max details at 1440p, with full ray tracing enabled on everything, and it left me speechless. If you have not seen Cyberpunk with RT effects, you are missing out. Besides the graphics I really got involved with the story, and a few of the game’s five endings really hit me right in the feels, especially the absolute worst one, if you know what I’m talking about.
As a huge Far Cry fan I thought this game would be pretty amazing. The chance to go to “Cuba” and fight for the revolution against Giancarlo Esposito with a pet crocodile should have been a slam dunk, but sadly Ubisoft made a lot of really questionable design decisions this time around. I did end up having fun throughout my time in Yara, and the wheelchair-bound Dachshund Chorizo was a pleasant surprise, but the game was way too easy, and Ubisoft didn’t offer any way to adjust the game’s difficulty either, which is a bizarre choice. Overall, it was a Far Cry game, that’s for sure, but not in the same league as 3/4/5.
Battlefield 2042 – There’s not much to say about this other than it was a massive disappointment. Like many fans of the “old” Battlefield titles like 2, 3, and 4, this was supposed to be a return to the series’ origins instead of what we got with 1 and 5, but instead DICE/EA changed the series entirely into a “hero shooter” that just plain sucks. The maps are horrible, the combat is frustrating, you have to walk too much, and there too many bugs to even begin to list them all. I’m still holding out hope they will turn things around like they did with 4, but as each day passes I’m getting less confident that will ever happen. If anything they’ll probably start adding NFTs and new skins to the game before they bring back the scoreboard and the previous titles’ class structure.
Annie Cardinal (Writing on Behalf of David, Who Apparently Does Not Play New Games)
As I started to write up my favorite games of 2021, I realized that they were mostly the same as the ones I played and wrote about in our roundup last year. For a fresh perspective, I turned to our adult daughter, Annie, who is much more adventurous about exploring new titles. We’ve played several of them as a family, but she definitely has the most-well-formed opinion on them. Her recommended options include Townscaper, Ori and the Blind Forest, Super Mario Odyssey, and Gorogoa.
In an increasingly chaotic and unstable world, I was in search of a meditative game where I could escape from everyday life and transport myself to a worry-free place. Townscaper is an adorable and whimsical indie city builder with no purpose or end goal. The game starts as an endless ocean with a randomly generated grid pattern. Click on the water, and a small building appears with a soothing drip like a pebble falling into a pond. Click again, and it morphs seamlessly into a tower or archway. Build canals, courtyards, stairways, and bridges by clicking to add or remove buildings. Sometimes birds will land on the rooftops or colored bunting appears across a narrow street. It’s nearly impossible to create anything that looks unappealing. Make a little seaside city inspired by the Italian coast, or a grand palace and grounds on a mountainside – the choice is yours. But I challenge you not to think too much. It’s better that way.
Ori and the Blind Forest
As someone who did not play many video games growing up, I didn’t develop the familiarity with controllers required to play platformer games comfortably. I saw a playthrough of Hollow Knight and fell in love with its cute characters. However, Hollow Knight is incredibly difficult for beginners, so I found Ori and the Blind Forest which has similar gameplay but is slightly less impossible to play. Ori, a sort of cross between a rabbit and a fox, is the sole beacon of light in a dark world as he whirls and spins and leaps over spikes and bugs and creatures that have poisoned the forest, attacking them with pulses of light. The world is immersive and beautiful, and I finally got over my fear of dying in a video game and am growing more comfortable with button combinations. After over 300 deaths at only a third of the way through, my resilience has improved enough that I only sometimes want to throw the controller at the screen, which is excellent progress for me. (The cost of a new OLED has saved my own LG CX on several occasions) – Ed.
Super Mario Odyssey
I had played some recent Mario platformers, including Super Mario Bros Wii U and Super Mario 3D World. But Odyssey takes the cake by throwing Mario into a set of single player 3D worlds. With the help of his animated hat, Cappy, Mario can attack and leap through worlds saving them from Bowser’s crew and recovering the stolen artifacts on the way to Princess Peach’s forced wedding. Mario’s balloon ship, the Odyssey, takes him to gravity-defying worlds like a desert populated by adorable sombrero skeletons and upside-down pyramids to a neon-colored food world run by forks in chef’s hats. Cappy’s biggest power is its ability to take control of enemies in the world and use their powers to solve the puzzles and beat enemies. Ride a stone jaguar to mow down cacti and collect coins. Make a stack of goombas to reach a tall platform. Taking over the T. rex in the explorer-themed world is especially satisfying, as you stomp and crash through blocks and enemies. It was the first mainstream console-based video game I completed all by myself. Odyssey provided a virtual escape from lockdown and transported me to immersive landscapes with quirky characters and epic music at a time when I needed it most.
This innovative puzzle game is short but truly shows that there is so much untapped potential in video game mechanics. You are presented with a two-by-two grid with four tiles. Each tile is hand drawn art – sort of a cross between the trippy animation in The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film and Sir John Tenniel’s original sketches in Alice and Wonderland. Click on areas in the tiles or slide them on top of each other to open up doorways using 2D M. C. Escher perspective. Follow a young boy during a bomb blitz as he uncovers the mystery of an elusive flying monster. There are no words required. Only the visuals are needed to tell this gorgeous story that will stretch your mind and understanding of reality.
Unravel Two is a cooperative platformer game where two yarn creatures, joined together by a string, work together to explore the memories and treacherous world of a few children in an adoption home. The two Yarnys jump and swing through the forest, an abandoned warehouse, and a lighthouse on an island in search of sparks that will help the children through their troubles. I loved playing this with my husband, as each of us had strengths and weaknesses in the game and could pull each other along while both contributing. I was better at solving the puzzles and figuring out timing problems, and he could more quickly navigate or jump through challenging areas when danger was following close behind. The game is both peaceful and stressful, and thankfully creates frequent save points so minimal progress is lost every time you inevitably jump into a flame or get eaten by a fish.
I’ve always gone for light-hearted games—the world is stressful enough as-is. I’m also all for supporting small businesses, which means I often find myself chasing down games by indie devs to play on my Nintendo Switch or on my partner’s various couch consoles. My favorite indie finds of 2021 have been Going Under, a dungeon crawler that hilariously mocks Silicon Valley startup culture, and SkateBIRD, which is extremely similar to Tony Hawk’s series but far more charming (despite slightly clunky controls).
Planet Coaster isn’t by a small studio, but it’s worth mentioning, as I went through a nearly three-month stint of losing myself in virtual theme parks on a regular basis. I’ve always been a sucker for simulation games, and my very first computer game love affair was with the original Roller Coaster Tycoon, so this surprised absolutely nobody within my social circle.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons has also reclaimed its spot as a near-nightly go-to, now that the update (imagine a sparkle emoji here) is out.
A Happy New Year to you all.