Connect with top gaming leaders in Los Angeles at GamesBeat Summit 2023 this May 22-23. Register here.
Almost two years into the pandemic, it’s hard to look back and see much good that happened this year. But as reality was horrible once again, games gave me a much-needed escape. And so I’m pleased to come up with my eight favorite games of 2021.
They let me maintain social distance while still connecting remotely with friends. I hope you are staying safe during the holidays with your family and friends, and let’s hope you can find the game to play and celebrate your gaming passions.
Newzoo predicted the global game market would shrink for the first time in years in 2021, with a forecast of $175.8 billion for the year. Instead, Newzoo recently said the industry of mobile, console, PC, online, and cloud games grew to $180.3 billion.
Sadly, my list is shorter this year because I didn’t have enough time to play, and I also concentrated on the games that I really enjoyed and played those over and over (Call of Duty: Warzone).
GamesBeat Summit 2023
Join the GamesBeat community in Los Angeles this May 22-23. You’ll hear from the brightest minds within the gaming industry to share their updates on the latest developments.
I spent a lot more time working on events such as our three GamesBeat Summit online events that we staged in 2021, and I also covered a lot of news related to the metaverse and nonfungible token (NFT) stories this year. I’m also still busy planning our next online events, the GamesBeat and Facebook Gaming Summit on January 25, and our GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse 2 happening on January 26 and January 27.
Last year, I really enjoyed The Last of Us Part II, Call of Duty: Warzone, Ghost of Tsushima, Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War, and Doom Eternal. Warzone in particular took most of my free time, and I continue to play it and that’s why I put it on my list as my favorite ongoing game. Like other gamers, my gaming habits have changed to focus on online titles I can play over and over. That bodes well for future versions of the metaverse, where the goal is to keep you coming back every day.
I’m aware that playing Activision Blizzard games is controversial, as the company has been hit with sexual harassment and discrimination allegations. And that weighs on me, as it should for anyone who has to make a personal choice about buying such a game.
For comparison, here are my favorites from 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011. In each story below, the links go to our full reviews or major stories about the games. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s votes for Game of the Year and best individual favorites soon. (Note: This story has some minor spoilers.) Here’s the list in reverse order.
Best ongoing game: Call of Duty: Warzone
Developer: Raven Software and Infinity Ward
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
I spent an awful lot of time in Call of Duty: Warzone since it first debuted in March 2020. The pandemic conditions made it into a perfect escape vehicle for those of us who wanted to stay social with friends, forget about the world, and play a decent battle royale game. When I have some free time, Warzone has been my go-to game to play with friends or strangers.
The game got a restart with the recent launch of the Pacific theater map of Cadera after the launch of Call of Duty: Vanguard, and I’ve used my leveled up weapons to play some of it lately. The best thing about it remains the rewards of teamwork. If your squad of four communicates well, you can easily beat the teams that aren’t using their microphones at all. It’s still pretty rare for me to win in games with 150 rivals, but the thrill of winning against such odds is amazing.
It has some drawbacks. Communicating on Discord works better than talking in-game. And a lot of players aren’t happy that Caldera makes it highly rewarding to play with leveled up guns from Vanguard, which requires a premium purchase. One day, I hope this leads to a Call of Duty metaverse.
7) Total War: Rome II Remastered
Developer: Creative Assembly
I’m a sucker for most Total War games on the PC as I love real-time strategy and history. With Total War: Rome Remastered, I got to play a familiar game about the creation of the Roman empire. Total War games have a strategic “zoom,” where you can send your legions and expand your cities throughout the empire in a map that is akin to the one in the game of Risk, or you can fight tactical 3D real-time battles where the armies meet in the field. I enjoyed playing this again and growing my empire to the breaking point, where I dominated much of the Mediterranean but had trouble holding regions due to constant rebellions. It sends you a message that taking over the world through violent conquest is a bad idea.
I spent most of my time playing auto battles on the campaign map. But every now and then it’s a great reminder to play a tactical battle to appreciate the beautiful landscapes and attention to detail on individual soldiers.
6) The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Windows
I’ve been a fan of Supermassive Games horror titles ever since Until Dawn, which was my favorite game of 2015. And so I was eager to play the latest title from the developer, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes. This is the third game in the choose-your-own-death adventure anthology, coming after 2019’s Man of Medan and 2020’s Little Hope.
This third installment takes us underneath the deserts of Iraq in 2003, just after the end of the initial hostilities of the Iraq War. Each game in the series is built around a legend or myth based on a real-life incident, like the ghost ship in Man of Medan and the Salem Witch Trials in Little Hope. This one revolves around the myths around the ancient Akkadian Empire.
In the gameplay, you have to mash buttons in between story episodes where you’re trying to escape from a creature that will eat you or worse. The other type of choice you make is to respond in dialogue at key points in the relationships between characters. These often involve ethical dilemmas, and they come back to haunt you because just about every choice has a consequence.
I liked the production values in this game and the writing was good. The theme of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” resonated several times during the gameplay, and it made me think about who was worth saving and who I should jettison.
The title is good as a social game, where you can consult your friends about what decision to make. The stiff gameplay, where characters aren’t as interactive as you want them to be, is getting a bid old. But Supermassive did revamp the system so that 3D movement was much easier and the game characters and action moved faster than in the past.
5) It Takes Two
Developer: Hazelight Studios
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Windows
It Takes Two was a surprisingly good game in the under-used genre of romantic comedy. In the game, you play as a husband and wife who are planning on getting a divorce. Their daughter makes dolls of her parents and magically turns them into the dolls. The couple is trapped in the small world of the dolls, and they are forced to work together — as you are with a fellow human player in co-op play — in order to return to their human forms.
Josef “f*ck the Oscars” Fares came up with some compelling co-op game play yet again as he did with his previous title, A Way Out. To succeed in the game, you have to work together. And that’s not easy when you have a difference of opinion with your partner. It’s like you’re tied together, and your choices are bound by what you can convince the other player to do. You have to solve puzzles like how to beat a vacuum cleaner that has an ax to grind with you. The gameplay isn’t repetitive, and you have to move on from story elements to boss fights over and over.
4) Call of Duty: Vanguard
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Platforms: Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Call of Duty storylines are often a weak point. They’re like an excuse to stage a first-person shooter game in a new setting. But this year’s title had some good writing that gave the game good reasons to bounce from one strategic battle to another in a war that spanned the entire globe. We get a series of vignettes in four major theaters of war: the Middle East (with the Battle of El Alamein and more), the Pacific Ocean (with the Battle of Midway and fighting for Bougainville), Berlin, Stalingrad, and Normandy (in the lead up to the D-Day invasion).
These are fun settings on their own, but narrative elements tie them all together. The fictional story tracks the rise of the Special Forces at the end of World War II, and it brings together soldiers from different armies in Rainbow Six fashion. The story pulls elite soldiers like Polina Petrova, a Russian nurse who became a sniper fighting in Stalingrad.
She was modeled after real female soldiers who were the Soviet Union’s best snipers in the war. Petrova has to fight in unconventional ways, climbing the walls of buildings and running on the rooftops as they come under aerial attack. The Nazi villains are also well conceived, giving you just the right amount of motivation to wipe their forces off the planet.
I had occasional glitches playing on the PlayStation 5, but they were minor. The imagery is beautiful for a war game, with realistic environments, lifelike characters, and fast gameplay. The game really shines in multiplayer combat, particularly in modes like Patrol and Team Deathmatch. While it wasn’t the best in the series, I felt it was a well-balanced game across the vectors of historical interest, good gameplay, variety, great multiplayer, and a strong narrative.
3) Life is Strange: True Colors
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Windows, Google Stadia
The Life Is Strange narrative games are celebrations of diversity, with interesting characters who are fleshed out with relationships and emotions. And Life Is Strange: True Colors, hit home for me as the first really high-quality video game where the lead characters are of Asian descent.
The title is a third-person adventure game where the lead character Alex Chen is always on screen. A character like this is validating. And even though the character is a woman, I felt good as the game reflected part of my own identity and culture. It was also nice to see that this representation in True Colors wasn’t stereotypical. Alex and her brother aren’t “model minorities.” They’re far from perfect, as products of a broken family.
As the game combines realistic modern narratives with the supernatural, Alex has the superpower of being able to detect the emotions of those near her. She has a built-in lie detector test when she is talking to people, but she was institutionalized for this ability for being delusional — when she in fact was the one who could see the mental state of others. She uses this power to solve a whodunit mystery in a small Colorado town full of interesting characters.
While this game has the challenge of not being interactive enough, just like House of Ashes, it makes up for it with a compelling story that featured some of the finest acting and writing I’ve seen in a video game.
The realistic nature of the series holds up with this installment. Life Is Strange as a franchise isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues in its games, including teen suicide, immigration, racism, transphobia, alcoholism, and drug abuse. In this case, it focuses on the loss of family members, the travails of foster care, and standing up against a corporate monster.
2) Age of Empires IV
Developer: Relic Entertainment and World’s Edge
Publisher: Microsoft Xbox Game Studios
I was glad to see Age of Empires return after a hiatus that has lasted since 2005. And Microsoft took its time to get this right, as the developers worked on it since 2017. The result is a title that has a lot of polish for its single-player campaign and lot of fun with multiplayer as well.
Age of Empires and its sequels sold more than 20 million copies, but Microsoft shut down Ensemble Studios in 2009 during the Great Recession after attempts like Halo Wars met with limited success. This title is a successor to Age of Empires II, and the battlefield scenes in 4K HDR look pretty amazing.
Eight civilizations appear in Age of Empires IV. The single-player campaign starts out with the Norman conquest of England by William the Conquerer in 1066. I thought the starter campaign did a great job conveying history — a lot that I didn’t know about — in an interesting and visually appealing way. In attacking or defending fortresses, I constantly felt like the AI was surprising me and forcing me to choose what ground to hold and what ground to give up.
Each battle taught the rock-paper-scissors nature of medieval combat, where the spear soldiers did well against cavalry, which could easily take out archers, which could take out rows of infantry when properly shielded behind a line of sword infantry. Getting hands-on with history — without making it boring — was never so fun.
By the way, I would rate this title as a 5 out of 5.
1) Halo: Infinite
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft Xbox Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Halo: Infinite is a vast open world game that brings the Master Chief back in style. It’s a relief that this game turned out so well, from its stellar multiplayer to the long single-player campaign. The landscape of the new Halo ring is vast and beautiful. The story isn’t quite as twisted as past plots have been, and yet it is intriguing every step of the way. Cortana has been replaced by an AI character known only as The Weapon, and the unfolding of a new relationship between the Master Chief and The Weapon is compelling. This kind of story is why I keep coming back to Halo.
I just finished playing the campaign game on Heroic mode, and it was so satisfying. I played it for tens of hours, and I never got bored with any part of it. Halo: Infinite had so many tough bosses to fight, from the Gravity Hammer-wielding Bassus to the flying robots where you are exposed in a gondola.
I also had a hard time fighting Jega ‘Rdomnai, who wields a Duelist energy sword and can become invisible thanks to his stealth capability. You fight in a confined space and have to switch between your weapons, grapple hook, and threat sensor. Chak ‘Lok was also tough. Hell, they were all tough.
I won’t spoil details on other bosses here, but just when I thought I had gotten through a tough part, another difficult path lay ahead. I also loved the power fantasy of being in a Scorpion Tank and ripping the Banished enemies to shreds as if they were ants.
It game me a real sense of accomplishment when I finally finished. I consider this to be outstanding fan service that is so worth the long wait. I consider this game to be the most polished to date, and it’s also my favorite Halo for its all-around completeness. I rate it as a 5 out of 5.
On my honorable mention list is Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 2042. If EA’s DICE developers stamp out the bugs and keep refining the title, it could be very rewarding. The game has great joys like environmental destruction and a tornado that rips through the battlefield. So that game is worth keeping an eye on.
Meanwhile, I wish you a merry Christmas and happy holidays. However you celebrate the season, I hope you enjoy it and find time to play.
GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.