With Metroid Dread, Deathloop, Hitman 3, and Nier Replicant as noteworthy runner-ups!
If you’d asked me the status of my Halo fandom at the start of 2021, I’d have described myself as a ‘lapsed’ Halo fan. Ask me again now, at the end of the year, and I’m like that guy from that old viral video where he’s singing the Halo theme to some random woman in a parking lot. “You’re a monk!” she exclaims. And yes. I am a monk of killing, precise with a Battle Rifle.
My love of Halo Infinite is split pretty evenly between its campaign and its multiplayer, which has come as a massive surprise. I figured that after experimenting back and forth with various formats in Halo 4 and 5, 343 would stick the landing with Infinite. What’s surprised me is just how well they managed that - and how excellent the campaign is.
As I said in my review - much to the anger of some who don’t understand that five stars doesn’t mean perfection (it means, exceptional, must-play) - Halo Infinite’s campaign isn’t perfect. But it wears its heart on its sleeve, and polishes its most important aspects to a fine sheen. Given the ‘Infinite’ moniker and the age we live in, it seems fair to expect that other elements of the game that aren’t quite there will be buffed out in future updates - but for now, what you have is a tremendously compelling sandbox that you can sink hours into just enjoying the ways the various systems intersect and interact, including Halo’s classically tactical enemy AI on harder difficulties.
Another triumph, I reckon, is in how this game was developed - almost as two games in parallel, a single-player and a multiplayer, sharing resources but also not necessarily shackled to each other. You can sense in the design how one side elevated the other, and the end result is nothing short of a return to form for a series that has been searching for its soul for several years now.
One of the interesting things about the rest of this list is that the remaining games are all so close to Halo Infinite. Usually I have a run-away favourite, a total, unassailable Game of the Year. Truth is, any one of these games could’ve been my favourite of 2021 - but Halo just squeaked to the top spot past the others. So… let’s talk about those.
Deathloop pretty much has it all. It oozes style, has stand-out voice performances, an intriguing plot, and a world design that draws you in with poppy colors and art-deco stylings. Oh, and it’s an absolute blast to play, with a suite of powers that can lead to some really fun combinations and kills.
The funny thing is, I’ve not typically been one of those Arkane people. I know that Arkane makes good games - the quality of things like Prey and Dishonored could only be denied by an idiot - but for whatever reason, those universes have never quite grabbed me and sunk their hooks in as they have into others, who then turn into Arkane evangelists, babbling about how they’re the best studio on the planet.
Except, y’know, Deathloop is that game for me. In many ways, of course, it’s a natural evolution of everything Arkane has done before. It has many of the same strengths of those games. But it just ended up in a package that speaks to me, and it’s one of my favourite games of the year.
I had a sneaking suspicion that Metroid Dread was going to be a little bit bloody good from the moment it was announced. Developer Mercury Steam proved that it knew how to make a great Metroid with its remake of the Game Boy classic Metroid 2 Return of Samus, turning a largely obtuse game into something more approachable without losing any of its resolutely lonely and unfriendly feel. Plus, Nintendo and Metroid series steward Yoshio Sakamoto clearly had something to prove about their vision of Metroid after the face planting of Other M, their last attempt.
Dread also has a pretty hefty storytelling weight on its shoulders, tasked with closing out the original Samus story thread kicked off all the way back on the NES. It does this well, too - but the real joy here is in how Dread feels when you’re spelunking through the guts of another hostile planet. It’s not quite the best Metroid game - but it’s up there. And hopefully, with its success, the future of a 2D Metroid series is assured.
A lot of people are going to forget about this bad boy, given how early in the year it was released. But bloody hell, Hitman 3 is absolutely tremendous. As a complete trilogy, IO Interactive’s accomplishment can’t be understated, especially when placed into the context of the developer’s turbulent decade - a Square Enix subsidiary, then out on their own, published by Warner Bros, then finally self-published.
Hitman 3 represents a lot of things. It’s the completion of a brilliant suite of games, the ultimate expression of the key idea of freedom and consequence that drives the Hitman series. But it’s also IO Interactive finding its feet as an independent developer, and one that could be a true powerhouse in the future.
And that final level? Well, it might not be the best Hitman level, but it’s a brilliant cathartic finish… and in its way, a perfect demonstration of why IO might be perfect for the 007 franchise. Now that’s a game I truly cannot wait for.
I’ll keep this one short. Think of it as a bonus, since it’s a re-release of an old game. But, here goes: in many ways, I actually prefer the original Nier, janky as it is, to the brilliant, slick, and definitely better-on-paper experience that is Automata. This version tidies that up a lot, and adds new content, and I just… I love it. It’s a special game.
For more on our picks for the best games of the year, head over to our GOTY 2021 archive page.