And here they are, my top 3 games from 2021. Keep in mind that the usual disclaimer applies: I’m just one guy, I mostly play PC games with an occasional flirtation with Playstation, and I’m an old man.
Like contemporaries Dusk, STRAFE, Ion Fury, Amid Evil, Devil Daggers, and WRATH: Aeon of Ruin, Prodeus rummages through the big toybox of classic 90s gameplay, looking for what elements it wants to preserve and what it wants to change.
Even a quarter of a century later, I remain a fan of run-and-gun shooters. At the same time, a lot of these throwback games have left me cold. I played Dusk back in 2019. I found it to be occasionally monotonous and hindered by dull keycard hunts. STRAFE was clearly a game that was intended to be played fast, but with a resource-starved permadeath design that punished aggression. The best way to make progress was to play cautiously, which was also the most boring way to play. Devil Daggers takes place on a single floating platform, which means it misses out on the level design of the era.
Of all of these throwback games, I think Prodeus does the best job in capturing and distilling what made those classic titles work. The weapons feel powerful while still requiring skill to make the most of them. The enemies offer a good variety of sizes, speeds, and attack styles. The sounds are meaty, the music is banging, and the “story” is shoved into text boxes that you’re free to skip.
The level design is where this game really shines. Each map is built around a clear theme or idea. One map has you hiding from a central sniper tower as you spiral your way inward, trying to get in behind the sniper. Another level has you crossing the same room several times, with the layout and loadout changing as you progress. Another is built around crossing lava moats. And so on.
These spaces adhere closely to the “all killer, no filler” design philosophy. I never found myself lost, or wandering around looking for the next unopened door. The levels do a great job of leading you through the chaos and creating interesting encounters.
I also really dig the art style. This game is a weird blend of the new and old. The environments are chunky and covered in pixelated textures like an old 90s title, but the game also features realtime lighting, crisp shadows, bloom, and other modern rendering tricks. It manages to feel retro while avoiding the onslaught of beige and gunmetal grey that dominated the palette of so many mid-90s shooters.
2. New World
I wrote about this recently, so I don’t feel a strong urge to go over it again. The short version is that this a PvP-focused MMO about a world where Europe traveled to the New World, but instead of the Americas they discover a continent of supernatural monsters and weirdness. Travel to the continent is a one-way trip.
The usual MMO design has designated territories for every group: Horde to the West, Alliance to the East. Red Team here, Blue Team over there. But New World has a different approach to this sort of thing. There are three factions in the game:
- Syndicate (Purple team, science-themed.)
- Covenant (Yellow team, Religion-themed.)
- Marauders (Green team, Military-themed.)
All three can roam freely around the map. The different factions can fight for control over individual cities. If your faction controls a city, then they get to collect taxes and make decisions about building infrastructure.Building crafting stations, basically. You get a discount when operating in a city controlled by your faction.
While this is an interesting approach to PvP, it isn’t really my thing. I dabbled in a few PvP battles to see what it was all about, and I found it as boring as every other PvP focused game. When you take players of all levels and throw them into a battle with each other, it generally turns into a maelstrom of chaos, noise, trash talk, and particle effects. The meta-battle takes place on the forums, with everyone endlessly bitching about weapon balance, exploits, play styles, and griefing.
Having said all that, New World has an open-ended approach to gathering and crafting that I thoroughly enjoyed. I spent several weeks running around gathering raw materials and crafting items for myself, while thousands of PvP folks murdered each other in the background.
The economy was borked, so I couldn’t really buy raw materials or sell my crafted items. New World wound up being strictly single-player for me, without even an economic connection to the rest of the playerbase.
The game was really pretty and I enjoyed the time I had with it. I stuck with it until I felt like my progress was being roadblocked by my aversion to PvP.
1. Cyberpunk 2077
How heartbreaking. Like everyone else, I watched those early preview videos with great excitement. The developers were promising us a massive and meticulously simulated open world. Cyberpunk 2077 was going to let us explore a dynamic living city and take part in a branching story filled with choices and powerful moments.
And then the game came out and we realized that they’d been marketing the game based on what they dreamed of building, not what they’d actually built. The game ran poorly, crashed often, and was full of visual glitches. The promised simulation turned out to be vaporware, giving us the fragile illusion of a city. Even when something worked, it still found a way to be disappointing. The story had lots of dialog and choices compared to contemporary titles, but it was actually a step down when compared to Witcher 3.
And if you managed to overlook all of that, there was still the nagging thought that all of this had come at a tragic price, with the team working heavy crunch for months on end to bring us this half-baked pile of broken promises.
So if this game is such a mess, then what is it doing at the top of my list? See, here’s the thing:
This game made me feel emotions.
The feeling of foolish optimism when starting the heist with my best-bud Jackie. The fear as everything unraveled. The frustration of trying to get Judy to stop being so bull-headed and let me look for Evelyn. The sense of dread when we realized how much danger Evelyn was in. The gut-wrenching confrontation in that chop-shop basement. The burning outrage when I realized what Placide had done. The irritation with the childish Johnny Silverhand and his tedious politics. The pity I felt as I realized what he was really going through and how this situation was unfair to both of us. The unease of meeting with the doll at that hotel in the desert.
And don’t even get me started on what it was like to attend The Funeral.
So many games struggle to just present a coherent chain of cause and effect. A few manage to give us some characters with clear motivations. But in Cyberpunk 2077 the characters punch through the noise and tropes of videogames and emerge as fleshed-out people with vibrant personalities, relatable flaws, and understandable goals and dreams. These folks aren’t just “pretty good, for a videogame”, the condescending half-praise we give when games manage to not screw up the basics of characterization. These folks can stand with the best of them, from any medium.
Yes, Cyberpunk 2077 was buggy, slow, and janky. But so was Fallout 4, and that game featured Preston Garvey, the poster child for the atrocious state of characters in the AAA space. Fallout 76 was an even bigger technological disaster, and Bethesda released that game with no characters at all because writing is hard and money is fun when you can throw yourself into great big piles of it.
How long has it been since BioWare really hit you in the feels? How many more failures before we’re forced to conclude that this “recent slump” is just their new normal?
When was the last time Ubisoft created a character that wasn’t an avatar of cringe?
I sort of lost interest in Obsidian Games a few titles ago, but even in their heyday they were more focused on “interesting worlds and situations” than vibrant, richly detailed characters. Their games were often intellectually stimulating, but they rarely provoked a strong emotional reaction from me.Aside from the times when I’d get angry because I was forced to have some belligerent insufferable dickhead as part of my party. But then fans would explain to me that I was overlooking just how intellectually stimulating he was. So there you go.
Yes, Cyberpunk 2077 was an overhyped pile of broken technology, but if that’s what it takes to get characters I can connect with then I’ll take it, bugs and crashes and all. If you told me right now that there was another game with moments as powerful as the ones in Cyberpunk 2077, but the game was also just as buggy, I’d still buy it. I’d buy it in a fucking heartbeat. This is what I’m looking for. I want people I can care about in a world I can believe in, and it’s been years since I’ve played a game that could give me that.
Having said that, imagine how much more amazing this game would have been if CDPR had released the game in suitable condition, and if they hadn’t spent years promising us stuff they weren’t sure they could give us. I love Cyberpunk 2077, but I’ll always mourn for the even more amazing game it should have been.
So that’s what I liked in 2021. Here’s hoping 2022 is better. Thanks for reading. Happy New Year everyone!
 Building crafting stations, basically.
 Aside from the times when I’d get angry because I was forced to have some belligerent insufferable dickhead as part of my party. But then fans would explain to me that I was overlooking just how intellectually stimulating he was. So there you go.
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