The Best Year in Gaming: 2021

Last year’s stacked lineup of games for the Game Awards had us thinking: What was the best year in gaming? As part of our series on determining gaming’s best year, we’re putting together an article on each year, charting the major releases and developments of the year, and talking about both their impact and what made them great.

The Year: 2021

TheChirurgeon: Although multiple vaccines had been developed for COVID and were beginning to see a roll-out (at least in the United States), that process would be slow throughout 2021, while cases outside of the major cities where COVID’s biggest impacts were felt a year prior were beginning to spike. The result was that one year on, COVID was still a major concern and preventing widespread travel and return to business as usual. This meant the cancellation of many large events, such as the Las Vegas Open and NOVA, while others went digital-only or virtual, such as E3. It would be another year before we’d see things return to normal, though by late 2021 some events were back in operation.

Microsoft Acquires Bethesda

TheChirurgeon: After nearly two console generations spent being beat up by Sony with regard to console exclusives, Microsoft decided to start fighting back – and in a big way. After finding out that Bethesda’s Starfield might be a PlayStation exclusive (Sony had a practice of paying competitors to skip out on supporting other platforms), Microsoft decided to just go ahead and buy the whole thing, spending $7.5 billion to acquire ZeniMax Media, Bethesda’s parent company.  The result was that Bethesda games Starfield and Redfall were Xbox and Windows exclusives.

Epic Loses Its Case Against Apple

TheChirurgeon: In 2020 Epic Games sued Apple over their practices in the iOS app store, in which they were forcing developers to give up a 30% cut of revenue on each purchase made in the app store. Epic wanted to bypass this with their game Fortnite, and when Apple blocked the game in their app store, Epic filed a lawsuit. Both companies made their cases over the next year, and Epic would file a similar suit against Google. In January 2024 the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, ending the legal action and leaving Apple in the clear on most of the charges from Epic. The result? Apple gets a 30% cut of your app revenue, though thanks to Epic winning on its steering charge, Apple will allow you to have external links to other payment mechanisms, but it’ll take 27% instead and also tell people not to trust those links. 

The Final E3

TheChirurgeon: After 26 years (and canceling the event the prior year), the final Electronic Entertainment Experience conference was held virtually in June 2021. Many of the usual suspects were present at the event – Microsoft and Bethesda presented in a joint presentation, Nintendo held a Nintendo Direct, Square Enix showed off their upcoming slate, and Capcom showed off Resident Evil VIIllage. The Entertainment Software Association planned on another in-person event in 2022 but a lack of interest from the public and major publishers led to the event being canceled and discontinued altogether in 2023, ending an era.

Age of Sigmar Third Edition

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention probably the biggest Tabletop release of the year, Age of Sigmar third edition. The timing was ideal as unlike Warhammer 40k ninth edition, it was able to be released as quarantine measures were loosening up and major GTs were occurring again. Third edition built upon the framework of second, adding major changes like actions that you can perform on your opponent’s turn (directly addressing frustrations at long down times during double turns) and introducing Grand Strategies and Battle Tactics to the game – Secondary objectives you could complete to score bonus points.

Third edition also introduced Path to Glory, a narrative progression system similar to Crusade from 40k. The Starter set introduced more Stormcast Eternals to the mix, and a new kind of Orc subfaction, the “kruleboyz”. The newest edition was incredibly popular and built the player base up in a substantial capacity.

Credit: 40khamslam

Kill Team 2021

A complete and utter overhaul that made the game completely distinct from past versions. While previous editions were attempting to do a game that felt very familiar to 40k players but on a smaller scale, this discarded any pretense of that and created something else entirely.

Armies came with preset kill teams, rather than the complex list building of past editions. This helped streamline how many boxes of models you’d need to buy, rather than dealing with needing to buy multiple to get that ONE weapon you needed to comply with WYSWYG. A new melee system involves using your dice rolls to cancel out an opponent’s dice. Controversially the game used a series of shapes seemingly chosen at random instead of inches, requiring players to mentally remember which shape was how many inches.

TheChirurgeon: The 2021 edition of Kill Team was Games Workshop’s best-designed game to-date – it was easier to approach in terms of model commitment, and the updated stats and make it a more compelling game than the prior edition.

Resident Evil 8: Village

If Resident Evil 7 was a return to the style of the first game, its sequel is an attempt to be the RE4 in the relationship. It’s loud, ridiculous, and knows exactly what it’s trying to be. Resident Evil 8 is first person like the last entry but turns the game from survival to a straight-up first person action game. The humor is hard camp and manages to juggle the multiple locations in a way that feels very organic and satisfying to play. Even as someone who doesn’t generally enjoy too much camp, the gameplay kept me going and playing Mercenaries for several hours after.

Oh and if you’re here because of the tall vampire lady, she’s only in it for 2-3 hours at most. Sorry. 


A peculiar rogue-lite/bullet hell style shooter, Returnal got overlooked by much of the gaming scene. It was initially a PS5 exclusive while the console was still very difficult to get your hands on, which was pretty much a death sentence for it. That’s a shame, because the game itself is an interesting psychological thriller/roguelike with an intriguing plot.

Halo Infinite 

TheChirurgeon: The first mainline Halo in six years, Halo Infinite brought a semi-open world structure instead of the more linear design of previous games in the series. The game also leans more heavily into its story, giving us more interplay between Master Chief and newcomer Fernando Esparza. It’s a refreshing take on the exploratory aspects of the early levels in the original Halo, taking that to the next level by opening things up and allowing you to hop in a plane and fly it around blowing shit up. As with other games in the series, Halo Infinite has a solid single-player campaign but where it really shines is in its multiplayer, with some of the best multiplayer in the series to-date.


From Arkane, the creators of Dishonored and Prey (2017), Deathloop is a 1960s inspired Immersive Sim that had high hopes. Players are Colt, an assassin for hire who must kill 8 targets on an island belonging to a James Bond-esque supervillain. Although the initial pitch of the game made it appear to be more open-ended than it actually was the writing is excellent and punchy. If you’re a fan of Arkane’s style of immersive sim then the game is worth a playthrough. Just don’t expect it to be quite as open ended as some of their other titles.

Jonathan Bernhardt: The problem with Deathloop, to the extent that it has one, is that it is essentially a rogue-lite. It’s hard to claim this is hidden in the marketing — im-sim meets Groundhog Day practically screams rogue-lite — but those two game types are in such complete tension with each other that despite how well the game is written, it struggles to maintain any kind of momentum as you try to perfect your run strategy. The invasion-style PvP is intriguing, but it’s good that it’s an incredibly perfunctory bolt-on, since you won’t find many players willing to be the Julia to your Colt these days.

If you’re willing to take the plunge on it, though, it’s a fantastic game. You’ll get to kill a lot of people who might remind you of certain personalities in the real world, who own and operate social media services.

Forza Horizon 5

TheChirurgeon: The fifth entry in the Forza Horizon franchise took us to Mexico, giving players another sprawling landscape filled with a variety of biomes, ranging from lush jungles to sandstorm-covered deserts. It’s the classic open-world style racing gameplay the Horizon series has become known for, with new environments, awesome challenges, and more cars. Forza Horizon 5 is as good as racing games get – you can go as deep or shallow as you like, and if you’re a novice to racing games there are plenty of tools and settings to help you run races without smashing into walls constantly. Few games are as easy to revisit as FH5, where you can pick it up and drive around the countryside whenever you want, and it’s also one of the most beautiful games ever made.

Kraid makes a return in this one but Metroid Dread doesn’t play on nostalgia as much as you’d think

Metroid Dread

TheChirurgeon: After years floundering in the increasingly-stretched limbo of time between Metroid 2 and Metroid 3 in the franchise – the space where the Prime series take place – the Metroid franchise finally returned to the end of the timeline with Metroid Dread. What follows is a tight, well-paced action adventure game with some really great panic-inducing moments involving the murderous EMMI robots. Metroid Dread isn’t the best game in the Metroid series, but it’s a very good game and one of the best games of 2021. You can read our review of it here.

Psychonauts 2 

A long awaited sequel to the original Psychonauts on XBox, released in 2005. Psychonauts 2 takes a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to the original. The gameplay largely feels intact, copying the mechanics of the original in a way that makes it feel like it was made around the same time as the original – and that’s a good thing. The writing remains snappy as ever and even has matured a bit. It addresses things like trauma and loss – but never enough that it stops being funny. Whether or not that works for you is going to depend on your taste, but if you’re craving a mid-2000s platformer, which is a genre in short supply, then it’s definitely worth your time to check out.

Jonathan Bernhardt: Already said my piece on this one; what a fantastic title.

Death’s Door

TheChirurgeon: Death’s Door is an adorable top-down action-adventure Souls-like in which you play a raven working for Death as a stand-in grim reaper. The game has a great mix of exploration, secrets, and difficult combat – it’s definitely challenging – with fantastic humor and solid storytelling. It’s an underappreciated gem from Acid Nerve, and put them on the map in a way that their prior Souls-like, Titan Souls, did not.


One of the most creative indie games of the year, created by the designer of Pony Island and The Hex. Inscryption is a card battler mixed with a rogue-lite with an incredible atmosphere. Presented as a recovered prototype of a 1990s PC game based on a real life (in the game) card game that was never released. In Inscryption you are prisoner to a malicious Dungeon Master type character as you attempt to progress through his adventure by beating him over the course of several rounds. Every time you die you get to create a custom card to carry into your future runs to eventually triumph.

Once you do, the game keeps getting weirder and more fourth wall breaking and will keep you engaged until the very end. If you like either card games or rogue-lites then this game is an absolute must play.

The Forgotten City

Originally conceived as a mod for Skyrim, one of 2021’s most clever games was The Forgotten City, a first-person puzzle adventure game in which players take on the role of a time traveler sent to the past to solve the mystery of an ancient city trapped in a perpetual time loop. Throughout the game’s looping story you’ll uncover the mystery behind the town and its mysterious golden statues and solve the challenges of its citizens. It’s a great puzzle game with an intriguing hook and a game which deserved more attention.

Why It Was the Best Year in Gaming

TheChirurgeon: Despite some delayed releases thanks to COVID, there’s still a lot to recommend in 2021 – games like Resident Evil 8, Halo Infinite, Metroid Dread, Hitman 3, and Forza Horizon 5 were fantastic AAA titles for the year, and are worth playing. The indie scene is where the year’s real gems were, however – Inscryption, Death’s Door, and The Forgotten City are all outstanding releases, and there were a host of very solid indie games as well – titles like Eastward, Loop Hero, Exo One, and Little Nightmares 2 are all worth checking out.

On the tabletop side, Age of Sigmar third edition and Kill Team 2021 are some of the best miniatures games ever made, and some of Games Workshop’s finest work. They’re joined by some solid board game entries – games like Kabuto Sumo, Kemet, 7 Wonders Architects, and Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile are all very solid, and the 2022 Spiel des Jahres winner Cascadia is exactly the kind of simple but deep game the awards committee loves and an instant classic.

This article is part of a larger series on the best year in gaming. For more years, click this link. Have any questions or feedback? Drop us a note in the comments below or email us at