Welcome, dear gamer, to Goonhammer’s inaugural Game Of The Year, or GHGOTY, if you will. This year has been, shall we say, less than jam packed with new releases and blockbuster hits, but we’ve nonetheless spent hundreds of hours turning our eyes square escaping from the grim horrors of the real world into the relatively happy-go-lucky aesthetic of, say, Mass Effect 3’s galactic genocide. Today we’ve used sparkly objects to capture the attention of a few of the Goonhammer team to talk about who has the best taste for what is clearly an objectively verifiable medium of enjoyment.
GOTY: Forza Horizon 5, Playground Games
Magos Sockbert: I do not “do” car games. I have had more than one friend try and hide my car keys after watching me “drive” in a video game, and have been scarred for life from running over more than one plot essential NPC over my gaming lifetime. That all being said, I do not recall the last time a video game made me this truly happy. There is something beautiful in how Forza Horizon 5 is so freeing and joyous and just revels in its mere existence, letting you play the game you want, not the game the creators decided upon (looking at you, Metroid Dread). Ignoring how the game is possibly the most beautiful game I have yet played on any console (PCs don’t matter, come at me), the art and design here is shockingly absorbing; my partner, also not a car person, has happily just sat and watched this most beautiful of screen savers as I slammed through an XP board and spun out at 170kmph. Forza is just freeing in a way that so few games, even the open world ones Ubisoft vomits out every few months, are brave enough to be. I can drive anywhere I like, I can use whatever car I like, I can do any event I like… I can just have fun. Travelling across Mexico in this game, Forza Horizon Five just let me be me in a world where roads are more like guidelines and braking happens to other people. The rewind function is an accessibility option I would pay good money to implement in other games, and lets me unfuck myself when the game stubbornly insists it’s a driving sim and not an exploration game.
I am told that all that garage simulation stuff lies buried within Forza, and that it runs well. I am told that I am missing out on huge portions of the game by not tweaking my ride, and ensuring I have the optimal vehicle for the conditions I am facing. I do not care. If I am missing out on half the game and it’s still this damn fun, that’s a pretty big mark in its favour. I don’t need to worry about how many torques the garage fits my car with, or deciding which way wheels turn when I accelerate, I can just live in the moment and ramp off a volcano. You know, fulfill those childhood dreams.
Jack Hunter: In my mind there’s no doubt that Forza Horizon 5 is the best game released in 2021. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much pure fun in a game. Just sit down and go. No boring time wasters, no awful gear grind (there are tons of cars to unlock but the game throws them at you, you have fancy cars from the very beginning, and just about every car is good). If I’ve got 10 minutes to play, I can get a race or two in. If I’ve got an hour I can work on a championship. Hopefully I’ve got more time than that – I seem to end up losing entire days. Whether played on a PC monitor or a TV it’s absolutely stunning, I’ve had as much fun playing it at my desk as I have on my couch, and it even gives achievements for taking photos. As a photographer I’ve got a few minor qualms with exactly how some of the photo settings work, but v0v. They’re good enough I can do whatever I want, and trying to pick a screenshot for this article took half an hour of scrolling through the literally hundreds I’ve taken. To top it off, difficulty and accessibility settings can be heavily tweaked so anyone can play, from a super casual person who’s never driven a car before up to an uber-nerd with more money invested in their steering wheel setup than I have in my entire computer.
Soggy: Begrudgingly, I suppose it is Forza? Saying this upsets my inner contrarian, but it was the most fun gaming experience that was released this year that I played. One thing that I absolutely struggle with is committing to starting anything new – be it a single player campaign or hobby project. Forza’s very bite-size nature means I can literally play one quarter mile at a time. Shit, does that make me a casual?
Backbone started off well and by the end of chapter one, I was expecting big things from it. It then went through a huge tonal shift, not only shitting the bed but jumping the shark at the same time. Humankind put up a good showing, with enough different mechanics from Civ to make it unique and refreshing. It does feel a bit like a Civ game on launch though, as something does feel missing from being a full experience. I suspect in the next year or two additional content/mods will turn this into a true “One more turn” time-waster. I still need to try Soren Johnson’s Old World, as that was another take on the genre, which may no longer be an EGS exclusive now that I think about it.
Most of the year was spent on playing through older titles that I just hadn’t got around to such as Assassin’s Creed Origins + Odyssey and the elephant in the corner of the room that is the PC Games Pass. It was thanks to the PC Games Pass that I found my true game of the year, Celeste. I’m not one to go out of my way to play platformers, which is probably why I missed this title released back in 2018. Celeste fundamentally is a game about overcoming adversity. It can be incredibly challenging, but at no point is it unfair. New mechanics are introduced one at a time until you have fully mastered them and the difficulty increases gradually over time. At the end of the game you are going through stages that had you seen up front, you would have never bothered trying. The soundtrack is a banger, hitting home with the heartfelt story and levels. Celeste scratches the same itch as VVVVVV, which was previously my favourite platformer – but this fully surpasses it. Play it now
GOTY: Psychonauts 2, Double Fine
Jonathan Bernhardt: Good god, it’s been a bad year for video games. Did you remember that Hitman 3 snuck into this calendar cycle in the third week of January? It’s one of the few titles making the short list at the top this year, as 2021’s shipping schedule was marred by massive delays across the board from the top of the industry to the bottom due to COVID complications and supply chain restrictions. Halo Infinite is on the very precipice of arrival as of this writing, but it’s not going to be out in full in time to sufficiently commit an opinion on it to print (at least, not from where I’m sitting — you might be having a bunch of fun with the multiplayer already). The vast majority of the top-platform releases in 2021 were PS5 and XSX upgrades for previously-existing titles from 2020 and earlier, making them inadequate for our purposes here.
I think in all honesty I have to go with a title I’ve written about previously in this space, Psychonauts 2, which plays like a 2006 action-adventure-platformer in all of the best ways and feels like the uncompromised vision of a studio that took over a decade and did a bunch of other water-treading projects to keep the one they cared about together. Also making the list (of titles I played) was Hitman 3, of course, Warhammer 40K Battlesector and Resident Evil Village. There was probably some good stuff that was only on PS5 and XSX… but how would I know yet? There’s still a bottleneck to even getting your hands on one of those systems, though it’s clearing up a bit now that supplies are more regular and speculators have eased back some. If you’re in the up-port/rerelease mood, though, Star Wars: Republic Commando somehow got a Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 release in April. I remember that game being dope.
GOTY: SaGa Frontier Remastered, Square Enix
Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones: I didn’t play a ton of video games this year – my son managed to hog the TV for most of the non-work waking hours I had – and when I did play games, they were often games he’d be able to watch, like Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury which was good, but not amazing. I also didn’t get an Xbox Series X and I don’t game on PC much so I can’t gush about Forza Horizon 5, which I’m absolutely certain I’ll love based on my love of 2, 3, and 4. So I’m gonna go super left-field on this one and say that my game of the year is SaGa Frontier Remastered, a release that seems like it was made specifically for me. I played the original SaGa Frontier back in 1997 and fell in love with the game. It was quirky, buggy, broken in a lot of ways, clearly rushed, but flawed in a way that I was absolutely captivated by. One of the biggest hurdles back then was the insane difficulty curve in the game, a complete lack of understanding of the mechanics, and a buggy save feature dependent on using the same memory card across seven files.
So I was overjoyed to find that the remaster fixed almost all of these issues while adding cut content to the game that was intended in the original version. It’s a fun game to revisit with some modern quality-of-life improvements and it was great being able to tackle an old challenge I never finished back in the day. SaGa Frontier isn’t a great game or even a pretty good one – it’s got a lot of weird shit in it and there are times when you’ll just be straight-up putzing around until something happens – but there are enough interesting ideas in it to overcome that. If you’re interested in this weird relic of Squaresoft’s past, consider checking this one out.
But realistically the best game I played that was released this year was Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, I guess. I played it but I don’t love it like I love my dumb, broken SaGa child.
GOTY: Batman Arkham City, Rocksteady Studios
Thundercloud: I haven’t bought any new games in at least two years, so my GOTY is unchanged for the 10th year running, and it’s Arkham City. It perfects the combat system from Arkham Asylum, without adding the cheap shock gloves from Origins or even more cruft from Knight (I personally think remembering 15 different moves to do in sequence is enough). The plot rips along at a fair old rate and the whole thing isn’t slowed down by minigames that are completely different in nature (if I wanted to buy an obstacle racing game or a tank game I would have). It has a lot of classic characters, and actually does interesting things with the narrative. I won’t spoil a ten year old game for you guys, but the biblical references are significantly more subtle than in the Zack Snyder films (though in there from the opening shot) and Robin beats up a woman grieving after a miscarriage.
In terms of gameplay it’s a Batman rhythm game, and the Arkham series has helped popularise that style of play (the more recent Spiderman and Spiderman: Miles Morales use the same fight and stealth type mechanics) and it’s really good. In terms of picking up and playing it again, NG+ adds a layer of difficulty to it (including making some boss fights significantly trickier) and you can go back to challenge mode and customise them to make them harder.
Basically you can have a hard day, and then load up a stealth map and go round choking people unconscious in a totally healthy way of dealing with stress.
GOTY: Metroid Dread
SRM: Of the like, three new games I bought this year, Metroid Dread was the one I enjoyed blasting through the most. Metroid is one of the biggest thematic and gameplay outliers in Nintendo’s oeuvre and seemingly the one they pay the least attention to, so when a new one drops it’s a certifiable event.
There’s almost certainly some recency bias here, but this is perhaps the most satisfying to play Metroidvania out there. It has a startling amount of Metroid Fusion’s DNA, and before long Samus will be ricocheting around the map like in Metroid Prime Pinball. It caps off the story that began in 1986’s Metroid and undoes the character assassination of Samus in Metroid: Other M. Power ups and upgrades are spread liberally throughout the map, and you will need as much help as you can get because this game can be legit hard. There’s no difficulty settings, no grinding for higher stats, and no assist mode – this is the first Nintendo-published game in a long time that requires the player to git gud to defeat its myriad bosses. However, the pure elation and satisfaction of bashing your head against a boss for a handful of deaths only to get it and then beat them without taking a single hit is something I haven’t felt outside of a Souls game. Yes I made the Dark Souls comparison, shut up.
Much hullabaloo has been made about how Dread just makes you feel like you’re exploring the map as opposed to really exploring it, and how the game’s subtle railroading keeps players from getting lost. I think it’s a nice middleground between the much more linear experience of Metroid Fusion, this game’s biggest inspiration and logical predecessor, and a less guided experience like Super Metroid.
If you’re a Gamer of Culture and have a Nintendo Switch, this should be an auto-purchase. If you’ve never played a Metroid game, the story only kind of matters anyway, and this game bangs. Your skills will be tested and you will need to make some space in your mind palace for strategies and map layouts, but ultimately you will get everything you put into this game back, with interest.
Like many of my fellow Goonhammerers, I spent much of this year playing older games. The highlights of these benchwarming backloggers included, but were not limited to:
Warhammer Total War 2: You know this game and what it’s all about, but I finally broke my cycle of “Start campaign, play for 6 hours, and abandon it” and finished Settra the Imperishable’s story. It was extremely cool and I am still godawful at Totals War.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: AKA Musclewife Simulator. The last AC game I played was AC2, and after about an hour of fun being an Italian Crime Teen I was forced to play as some schmuck in a hoodie at an Apple store and promptly uninstalled it. Odyssey understands that that shit sucks and focuses instead on This Is Sparta-ing fools off cliffs. It owns. Despite Ubisoft being a rapidly intensifying dumpster fire that I don’t really want to give money to, I played through Odyssey earlier this year and had an absolute blast. It does not respect your time one iota and its vast, beautiful world is largely filled with wolves and curiously aggressive lynxes, but I found the stories compelling and combat satisfying. I could spend double digits of hours strolling around and clearing forts, then go back and do the story content when I wasn’t two edibles deep. It’s the Old Country Buffet of videogames.
Control: I can’t get my wife to watch Twin Peaks with me, but she did enjoy watching me play this psychic-powered 3D Metroidvania. This is maybe the only game worth playing I’ve gotten on PS+ and it chugs like hell on my PS4 Slim, but even still the action is satisfying as hell and the story is a delight. Remedy’s particular brand of stilted, David Lynch-inspired storytelling has been near and dear to me since I played the first Max Payne on my friend’s PS2, and it’s only gotten better with time. The twists and turns of the story, stellar audio design, and inventive abilities had me excited to jump in time and again. Also, as seemingly the world’s only Alan Wake stan, I was extremely excited for his role here, and I will admit I am a bit hyped for the newly announced Alan Wake 2.
TheChirurgeon: I played and reviewed Metroid Dread earlier this year. It was fine and it might have gotten the nod from me but I just replayed Hollow Knight this week and it reminded me how far games have come in the Metroidvania vein and how Metroid Dread could have been much more than it was. Metroid Dread is a very decent game, but I’m not one I’ll pine to replay in a few years.
GOTY: Elder Scrolls Online, ZeniMax Online Studios
Greg Chiasson: I’ve literally only played one actual video game this year, and it was Gundam Breaker Mobile, a phone game that claims to be about building and painting custom robots and smashing them into each other in the robo-pit, but is realistically about 30% load times and 60% redeeming dozens of various tokens in order to spin slot machines. The actual meat of the game, the core gameplay loop, is spending fake – or sometimes real – currency on items that you’ll immediately recycle, in the hopes that you’ll get something good. Occasionally you get to perform the stated Main Activity of the game, and those battles are fun. Combat is simplistic but intuitive, and passes my main litmus test for games, which is whether it has a Gundam in it. Unfortunately the load times are often longer than the actual mission, and they’re wildly imbalanced: either you’re tooled up a million levels above the competition, or vice versa. One side gets demolished and the other takes no appreciable damage, which is pretty much how it works in the canon anyway so it’s hard to get too upset. Most of the appeal is Ready Player One style pleasure in recognition: this app would be exactly as enjoyable to me if it were just a slideshow of 3D Gundam parts to look at.
That said, my GotY is, as it has been since 2014, The Elder Scrolls Online. The king stays the king.
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