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Ars Technica’s top 20 video games of 2021

In the world of video games, 2021 may forever be remembered as the year of COVID’s great reckoning. 2020 was already rough, but many of its biggest games were mostly completed in a normal development cycle. Projects slated for the following year weren’t as lucky.

Thus, this year’s gaming news was rich with delays, piping-hot launches, unfinished messes, and game publishers scrambling to fill their schedules with undercooked backup plans. And that says nothing about gamers themselves, wondering if crucial chips and parts might ever be plentiful enough again so they can buy the latest in console and PC gear.

Yet against all odds, fantastic games still crossed 2021’s finish line, ranging from big-budget behemoths to surprising indies. This year, in an effort to reduce ranking-based ire and celebrate every game on our list, we’re removing numbered rankings, with the exception of crowning a formal Ars Technica pick for Best Video Game of 2021 at the list’s very end.

This alphabetical-order list includes everything from breathless praise to caveat-filled considerations, but each game’s ability to crack this 20-strong list is, in our opinion, indication enough that each game merits a second look.

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Setting xenos on fire is my new favorite way to pass the time.
Enlarge / Setting xenos on fire is my new favorite way to pass the time.

Cold Iron Studios

Aliens: Fireteam Elite

PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: Amazon, Best Buy, PSN, Xbox, Steam

If you’re a regular Ars reader with a decently powerful PC or game console and hot opinions about the convergence of Ridley Scott, HR Giger, and Dan O’Bannon, you’ll likely find something to love about the first truly fun co-op game in the Aliens universe. Fireteam Elite keeps it simple: you and two friends use gadgets and big guns to take out waves of even bigger foes, mostly in the form of xenos but eventually with Working Joes in the mix.

How does such a simple pitch compete with dozens of other co-op shooters on consoles and PC? AFE lands on this year-end list not because of refreshing new ideas but because of solid execution. Cold Iron Studios strikes a careful balance between twisty battle-arena design, compelling enemy patterns, interesting co-op strategy options, and variable combat pacing, while stringing together a lengthy, varied campaign with increasingly dire stakes that (shocker) Weyland-Yutani has made a mess of. During each campaign mission, momentum rises and falls in a way that perfectly befits leaving your mic on and catching up with your squadmates between intense firefights, while class-specific perks and weapons force teammates to keep tabs on each other and interact meaningfully.

The latter quality stands in stark contrast to the lonely feeling I get in Back 4 Blood, a 2021 co-op combat candidate that struggles to catalyze collaboration between squadmates. I need more reasons to interact with online gaming teammates in 2021, not fewer. AFE gets this right in a nicely executed package, even if its difficulty spikes will likely push your squad to die-and-retry extremes.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

Flipping past a technicolor dinosaur in a shiny, blue sports car: that's the <em>Cruis'n Blast</em> lifestyle at work.
Enlarge / Flipping past a technicolor dinosaur in a shiny, blue sports car: that’s the Cruis’n Blast lifestyle at work.

Cruis’n Blast

Switch | Buy at: Best Buy, Target, Nintendo eShop

Many racing games have crises of identity; they commit to neither realism nor ridiculousness and wind up nowhere. This is not the case with Cruis’n Blast, which embraces the loud, garish, and playful spirit of the arcade to its fullest. This makes sense: the game was originally developed as an arcade exclusive in 2017 before being ported to the Switch this past September.

Cruis’n Blast is purely devoted to speed. You never have to take your finger off the accelerator once you’ve pressed the gas. When you hit a wall, you don’t stop; your car simply does a 360-degree spin and keeps pushing onward. There is no mini-map in the bottom corner, because even when you’re turning, the only direction you go is forward. This is a game where you can still zoom straight at 145 miles per hour while drifting and angling your car sideways. It’s all lovingly absurd: you can drive a tank or hammerhead shark and race through dinosaur-ridden jungles or UFO-invaded cities. You can drift and pop wheelies in a stealth chopper (complete with accompanying car engine noises). You can do a barrel roll.

There’s no online multiplayer—though there is split-screen for up to four players, which Ars appreciates—and plenty of other racing games have more cars and tracks. (Forza Horizon 5, which nearly made our 2021 list, is a better bet on that front.) Each race is more of a ride than a competition: the AI has a heavy rubber-banding effect, and every track has scripted events that occur right on cue. Winning is about using your nitrous oxide at the right time and doing Mario Kart drift-boosts as often as possible, not taking turns correctly. Still, playing Cruis’n Blast is a rush, each race a two-minute burst of effects and colors and mayhem. You get in and go, and the game never pretends to be something it’s not. It’s a big, honking, joyous dose of unreality.

Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Editor

Isometric traversal, puzzles, and combat with gorgeously rendered creatures await you in the 2021 gaming delight <em>Death's Door</em>.
Enlarge / Isometric traversal, puzzles, and combat with gorgeously rendered creatures await you in the 2021 gaming delight Death’s Door.

Death’s Door

PC, Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S | Buy at: GOGSteamNintendo eShopPSNXbox

As you scroll through this list, currently arranged in alphabetical order, you’ll find other games that arguably breathe more life into familiar gameplay conventions than Death’s Door does. By the time you get through roughly 15 minutes of this top-down adventure game, you’ll likely remark on its fusion of Zelda-like traversal and puzzles and Dark Souls-like mix of brutal battles, dodge-and-attack mechanics, and dead enemies’ spirits as currency.

But as 2021 wound down to a close, we at Ars couldn’t let go of Death’s Door as a top-notch spit-shine of both combined concepts, much in the way that 2017’s Hollow Knight took our breath away as a familiar-yet-brilliant retread of all things Metroidvania. Death’s Door coaxes its players along with a Tim Burton-caliber plot about faking like the grim reaper, but the real fun comes from how the studio Acid Nerve, which previously released Titan Quest, combines masterful combat controls with gorgeously rendered stop-motion-like worlds and monsters. So what if it’s familiar—when the execution is this snappy to play and gorgeous to look at?

Even better, after its debut earlier this year on PC and Xbox, Death’s Door has since trickled down to Nintendo Switch in the form of a solid 30 fps port—and we can’t say the same for other similar games on this year’s best-of list. So if your year-end gaming plans will largely be spent on Switch, perhaps because you’re lugging one along on vacation, you’re better off committing to Death’s Door than Nintendo’s own Switch-exclusive 2021 re-release of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

—Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

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