Jordan Middler’s top games of 2021

Roughly 10 games in order of how good they are (ish).

This list is part of our GOTY guest picks, where we invite previous writers and special guests to give us their favourites from 2021. Read more here.

My perception of time is so warped these days that when I started writing out this list, I almost started with a diatribe about how ‘this time last year, I was getting ready to go to New York, without a care in the world’. Then I realised that was two years ago. Conversely, we only started this site in February, but it feels like it’s been a big part of my career and life for much longer. That’s probably largely due to the fact that the idea for the site and even some really specific parts of our content have been planned for so much longer. 

Don’t tell the BBC this, but at one point, a few years ago, myself and (Hamish Black of Writing On Games and being my friend fame) recorded a pilot of a podcast for the Beeb that ended with a game show style segment called “What’s The Name of the Game?”. That was in like 2019. I’ve had Overlode in the pocket for a while. 

Putting together this list was a strange one, mainly because, with a few exceptions, it feels like it’s been a year of great games, but not amazing ones. It’s not been a bad year by any stretch, but the types of games that usually speak to me, that being big, blockbuster AAA titles haven’t quite lived up to my expectations. In the same breath, I think it’s actually been much *better* than a first full year of a console cycle typically is. Sure, most people still can’t get the new boxes, but, for those that eventually end up with one, there’s been a mountain to play.

10. Chivalry 2

Being able to absolutely launch your weapon into a crowd of unsuspecting enemies is such a deeply enjoyable mechanic. Some people will tell you that Chivalry 2 is a game about sword fighting. About facing down legions of enemies with surprisingly deep mechanics and a counter system that, once mastered, is incredibly fun to use. While this is… technically true, to describe…

Infact, fuck this. Watch this clip of Chivalry 2, and if doesn’t seem like the most fun in the world, then you have serious issues and should promptly remove the enormous claymore from your arse.  

9. Psychonauts 2

I’m really glad that a game like Psychonauts 2 can still get made. The first game was really popular with the 5 people that had the original Xbox, but Jesus Christ those people were loud. Psychonauts 2 feels like a game that’s been thought about for 15 years. There’s simply no other way that the sheer magnitude of creativity, wit and passion of this game could be achieved.

If you were to make a list of the ten most visually impressive levels in gaming history, there’s a strong case for Psychonauts 2 taking up half of that list. Beyond the excellent animation and colourful, vibrant world, the inventiveness of the levels you’ll platform through is so impressive that it makes us wonder how one team came up with them all. While the combat and some of the psychic abilities can be frustrating at times, it’s impossible to dwell on those issues for too long while you’re surfing a giant piece of mail or floating through a LSD-infused music festival.

8. Forza Horizon 5

Look, I still think Forza Horizon 4 is a wee bit better. This is very much a case of 1a and 1b, but I think Horizon edges it purely because it’s set in Scotland. Forza Horizon 5 is brilliant and looks like something you’d imagine games look like in 30 years, but it is a bit more of the same. 

The issue seems to be that in the traditional Forza cycle, we would have changed things up with a  Forza Motorsport game after Horizon 4, giving folk that want the serious racing a chance to get their kicks, and the folk that need a break from smashing every single fence in Britain a break. However, with Horizon 5 coming out straight after Horizon 4, it makes the repetitiveness of the events feel even more samey. I mean, they’re still a ridiculous amount of fun, absolutely launching a car that’s worth £200,000 off the side of a Mexican hill doesn’t get old, but I do think the series needs a bit of a break before it runs out of road. 

7. Metroid Dread

This is the first Metroid game I’ve ever finished, despite loving the genre dearly. And with Metroid Dread, it feels like I’ve picked a game that’s dedicated to demonstrating why these games have had such a lasting impact on the industry. The combat is hard, but fair and feels fantastic to play. It can be a bit overwhelming at times, and it’s best enjoyed with a controller, but it never feels cheap.

The exploration is rewarding, but the mid-game does get pretty confusing, and the game is bad about giving any sort of direction. I was enjoying the game in the first half, but in the second half I could barely put it down. It’s a brilliant game, and a shining example of why games like this still have such a firm place in the industry today, and who we have to thank for that.

6. Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantastic game that surprised me not only with how much I enjoyed the combat, but how it reminded me just how much I love these characters. It’s funny, genuinely full of heart, and a visual powerhouse. It might just about outstay its welcome if you’re not as into these characters as I am, and you might find the combat a bit repetitive, but as soon as it was done, I didn’t think “That took ages”, all I thought was… “so… when’s volume 2?”

The game also looks gorgeous. It’s a planet-hopping adventure, so you’d expect the developers to stretch their legs with the art style, and they do it tremendously. A highlight is the cyber-punk drenched spaceport of Nowhere, which happens to be in the severed head of an ancient celestial being. Facial animation is also excellent, and the fur tech on Rocket’s face is only outmatched by Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, leaving it in esteemed company.

What was with that bit at the end where you’re walking towards the camera though?

5. Halo Infinite

Halo Infinite is a good, often great game, however, the campaign shows off its best tricks far too quickly, and playing it further will only lessen the impact of its opening hours. The multiplayer suite is incredible and considering it’s free to play, it’s impossible to advise against at least trying it. I wish I loved Halo Infinite more, and I expected to, but it feels like it’ll take 343 another game to actually work out what it wants to do with its open levels, beyond just having them.

The game is largely here based on the limitless enjoyment and quality of the multiplayer. There’s basically nothing wrong with it from a sheer, mechanical perspective. It feels unbelievably smooth to play, it’s genuinely tense when games come down to the last few points, and the combination of the new equipment from the campaign and the classic Halo weapons make it the best Halo multiplayer since 3. 

4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

The only fault I have with Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is that I wanted more of it. The game wraps up in around 12 hours and I’d have happily played double that. More time spent on these incredible planets, more side missions to do, more characters to meet, and most of all, more time with Ratchet, Clank and Rivet. The core mechanic of using the rift’s could have been expanded more, and I hope it’s something that’s developed in a sequel and not relegated to a one-and-done gimmick. But from a storytelling, technical, and gameplay perspective, it’s hard to imagine a game that’s so uncompromisingly positive and rewarding to play. When people finally get a PS5, this is the game I’ll tell them to get. This game will be a gateway for some kids to fall in love with games, the same way the first game was for me all those years ago. May we get new Ratchet & Clank games forever.

3. Hitman 3

Hitman 3 is an incredibly strong conclusion to what is one of modern gaming’s best trilogies. The environments IO Interactive has crafted have never been more creative, more sprawling and more overstuffed with secrets waiting to be unearthed. The depth is unimaginable and the enjoyment of orchestrating the perfect kill never stops being incredibly satisfying. While not every level in Hitman 3 will sit among the likes of Paris, Sapienza and Miami, new additions like Dartmoor prove that not only does IO still have plenty of tricks up its sleeve, the acquisition of the James Bond franchise is poised to be one of gaming’s most tantalising prospects. 

2. Deathloop

Deathloop is a game about doing the same thing over and over again. That may sound on the surface like something that would get old, but through a blend of genius storytelling, brilliant world design and a cast of villains you’ll fall in love with, Deathloop manages to keep a world you’re stuck revisiting, fresh.

That’s how I started my review of Deathloop for the BBC, and the more I think about Deathloop, I don’t actually think I nailed what I enjoyed about it so much in that review. While it presents itself as this very open, free game wherein you can essentially do what you want with no consequences, Deathloop, in reality is a heist game. It’s a game about the plan coming together. It’s a murder puzzle, as the developers put it. That element of the game is what made it work so well for me. Having a look at your day and seeing that there were things n each section fo the day that you could be getting on with, or even just taking a full cycle to mess about and explore the island. While the world doesn’t look *as* cool as it potentially could, the interiors, which have always been Arkane’s strong suit, are pretty much unparalleled in terms of how cool they are. 

Initially, I wanted Deathloop to give me the freedom of a Hitman. I wanted to be able to take out the targets in any order, to have to work out on a piece of physical paper where everyone would be and when, and while I still think they could have afforded for a bit of creative liberty, pulling off the heist isn’t the game, it’s the detective work you’ve done before then setting the table. The ending doesn’t work for me, which is what stops it from being a real contender for my top spot, but that doesn’t sully the immense fun I had in the hours before I got there. It’s an Arkane game that finally worked for me. A Christmas miracle. 

1. Returnal

Everything was working in Returnal’s favour in order to make it my Game of the Year. Not only is it from a studio, Housemarque, that I love (Resogun is a top 5 PS4 game, fight me), but it’s also their take on a genre I love, the third-person shooter. 

It’s an incredibly hard game. It’s impossible to get away from that. Most people reading this list will have either never played the game or have only played the first area because they can’t progress. And while I think the difficulty is essential and actually appropriate to the plot, as opposed to other hard games that are just hard for the sake of being hard, I do regret the idea that people won’t be able to see just how cool the narrative of Returnal is. 

It’s absolutely bathed in that scandy-mystery that I loved in games like Control, which makes sense when you learn that they share a key writer, Eevi Korhonen. The game ask a lot of you to get to its true ending, in fact, even beating the game isn’t enough to uncover all the world of Atropos has to offer, but if the game was just the story set against some middling gameplay, it would still be somewhere on this list, the reason it tops the list is because the gameplay is simply unimpeachable. 

The sheer variety of weapons, augmentations and other variables that can impact a Returnal run is so large that even playing the game again a few weeks ago in anticipation of Game of the Year, I found myself trying out completely new playstyles and thriving. Like the drip-fed narrative, I think the game should open you up to these guns and variables a bit quicker, but once you get over that first hump, there’s a momentum to collecting weapon upgrades, health upgrades and other items that by the time you get to the boss, you feel unstoppable. Of course, you’re not, but don’t let that stop you. 

Yous inty Blue Öyster Cult?

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