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The best video games of 2021 (so far): from Outriders to Valheim

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, video games have provided an escape for millions of people. The best games allow players to visit another world, live out their fantasies or simply just spend some time with friends over a game of FIFA or Call of Duty

This year, while the volume of blockbuster games has been relatively low while creators catch up on slowed development time, the variety and intrigue continues. So from supervillain simulators, hand-drawn horror and co-operative couples therapy, here are our best video games of 2021 so far.

Outriders

Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly tackles the en vogue ‘looter-shooter’ with this terrific sci-fi blaster. It wreathes itself in the familiarity of games like Destiny, while its third-person action has the definable crunch of Gears of War. But these familiar hat-tips allow the game to concentrate on its own defining feature of dynamic celestial powers spread across four definable classes. Encounters are thrilling and the loot is satisfying. Which is exactly what this type of game strives to provide.

Evil Genius 2: World Domination

The cult supervillain simulator returns after a decade-long hiatus with Rebellion at the helm. Players build their underground lair, furnish their casino cover operation and train up disposable minions before sending them into the world to do their bidding. Evil Genius 2 is tremendous fun, recalling the halcyon sim days of Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper, and executed with abundant diabolical charm. 

It Takes Two

Hazelight’s brilliant and bizarre co-operative jaunt has divorcing parents May and Cody shrunk into the body of two dolls and packed off on a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style adventure, working together across pillow fort labyrinths, blustery snowglobes and cuckoo-clock dungeons. It Takes Two is heavy on the use of metaphors as mechanics, and its narrative tone is bewilderingly unhinged, but its constantly inventive duo-based gameplay offers some of the finest co-op fun since Portal 2.

Monster Hunter: Rise

One of the best things about the Monster Hunter series is that the name really does tell you everything you need to know. You play as an unnamed monster hunter who rides into town and is tasked with, you guessed it, slaying monsters. To battle the gargantuan elemental forces of nature you’re equipped with massive weapons, a helpful cat and a dog you can ride and that’s basically it. It’s up to you to track monsters, find them, slay them, and use their body parts to upgrade your weapons and armour. What seems like a standard RPG action actually hides some strategy underneath as you must ponder exactly how to beat the monsters you face, with different weapons working better on some monsters than others. 

Mundaun

An extraordinary hand-pencilled horror by Swiss one-man band Michel Ziegler, Mundaun sends you to the Alps to investigate your grandfather’s death in a barn fire. The art style catches the eye –the darkly drawn lines both picturesque and oppressive as you uncover the devilish goings-on in the remote town– but its unsettling terror and earthy puzzling make for a memorable experience.

Genesis Noir

A quite extraordinary jazz-backed murder-mystery that spans, well, all of creation. As a trilby-toting gumshoe you are ostensibly investigating the shooting of a jazz singer, but Genesis Noir’s abstract investigation has you sweeping from the birth of the universe and through human history, tuning into radio static, building molecules and spinning planets. All the while, cymbals softly roll and saxophones lilt over its surrealist and singular milieu.

Ghosts n Goblins Resurrection

Sir Arthur and his spotty boxers are revitalised in this modern day imagining of the 80s side-scrolling classic. For all of its spit and polish, your trek through hordes of demons and dragons is as ruthlessly hard as ever. But a hearty challenge isn’t all that Ghost n Goblins is good for, with your skeleton bashing taking part in some deviously clever 2D environments.

The Climb 2

The accessibility of the Oculus Quest 2 has pushed virtual reality back into the minds of the mainstream. Most importantly the headset is providing a terrific frequency of excellent games. The Climb 2 is arguably the pick of 2021 so far, building on the original’s rock climbing heart with a wide range of different environments to scale. From crumbling mountains to towering office blocks. As you reach arm over arm, craning your neck for the optimal route, handholds fall and shift to make for a thrilling, taxing and varied climbing sim. The sort of stomach-lurching experience that can only happen in VR.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

Nintendo’s polishing of its marvelously madcap multiplayer Mario is a welcome addition to Switch in and of itself. But new adventure Bowser’s Fury is one of the most intriguing additions to the Mario canon in recent years. Taking place on one sprawling open area –the glistening Lake Lapcat– you bound across its scattered islands which are bursting with challenges and invention. It’s Mario at its most experimental –complete with a manic energy and generosity of ideas– and all the more impressive for it.

Loop Hero

Loop Hero is a curious and inventive RPG in which direct control of the armed adventurer is taken away from you. Instead you are tasked with laying cards to equip the hero with weaponry AND create the path and enemies that they will face. Once you have set up the environment, the hero is released on your loop where these decisions will play out. Smart and compulsive.

Valheim

While Viking survival game Valheim is still in early access, its Norse sandbox has already found huge success for both players and stream-viewers alike. You play as a slain Viking, awaking in a world where you need to prove yourself worthy to move onto Valhalla. You start with nothing, crafting weapons and building shelter to survive in its hostile wilderness. A real breakout hit whose strength lies in creating varied and unscripted stories.

Little Nightmares II

Creeping terror abounds in Tarsier’s lean and twisted puzzle-platformer. As small paper-headed boy Mono you must flee through decaying hellscapes –a forest, a school, a hospital– as the terrifying embodiments of childhood fears scuttle after you. Smart physical puzzling is the lynchpin of Little Nightmares 2, but its brisk descent into darkness is what will stay with you.

Hitman 3

Agent 47 slinks into the shadows for a break after this terrific finale for Io’s World of Assassination trilogy. Hitman 3 is the offbeat wetwork simulator at its very best, offering up a delicious selection of murder sandboxes for nefarious experimentation. Infiltrating a Dartmoor country pile as a private detective, dispatching pursuing agents in a pulsating Berlin nightclub, mixing with the hoi polloi is a glorious Argentinian vineyard. All while armed with a silenced pistol, fibre-wire and 47’s talent for slipping into roles unnoticed. Brilliant stuff and its updated tweaks and high-score chasing are all retroactively added to the first two games of the series too.

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