2021 ended up being a wild and unpredictable year in several ways. I started a new academic job somewhat last minute, bought a house, and moved states away. Amidst the excitement and chaos, gaming remained a constant in my life. Some of the games I played in 2021 feel like a distant memory already, but I wanted to include them in this post for memory’s sake.
Returnal is a gorgeous game with intriguing and captivating environments. I enjoyed traversing through the levels and experiencing Selene’s story, even if that meant repeated journeys across Atropos. I was struck by the game’s sound design and how much the ambient noises and music pulled me into the game. It’s not often that a game’s sounds are what lingers in my mind after playing. Returnal is a difficult game, and one I have not yet beat, but it’s memorable (I keep thinking about it a year after I first played) and was a strong outing for the PS5. I plan to pick up Returnal again soon, maybe for some co-op.
Adios is one of those weird (in a good way) indies you tell your friends about by saying “So I played this game, and I think you should play it. But I can’t tell you much about it.” Without revealing too much, Adios tells the story of a pig farmer who doesn’t want to help the mob anymore…and they’re not having it. This game presents an hour-long melancholic narrative about death and choice. I was pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the voice acting and the richness of the story. If you have some time to spare, you might check this one out.
Hitman 3 (PS5)
Hitman 3 is at the top of my 2021 video games of the year list. I like what IO Interactive did with the World of Assassination trilogy. Their level design grew stronger with each entry–Hitman 2 and Hitman 3 contain some of my favorite levels in games (Dartmoor, I’m looking at you). I’m not usually a fan of stealth games, but Hitman 3 was fantastic. Its levels are so carefully designed and detailed and the multitude of options for approaching targets made each of my passthroughs different from the last. While the game centers the player’s experience on flexibility, I liked the challenge of finding what might be the right opportunity for each assassination. Running into unexpected possibilities was equally as thrilling.
Deathloop is another game I have not finished. I liked the game’s style, voice acting, and gunplay, but it just didn’t wow me like I thought it might. It’s certainly not a bad game–it’s ambitious, gritty, and fast. There’s a lot to praise here. It just didn’t captivate me at the time.
Back 4 Blood (PS5)
Back 4 Blood was a blast! And I hope to get back to it this summer. Does the game have its balance issues? Absolutely. Despite that, I had fun playing B4B for several months with friends. Shooting and slashing our way through the levels was challenging and rewarding. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the card-based progression system, but it ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the game. The deckbuilding allows you to specialize your characters further, and I liked having a role to play on the team. Now I just need to convince my friends to revisit those Tallboys and the Tunnels of Terror DLC.
Tender: Creater Comforts (mobile app)
As you probably guessed from the title, Tender: Creature Comforts is a parody of Tinder. You’ll set up a dating profile, swipe left and right, and hopefully land a meaningful date. You are limited by a “visa” of sorts, and have ten dates to find your match, whatever the “one” might be for you. In interacting with potential dates, you’ll have to discover likes, interests, and what they hope to gain out of a relationship. However, just as with IRL dating, you may experience moments of frustration. For example, I went on several dates where things seemed to progress nicely only to be ghosted the following day. Tender is pretty realistic and worth checking out if dating sims are your thing.
Emily is Away <3 (PC)
Speaking of dating sims, Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too are some of my favorite games. Naturally, I played Emily is Away <3 eagerly and was not disappointed. This entry features “facenook” and brought back so much nostalgia for my early days using Facebook. This game, like the previous ones, provides a rollercoaster narrative full of feelings and options (this is another game where I don’t want to say too much–you need to experience it). I highly recommend this indie gem.
Life is Strange: True Colors (PS5)
Life is Strange: True Colors is one of those games that brought out a lot of feelings. I laughed. I cried. I was left in deep thought. I have to give high praise to the writers and voice actors for this. The characters behaved like real people. I can imagine them actually existing, buying flowers and chatting at the various social spots in Haven Springs. I’ve seen “reviews” that have referred to True Colors as “cringe” and “woke.” That’s nonsense. True Colors depicts realistic characters with depth and tells the story of a small town struggling on a number of levels. It’s not a perfect game, but it was a delight to play.
Call of the Sea (PC)
Call of the Sea is a mystery game that plays out via puzzles. I don’t typically play puzzle games, but I picked this up last year due to the art design and solid reviews. Call of the Sea is set in the 1930s and follows a woman, Norah, in search of her husband who was leading an expedition on an island in the South Pacific. Norah is ill, which is what set her husband off to the island in search of a cure. The game never quite dips into horror-elements, but there’s something fantastical and potentially threatening about the island. Some of the late-game puzzles were a bit tiresome, but the game’s atmosphere and Norah (voiced by Cissy Jones) kept me interested. Call of the Sea offers a short but adventurous tale worth pursuing.
Far Cry 6 (PS5)
I waited with much anticipation for Far Cry 6 (FC6). The Franchise is one of my favorites as it blends together the first-person shooter with open worlds. And, as much as I’ll sometimes comment on the, at times, strange divide between “serious” narrative and gameplay, I sometimes need to step into a game where things aren’t taken all that seriously and I can explore and get myself in and out of ridiculous and unrealistic situations. FC6 delivers on this as well as Far Cry 4 and Far Cry 5 did. FC6 is colorful, action-packed, and full of the staples the franchise is known for. You’ll overtake outposts, gain the trust of several factions, and agitate President Anton Catillo all while trying to liberate the island of Yara. I was happy to see the franchise return to a tropical setting (something I enjoyed about Far Cry 3) and appreciated the nods to earlier games. At times, the narrative was predictable, but the story contained some surprises and did a better job at wrapping up than Far Cry 5.
Age of Empires IV (PC)
Age of Empires and Age of Empires II were among the early games I played on PC. So when I saw that Age of Empires IV was releasing, I knew I had to check it out. This latest release brings more of the same, and that’s a good thing. Some will say that this title played it safe, but the benefit of that (for me) was that it was easy to pick up and dig into. It’s a kind of comfort game for me–familiar and nostalgia-inducing. If you like managing villagers and developing strategies to overcome your foes, Age of Empires IV might entice you.
Halo Infinite (Xbox Series X & PC)
A lot can be said about Halo Infinite and its development/management, but I’ll just stick with what I enjoy about the game for today. Halo Infinite has, overall, been a very fun experience with friends. It’s been the backdrop for many conversations and good times. And I enjoyed having a social game like that again. The various modes and events add some variety to the game, and it’s hard to beat that feeling of having an incredible match. I need to get back to the campaign at some point! And I do plan on jumping back into this one sporadically.
So far my gaming in 2022 has been a mix of old and new with some surprises (like Elden Ring) thrown into the mix. I still find that I am settling into my new and busy life as a tenure-track professor. Gaming becomes more and more important to me as time passes, and with that comes a stronger sense of balance between work and other aspects of life. I’m more mindful about what I play and how much time I’m willing to invest in games that aren’t scratching that gaming itch.
Horizon Forbidden West (PS5)
Horizon Forbidden West (HFW) was my most anticipated game of 2022. Playing Horizon Zero Dawn was an incredible and refreshing experience, and I hoped for the same in HFW. I was not disappointed. HFW builds off what its predecessor did well by presenting another cast of well-developed characters and a gorgeous open world in which to encounter them. The combat is solid and the creatures are a delight to look at (the Tallnecks are my favorite). The greatest critique I can give is the same as with the previous game. The narrative becomes convoluted at points. Regardless, I enjoyed the game enough to get the platinum trophy and was a bit sad when I had finished. I think Guerilla Games has knocked it out of the park with this franchise, and I can’t wait for more.
Minecraft, my old friend. For a few months I was back into Minecraft. I hopped back on a realm and revisited my old stomping grounds. Then I became immediately hooked again and went about designing farms and building a Victorian-style home based off a design I found online. It’s probably the coolest house I’ve built in Minecraft, though I’m sure it won’t be the last. Besides building a house and exploring, I also went spelunking with my friend, Joey, on multiple occasions. We had fun discovering what the Caves and Cliffs update brought to the game. Minecraft still offers that sense of exploration and openness. And there’s nothing like the thrill of finding diamonds and the crushing defeat when a creeper ruins your day. I don’t know that I’ll ever really tire of this game.
Elden Ring (PS5)
88 hours in and I still have conflicted thoughts and feelings about Elden Ring. When the game was announced, I was initially hesitant and didn’t think I’d play it. Then I decided to give it a shot and, well, I get it. I get why people love FromSoftware games. It helped that one of my friends came over one weekend and got me situated with the game. He guided and encouraged me through the first ten or so hours of Elden Ring, and I can say that was one of the most fun gaming experiences of the year so far. For me, the game’s greatest moments occur when I’m exploring, discovering, and progressing through the game in meaningful ways. What I struggle to vibe with is the mind-numbing cycle of death after death against certain bosses. That aspect of the game somewhat sours the experience for me. Elden Ring has moments of greatness and magnificence. I enjoy its world, music, and the environmental storytelling greatly. And I will be curious to see how these kinds of games develop over time.
Grand Theft Auto Five (PS5)
Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5) is another one of those games I keep coming back to with friends. Sometimes we’ll play just to mess around and show off our vehicles, but recently we’ve been working with a full team of four. So the heists are an option! Although I have to say that playing through the heists has really brought to the forefront the ways the game has aged. Stealth options, for example, are woefully lacking in GTA5. And don’t get me started on the clothes and character customization options. Regardless, GTA5 still has a lot to offer in content, and the game looks good overall considering it released in 2013.
Far Cry 3 (Xbox Series X)
Recently, my friend (over at A New Game Plus) and I recorded a podcast episode on the Far Cry series. The episode is a retrospective on the franchise (focusing mostly on the six mainline games). In preparing for the episode, I started feeling an itch to replay the games, which led me back to Far Cry 3 (FC3).
FC3 used to be my favorite Far Cry game. Nearly nine years have passed since I first played FC3, and I’d now say the game was my most memorable Far Cry experience. It’s a mix of nostalgia (it was the first game I bought and played on my first gaming desktop) and the experience I had with the game. First-person shooters and RPGs are among my favorite video games. And what do we get with many RPGs? Open worlds. So it was a wonderful experience playing a game that mixed shooting with an open world setting, and an island setting at that! FC3 presents players with a generally meaningful open-world that doesn’t fall prey to being too big for its own good. The world is big enough and yet still focused on narrative experiences that engage players without those experiences becoming too recycled or predictable.
However, there’s a reason I no longer call FC3 my favorite Far Cry game. The game’s narrative is…troublesome on a number of levels, and I can’t talk about the game without acknowledging its issues. FC3 falls into the white hero narrative trap. Jason, a fragile and coddled man, is the “hero” the Rakyat supposedly need to save the day. His sense of masculinity is the driving force for nearly all his actions (which are motivated by domination, sex, and violence). There are other problematic elements (including the sexualization of the Rakyat women and sexual assault), but I might discuss those at depth later on. Narratively, Far Cry 3 is a mess. If you’re able to put that aside and just play the game for fun, it’s fun. It’s the ultimate open world shooter playground, and that part of it was a refreshing moment for the franchise.
Far Cry 4 (Xbox Series X)
Continuing my replay of Far Cry games, I’ve gone straight to Far Cry 4 (FC4) after beating Far Cry 3. I had not played FC4 since its release in 2014, and there was something in my brain telling me that FC4, while good, wasn’t as great as FC3. Having put 15 hours into FC4 already, I can say I’m surprised at how good the game actually is. (It was probably my original sense of nostalgia for FC3 overshadowing my experience with FC4.) FC4 feels like, in several ways, a direct response to criticism of FC3. FC4 presents players with another beautiful open world in a geographically varied setting. Ajay Ghale, the protagonist, isn’t necessarily an interesting character and seems underdeveloped, but the attention to place and culture is at least somewhat improved from the previous game. So far I’ve had a fun romp around Kyrat and look forward to playing more soon.
Planet Zoo (PC)
Planet Zoo is one of those games I associate with summer and that I return to on a semi-frequent basis. It’s chill and the perfect game for catching up on podcasts and YouTube videos. It’s fun in and of itself, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I use gaming in conjunction with podcasts and other media I’ve missed out on during the academic year. Recently, I started a big cat zoo and am working on my design and landscaping skills. Planet Zoo also has that nostalgia factor going for it as I played a lot of Zoo Tycoon years ago.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS5)
I continue to pick away at the platinum for RDR2, though, if I’m being honest, it doesn’t take much for me to get hooked in this game. It’s one I imagine I’ll return to many many times. It’s the perfect digital space for drifting into someone and somewhere else. I love loading up the game just to explore, fish, and camp. It has become a kind of happy place for me.