Microsoft has moved into a new generation of gaming with the Xbox Series X/S, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the new consoles have got off to an excellent start. By any metric – first party releases, third party releases, Xbox Game Pass, you name it – 2021 has been a great year for Xbox, and over the last 12 months, we’ve played plenty of standout games on the platform. Here, we’re going to highlight what we feel were some of the best of the lot, and then pick one of them as our ultimate winner.
NOTE: The nominees and winner were decided by an internal vote held among the entire GamingBolt staff.
People Can Fly has made a name for itself over the years as a studio that consistently delivers excellent shooter combat, from Bulletstorm to Gears of War: Judgment, and though Outriders is, of course, a very different kind of experience from those two, it is defined by a lot of the same strengths. Combining explosive abilities and punchy shooting makes for consistently thrilling combat encounters in this RPG shooter, and heading to the many different environments of Enoch to track down a bevy of quests and running it all back again on higher difficulties as you try and attain better loot is a loop that’ll keep you hooked for a long, long time.
Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door had been turning its fair share of heads in the lead-up to its launch, what with its promise of a solid action-adventure dungeon-crawling journey inspired by classic Zelda games, and it more than lived up to expectations. Grueling challenge, excellent combat encounters, memorable boss fights, ingenious puzzle design, and consistently rewarding exploration are all tenets of this genre, and these are all areas that Death’s Door excels in. Meanwhile, by putting you in the proverbial shoes of crow, it also carves out an identity of its own that helps it become more than just another Zelda clone.
The cyberpunk genre has seen an explosion in popularity in video games in recent years, but out of the many, many games we’ve played in this space, very few of them have managed to impress us as much as Neon Giant’s The Ascent. Made by a team of just a dozen people, The Ascent boasts technical prowess and visual quality on a level that even most AAA games cannot hope to reach, and exploring the neon-lit, rain-drenched streets and corners of its world remains an absolute blast from start to finish. Add to that some excellent world-building, adrenaline-fueled combat that always keeps you on the edge of your seat, and solid progression mechanics, and what you have is a solid action RPG that should be played by any and all fans of the genre.
Hades was easily one of the best games of 2020, to the extent that that almost seems like a bit of an understatement at this point. And so, when Supergiant’s roguelike masterpiece made its way to Xbox and PlayStation consoles in 2021 after having wowed PC and Switch audiences the previous year, it was pretty much guaranteed to be one of the best games of the year on those ecosystems. No amount of praise is enough for Hades, but then again, there’s no praise that we can give it that millions haven’t already showered on it until now. It’s a blueprint for roguelike games that will be help up as the genre’s gold standard for years to come, and a game that has already gone down as an all-time classic.
IT TAKES TWO
Single player and multiplayer audiences both have a plethora of options to choose from in this industry, but for those who’re looking for games that are built around the idea of co-op gameplay to the exclusion of everything else, those options are fairly limited. Thankfully, what’s there is incredible. Hazelight Studios’ It Takes Two is a non-stop joyride, a rollercoaster of creativity, heartfelt storytelling, and tightly crafted gameplay that insists on throwing new ideas and mechanics at players on a near-constant basis rather than just sticking with a few core mechanics. From beginning to end, this is a game that tries and succeeds to delight and surprise players at every turn.
TALES OF ARISE
After quite a long period of inconsistency and more than a few underwhelming releases, the Tales series decided to go for broke in 2021 with Tales of Arise, the series’ biggest and most ambitious game to date, and thankfully, it was a gamble that paid off in spades for Bandai Namco. In simple terms, this game is a dream come true for fans not only of the franchise, but of RPGs in general, thanks to its captivating narrative, endearing cast of characters, addictive combat, and the way it keeps mixing things up with the new environments and locations you constantly find yourself in, all of which are brought to life by gorgeous art design and visuals. If this is the blueprint that Tales games are going to be based off of going forward, we can’t wait to see where the series goes next.
FORZA HORIZON 5
The belief that Forza Horizon has surpassed the franchise that spawned it has been growing with each new instalment in Playground Games’ open world series, and now, after Forza Horizon 5, there’s little doubt about that anymore. Calling it one of the best racers of all time wouldn’t be an exaggeration in the slightest. Driving mechanics, vehicle roster, open world design, visuals, audio design, quality and quantity of content- all of these and more stand as some of Forza Horizon 5’s biggest strengths, and with a list of strengths as formidable as that one, there’s no way for the game to be anything less than stellar.
It feels like 343 Industries has finally found its feet with Halo. Over a decade on from Bungie’s departure, Halo Infinite has finally recaptured the magic that made the series what it was in the first half of its life. Across its campaign and the multiplayer, the game has some of the best first person shooter combat we’ve ever had the joy of experiencing, which is made even better by mechanics such as the Grappleshot. Specifically where the campaign is concerned, the open world approach is a perfect evolution of the Halo formula, and contributes significantly to deliver one of the series’ best outings in years.
THE ARTFUL ESCAPE
This, sadly, was a game that flew under the radar for a lot of people, but as those who’ve played it would tell you, it deserves far more attention. It’s a musical journey unlike any other, taking players from one trippy environment to the next, and while there’s not much to write home about purely where the platforming is concerned, where The Artful Escape really shines is with its story, which leverages the game’s visual style and musical core to great effect. It’s the very definition of “short but sweet”, and without a doubt, stands as one of Xbox’s best games of the year.
Double Fine Productions had a whole lot to live up to with Psychonauts 2, but rather than crumbling under all of that expectation, the studio flourished. Psychonauts 2 is not only excellent in all the ways you’d want a Psychonauts sequel to be, it’s actually far, far better than its predecessor, and far better than anyone could have expected it would be. It succeeds on every front- as a story, as a testament to Double Fine’s creative genius, as a platformer. Very rarely do we come across games where all the disparate disciplines of game design come together in perfect harmony without any hint of dissonance, but Psychonauts 2 is surely one such game.
FORZA HORIZON 5
Given how unbelievably consistent Playground Games has been with its Forza Horizon games, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Forza Horizon 5 would be yet another notch in the developer’s belt. But though people had every reason to take the open world racer’s success and excellence for granted, we can’t help but be wowed by how good this game is. It captures a constant feeling of joy – and we do mean constant – the way very few other games do. The very definition of “all killer, no filler” Forza Horizon 5’s diverse, vast, beautiful open world is littered with a wide range of activities to ensure that no matter what you’re doing, you’re always going to have an absolute blast. This is a game where technical excellence and incredible game design stand toe-to-toe with each other, joining hands to deliver the kind of experience that comes along very rarely.