Best of 2021: Top 10 Gaming Moments

While this year provided plenty of unscripted moments during the chaos of multiplayer videogames (I could probably make an entire second list made up of just Monster Hunter Rise, It Takes Two, Knockout City, WarioWare: Get It Together, and Halo Infinite shenanigans), I was fortunate enough to play through a ton of new single-player story-driven adventures in 2021, so only some of those multiplayer games make the cut. That’s not to say it wasn’t a really good year for playing games with friends – it really was – but it was also good eating for the spoiler-type moments that are so much fun to talk about at a time like this.

And so, much like with yesterday’s list, today needs a hefty spoiler warning. Proceed with caution.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

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10. Fireworks – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

In late June 2021, we arrived once again at that special moment that comes around maybe twice a decade: The first exclusive videogame made for a new Playstation console by a Sony-owned studio. And Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is extraordinarily keen to mark that occasion with a celebration of both its own series history and the unique technical possibilities of the shiny new PS5. Our titular heroes must navigate a parade and re-enact key moments from the series (all of it went over my head personally, as a franchise newcomer) as beautiful effects whiz past them – then suffice to say things go wrong and the seams between dimensions start showing.

Cue colourful effects-laden battles, instant portal-based relocation and that money shot from the game’s first trailer with all the rapid-fire playable segments in entirely new worlds that load instantly. The fruits of Mark Cerny’s hardware design team in building that PS5 SSD storage interface are plain to see right here – and nowhere else in 2021. This is a breathtaking way to start a game, and the moment “next-gen” arrived for me.

9. Compton’s Cook-Off – Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 is an unbridled fever dream of level ideas, some of which feel almost purely conceptual – such as the psychedelic sense-collecting saturation overload that changes the game’s art style – and some almost too real – like the lavish casino as a direct metaphor for the American medical system. But the most ludicrously pitch-perfect combination of idea, presentation and gameplay I found in the game is Compton’s Cook-Off, a section where you must participate in a hilarious imaginary game show called “Ram It Down”.

You’re given anthropomorphic ingredients to pluck from the audience and place in bigger anthropomorphic kitchen appliances – which you must reach within a strict time limit using precise platforming towards increasingly-difficult recipe requirements – all while a boisterous television host throws sly taunts your way. The sequence is frequently hilarious, decently challenging and a ton of fun.

8. The Assault – Outriders

The viral success of Outriders largely comes down to multiple small mechanical victories over the game’s looter-shooter brethren – not its level design. But my oh my, does a major exception just fly by at around the midpoint of the campaign. This is a game so confident in its colour-popping space-wizard powers that it’s not afraid to make its early environments super-duper-2007-level-brown, but any wisps of World War I energy seem little more than cosmetic until the player encounters a ramshackle settlement packed with nervous lunatics talking about “The Assault”. If you do all the new sidequests in this area straight away, the loot drops you receive are likely to give you a significant power bump not seen since the first hour of the story, which makes you feel ready to take on anything.

Then it happens: the dingy, muddy push up a fog-drenched incline laced with sandbags and barbed-wire towards a bunker that seems intent on raining fire down upon you and your companions. The bullets fly fast and frequently from slowly-encroaching behemoths, making each new piece of cover you reach feel like a gift – and each sprint feel like madness. Though your sight-lines are massively impaired, the open air allows plenty of room for all four Outriders classes to flex their unique skills and playstyles, making a co-op run ridiculously satisfying as you flank and dismantle your considerable opposition. I haven’t felt this tense in a looter-shooter since the first raid of the first Destiny.

7. Thomas vs Richard – The Medium

So it turns out The Medium’s striking split-screen art style isn’t just for show. This is ultimately a horror game just as interested in unsettling players with real-world implications as it is with grotesque monsters – and while the former style doesn’t truly begin to unfold until about halfway through the game, after seeing the same consistent art style for so many hours it’s arguably the more engaging of the two; certainly the more disturbing. You see it turns out The Medium has a secondary protagonist, the similarly-powered but vengeance-obsessed Thomas.

The first half of the story makes you think this guy is just a plot vessel but once our heroine Marianne unravels enough of the mystery surrounding him, the game shows you the first of a couple of harrowing interrogation scenes and hands control over; you then play through Thomas’ memories of diving into the separate memories of a man he once trusted but may or may not have killed a young girl. If that all sounds confusing and heavy, you’d be right on both counts, but this isn’t even the last of the twists, and when any piece of media successfully hides what it’s really about for this long I have to shout it out – especially since that first half of the game attracts so many allegations of being slow and boring.

6. The Baby – Resident Evil Village

Resident Evil Village has been compared many times to a horror theme park, such is its ability to shift gears between styles of scary between its four distinct-yet-interconnected chapters. But while the other three sections are very much plugged into the game’s generous weapon-heavy combat economy, the second chapter takes all your equipment away for Capcom’s take on the modern budget indie horror game experience.

House Beneviento is claustrophobic and eerie at the best of times, perched ominously atop a cliff by a raging waterfall and strewn with porcelain dolls sitting in places they shouldn’t be. The puzzles start weird and get weirder, taking on a more and more personal flavour for protagonist Ethan and playing on his familial psychoses. Then the crying starts. And then, in a dark corridor, you see it: The most grotesquely terrifying monster design in the game by miles; a giant fetus with a massive toothless maw and vocal chords that thrum along with its unsettling gurgles. You can only hide from it and wait for it to move to another room as you desperately try to complete your tasks and get right out of the house.

I think I paused the game to compose myself half a dozen times trying to play this part.

5. Bar Brawl – Back 4 Blood

Not since the skydive/highrise mission in Saints Row The Third has a videogame’s use of licensed music given me such an immediately memorable experience as Back 4 Blood did in 2021. Midway through the campaign’s first act, you must use some good old fashioned loud rock music to lure a horde of zombies away from an escape vehicle, but you’re given plenty of time to set up explosive barrels, load up on ammunition and just generally get your ducks in a row beforehand. The first time I played this level I was online with a mate and someone I didn’t know, so the combination of gleeful anticipation and slight fear was palpable.

Then we hit the jukebox, and the first guitar riff / drum build of Motörhead’s Ace of Spades roared into the air – alongside a mountain of zombies. The next three minutes were pure instinctual carnage, with only split-seconds in-between double-taps to reposition, check objective progress or even think about healing. It felt like a playable version of the Shaun of the Dead finale, and the relief when it was over was quite something.

4. Adele’s Dive – Bravely Default II

This series sure does love its twists – almost as much as it loves foreshadowing them through game mechanics and world design elements. Dozens of hours into Bravely Default II you’ve realised that the European accents of each main party member reveals which of the game’s fantastical nations they call home – but the sassy, powerful Adele’s vaguely Swedish affect has not been repeated in any other characters met throughout the adventure.

When you arrive in Rimedhal, the snowy mountain town filled with Welsh accents and pious followers of a corrupt Dragon-worshipping, fairy-hating religion, it seems like an exploration of Adele’s origins will have to wait a while yet. The horrific practice the locals have of testing whether people are secretly fairies – throwing them into a deep valley to force them to sprout wings – is more immediately compelling anyway.

But then the warrior guardian who’s been helping you out is accused – and you’re too late to stop the dive. Cue a cutscene where Adele sprints forward, dives down herself – and sprouts gigantic blue wings. It’s a massive moment, not least because of the Bravely series’ history of malicious fairy characters; but it feels satisfying on multiple levels thanks to the hints sprinkled in plain sight beforehand.

3. Finale – Metroid Dread

Metroid Dread contains a few potential candidates for this list – see literally any time you successfully counter an EMMI attack – but in terms of pure sustained adrenaline and unadulterated visual flair, you just can’t beat Samus Aran’s final escape from the planet ZDR. Right after toppling the challenging final boss, Samus’ two-game, two-decade biological evolution begun in Metroid Fusion reaches its logical endpoint: after absorbing enough Metroid DNA, Samus herself becomes a Metroid.

Clothed in a mutated green death-suit and armed with a comically large red beam cannon capable of shredding absolutely anything in her path, Samus must dance the tried-and true Metroid game dance and escape a crumbling environment before hitting a cinematic final encounter up there with the coolest in the series. It’s a breathless end to a phenomenal action game, and it sure does ask some interesting questions about the future of the franchise.

2. Champion of Champions – Pokemon Brilliant Diamond

Normally remakes as faithful as Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl wouldn’t get much (positive) coverage on these end-of-year lists, but there is one area where developer ILCA smuggles in a devious change that actually enhances the potent feeling of nostalgia in which the pair of games is already so thoroughly drenched.

Hints of improved boss encounter AI are sprinkled throughout the game, with gym leaders poised to spring traps on unsuspecting trainers thinking they might coast by without the right type coverage (for many players, the fighting-type Marlene apparently posed one such threat; for me it was the ice-type Candice). But the game’s Elite Four is truly another step up: for the first time in the series each member packs a team with competitive-grade stat distributions and items usually only seen in the Battle Tower.

There’s a reason Game Freak has historically avoided doing this: such training techniques and items are entirely balanced around fighting evenly-matched opponents without the level-advantage mechanics baked into Pokemon’s code. But ILCA’s goal wasn’t fairness; it was preserving the legend of the Sinnoh Champion Cynthia, who was once regarded as Pokemon’s hardest final boss, in an era of much older and smarter players.

In the weeks following the remakes’ release, the Pokemon community banded around this unexpected challenge, which brought a strange nostalgia to me and many of my friends. Even with the unfair advantage of recovery items afforded to the player, I knew only one person during this launch window who beat Cynthia first try, and as for me? My hard-hitting, EXP optimised team designed to beat the game in two days and move on? Fell no less than four times. Bring a special attacker, people.

1. The LARP – Life is Strange: True Colors

Life is Strange: True Colors is a gigantic step up for its series, not least because it successfully sells its small-town setting as a dynamic character essential to the game’s story. Across its five chapters, you’re given the opportunity to get to know Haven Springs’ layout inside and out, and are frequently rewarded for doing so when you check back to see how things have changed. So when the majority of Chapter 3 turns its townspeople into participants in a Live Action Roleplay for the benefit of a grieving kid, not only do you really feel each person’s generosity because you’ve seen snippets of their lives before, but you can be “better at the game” because optional hand-written power-up scrolls and rustic quest items are hidden around all the places you may have already discovered.

The game’s basic UI repurposed as an RPG inventory system is instantly charming too – and so is the basic 8-bit music that plays during the various turn-based battles you fight against the same dude wearing different monster masks. There are sub-plots that take on extra relevance with the game’s pseudo-mind-reading empathy powers, brilliantly underplayed instances of foreshadowing, and even overpowered mechanical combos you can discover within the LARP’s ruleset. I haven’t seen a narrative within a narrative executed this richly before – and that’s without saying anything about the utterly spectacular event finale.

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Honorable Mentions

–Operation Tonga – Call of Duty Vanguard

The second playable level of the highly-cinematic Vanguard campaign is stunning to look at and suitably soaked in gravitas, so business as usual – until you realise that it’s a pretty faithful homage to the first level of the very first Call of Duty from 2003. It takes several detours to fit in with its story purpose, but that iconic parachute moment, French paddock crossing and movement through the occupied houses are spot-on.

–The Clock Tower – It Takes Two

In a game absolutely packed with environmental and gameplay variety – to a frankly mind-blowing degree given the developer’s history – it feels almost pointless to pick a best level. But the shiny spinning surfaces, monumental scale, dive-bombing clockwork bird-fighters and time-freezing explosion manipulation of the Clock Tower would still be my pick.

–The Future is Here – Halo Infinite

There was just something about that fateful evening after work in mid-late November when I loaded up a Halo Infinite multiplayer match on my phone while on the train. Before long I realised I was doing kinda well, and my team won the game 50-49 just before I reached my stop. Three things clicked for me that day: 1) How good the game’s design truly was; 2) I was finally getting into a competent groove playing it; and 3) It was pretty far from an ideal experience, but it is truly wild to me that we can stream videogames consistently enough for all this to happen now.

–Breaking The Dream – Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

I’m not as comfortable going into high detail on this one because I’m pretty sure 2021’s Guardians is still woefully underplayed, but suffice to say the emotional climax of the story is believably character-driven, remarkably well-acted and worthy of any modern triple-A single-player narrative comparison.

–Charon’s Arrival – Eastward

A simple, wordless set of freeze-frames with noticeably levelled-up visual fidelity, followed by a perfectly-timed fade-out: This is the way Eastward’s first chapter concludes, and its accompanying Chekhov’s Gun reveal is masterful.

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