Resident Evil Village | PC, PS4, PS5, XBO, XBSX | R18+ Taking inspiration from across the entire rambling Resident Evil universe, Village is an anthology of terrifying puzzle rooms and monstrous battles, tied together by a story that does its best to raise the series’ high watermark for morbid absurdity. Joyfully strange and frequently grotesque, this fresh direction for the franchise manages to walk a fine line between haunting tension and self-aware silliness.
Metroid Dread | Switch | M With its subterranean labyrinths and satisfying upgrade-gated progression, the 2D Metroid series planted seeds that blossomed into entirely new genres, yet for 19 years we’ve only had Metroid-likes and no actual Metroid. Dread is an incredible return for bounty hunter / space terminator goddess Samus Aran; a masterclass in the design the series instigated, as well as a modernisation of the genre, filled with exploratory epiphanies and challenging combat.
Forza Horizon 5 | PC, XBO, XBSX | G Taking the series’ trademark blend of adventure and automobiles to the streets, jungles and mountains of Mexico, Forza Horizon 5 is yet another flawless driving fantasy. It’s a more diverse and detailed playground than ever this time, with the world’s most popular legal street racing festival now taking in everything from hidden Incan temples to active volcanoes, but the focus on fun, freedom and friends remains as engrossing as ever.
Halo Infinite | PC, XBO, XBSX | M With a stronger campaign than the series has had in 10 years, and with open world hooks that set it up as a platform for the next 10, Halo Infinite is a return to relevance for one of the most influential shooters out there. The weapons, vehicles and gear are all sublime, noodling around in the sandbox makes for a great counterweight to the traditional linear missions, and outside the campaign there’s a stellar (and free) competitive multiplayer suite.
Deathloop | PS5 | MA15+ Like its predecessors Dishonored and Prey, Deathloop is an “immersive sim” that offers wide open clockwork worlds players need to study and exploit with sneaking, shooting and sorcery. But, while repeating sections over to gain info is an informal tenant of those games, Deathloop codifies this behaviour via an inspired time manipulation twist. Add some Bond-meets-Tarantino flair and heaps of personality, and you have one engrossing Groundhog Day murder spree.
For the connoisseur
Digital stores are filled with indies and smaller scale fare that you won’t find in the retail space, which in many ways exceed their big budget contemporaries when it comes to vision and innovation. Here are 2021’s best.
Psychonauts 2 | PC, PS4, XBO, XBSX | PG Clever and legitimately funny, Psychonauts 2 is a long-awaited sequel that picks up exactly where the 2005 original left off. With fun 3D platforming and kooky but sensitive mental health inspired worlds, it’s like an artsy CG feature film come to life.
It Takes Two | PC, PS4, PS5, XBO, XBSX | PG Strictly requiring two players, It Takes Two explores the failures of a divorcing couple’s relationship through rapid-fire co-operative tasks, although with a lot more whimsy and delight than you might expect. A must-play for lovers of couch co-op.
Loop Hero | PC, Switch | M It may look old school, but Loop Hero combines a few of the most voguish current genres (deck-building, roguelites) with a delightfully original horror tale for an experience you can obsess over for hours, with just the right amounts of tension and surprise.
Axiom Verge 2 | PC, PS4, Switch | PG Utterly remarkable given it’s the years-long work of a single person, Axiom Verge 2 is a pixelated transhumanism adventure that will appeal to Castlevania and Metroid fans, but its alternate Earths and satisfying upgrades give it a vibe all of its own.
Death’s Door | PC, PS4, PS5, Switch, XBO, XBSX | PG Borrowing from both the Zelda and Souls playbooks, Death’s Door sees a workaday reaper thrown into a deathless world when one of their quarries goes unexpectedly missing. Bleak, charming and with razor sharp combat.
Giving the gift of games
It probably goes without saying, but if you’re looking to buy games for a loved one the first thing you should do is find out what they want. If you can’t ask them directly, that means looking into what systems they use, what games they already have access to and what they like to play.
For kids specifically, some good 2021 shouts not listed above include Pokémon Brilliant Diamond or Shining Pearl (on Switch), Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (on PS5) or Hot Wheels Unleashed (on everything). But many players will also get a lot of mileage out of gift cards.
You could just get them money to load up onto their account of choice (Xbox, PlayStation Store, Nintendo eShop, Apple App Store, Steam Wallet) so they can buy digital games. But if they play one specific game they might prefer that specific currency (Roblox, Minecraft, FIFA, Grand Theft Auto).
There are also a couple of good value subscription services, and they work for a whole family which adds even more bang for your buck. Apple Arcade gives access to heaps of good quality, ad-free and gambling-free games on iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple TV. Xbox Game Pass is for Xbox consoles or PC, and gets you access to more great games than you could conceivably play in a year (including Forza, Halo and Psychonauts from the list above).
A word on hardware
In terms of machines that play video games, which aren’t computers or phones, here’s a rundown of what’s on the shelves in 2021 or what your family may already be using.
The Nintendo Switch is the most popular console on the market right now, and it’s easy to see why. It combines Nintendo’s rich history of handheld systems with big-screen HD graphics, and its own family-friendly games with the best indies and classics. The standard Switch is around $470 and includes everything you need to play portable or connected to a TV. The nicer Switch OLED is $540 and has a bigger, nicer screen. There’s also a $330 Switch Lite, which is handheld only and does not connect to a TV. All the Switch models are currently in stock, so it shouldn’t be too hard to nab one for a gift, but you’d still be smart to do it ASAP.
The PlayStation 4 is getting a bit long in the tooth, but there are still many new games available for it, plus an incredible library going back eight years. It would also make an excellent first console given the sheer number of games available, if you can find one of the old things in stock. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 5 is a new and enhanced machine that goes for $749. It can play all PS4 games as well as PS5-specific titles, so if you’re buying games for a PS5 owner make sure to check if there’s a PS5 version available. As you may know PS5 stock is extremely limited, so you may need to contact retailers, keep on top of online sellers and cross your fingers to get one.
As with PS4, the old Xbox One systems are getting tough to find. But if you set your mind to it, you could get a 2016 Xbox One S for dirt cheap, which makes an excellent Game Pass console and 4K Blu-ray player. The newest machine is the $749 Xbox Series X, which is a powerful console for games both old and new, but like the PS5 it is very scarce so the same advice about chasing retailers applies. You might also consider the excellent $499 Xbox Series S, which is more available and plays all the games the more powerful Series X can, just at lower visual fidelity. The other main trade-off is there’s no disc drive; downloaded games only.
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