The thing about Sunset Overdrive was that, even before it landed, it seemed exciting. This hardware generation got off to a bit of a bad start. It was all about mega games, games as services, and yet Sunset Overdrive, with its dumb jokes, its bright colours, its explosions that spelled out the word “BOOM” in fireballs seemed like the best of the PS2 era, a knockabout action game that was emphatically not for everyone.
In the hands, Sunset Overdrive is a total delight, too, quickfire gags piling on top of one of the most beautifully empowering control systems in years as you rail-grind, bounce, and air-dash your way across a personable open-world, compact enough to be ownable, bright enough to make exploring a delight.
Forza Horizon 4
What started just a few years ago as a spin-off to the more conventional Xbox-exclusive racing flagship, Forza Motorsport, is now arguably the best racing game series anywhere – and certainly one of the most popular. Forza Horizon, with its gorgeous open-world maps and upbeat festival gimmick, marries unimpeachable car-nerd authenticity to a joyous, adventuring spirit that widens its appeal beyond motorsport fans to anyone who likes fun video games.
For the fourth game, developer Playground brought the series home to Britain with its best map to date, made even more romantically exciting by changing seasons – while constant live updates have rendered it impossible to put down.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Edith Finch offers a rambling mansion designed with the intricacy and engineering flair of a pop-up book and tells the story of a doomed family through the stories and objects they left behind. Exhilarating, romantic, funny and devastating, this is an astonishing reminder of the power of games.
Sea of Thieves
Every pirate cliché stuck in a single game? It works because pirate clichés are wonderful things, and because Rare is that unusual developer that’s confident in its own silliness while humble enough to listen to feedback.
What launched as a bit of a curio – Eve Online at sea and with a sense of humour – has blossomed into a wonderfully generous open-seas swashbuckler, filled with creaking boats, clattering skeletons, and a sense of mystery that settles around some occasionally rather sparse systems. A delight.
This is a game to set your watch by, a clockwork solar system filled with compact treasures and a genuine sense of wonder. Blast off in a rickety launcher from a wooded planet and travel between a cluster of worlds, all of which are shaped by violent forces.
There is something beautiful about the way the narrative unfolds, completely unforced, completely without combat. The fact that you can land on a comet and wander about would be enough in itself to grant this a special place in players’ hearts. But the comet is just the start, and the sense of mystery runs very deep. A total gem.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
To be honest, if multiplayer is your thing you may be better off turning to Halo 5: Guardians – a fine, underrated package that has been assiduously updated and has a very active community. But its weak campaign pales in the face of this towering, comprehensive monument to everything that came before.
It includes two all-time-greats that are as stirring now as ever – the first Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 3 – plus the fascinating spin-off ODST, while fan-favourite prequel Reach will be added soon. The Master Chief Collection had issues upon release, but after a lot of work it stands as one of the finest and most generous reissue compilations anywhere. An essential part of any Xbox library.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Open world games could learn a lot from Tony Hawk’s, the gorgeous and luxurious recreating of a proper bit of PS1 royalty. These games aren’t strictly open-world affairs as Ubisoft might make them, but each classic location feels like a universe in and of itself – roll around, jump, grind and link tricks together while ticking off a series of jobs that should be meaningless busywork but turn out to be anything but.
The genius here, alongside the beautifully simple controls and the wonderfully evocative impact animations, is that Tony Hawk is one of those games that doesn’t just give you a sport, but an entire world, an entire subculture with its own colours and excesses. This is one of those games that makes movement a sheer delight. Play it and be immersed.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Speaking of tough games… From Software’s previous titles haven’t exactly shied away from presenting players with seemingly insurmountable challenges, but Sekiro is something else. Getting beyond the opening area is a feat almost equal to surviving Dark Souls’ Blighttown, and it only gets harder from there on out.
Good thing that the challenge is always fair, then, and that the combat system is brilliant – poised, balletic and with little flickers of brutality, all served by the strength of vision and clarity of art that has made FromSoft one of modern gaming’s greatest studios. Sekiro’s a tough game, but if you stick it out you’re in for something truly special.
Fortnite’s greatness isn’t that it’s the best battle royale out there but that it’s a game that offers unparalleled ways to engage with it. You can play it as a walking simulator or an exploration game as easily as a shooter. Character and animation combine to create a wonderful playground, while the incremental level design – level design by midnight elves – should change the ways that games tell their stories through their landscapes.
Want to read more? See our Fortnite tips and tricks.
Roguelites are hardly in short supply in 2021, but Scourgebringer has class, personality and a wonderful sense of nastiness. Blitz your way though tight collections of kill rooms blasting away at murderous plants and horrible jewelry, all of it delivered with radioactive pixel art and chugging murder-rock.
In between the carnage, thrill to an upgrade menu that’s played out on the world’s most wretched Christmas Card design and enjoy the subtle audio cues and gorgeous unfolding of narrative. Scourgebringer is the kind of game that believes so much in its own weird fiction that you will want to as well. Played right you will grip the controller hard enough to crack it.
Monster Hunter: World
The care that this game takes with its animals makes you feel a bit weird about laying into them, frankly. A huge dinosaur will rise out of the swamp where it has been hiding, and thick mud will be running over its huge back plates. Such beauty! Such a sense of a life lived beyond the game. But when all you have is a giant hammer, maybe everything looks like a giant nail? That’s only half the game, anyway, and the other half, in which you get increasingly more fabulous trousers, is just as good. Environment, animals, loot: this is both gloriously simple and dizzyingly deep. Just enjoy!
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Ancient Greece seemed like a bit of a misstep at first. After the grandeur and chilly mystery of Egypt, weren’t the Greeks a bit too human with their fighty, spoiled gods and away-break coastlines? In fact, the warmth of the Greek canon is what makes this game such a delight, a sprawling, very human adventure spread across beautiful islands and glorious azure seas.
Depending on who you choose to play as it’s got one of the series’ greatest leads, too. And even if Odyssey’s magpie eye for systems sees even more of the series’ DNA being diminished, what emerges is a confident RPG with a generous heart.https://www.youtube.com/embed/iaKbGeHYnH0?enablejsapi=1Watch on YouTube
Resident Evil 2 Remake
For years Capcom’s struggled to find the balance between Resident Evil’s action excesses and the survival horror on which the series was founded, and often found itself flitting between the two to awkward effect. It turns out the solution was to be found in one of the series’ most cherished games, as this remake folds together all that came after it with the eerie horror of the 1998 original for what’s easily the best Resident Evil since the hallowed RE4.
If good directing is good writing and good casting, then Titanfall 2 suggests good game design is often a suite of empowering traversal abilities and a bunch of interesting things to do with them. Titanfall 2’s multiplayer was always going to work, its mech-battling, wall-running gauntlets refined over the course of the first game’s lifetime.
But its single-player is the surprise star here, an inventive, restless campaign that is always muddling with the basics of its premise and a storyline that proves surprisingly moving and engrossing. Titanfall 2 is one of the greatest single-player FPS games ever made, and nobody really saw that coming.
The Xbox 360 was the first console you could play Minecraft on, and Xbox still feels like this game’s home-from-home – even through, after acquiring it, Microsoft declined to make it exclusive, and you can play it on pretty much anything. It remains a unique and total original, a fountain of fun and creativity for a whole generation of players, and a deceptively simple sandbox that it’s all too easy to get completely lost in.
It might surprise you, going back to its original mode, to discover that it also functions as quite an uncompromising survival game, as you shore up yourself and your creations against the onslaught of night-time terrors. Not just for kids.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill
The great outdoors has rarely been so beautifully invoked in this downhill racing game set amongst a handful of magnificent low-poly mountain ranges. Play for the best times or to track down hidden resting spots. Stay for the melancholy reminder that we belong in the heart of nature, and that, as the saying goes, the cure for loneliness is solitude.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
An earthy, rural epic, at this point The Witcher 3 is a generational touchstone of design, the sheer mass of its success enough to form a kind of gravitational pull towards grittiness, grimness and scale. So many imitators have tried to capture its magic but so few have really cracked it: its brilliance comes from its humanity. It’s in the complexity of its characters, the nuance of its sometimes moral, sometimes amoral throughline, and the tangible, muddy depth of its world.
At times it still leans towards the puerile – the old staples of lust and gore are ever-present, along with the odd dose of teenage nihilism – but its generosity, its texture and its character remain unmatched. As we move towards a new generation, The Witcher 3 remains the archetypal gaming blockbuster.
Call of Duty: Warzone
Warzone coming as a free addition this time round has caused a bit of a dilemma for Activision – because it’s a bit good. It’s holding the appeal even after Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War launched and, really, should just be a battle royale that the publisher continues to let stand on its own. It sits at a brilliant intersection between the tension of more hardcore, PC-oriented battle royale classics like PUBG and the snappy, hangout vibes of a Fortnite. And so as grey and dreary a map Verdansk may be, Warzone nails the point of this whole genre: its unputdownable.
Want to read more? See our full Call of Duty: Warzone tech deep-dive.
The title’s undergone the subtlest of changes, as too has the game itself as The Coalition puts its stamp on Microsoft’s stomping cover shooter series, and for the most part it works. This is a whittling back to the things that matter, a kind of Gears jus, accompanied by some daring new ideas that branch out in new directions (don’t be put off by the inclusion of an open world section – it’s beautifully executed and lends the series an even greater degree of freedom that’s more akin to classic Halo than anything else). It’s seriously fun to play and easily the best big blockbuster exclusive available on Microsoft’s console.
GTA’s tone might be a little wonky, but little else about it is. A massive everything-bagel of a game, it’s as much a second life simulator now as it is a place to steal cash and blow up cars. It’s Online mode, too, is almost an entirely separate game in itself, fostering huge, dedicated communities and subcultures in a way that very few other games can. GTA Online’s heists stand out above all. Enormously fun, even all these years later, they represent everything that developer Rockstar seems to be about: a somewhat folly urge to match the greats of cinema, and an uncanny ability to make a playground of action-fuelled fun.
Want to read more? See our full GTA 5 review