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james debate

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Hello and welcome back to the Hot List. This week we will turn our attention to the videogame industry, previewing for you loyal readers the most exciting videogames set for release in 2021.

new videogames games gaming 2021 ephemeric
To say that 2020 was a challenging year for the gaming industry would be an understatement. On the one hand, with so many people stuck at home the demand for virtual worlds and experiences arguably reached an all time high. But at the same time the development of those worlds, the most intricate of which these days typically involves teams of dozens or even hundreds of professionals in different fields, was made infinitely more difficult due to the pandemic, resulting in the delay of many of the biggest titles in development. Then there were the games trade shows themselves, typically bombastic, media-friendly Comic-con style events, that suddenly had to reinvent themselves as an online-only affair. 

This was a struggle and period of adaptation that has seen a great deal of disruption, but the signs are that the industry is now finding its feet. The transition to  a new generation of consoles is continuing apace with PS5 and Xbox Series X making their debut and 2021 looks to be a bumper year for big releases. As with most things this year, it is hard to predict how everything will turn out, but I'm hopeful that 2021 will have much to be excited about.

So here it is, the 15 key videogames to keep an eye on in the coming year (trailers linked in the title where available), starting with number 15:

15. Hitman 3 (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Stadia, Switch)

hitman 3 best games 2021 pc ps5 xbox playstationAt this point, Hitman is a venerable old franchise. Throughout its long lifecycle the core concept has remained consistent: play a hitman taking on targets in a series of intricate open sandboxes. 

Hitman 3 marks the final chapter in IO Interactive's latest iteration of the series that began with 2016's Hitman, and the series has never been better. Delightful sandboxes full of creative, often darkly humorous strategies. With disguises, tools, interactive environments and clever AI for manipulation, this current trilogy offers greater variety and replayability than the series has ever offered before and that's before even mentioning the periodic "illusive targets" released by IO, or the ability to create and share online your own custom contracts set in these sandboxes.

Hitman 3 will close this trilogy with the ultimate refinement of all these aspects, before IO moves on to bigger and greater things (expect to see more on that in next year's Hot List). The first episode releases in January with more content to be released through the year.

Release Date: January 2021

14. Kerbal Space Program 2 (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

kerbal space program 2 jebediah best game 2021The original game remains one of the greatest gaming surprises of recent years. Created by one amateur coder during his lunch break, the concept was fairly simple: build rockets and try to launch them into space under realistic physics and orbital mechanics. The deceptively deep toybox-like design tools proved such good fun that you could sink hours into just getting that one perfect spacecraft into orbit before even realising you had other planets to visit. Now a full team of professional designers are bringing a full-blooded sequel, Kerbal Space Program 2.

The goal of this sequel appears to be to take the successful foundations of the original and just build on it. More parts, colony building, multiple star systems. It's the type of feature list that fans and modders have been dreaming about, but the key will be to get the basics right. The physics system has to feel as solid as the original, the building tools need to be as intuitive. It won't be enough to just slap a coat of Kerbilish paint on a pale imitation.

Originally slated for release last March, a series of delays has seen this title pushed back into 2021. Delays are fine, I only wish they would follow the same open-development model of the first game (back when it was an indie title). The precise release date is not currently known, but barring any further delays we should see it late on in the year.

Release Date: Late 2021

13. Age of Empires IV (PC)

age of empires iv pc 2021 best gameWho says videogame companies never listen to the fans? The Age of Empires series has always held a fond place in the hearts of old school strategy gamers, and in particular the 1999 classic Age of Empires II to this day retains a surprisingly devoted fanbase and active multiplayer and modding communities. So much so, in fact, that Microsoft even deemed to make one of the community's more popular mods an official expansion, some 15 years after the game's release.

It seems Microsoft's newfound embrace of the franchise was not limited to just fan-made expansions and HD re-releases, and have announced Age of Empires IV, the first entry in the series since 2005. Little is known about the sequel, but the teaser trailer appears to imply a medieval setting roughly in-line with the second and most enduringly popular game in the series.

One of my biggest memories of Age of Empires was that my school used it as a teaching aid, so whatever happens I hope this new title does not skimp on the educational value. Release date is still to be announced.

Release Date: Late 2021

12. Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord (PC)

mount and blade 2 ii bannerlord best game 2021A game that has been years in the making since the release of the original title back in 2008 Mount & Blade II arrives with a great deal of hype and it's easy to see why. The Mount & Blade series began life as an indie title, attempting to model an open world experience in a medieval setting that offered combat, trade and diplomacy in the mould of a title like Sid Meier's Pirates or Elite. 

The core gameplay is first person sword combat, reminiscent of a game like Skyrim, but in a realistic (albeit still fictional) world rooted in real-world technology and culture (ie no magic or non-human beings here). Where Mount & Blade differentiates itself from other titles is through its RPG and character interaction mechanics, which permit a great deal of player agency. Become a trader or a mercenary, swear fealty to a king and be assigned control of an army, or seize a town for yourself and begin to build your own fiefdom Appoint your own subordinate lords or generals, sire a family, build alliances, etc. It's all very dynamic and open, and the sequel builds on all those elements to create an ambitious and more advanced simulation.

Bannerlord has been in early access since last year, but should see its full release during 2021, supposedly in the spring a year after its initial early access launch.

Release Date: Spring 2021

11. Starfield (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

starfield bethesda fallout best game 2021 pc xbox ps4 ps5Anything you can do, we can do better. Having seen rivals and original Fallout creators Obsidian try their hand at a spacefaring RPG in 2019's The Outer Worlds (to moderate success), the current stewards of the Fallout franchise Bethesda are themselves getting into the mix with the as yet still very mysterious, Starfield.

Most of the details of this title remain shrouded in mystery, but rumours suggest a grand space opera in the style of a Mass Effect or Star Wars, with open-world exploration built around the same concepts as Bethesda's tried and tested Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series. Quite how this will adapt to a game which allegedly features multiple worlds and the ability to fly a spaceship is anyone's guess, but the few teasers we have seen point again to titles like Mass Effect for hints.

I am very excited about this game. The only reason it is this far down the list is because of my skepticism that it will in fact launch this year as expected.

Release Date: TBA 2021

10. Sable (PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

sable best pc game 2021 80 days meg jayanthI love a good indie game, but few make a debut as eye-catching as Sable. Produced by two lifelong friends in their basement, Sable promises to be a contemplative adventure focused around exploration, with a Ghibli-esque aesthetic and stunning hand-drawn art style.

It's certainly one of the best looking games to pop up in recent years, but such an introspective game is always going to succeed on the merit of its storytelling. It is fortunate then that the award winning Meg Jayanth is behind the story. If she can build the world of Sable with the same flair and aplomb as Sunless Seas or 80 Days then it could be a memorable experience.

Releasing initially on Steam, with a later launch on Xbox Live, we should see this one close to the summer.

Release Date: Summer 2021

9. The Artful Escape (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

the artful escape francis vendetti annapurna edith finch david bowie best game 2021Award winning film studio Annapurna made their debut in videogaming with the spellbinding What Remains of Edith Finch and have since followed it up with a series of remarkable and creative titles, including last year's excellent Sayonara Wild Hearts. This year they will finally follow up this success with their long-awaited title The Artful Escape. This one has been in the works for a while, time and time again it keeps getting delayed. But despite this, it looks better each and every time we see it. 2021 appears to be the year that it finally sees release.

The concept is quite unique. Players take the role of aspiring folk musician Francis Vendetti on a journey to reinvent his musical and stage persona. The result has been described by the game's lead developer as "David Bowie traveling off from London on an interstellar trip to create Ziggy Stardust".

In terms of actual gameplay, this takes the form of a musical platformer which sees Vendetti's performances depicted as journeys through mind-bending fantastical and sci-fi landscapes, with occasional rhythm-based music sections to pass. Frankly it's stunning to look at and listen to, with a pleasingly relaxing pace to it.

Release Date: TBA 2021

8. NEO: The World Ends With You (PS4, PS5, Switch)

neo world ends with you square final fantasy best game 2021 ps4 ps5 switch playstationWell this was a surprise. Fourteen years ago there existed a little-known handheld game called The World Ends With You, developed by Square Enix of Final Fantasy fame. It was really quite a wild ride: set in Shibuya, Japan, a world obsessed by fashion, status and pop culture. Players controlled a recently deceased teen with no memory of his demise, wandering the town unable to be seen by the ordinary populace and drawn into a series of cruel challenges by an enigmatic group known as "the reapers". It was a mystery rolled into a biting commentary on popular culture, impeccably presented in its music, art style and writing.

While warmly received at the time, it is a title that has since fallen into obscurity, until the surprise announcement of NEO: The World Ends With You. A full blown sequel, this time designed for home consoles rather than handheld. This marks the revitalisation of an underrated IP, with a larger ambition and scope than previously imagined. This could do for this title what 2019's wonderful Three Houses did for the similarly handheld-focused Fire Emblem series. Definitely one to watch.

Release Date: Summer 2021

7. Gamedec (PC)

gamedec rpg cyberpunk disco elysium best game 2021Slow-burning story-based RPGs are in vogue at the moment following the critical success of titles such as Disco Elysium, as is the cyberpunk genre (Cyberpunk 2077's somewhat tumultuous launch notwithstanding). Combining both those things is Gamedec, an adaptation of the Polish series of sci-fi crime novels.

The concept is deliciously on trend, a hard-boiled neo-noir detective story who investigates crimes in virtual worlds. Think Ready Player One mixed with Bladerunner. As with the aforementioned Disco Elysium, this is an RPG that decidedly does not focus on violence and action, but instead on its story and characters. Gamedec will live and die by the quality of its writing, but the premise so far is intriguing.

Gamedec entered beta at the tail end of last year, but was ultimately pushed to 2021 to allow for further refinement and quality control. It is now expected to launch this year, but no date has been confirmed.

Release Date: Summer 2021

6. Everspace 2 (PC, Mac, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

pc everspace 2 best game 2021The first game in the Everspace series was a serviceable enough roguelike experience. You'd be excused for thinking that the sequel, the creatively titled Everspace 2, was more of the same. This time, however, Rockfish have set their ambitions a little higher, crafting a full-blown story-driven space-faring RPG experience, more in the mould of a Freelancer (a truly underrated game).

Everspace 2 will see players explore a series of intricately detaled hand-crafted star systems and planets, complete with quests, secrets to be discovered, and plenty of satisfying pew pew combat. What impresses most (at this early stage) is the surprising variety of gameplay and the depth to the environments that have so far been revealed. If they can craft a compelling story with immersive world-building, this could really be a quality space adventure.

This game enters early access in January, with a full release expected later in the year. What we have seen so far bodes well and this is definitely a title to keep an eye on.

Release Date: Late 2021

5. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk (PC)

bomb rush cyberfunk jet set radio hideki naganuma best game pc 2021I'm a 90s kid. That means I inherently love Sega. But Sega are an objectively bad company. How else can you explain why a company that always appears to be on the verge of collapse is allowing an astonishing catalogue of classic intellectual properties and franchises (arguably matched only by Nintendo in depth) to just collect dust in a warehouse somewhere? Chief among these is the great Jet Set Radio series of games. Frustrated by their intransigence, a group of indie devs (and apparent fans of the series) have taken matters into their own hands by crafting their own spiritual successor to the long dormant franchise. The result is Bomb Rush Cyberfunk.

Fans of Jet Set Radio will find much of what they love here. Bright, cell-shaded visuals, the funky musical stylings of the brilliant Hideki Naganuma, and the same mesmerising neo-futuristic urban setting. Featuring a colourful cast of characters, you will skate around a dizzying cityscape full of gangs, graffiti and rebel-spirit. So far it looks great.

Release is expected sometime during 2021. Can this indie team succeed where larger studios have failed and emulate the success of this classic title? We shall see.

Release Date: TBA 2021

4. Avowed (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

avowed obsidian pillars of eternity skyrim elder scrolls fallout best game 2021 There is not a single thing about the pitch behind Avowed that I do not like. Obsidian are masters of the RPG genre, known for the excellent Pillars of Eternity series as well Fallout: New Vegas (and indeed the team features many of the original creators of the Fallout franchise) and most recently the award winning The Outer Worlds. This is a Skyrim-like first person action RPG set in the same world as their Pillars series.

Obsidian are known for crafting immersive, fully fleshed out worlds that provide a high level of player agency, where the player's decisions have a real tangible impact on the story. The opportunity to dive into a new Obsidian RPG is always a reason for excitement, but I am especially excited to see the Pillars series (previously an old-school isometric RPG) reimagined from a fully immersive first person perspective.

So far we have seen little aside from the initial teaser. We should expect to get a closer look when E3 rolls around this year (assuming it does), with a release expected by the end of the year.

Release Date: Late 2021

3. Perfect Dark (PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

perfect dark reboot best game pc xbox 2021 rare james bondSpeaking of long-neglected franchises (which makes more sense if you skip the last one and refer back to number 5 for Bomb Rush Cyberfunk), here's a reboot I most definitely did not expect to see.

Perfect Dark (the original N64 title from 2000) is one of my favourite games of all time. Created by Rare back during the pinnacle of their golden age, Perfect Dark was a first person shooter and spiritual successor to the classic Goldeneye, also developed by Rare for the N64. Like Goldeneye, it was a spy-thriller full of gadgets, colourful characters, and some of the best multiplayer ever devised. Unlike Goldeneye it was not constrained by the established James Bond lore. Instead, Rare were able to do their own thing, crafting a stunning cyberpunk world of mega-corporations, aliens and sinister cabals. The original title in the series was also notable for pioneering a sort of open hub-world at a time before the blending of an open-world format with other genres had become common as it is today.

So to be finally getting a new title in the series, the first since 2005's mostly disappointing prequel Perfect Dark Zero is an exciting moment. Developed not by Rare, but by the newly created The Initiative team at Microsoft, little is known about this title including whether it is a sequel, prequel or complete reboot. Mega-corporations appear to be back (spotted a Datadyne logo in the trailer) and we are told to expect some kind of an "eco sci-fi" plot. If they can pull this off it could be spectacular.

Release Date: Late 2021

2. Untitled Mass Effect Game (PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X)

mass effect 4 5 sequel andromeda shepard xbox playstation pc ps4 ps5 best game 2021You know what is one of the few franchises better than Perfect Dark? Mass Effect. 

The original trilogy of Mass Effect remains one of the pinnacles of story-based videogames. A stunningly realised sci-fi world full of believable and well written characters, unforgettable settings and top level world-building. A series that pioneered (for mainstream gaming at least) morality systems and decision-tree storytelling where the player's decisions materially impacted the ending and inspired a generation of copycats. Then came Mass Effect Andromeda in 2017, a soft-reboot following the main trilogy that attempted to expand the franchise into a new setting and with completely new characters. While the title was not lacking for ambition, it was a buggy, incomplete mess that had clearly been rushed to market. Its disastrous launch resulted in the cancellation of all intended DLCs and sequels and placed the entire franchise temporarily on ice.

But now that period in the wilderness appears to be at an end. Mass Effect is back with an as yet untitled sequel. Right now essentially nothing is known about this game, but the initial teaser did reveal a few tantalising hints, most notably the reveal of Liara, suggesting a return to the setting and characters of the original trilogy. But at the same time, the audio of the trailer hints at a return to Andromeda, indicating that some kind of crossover or combination of the two settings may be on the cards. Whatever they end up doing, this is very exciting news, I can't wait to see what they end up doing.

Release Date: TBA 2021

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 (Switch)

legend of zelda breath of the wild 2 sequel switch best game ever 2020You know what is one of the few franchises better than Mass Effect? The Legend of Zelda.

How do you follow up a game that is often considered to be one of the greatest ever made? That is the question Nintendo will be asking now as they craft The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2 (presumably a working title). In fairness, it is a position in which they have found themselves before in following up the Ocarina of Time. The result on that occasion was Majora's Mask, a game considered by many to be even better than its predecessor. So no pressure then.

We know nothing about this game, other than the fact that it is apparently directly related to its predecessor, itself a somewhat rarity in the Zelda series. One of the major boons in Majora's Mask's development was the fact that the engine and assets were already there, which meant that the developers could use their time more for adding finesse and character. If they pull the same trick this time around then we could be in for something special.

Release Date: Late 2021

So there you have it folks: 2021 in videogames. Tune in next week for the most exciting new theatrical productions coming this year!

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