Nothing could be better suited for 2021. And other franchise megatons that were allegedly right around the corner have been conspicuously MIA. Knockout City follows canonical dodgeball rules — throw something at your opponent, hope they don’t catch it — but it’s also equipped with just enough feints, jukes, and psychology to keep the competitive dynamic interesting. We should be so lucky for this series to become a big deal! It’s a lot, and most of it sticks. The only authority you have in Loop Hero is to make your lonely traveler’s journey incrementally harder in order to ensure that they grow stronger. If IO’s brand of elaborate, MacGyver-style high jinks isn’t your thing, Hitman 3 won’t make a believer out of you. Developers at Velan Studios clearly worship at the altar of the fast-casual games that came before them — think Psyonix’s Rocket League or Media Molecule’s Fall Guys — and they inject just enough gameplay tech into Knockout City’s DNA to be played both ultra-seriously and super-frivolously. But studios that were counting on 2021 for the final stretch weren’t nearly as lucky, and the ramifications are disorienting. Your frontiersman now has the ability to saddle up on the back of a tamed beast, considerably reducing the downtime between fights. There’s a feature in Grand Theft Auto that makes the names of the local municipalities (Vinewood Hills, Del Perro Beach) pop up on screen as you tool around Los Santos. Monster Hunter Rise

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Dorfromantik

Urban-planning games are finicky. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

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Resident Evil Village

Capcom went back to the drawing board with 2017’s Resident Evil VII. I can only hope this spurs on a renaissance for every other early-2000s Playstation mascot. Bowser’s Fury is bundled with the rerelease of Super Mario 3D Land on Switch (also a great game), and it represents the first major iteration of Mario’s core gameplay structure since the Nintendo 64 era. But it’s hard to imagine a better send-off for fans of the franchise. The would-be divorced pair is tasked with navigating a series of esoteric, inventive, and often hilarious platforming puzzles as they slowly rediscover the original spark that brought them together. That tragedy came after 2017’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, a reboot of maybe the most beloved game series of the 21st century, which was rife with bugs and seemed dead on arrival. Hitman 3 honors the tradition laid out in the previous two games, this time sending Agent 47 to Berlin nightclubs and the neon streets of Chongqing to furnish his grim career. But really, what makes Scarlet Nexus stand out is its combat system, which brings a certain Devil May Cry–like flair to the standard action-RPG formula. Every SimCity veteran knows what it’s like to stare at your electricity tab for half an hour, evaluating just how annoyed your commercial residents might be if you opened up a nuclear power plant in their backyard. But here, crouching through a marsh and tailing a deer for supper feels far more polished and emergent. What a strange fate. You score bonus points for matching edges and building out biomes (forests slot next to forests, rivers connect into lakes, and so on), and Dorfromantik does a good job of egging players on with dynamic challenge thresholds that mutate the gameplay with new tile archetypes. This city contains multitudes. Legendary Edition, then, is a mea culpa. In the far-flung future, humanity has discovered a lingering psionic gene in our brains that an elite fighting force (composed exclusively of teenagers) weaponizes in order to beat back the eldritch monstrosities bearing down on our last few remaining metropolises. Trust me, it never gets old, and those improvised projectiles fold neatly into all of your other face-button combos. But even within the catalogue, Scarlet Nexus is audacious from the jump. Like the other games from lead designer Josef Fares, It Takes Two is simultaneously symbiotic and asymmetrical. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on every creative industry, but the deeper we get into spring, the more it becomes apparent that the fallout from the global office shutterings and the economic contraction will be felt most acutely in the months ahead. No, this is a video game about placing a pretty windmill on a map and watching it spin. You can see those fingerprints all over its first new IP since regaining independence in 2015. The fundamentals are familiar: The player takes the guise of a Viking who’s a fresh import to a virgin world (in this case, a Nordic purgatory) and is tasked with the simple burden of subsistence. You’re more than welcome to get drunk, log onto Knockout City, pick up the Nerf football that acts as a sniper rifle, and laugh your ass off deep into the night. Photos: Nintendo, Coffee Stain Studios, EA Games, Toukana Interactive and Capcom

So far, 2021 is one of the weirdest years on record for video games. Insomniac leverages the PS5 to pump out a gorgeous, cyberpunk cityscape: The streets refract and reflect the piercing neon lights; loose cargo floats lazily in a deep, warm sea of stars; and big rubbery aliens — each of them with more personality than some main characters — mill about in the margins like the New Hope cantina scene. Mostly, though, Dorfromantik has earned an audience by being preternaturally zen. The great, venerable RPG shop suffered through a disaster in Anthem — a Destiny-ish ripoff that was unceremoniously killed off by EA earlier this year after attracting tepid review scores and a nonexistent player base. The original Mass Effect trilogy is restored and preserved in a single package, allowing pilgrims to relive the Shepard arc from start to finish. Screw the unruly swarms of undead in World War Z or The Walking Dead; there’s nothing more brilliantly terrifying than being trapped in a castle with an eight-foot-tall lady who really wants to eat you alive. Knockout City

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Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

It’s been a tough few years for BioWare. The player arrives in a melancholy, Myst-like plaza built over a scaled-down model village that mirrors its surroundings perfectly. Maquette

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Bowser’s Fury

Nintendo reinvented the venerable Legend of Zelda franchise in 2017 with Breath of the Wild. 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 built profoundly detailed clockwork dioramas filled with zillions of dubious characters and interactive doodads that the titular Agent 47 needed to sift through in order to find his mark. After five games, the powers that be have discovered that Monster Hunter is at its best when you’re actually fighting monsters. The combat and traversal in other survival games are implemented as means to an end — something to do before getting back to the more important work of mining and grinding. No game has ever captured that same serenity. But People Can Fly also borrows liberally from Destiny, Warframe, The Division, and practically every other prominent shooter that shot up the charts over the previous five years. Later on, you may both be grasping the same oversize pencil, attempting to balance the graphite evenly through a cereal-box-style connect-the-dots puzzle. All of this likely sounds super-abstruse, and it is. That may sound fairly staid, but all these elements come together nicely. And published by Electronic Arts??? What makes Valheim different, in my estimation, is the fidelity of the controls. People Can Fly already has one of the best shooter pedigrees in the industry, and as it continues to accoutre its most ambitious game yet with expansions and updates, Outriders has a real chance to become a phenomenon. Rise introduces a grappling hook that revolutionizes the series’s plodding movement schemes. Mario is no longer sprinting through self-contained, static levels; instead, he’s hopping through a strange archipelago populated entirely by cats and being told that the world is his oyster. Where’s our scintillating 4K Sly Cooper reboot, Sony! Here are the highlights from the year so far, listed chronologically by release date. Resident Evil Village, like the previous entry, is a straight-up survival horror game. 24 Games We Can’t Wait to Play in 2021

Tags: Publisher Bandai Namco cycles through dozens of different sci-fi tropes at warp speed (body horror, public indoctrination, time travel) without ever settling on one long enough to become complacent. Of course, that all hinges on if you’re interested in those techniques in the first place. It’s a testament to Monster Hunter’s newfound emphasis on approachability that both of these tactics are generally effective, and with the latest sequel on Switch, the door has been cracked open even wider for any emboldened hinterlander acolytes. All of that is revealed in the first five minutes, and it only gets crazier from there. You collect the stars in any order you like and can hike off in any direction you want. Back to the camps, where the player plots the precise blend of kindness and cruelty that will lead them to the promised land. In one level, a player will be loading their partner into a cannon so they can bash their head against a target. Outriders

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It Takes Two

Hazelight Studios (Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out) has thoroughly dedicated itself to the art of the two-player cooperative game, and it may have its first masterpiece with It Takes Two. Is there any better use of a few hours than contemplating the subjective nature of existence? As more lost souls join the crew of the starship, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the interstitial phases of straight chilling that come between world-saving moments. The main character is psychokinetic; hold the right trigger, and they’ll elevate the detritus around them and send it flying toward an enemy’s face. Perhaps you drop an infected swamp or a haunted cemetery in their path to test their mettle and enrich them with more powerful suites of arms and armory. This reality is reflected in the list below. Already, several high-profile games like Hogwarts Legacy and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum have been pushed into 2022. Valheim

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Hitman 3

You ought to savor this one. The company abandoned the tired linear staples of the series in favor of a massive open world laden with furtive side quests and regional quirks, which allowed players unprecedented liberty to explore at their own pace. Everything is reflected. So maybe the barren holiday season should be taken as a blessing: Rather than chasing after every massive open world and interminable experience grind out of some grim professional duty, we can instead settle in with the games that actually spark joy. The whole trilogy exists in the same gigantic file on both consoles and PCs, which means players have access to a huge swath of legacy content at the click of a button. True diehards can spend hours researching the various weak spots of the kaiju they’re preying on before carefully constructing an airtight build that will bring the beastie to its knees. Outriders is a third-person cover-based shooter, which will likely sit well with any veterans of E-Day out there. Resident Evil Village

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Outriders

People Can Fly, the studio behind Outriders, previously worked on the Gears of War franchise when it was owned by the megapublisher Epic Games. The games released in 2020 were already at the tail end of their production before COVID broke the supply chain, and they managed to slip into their shipment schedule undeterred. That was a raw deal. I’ve smitten bad guys with floating cars, trash cans, oil drums, and steel rebar. Players begin their journey in Outriders by selecting a class, which fits neatly into the standard warrior-caster-rogue triptych that has nourished every RPG since the birth of Dungeons & Dragons. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t possess nearly the same scope as Breath of the Wild, but it is evidence that Nintendo is keen to apply those same retrofitting instincts to its oldest, and most famous, mascot. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury

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Valheim

We rarely go more than a month without a new Minecraft disciple blowing up on Steam, but Valheim has already demonstrated some real staying power in Early Access. Standing on the deck, suspended in the void, chopping it up about life, love, and death with one of your buddies. This mechanic is the crux for all the puzzles in Maquette, and the deeper you sink into its vibrations, the more philosophical the game gets. Immediately, you start harvesting berries, cutting down trees, and propping up stone kilns to stay alive. The game is a technical marvel, which pairs beautifully with the Pixar-ish tone that Ratchet & Clank has consistently aimed for. It’s not surprising that the breakout titles of 2021 so far have been predominantly born of small budgets and limited scopes — the sort of gameplay experiences that could reasonably be attainable in a plague-ridden year. The player will never raise a shield or cast a single spell; instead, every enemy encounter is automated by the algorithm. Dorfromantik

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Loop Hero

Loop Hero is one of the strangest games ever made. It Takes Two

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Monster Hunter Rise

There are two ways to play a Monster Hunter game. Scarlet Nexus

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Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

Insomniac has been cranking out excellent Ratchet & Clank games for almost 20 years without ever capturing a global critical Zeitgeist. There are no overwhelming spreadsheets, anxious food shortages, or rival clans encroaching on your territory. Bowser’s Fury does the same thing, except that the provincial color of the greater Mushroom Kingdom includes districts like Scamper Shores and Pounce Bounce Isle. Soaked in a Day-Glo, ’90s Nickelodeon veneer, no less? (The answer, invariably, is very annoyed.) But Dorfromantik ditches all of that upkeep; all you need to focus on is your next tile. You will earn a gradient of powerful loot to augment your abilities and soak down bosses who possess a ludicrous amount of hit points. Loop Hero is absurdly meta: a video game about the experience of playing video games. Monster Hunter Rise remains a video game about engaging in shockingly pugilistic combat with a colossal cast of jurassic behemoths, but many of the franchise’s early eccentricities have been ironed out. Please, Nintendo, let us traverse the full expanse of the Donut Plains and the Forest of Illusion. After years in the wilderness, with the series increasingly resembling a garden-variety shooter with a handful of jump scares, the studio discovered a newfound appreciation for its base instincts. The pandemic may have afflicted Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, but it’s harder for a virus to stop a team of three wrestling with their own bespoke assets in home offices all over the world. Without spoiling anything, there’s a reveal halfway through the narrative that left me questioning what I could reasonably define as reality in this parallax, ever-expanding universe. If you’ve never played a Mass Effect game, you owe it to yourself to see if Legendary Edition grabs you. These 3-D shooter-cum-platformers have been great since the PS2 days, but they never quite crossed the Rubicon enough to be considered in the Hall of Fame conversation. Loop Hero

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Maquette

Maquette is the latest game from the contemplative publisher Annapurna Interactive, and its recursive game world needs to be seen firsthand. There’s already a Scarlet Nexus animated series in the chamber, and I’m hoping that Bandai Namco blesses this fresh new IP with the institutional support it deserves. It allows for a greater level of immersion in my quaint backwater hovel than I usually find in games of this ilk. Drop a house key in a corner, and a much smaller key can be found in the same spot in the replica. Photo-Illustration: Vulture. This is a vast sci-fi epic that — like the best space stories — thrives in its quietest, personal moments. Maybe we’re chasing down a pair of vicious socialites who happen to be tucked away at a Bilderberg-esque party on a rocky Nordic island? Other players tend to run into battle completely blind with a sword and a shield, throwing hands with a skyscraper-size dragon using guile and guts alone. Scarlet Nexus

The average anime packs a ridiculous, mind-expanding premise designed to spirit its audience away to a brand-new universe rife with its own mysteries, paradoxes, and laws of physics. Capcom, the game’s publisher, has made a point of streamlining the resource-management heft, which means this Monster Hunter requires less of the same menu-screen navigation that previous generations endured. A marriage is on the brink somewhere in suburbia, and a heartbroken daughter cracks open a magical book that shrinks the battling couple down to Polly Pocket size for some bewitched relationship counseling. You could define it as a dungeon crawler — after all, an adventurer trudges through a desolate wasteland populated with carnivorous spiders, sinister vampires, and marauding goblins — but all of the action happens completely passively. Hitman 3

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Related

Which Video-Game Console Is Right for You? We’re still probably a few years away from the next formal Mario sequel, so we hope Boswer’s Fury is a taste of what’s next. There’s an anxious thrill in pushing your hero to the limits — and a calamitous grief after it becomes clear that you’ve gone one step too far. Knockout City is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. The forces of evil overwhelm the only protagonist this haggard universe has ever known, and it’s all your fault. It feels like a homecoming. On paper, this makes sense. Capcom exchanges its traditional zombies for a whole gamut of classic Victorian evils — vampires and werewolves abound — as it once again discovers that gameplay sublimity can be found on a much smaller scale. Nobody will forget their first voyage across dark water, sail glistening under a handmade wooden boat in the moonlight, as they discover what lies beyond this mysterious continent. Ethan Winters possesses limited ammo, limited healing abilities, and limited brain cells as he treks through a haunted Eastern European mausoleum. You haven’t lived until you’ve used an industrial wind machine to blow a target off a building to their death. With triple-A publishers regrouping and recalculating, a rush of indie studios has taken center stage. In that sense, Rise is a thrilling success. Perhaps we’re in Paris for the biggest runway show of the year and tasked with dispatching a supermodel turned intelligence merchant? But all of those biases are shattered with Rift Apart, which is the single best-looking product available on new hardware. But once you eclipse the learning curve, it has a sublime way of sinking into your skin. Nearly every gameplay idea in It Takes Two is a hit, further proof that there’s still plenty of creative juice to squeeze out of couch multiplayer. The game works like the tabletop classic Carcassonne, in which players lay out hex after hex, slowly transforming their kitchen counter into a verdant European country village. After all, when the champion eventually reaches the end of this sojourn and faces off with the boss, they better be seasoned for the challenge. By the end of the year, it’s likely that many gamers will be sitting at home with two brand-new consoles that are mired in a historic dearth of software. IO Interactive has already announced that Hitman 3 will be the last game in the series for some time, which means this entry serves as the conclusion to one of the most beloved trilogies in recent memory. Put the regular-size key in the model, and a humongous key falls from the heavens in the real world. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

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Knockout City

The best multiplayer game of the year is a … competitive dodgeball simulator? As always, the player uses circuitous, often baffling assassination methods to get the job done.