2021 has shaken up my gaming habits. The lingering threat of COVID ramped up stress levels, so I ended up investing more time with games that had relaxed pacing and forgiving difficulty. Becoming an Xbox Game Pass subscriber allowed me to dabble in new games across different genres and budgets I wouldn’t have otherwise given a chance. Life outside of gaming remained busier than ever, which forced me to ditch many lengthy titles if the game didn’t click for me out of the gate.
Even though my gaming tastes and routines have shifted, I still look back on 2021 with five games I enjoyed immensely and would recommend to almost anyone.
It feels like a debate erupts online over video game difficulty every few months. The most passionate want games as challenging as possible without compromise. Psychonauts 2 includes an invincibility mode where players can complete the game and earn achievements with the setting on; angry Twitter gamers view the option as “cheating.” A new Fromsoft game releases (e.g., Bloodborne, Demon’s Souls, Elden Ring), and a similar audience rushes to defend its unyieldingly high learning curve as creator intent.
I couldn’t disagree more with this whole “no easy mode” philosophy; it’s hardcore posturing that should have died off decades ago, back in the SNES era. To me, the proper difficulty is a settled issue: almost every game benefits from having at least one mode that lessens the challenge. We shouldn’t view difficulty as a matter of artist choice, but instead one of accessibility. A game’s challenge can be no different from colorblindness or physical handicaps, a barrier that all the practice and YouTube guides in the world can’t overcome.
I’ve been hooked on Microsoft Flight Simulator (MSFS) since the game debuted on Series X consoles a few months ago. It’s honestly a surprise: unlike most games I gravitate towards, the simulator has few concrete objectives or “win” states. I spend 95% of my game time on direct flights between two airports with autopilot doing the heavy lifting. But it’s still an enormously compelling game. MSFS is competence porn on a sandbox of infinite replayability and high realism.
I use the word infinite without exaggeration; the game is dynamic in a way frankly no other modern title could hope to match. MSFS uses Bing maps satellite imagery and 3D photogrammetry to recreate the look of virtually any point on earth, streaming data in real time on a fast internet connection. The results are stunning, at least based on the recreations of places I’m familiar with.
The net effect means in MSFS I can take off, fly, and land practically anywhere in the world. As long I’m game enough to sightsee, it’s hard to get bored. I spent a few hours across several weeknights exploring the rural U.K. and Ireland. I’ve run acrobatic flights around Chicago and San Francisco to fly around skyscrapers and under bridges. One evening I flew up the Las Vegas strip, watching the mega casinos below pass by. And that’s only a fraction of what I could do; there are many countries on my shortlist to explore next.
I was torn watching Sony’s recent PS5 showcase. It’s always exciting to see Sony’s first party content given their studios’ strong track record. However, almost every game was predictable and safe in a way I wouldn’t expect from Sony in an earlier era. Overall the event reminded me of Disney’s recent filmmaking output: lucrative, fun, but creatively a bit hollow.
Comparing Disney films to PlayStation games may sound like a stretch, but consider the parallels through the lens of PS5 first party games from the showcase. Disney loves remakes of beloved hits (The Lion King, Aladdin). Sony will release two remastered Uncharted games in a new collection. Disney leans on sequels of well tested hits like Toy Story and Cars. Sony showcased God of War Ragnarok and Gran Turismo 7. Also, Disney loves cranking out all things Marvel and Star Wars. Sony revealed teasers for Spider Man 2 and Wolverine. Stretching beyond first party content, Sony also gave prominent placement for a Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remake and a new Guardians of the Galaxy game.
Even months removed from their initial play through, Genesis Noir and Observation have stuck with me. It’s not due to either game’s overall quality; both impress with plenty of initial style and swagger, only to narratively stumble in the final acts. Instead, it’s all about their daring approach to user interface and control scheme, both which change frequently throughout the story. The experiences I had with both games made me realize how thrilling it can be when gaming conventions are broken.
For most modern games, the UI and control setup remain consistent throughout the a playthrough. For example, in the most popular game genres today – first person shooters, third person action adventure, and sports – you use a controller’s analog sticks for movement and looking around. For shooter titles like Destiny 2 and the Call of Duty series, there are expected conventions on the HUD to show player health, ammo, and a mini map of the player’s surroundings.
Opinions around Microsoft’s 90 minute Xbox & Bethesda E3 showcase are positive, a highlight alongside Nintendo’s outing in an otherwise quiet E3 year. But there have been pockets of criticism around the show’s lack of depth and “wow factor.” VG247 argued there were not enough “next-gen show stoppers”. Threads on Resetera, social media, and Digital Foundry knocked the Xbox presentation for having too many CGI trailers.
I’m sympathetic to missing more hands on time with Microsoft’s upcoming lineup. However, much of this “depth” criticism is myopic, relevant to an earlier era where Microsoft’s core focus was on the number of games and consoles sold. Thirty trailers in ninety minutes may not be an optimal pitch for $70 games and $500 consoles. However, it is a very sound approach to push Game Pass.
E3 2021 has made it abundantly clear that Microsoft has bet Xbox’s future on subscriptions. Keeping gamers hooked on Game Pass is a different, tricker pitch than buying high profile games. Variety is a must, with enough titles and genres to attract a wide variety of subscribers. Quantity can also help. Not every game will interest a potential subscriber, but the feeling that many more games are coming to the service over time adds to its sense of value.
I’ve previously written Xbox Game Pass off as a poor fit for my busy schedule. I’m someone who rarely has more than an hour or two to play in one sitting and saw the service valuing quantity over quality. To my logic, instead of paying $15 a month for a lot of games I would never have time to play, I’d rather buy what interested me directly, without being restricted to the selection available on Game Pass.
But a few weeks ago, I pulled the trigger on an unexpected in stock Xbox Series X on impulse. A month later, having sampled many titles on Game Pass, it’s clear my initial hunch was wrong. Game Pass has ended up saving, not wasting, my time. I feel more engaged with my tastes and I have a better sense of where I’ll spend money on gaming a la carte in the future.
That’s because Game Pass games are effectively demos on steroids. There’s no barrier to entry; I can explore as much or as little of any game on the service. If a game isn’t working for me, I delete it and move on. Thanks to a fast fiber internet connection, the wait for that next game is rarely long; to date, I have multiple downloaded games “on deck” for this purpose. Over some time far shorter than it would take to complete your average AAA blockbuster I’ve trimmed my playlist to a handful of games that resonate with me.
Xbox has been on a news tear lately. In early March, Xbox head Phil Spencer confirmed future Bethesda titles would only appear on platforms that offer Game Pass (read, not the PS5.) Days later, Square Enix revealed that the high profile action game Outriders would release on Game Pass in parallel with a full price retail rollout on other platforms. This one two punch crystalizes the biggest challenge to PlayStation’s market leader status. Sony has built a strong reputation on its platform exclusives, but the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls absent on PS5 will push many to Xbox this generation. Also, as Sony continues to press on with its $70 first party titles, Xbox Game Pass offering tentpole games at $15 a month looks increasingly tempting.
I hope this flood of recent Xbox news serves as a wake-up call to Sony. As Xbox differentiates itself from Game Pass, Nintendo on portability, and evergreen first party IP, Sony has some work to define its future direction.
In many ways that hook is a continuation of what Sony has done from the PS4 era: a curated collection of high caliber games that run exclusively, earlier, or best on PlayStation hardware. But that doesn’t mean a repeat of the same strategy from seven years ago. In 2013, well timed big budget exclusives could be the deciding factor, marketed through traditional channels on enthusiast websites, social media, and the occasional TV spot. Today we’re looking at an audience expecting more genre diversity, variety of price points, all while being fragmented across the internet.
Every console generation begins with a slow trickle of game releases as developers transition to new hardware. The launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles in November last year won’t break the trend; through mid 2021 there may be fewer than ten titles exclusive to the Series X and PS5 combined. Nevertheless, the pandemic’s impact and unique hardware of this console generation — lightning fast SSDs and wide backward compatibility — will make this a gaming year like none we’ve ever had. Consider the experience “old game plus” where gamers spend a lot of time playing what came before but in revitalized ways.
Regarding the unfamiliar and new, it’s already a bleak sign to see how few firm release dates we have on the calendar three months into the year. I expect the news will only get more dire over time; many if not most titles with a vague 2021 release date will get bumped back to 2022.
The PS5’s solid state drive (SSD) has upended my expectations of what a console can deliver. It’s a greatly underrated technology, one that’s generated countless online comparisons around load time but remains elusive to quantify until you experience the tech yourself.
Almost from the first evening I turned on the PS5 the fast SSD made an immediate difference. Sans any PS5 specific optimizations from developers, the load times across much of my backwards compatible PS4 library improved significantly. MLB The Show 20 and Everybody’s Golf shifted from menu to game in roughly half the time. With the former I could simulate ball games far faster than before, and in the latter load times between holes were non existent. My handful of PS5 specific games — Astro’s Playroom, Bugsnax, and Demon’s Souls — had even more impressive stats, able to shift from launching the game to active gameplay in under twenty seconds. The console itself boots from a cold off state to the main menu faster than my TV could turn on. Navigating the UI across games and settings is smooth and ultra responsive.