It's been another monumental year for video games, and whether eyeing the latest blockbusters or quirkiest indies, this year has presented something for everyone. We've seen an acclaimed lineup of games and hardware throughout 2021, and with the year-end fast approaching, it's now time to celebrate those that left their mark at Windows Central.
Global events continue to shape our lives, and while the world is steadily reopening, we're still reliant on daily Zoom calls and social distancing. The ongoing global chip shortage has throttled console stock amid high demand, while top publishers announce game delay after game delay. But digital entertainment also plays a more crucial role than ever, not only passing the time but presenting new ways to connect while apart.
This year has also proven a thrilling start to a new generation, with Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 marking a significant leap for consoles, and NVIDIA and AMD continue to disrupt the PC space. It's raised the bar for gaming experiences we can expect, with amped visuals, increasingly complex worlds, and shortened load times all tied to these gains.
This is our roundup of the best games and best gaming tech chosen by our illustrious panel of hardcore gaming writers and editors. We're a Microsoft blog first and foremost, meaning everything compatible with Microsoft hardware or software is fair game for a nomination as we look back on another excellent year for gaming. Don't forget to check out our broader Windows Central Awards, too, for a deeper dive into hardware and services.
These are the Windows Central Game Awards for 2021.
Best Games of 2021
Game of the Year
Resident Evil Village proved an unbeatable celebration of horror, conjuring up a stellar first-person tale, doubling as a culmination of series high points. While the latest in the revered franchise isn't known for radical shakeups, it's a striking refinement upon over 25 years of excellence, packed with haunting moments to leave you petrified. The result finely balances an incredible showcase of action and scares, layered with atmospheric tension that ensures nothing quite feels right.
Best Xbox Exclusive
Forza Horizon 5 saw players embark on a road trip across Mexico, home to an open-world vehicular sandbox brimming with vehicles and activities to satisfy any virtual petrolhead's desires. It doubles as a showcase for Xbox Series X|S, leveraging the full power of Microsoft's latest gaming consoles to render a dazzling photorealistic world ripe for exploration. Developer Playground Games has retained its title in delivering one of the best Xbox games out there in 2021.
Best PC Exclusive
Age of Empires IV is a return to the beloved real-time strategy series, attracting veteran RTS players and newcomers to the genre. The lengthy four-part campaign mixed with live "Hands on History" segments proved an ideal match, giving even those who aren't particularly interested in crossbows and swords something to chew on. Beautiful and varied landscapes serve as a backdrop for asymmetrical warfare waged between eight unique civilizations on the multiplayer side. If you love building bases, managing resources, and raising medieval armies to crush your enemies, it's all here.
Editor's Choice Game Award
DEATHLOOP launched into Arkane's iconic immersive-sim tradition, and for fans of those games, a lot was riding on it. Thankfully, a stylized fantasy where you play as a man trying to kill a bunch of eccentric elitists to break a time loop managed to capture our interest. Not only does DEATHLOOP include intricate and complex level design, complete with elements that change over the day, and two leads with a lot of chemistry, but it makes solving puzzles and breaking the loop absolutely satisfying. Despite some story problems, DEATHLOOP provides players with a wholly unique experience in 2021, a year surprisingly full of time loop games.
Most Anticipated Game
Scores of Dark Souls fans have been waiting for the next FromSoftware title since the success of 2019's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and a Demon's Souls remaster on PS5 could only hold them over for so long. Thankfully, the long-awaited Elden Ring, a project with a ton of pedigree but shrouded in mystery, is finally set to release in February 2022. Many of us at Windows Central were able to get our hands on the recent network test and came away wanting more. This open-world title promises a Souls experience unlike any other, and if FromSoftware's reputation is anything to go by, we can't wait.
Best Independent Game
Valheim took us all by surprise. Currently in early access on PC, this sandbox survival game seems to allow you to do just about anything with up to 10 players in a Viking-inspired world. Developer Iron Gate AB gave players one goal: to bring order and become worthy of Odin. That can mean anything from slaying foes, to cooking, to somehow building a tiny house at the top of the Tree of Life. Go on YouTube, and you can see how players have taken advantage of Valheim's open world to do amazing things. What makes video games great is the potential for players to push their boundaries, and few other games capture that quite like Valheim.
Chivalry 2 is as hilarious as it is violent, two things that make a compelling recipe for a good game. The latest entry builds on the original, with some exquisite melee combat that encourages thoughtful, reactive play. From its huge array of weapons, massive-scale battles, and mountains of dead bodies, this is among the best games that allow you to beat someone to death with their own severed limbs.
It Takes Two might shrink down two parents who have to learn to work together and turn them into dolls, but the world it puts them in is huge. This co-op puzzle game from Josef Fares has you and a friend attempting to get expelled from a sentient vacuum, make deals with squirrels, and do unspeakable things to toys in their quest to appease a talking relationship book and return to normal. You truly never know what's going to come next, whether a touch of sentimentality or some dark humor to make you scream. Either way, the dynamic level design, and well-paced puzzles make this EA Originals indie our favorite co-op experience of the year.
The first Psychonauts was going to be a tough act to follow in terms of its writing, which was irreverent, darkly humorous, and actively mysterious. Psychonauts 2 is all of these things, now featuring a nuanced and heartwarming tale about mental illness, grief, and relationships. Sure, the typical Double Fine sensibilities are all here — have fun with all the teeth and vomit imagery. But Psychonauts 2 stands for its trademark sense of humor combined with legitimate lessons about how your past doesn't define you but rather how people can help each other move forward.
Best Art Direction
Psychonauts 2 is a celebration of raw imagination, made flesh (literally) by the tremendous art direction of Double Fine's art team. Dental nightmares made physical with floating teeth and jaw structure platforming. Paper denizens of a world of books made real. Psychonauts 2 explores the depths of the game's character's psyche, and the results speak for themselves. Psychonauts 2 is an audiovisual treat with fantastic music, grand vistas, and unforgettable scenes.
Best Ongoing Game
Final Fantasy XIV launched in a horrible state with uninspiring gameplay that fought against the player. In a stunning act of turnaround, Square Enix took the entire game back to the drawing board and gave us "A Realm Reborn," rising from the ashes of one of its most costly disasters. Over the years, FFXIV has gone from strength to strength, with some of the best MMORPG storytelling in the business, working closely with the community to deliver fan-requested features and updates. With competing MMOs like World of Warcraft in steep decline, FFXIV saw a big surge this year and goes into 2022 with an all-new expansion dubbed Endwalker. FFXIV is a tremendous achievement in 2021, showing no sign of slowing down and deserving of every success to date.
Game Industry Awards of 2021
Tech Innovation Award
Microsoft continues to pledge a commitment to game preservation, upkeeping an exemplary backward-compatibility program spanning four generations of Xbox hardware. Its latest innovation arrived as FPS Boost, a technology to elevate older Xbox titles with seamless frame rate upgrades on Xbox Series X|S hardware. The Xbox FPS Boost titles list continues to grow and marks an outstanding achievement defining Xbox's latest chapter.
Game Industry Excellence Award
NVIDIA has pushed the boundaries of what's possible with video processing for many years now, but what the company achieved with the GeForce RTX 30 series of GPUs is nothing short of incredible. The levels of visual fidelity we're now able to enjoy are unmatched, and we only anticipate how ray tracing, DLSS, and other tech will look in years to come. It's also healthy competition from AMD in both the PC and console markets combined that continues to drive innovation for all within the gaming space.
Game Developer Excellence Award
Playground Games has proven time and time again why they are arguably among the best studios in the Xbox stable. The developer consistently delivers beloved experiences, pushing the boundaries of the current technical landscape, with industry-leading attention to accessibility features that are helping standardize tools for millions. With Fable on the horizon, Playground Games moves its ambition towards becoming a multi-franchise studio, with the potential to take the crown from giants like Rockstar Games in their prime. This is one studio that continues to slay, and we can't wait to see what they'll do next.
Best Gaming Hardware and Accessories of 2021
Best Xbox Accessory
While it is wired, the Wolverine V2 shouldn't be overlooked for this reason (blame patent wars, sigh). What makes the Wolverine V2 from Razer such a standout candidate is its excellent sensitivity clutch. Using one of the extra shoulder buttons or the back paddles, you can instantaneously switch between precision aiming for sniping or rapid speed for turning. It elevates your game in new ways, as long as you're willing to practice the modality. The V2 has a range of other great features that coalesce into a controller well worth your consideration.
Best Xbox Gaming Headset
The Corsair HS75 XB was an unexpected highlight in 2021. Corsair hasn't made a big splash on the Xbox headset scene in the past, but this new product is one I keep coming back to, especially when benchmarking other headphones. The Corsair HS75 XB is a mid-ranger with solid bass, wrapped in a delightfully comfortable, understated shell. This is one headset that genuinely defines "bang for your buck" and is well worth your attention.
Best Mobile Accessory
Mobile gaming has always endured notable differences from consoles and PCs. Backbone Labs bucked the norm with its debut iPhone controller, catching momentum as a stellar mobile accessory amid the rise of new cloud gaming offerings. While we loved the Backbone One for its best-in-class hardware, it also boasts deep iOS integration, assembling a full-fledged gaming platform that plays nice with Xbox Cloud Gaming. It's a console in your pocket, transforming your existing iPhone into a Nintendo Switch-style handheld.
Best PC Accessory
We've always been fans of the Razer BlackWidow, and its squashed sibling is no different. It took its renowned keyboard, shrunk it down, and added low-latency HyperSpeed wireless. It's a compact 65% keyboard that strips the number pad and some navigation keys, taking up less space with the same gaming capabilities.
Best PC Gaming Headset
TThe HS80 RGB Wireless changed what to expect from Corsair's PC gaming headsets, embracing a new angled design, with an elastic headset and plush foam earpads aiding comfort too. It's also an unmistakably great-sounding headset, nailing all the fundamentals for social gaming while undercutting a chunk of premium alternatives.
Best Gaming Laptop
Gaming laptops are now better than ever. The best laptops are now lighter, thinner, and still pack incredible horsepower, with the HP OMEN 15 topping our rankings for 2021. It gets its power from the choice of Intel and AMD processors, while NVIDIA's GeForce RTX 30-series GPUs mean serious overhead for new titles. The latest redesign took this laptop to the next level, offering a 4K AMOLED display with HDR for a complete gaming experience.
Best Gaming PC
It can prove daunting to choose a pre-built gaming PC. Which brand do you go with? How powerful does it need to be? That's where we feel the HP OMEN 30L excels. It has a nice-looking design that doesn't sacrifice too much on thermal performance or functionality, has plenty of configuration options (Intel and AMD) for those on a tighter budget or splashing the cash, and does everything you need a gaming PC to do very well.
Best Gaming TV
The latest console generation has changed what to expect from displays. The LG C1 saw the company's flagship OLED lineup retain its standing as the best TV for Xbox Series X and PS5, boasting a suite of cutting-edge gaming features. The benefits of OLED also translate with vibrant colors, high contrast for ultra-rich blacks, and stellar overall image uniformity. The best 4K TV money can buy in 2021.
Best Gaming Monitor
Whether you're wanting to up your game to 4K on console or PC, you will want to shortlist the Gigabyte M28U. This is one solid gaming monitor with a 4K IPS panel for bright and vibrant colors, HDMI 2.1 for 4K at 120Hz, and seriously low input lag. This is all something that was unheard of with UHD monitors in the past. Not only can you get away with some butter-smooth gaming, especially among the best monitors for Xbox Series X and PS5, but Gigabyte also made this a great choice for productivity. Now you can work and play without moving a (lower) muscle.
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