2021 is being put to the sword, and we wait with baited breath to find out if 2022 will be a better year. This month I’ve written about the ten best books I read during the year, which you can find here. I’ve also put together a celebration of my favourite games of 2021, both old and new, which has been published by Entertainium. Amid the usual end-of-year rituals, I also found time to play four main games this month. I reviewed the shiny new Call of Duty entry and a surprise expansion to my 2016 favourite Shadow Tactics. The older games I took on were the 2013 Shadow Warrior remake, and the simply amazing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015).
Call of Duty: Vanguard (2021)
Developed by Sledgehammer Games, published by Activision
It’s strange, sometimes, how great oaks can grow from tiny acorns. Back in 2003, Call of Duty was a relatively ordinary World War II shooter built on a heavily modified Quake III engine. Other games filled this description, like my perennial favourite Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002). Today, Call of Duty is a multi-billion dollar franchise with 18 games released to date, and with a new one arriving each year.
Vanguard was released in early November, and I finished it off at the start of December for a belated review for Entertainium. Previously, the last Call of Duty game I had played was the original Modern Warfare, way back in 2007. Relatively little has changed in the intervening 14 years; the new game is as cinematic, polished, brief, and crushingly linear as its predecessor. I must admit I had a great time with the campaign, despite its brevity and frustrating lack of freedom. The varied settings in the Pacific, Europe, the Soviet Union and North Africa help but honestly the biggest draw is the technology - Vanguard looks amazing and that covers a multitude of sins. Still, it’s hard to recommend the game given its steep asking price, much of which will go to publishers Activision, who are being rightly attacked for their despicable workplace culture.
Shadow Warrior (2013)
Developed by Flying Wild Hog, published by Devolver Digital
In the early- to mid-2010s, there was a significant wave of games which revived classic shooters from the ‘90s. New Doom, Rise of the Triad, and Wolfenstein games all arrived within a few years, and the quality of these games varied wildly. The 2013 version of Shadow Warrior sits somewhere in the middle. The original game was released in 1997, one of the “Big Three” classic shooters that used the Build engine, a technology which has cult status today. Polish developers Flying Wild Hog ditched the dubious stereotypes of the original but kept the Asian mysticism, bulky guns, and one-liners and fused them with updated tech for a broadly satisfying package.
Played nearly ten years on, Shadow Warrior today seems like a strange precursor to the 2016 Doom. Almost everything that game does is also done by Flying Wild Hog’s reboot, albeit earlier and in a much less refined way. Arena-style battles, upgrade systems, level progression - they’re all remarkably similar to what id Software came up with later. The game’s enemies seem frustratingly tanky at times, and the weapon selection is a little underwhelming, but Shadow Warrior still plays quite well today. I also plan to finish Shadow Warrior 2 (2016) soon, before the much-delayed Shadow Warrior 3 makes the series a trilogy at some point in 2022.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)
Developed by Kojima Productions, published by Konami
Hideo Kojima ended his long association with Konami in a famously acrimonious fashion. The release of Metal Gear Solid V in 2015 was cloaked in controversy, but now that over five years have passed and the dust has cleared, the gameplay shines through. MGS V is a sprawling, detailed and almost recklessly ambitious open-world stealth game. It is both Metal Gear Solid turned up to 11 and a radical reinvention for the series, somehow at the same time. Most obviously, the lengthy cutscenes which long defined the series have been largely scrapped in favour of radical player freedom in the settings of Afghanistan and “the Angola/Zaire border region”.
MGS V blows the earlier games completely out of the water. Sneaking around the game’s environments taking on the “tactical espionage operations” of its tagline is absolutely gripping. The freedom to develop, deploy, use, and experiment with a vast range of equipment, weapons, vehicles, and companions is absorbing for many hours. While the open world has been called lifeless, the missions and situations are anything but. Impressive AI means that whether a mission proceeds flawlessly or goes awry, it will always be thrilling. The game’s story may be flawed and serious, but the gameplay lends itself to an endless array of comic escapades involving sleeping gas mines, chicken hats, and inflatable decoys of Big Boss. I’ve had a brilliant time with MGS V this month, and almost wish I’d played it sooner.
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun - Aiko’s Choice (2021)
Developed by Mimimi Games, published by Daedalic Entertainment
XCOM: Chimera Squad was my favourite pleasant surprise of 2020, and Aiko’s Choice has easily taken that title for 2021. For years I’ve recommended the wonderful Shadow Tactics to anyone who will listen, and knew that it had acquired something of a cult reputation. Still, I was surprised and delighted when it was announced that the game was getting a belated standalone expansion. I got the chance to play the game to review it for Entertainium, and was not disappointed.
With the original game, German developer Mimimi Games took the formula established by Commandos and overhauled it in a thoughtful and graceful style. With Aiko’s Choice, all of that is preserved in the course of six new missions, of which three are short “interludes”. The main missions are as large, complex, and enthralling as the best ones in the main game. Better yet, the expansion gives more depth to the game’s excellent main characters who are as pleasant to spend time with as ever. 2022 will hopefully bring news of Mimimi’s next game, and it can’t come soon enough.