We’ve never seen a video-game calendar quite like 2021. The back half of the year, from September onward, is a wasteland. Yes, there will be some release-date announcements at whatever E3 facsimile we get in June, and a couple indie studios will inevitably blindside us and shoot up the Steam charts throughout the warmer months, but the broader horizon is downright barren. I’ve written before about the chilling effect COVID has had on the games industry, with a number of major studios losing precious development time and pushing their target windows into the safe harbor of 2022. That trend has yet to reverse itself, and we’re running out of time.
Honestly, all of this disarray has been kinda freeing as a gamer. In seasons past, a list like this would be filled out with auto-includes from the most powerful companies in the industry. But we don’t have a representative from Ubisoft or EA on the docket, and the only Activision entry belongs to a 17-year-old MMO that’s repackaging a 14-year-old expansion. Elsewhere, there are a few long-awaited sequels from franchises that have kindled a devout cult for over a decade, a turn-based strategy game aiming to challenge Sid Meier’s throne, and a platoon of oddball Nintendo curios that will absolutely dominate the summer. Take that as proof of the enduring vibrancy of the games industry; even when the best-laid plans disintegrate and the power brokers are in retreat, this community still has plenty to look forward to.
World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Classic
In 2019, Blizzard re-released the original World of Warcraft — exactly as it was in its 2004 incarnation with no cumbersome expansions weighing it down — to anyone who had a subscription. They called it World of Warcraft: Classic, and thanks to a blend of wistfulness and a simmering dissatisfaction with the modern game, a whole commonwealth of players returned to capture the magic they left behind in the Bush years. In June, Blizzard will iterate on Classic with The Burning Crusade, the first expansion that ever blessed World of Warcraft all the way back in 2007. With Classic already welcoming a massive injection of winsome veterans, and a level-boost option available for newbies to quickly get up to the new content, now is the best time to jump into Classic since its initial release. Everything that’s old is new again, and Blizzard will continue to rake in that nostalgia dollar unapologetically.
Available on Mac and Windows PC June 1.
The first Chivalry enlightened a wide community of gamers to how much fun multiplayer could be when nobody had a gun. The game was set in an indistinct region of Europe, featured a huge arsenal of dark-age munitions, and players spent most of their time caught in the stormy, messy chaos of pre-mechanization warfare. It was shockingly fun; dirty sword combat is somehow way more personal gratifying than blowing a machine gun clip at a window. Torn Banner Studios are returning in June for Chivalry 2, so if you’re eager to take a stand against the Templars, you’ll get an opportunity in a couple of weeks.
Available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X June 8.
Ninja Gaiden: Master Collection
With action games growing increasingly slower and more Souls-ian — where even Kratos needs to hold the block button from time to time — it’s liberating to receive a Ninja Gaiden remaster to remind us how much fun there is to be had when you ditch the shield. When Team Ninja resurrected the classic NES series with 2004’s Ninja Gaiden, the gaming public quickly grew lusty for its razor-tight combos, unrelenting difficulty curve, and oodles of gelatinous gore. This is a game where you must grow comfortable with uppercutting a demon into the air to finish out a 100-hit combo if you ever want to succeed. Parrying? Never heard of it. We are happy to welcome the series back on modern consoles, and we hope that this is a sign of a more formal sequel on the horizon.
Available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X June 10.
Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
It’s heartwarming how even as Insomniac levels up as a studio — taking on the Resistance trilogy and Sony’s new Spider-Man line — they still make time to nurture the franchise that made the company famous. Ratchet & Clank is not the juggernaut it was during the PS2 days, but we’re still very excited for its latest reboot, Rift Apart. Ratchet retains his double-jump, his armory, and his distinct, ’90s-Nickelodeon raditude, but now his adventures are rendered in glorious 4K on the Playstation 5. Insomniac keeps giving their foundational mascot the respect he deserves, almost two decades after his debut.
Available on PlayStation 5 June 11.
Mario Golf: Super Rush
I am a sucker for the Mario sports line. In fact, I’d reckon that a significant portion of the greater millennial population can thank 1999’s Mario Golf for first introducing them to the basic rules of the sport. Nintendo is going back to that well in June with Mario Golf: Super Rush, which has the internet thrilled about one particular feature: Speed Golf. Yes, no longer do you need to wait for Princess Peach to select her club, and check the wind, and put down her marker. Now, everyone hits their ball at the same time, and the first player to reach its landing spot can take their next swing. It sounds like it could be an absolute disaster, and with luck, it will be the mainstay on many post-quarantine couches throughout the summer.
Available on Nintendo Switch June 25.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD
Nintendo has dutifully remastered almost every game in the 3-D Zelda canon at this point, and yet, Skyward Sword remains the series’s only significant outlier. It was first released in 2011, during the twilight period for the Wii, and boasted a tight, one-to-one control scheme that used the Wiimote for directional sword combat. The game was successful, but famously forced a reckoning at Nintendo. Zelda would be put on ice till 2017 and Breath of the Wild, which dramatically reimagined the franchise’s core gameplay. However, there remains an enthralled tract of Zelda lifers who believe that Skyward Sword never received a fair shake. Everyone will be able to see for themselves in July, when Nintendo brings the game to Switch.
Available on Nintendo Switch July 16.
Neo: The World Ends With You
The original The World Ends With You, which came out in 2007 for the Nintendo DS, belongs to a proud lineage of JRPGs that ditch the pearly castles and waifish catgirls in favor of a narrative set in modern Tokyo. You took control of an antisocial young man named Neku who, like many teenage protagonists before him, ingratiates himself with a bevy of other lost souls who are all in search of their fundamental purpose on the streets of Shibuya … while constantly being harried by a legion of inter-dimensional beasties. The game did a great job of using the DS’s touchscreen for different attack inputs, which makes the Switch’s tablet form a natural successor for a sequel. Square finally cashed in. After 14 years, a slew of re-releases, and a 7-episode anime adaptation, Neo: The World Ends With You is the franchise’s first official sequel. Between this and Kingdom Hearts 3 last year, JRPG fans are running out of white whales.
Available on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch July 27.
Sid Meier has held a monopoly on the era-spanning strategy game since the early ’90s. If you want to build a nation-state from the Bronze Age to the space race, the only correct recommendation anyone could make was the venerable Civilization series. But that dogma will be challenged in August, when Amplitude Studios releases the very Civ-y Humankind. Amplitude certainly has the right pedigree for such a bold assertion. The studio’s other turn-based efforts, Endless Space and Endless Legend, did a great job of adapting the 4X formula to both galactic exploration and high fantasy. But now they’re attempting to replicate the magic with scholastic world history. The most recent Civ game, Civilization VI, just received its final content update and is entering an indefinite slumber state as Firaxis prepares the inevitable Civilization VII. Now is the perfect time for Humankind to grab the reins. Will Amplitude pull it off? It’s one of the most interesting storylines of the summer.
Available on Windows PC and macOS August 17.
No More Heroes 3
Is No More Heroes a good video-game series? I’ve been asking myself that since I played through the first entry in 2007. Game director Suda51 is a maniac; he stuffs his discs with countless ridiculous cutscenes, inane mini-games, and bizarre easter eggs. There is a moment in No More Heroes 2 where a pouty football jock blasts off into deep space alongside his battalion of cheerleaders, who then combine together into a giant mecha. No More Heroes is unapologetically stupid; there are few video-game franchises that are easier to root for. That said, there’s always been a certain layer of B-movie jank around the edges — fiddly animations, bad cameras, convoluted game flow. I’m hopeful that No More Heroes 3 will keep its indelible tone while ironing out the inefficiencies. We deserve a technically sound Suda51 masterpiece!
Available on Nintendo Switch August 27.
Deathloop is developed by Arkane Studios, which previously gave us some of the best first-person PC Games in recent memory with Dishonored and Prey. Now the company is taking its storied pedigree to a sepia-toned Tarantino facsimile, where two assassins are caught in an endless Groundhog Day time loop. The catch? Both of those assassins are controlled by real players, and one of them is trying to stop the other from carrying out their hit. It’s a fascinating, divergent take on multiplayer, especially from a studio that has previously been pretty stringent about its commitment to thoughtful, solo adventures. If Arkane can retain its excellent level-design sensibilities while still seamlessly folding in the chaos factor, Deathloop has a chance to go down as 2021’s best game.
Available on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC September 14.