2021 was a year like no other for video games, with players eagerly waiting for a chance to actually purchase the new consoles–now over a year old and still almost impossible to find. Perhaps that’s why it’s good that Microsoft has stuck to a two-generation release model for most of its first-party games thus far, launching them on Xbox One in addition to Xbox Series X|S and PC. In most other years, Microsoft-developed Xbox games are few and far between, but 2021 ended up being one of the best years we’ve ever seen for the platform.
In fact, for the first time in recent memory, Xbox actually offered healthy competition to PlayStation in terms of console-exclusive games. The 2021 lineup included Forza Horizon 5, which is one of the best racing games ever made, along with the console version of Microsoft Flight Simulator, itself a surprise hit that impressed players with its depth and incredible recreation of the entire planet. There were also some smaller-scale games that could have slipped under the radar, helping to keep the Xbox library diverse in a time when most first-party games seem to be getting larger and larger.
Of course, one cannot discuss Xbox games in 2021 without mentioning Halo Infinite. Delayed an entire year, the latest shooter from 343 Industries used that extra time wisely, delivering one of the best Halo campaigns to date alongside fantastic competitive multiplayer. Just like the original game in 2001, Halo Infinite alone may be enough to warrant buying that Xbox you can’t find. This list was for consoles exclusives only, but you can read our list of the top 10 2021 games as well.
343 Industries had failed to step out of Bungie’s shadow for more than a decade, despite its best efforts with the Reclaimer Saga’s beginning in Halo 4 and the two-perspective campaign and esports emphasis of Halo 5: Guardians. With Halo Infinite, all the pieces fell into place, and the extra year of development time seems to have been exactly what the game needed. The campaign–set in an open world for the first time–manages to introduce player-choice and experimentation to the series without sacrificing the traditional linear missions of the earlier games. It also gives us a new side to the Master Chief that feels earned, and it addresses past games’ plot points while remaining welcoming to newcomers. In our Halo Infinite campaign review, Jordan Ramée said it was the “best Halo campaign in years and an excellent evolution of what Halo can be.”
And the multiplayer–oh, the glorious multiplayer. Yes, it has some progression issues to iron out, but Halo Infinite’s competitive multiplayer is the best the series has been since Halo 3, and arguably earlier than that. The map design, weapons, and special items all feel like they were designed with each other in mind, creating matches where something goofy or exhilarating is bound to happen. Even if it’s you dying, it’s often wild enough to still be entertaining.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Now available on Xbox Series X|S after previously being a PC exclusive, Microsoft Flight Simulator is one of the most stunning technical achievements ever, video game or otherwise. Letting you pilot a wide variety of planes across the entire planet–and with many of the landmarks, airports, and other buildings bespoke rather than computer-generated via map data–the game allows you to both learn the basics of piloting a plane while also going on a virtual vacation. Fly to Paris and then take a detour to Berlin, then jet down to South America. Your only limit is your imagination, and optional hardware lets you use a flight yoke so you can feel like you’re in the cockpit.
In our Microsoft Flight Simulator review, Edmond Tran said, “Microsoft Flight Simulator is a dense, carefully crafted tool that’s more about authentically replicating an experience than being a game in many ways, which makes translating it to a gaming device a difficult task. But if you’re able to get past the overwhelming menus at first, there’s many ways to jump in and have a great time in Flight Simulator…”
Forza Horizon 5
Forza Horizon 5’s general lack of major end-of-year buzz comes down to an amusing problem for developer Playground Games–we all knew it was going to be great. The studio, which has thus far released only Forza Horizon games, doesn’t have a dud yet in its catalog, and that streak continues in Forza Horizon 5. But failing to acknowledge just how good it is would be a mistake, because we can’t take racing games like this for granted. Despite being set in a humongous area, Forza Horizon 5’s Mexico is more diverse than ever before, with nearly a dozen different biomes. They look nothing short of breathtaking on the Xbox Series X, too.
But it’s not just a technical showcase. Forza Horizon 5 continues the series’ knack for emergent gameplay, often sending you to do fun side activities on the way to the race you planned on doing. It never feels like wasted time, however, because these moments are what make Forza Horizon 5 so satisfying. Nothing feels like filler. Getting sidetracked is the whole point. In GameSpot’s Forza Horizon 5 review, Alessandro Barbosa called it “another meaningful evolution of the series as opposed to a reinvention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a case of more of the same.”
The Artful Escape
Available on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S via Game Pass, The Artful Escape features one of the most striking art styles of any game released in 2021, looking like a Lisa Frank activity book gained sentience. But the game’s main character, Francis, is anything but as bold and confident as The Artful Escape’s stylish visuals would imply. Instead, he seems unsure of himself, and of the persona he wants to embody onstage. Through a fantastical journey, he routinely cranks out tunes on his guitar.
The Artful Escape blends genres together, which can make it a tough sell for those looking to play a game based on other, similar titles, and as Andrew King said in our The Artful Escape review, it’s “largely successful at stripping out anything that would distract from its masterful presentation.” That presentation and the story it’s telling are more vital to The Artful Escape than traditional “game” elements such as challenge or mechanical complexity, but it also keeps the game’s tone and style consitent.
Another one of the smaller-scale–but no less important–Xbox console exclusives released in 2021, Sable uses the traditional open-world concept and takes it in a completely different direction than most AAA games. Rather than throw a million waypoints at you, the gorgeous exploration game allows you to explore at your own pace, only giving you slight hints and direction so you don’t get completely lost. It’s a refreshing approach compared to games that seem to forget what makes open-world games so enthralling: a sense of discovery and self-pacing.
Though there is some clear influence from other open-world games, especially Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Sable’s approach to design and pacing feel unique in 2021. In our Sable review, Richard Wakeling called it “methodical, introspective, comforting, and fully deserving of your time.”