The PCGamesN Awards 2021

It's been another brilliant but barmy year in PC gaming, so the only way to cap it all off is with our very own awards show

Raz from Psychonauts 2 predicting the PCGamesN awards for 2021

You see those Game Awards the other night? Awful lot of trailers for an awards show if you ask us. We’ve got no trailers. None. Absolutely zilch. That’s how you know we’re serious about our awards. We’ve got the classics – accolades like Best Narrative and Best Ongoing Game – but we’ve also got a set of awards that are unique to PCGamesN.

We’ve got awards for thirst trapping, questionable business practises, languishing launches, and much more; the game industry is weird and wonderful, so our awards reflect that. From NFTs and ropey remasters to, er, Balan Wonderworld, this year’s thrown more than its fair share of curveballs at us. So, while it’s lovely to big up the best and brightest from the past 12 months, we can’t truly move on from 2021 until we’ve recognised its missteps.

To come up with our winners, and in some cases the awards themselves, we all tumbled into a video call, poured out some bubbly, and bickered for an hour until we were mostly in agreement. It’s not quite as scientific as the process we used for our GOTY 2021 nominations, but the boozy, Christmassy fog of late December is taking its toll, so this’ll have to do.

We kick off with our serious picks, before rapidly descending into our silly ones.

Rally cars speeding down the side of a volcano in Forza Horizon 5

Advancements in accessibility

Forza Horizon 5

Triple-A studios have put accessibility front and centre in 2021, making sure it’s the first menu you’re greeted with when booting Far Cry 6, Halo Infinite, and several others. And while these efforts are worth praising, they expose some of the flaws in contemporary approaches to accessible game design. But it’s Playground Games’ Forza Horizon 5 that goes above and beyond to plonk you in the driver’s seat and get that rubber burning without anything getting in the way. Take a deep breath, because its list of accessibility options is a whopper.

Accessibility has been baked into every part of Forza Horizon 5

Alongside the settings we’ve come to expect, like colour blindness and high contrast modes, menu narration, and both text-to-speech and speech-to-text, Forza Horizon 5 lets you adjust how long notifications linger on the screen, tinker with the font size and background transparency of subtitles, and even disable moving backgrounds. Playground Games recognises that not everyone has reaction times like Lewis Hamilton, which is where the tourist mode and game speed modification settings come into play, letting you progress through the story at your own pace.

The good work continues too, with American and British sign language implementation for cutscenes promised in a post-launch update. Accessibility has been baked into every part of Forza Horizon 5, and while it’s not perfect, it’s the most cohesive example of accessible game design from a triple-A release this year. You can read more about the game in our Forza Horizon 5 review, or check out Can I Play That’s accessibility review.

Agent 47 disguised as a detective in Hitman 3's Dartmoor level

Best level

Dartmoor – Hitman 3

Hitman 3 puts a far greater emphasis on story than the previous parts of the trilogy. The levels are still big, open-ended sandboxes where you can do what you want and murder your targets however you please, but now each mission has more strongly defined critical paths, which deliver scripted stories that are full of twists and turns.

In a game defined by the strength of its levels, Dartmoor is the standout

No level in Hitman 3 strikes a better balance between those two avenues of level design than Dartmoor. Set in sleepy rural England, the map features an old, Downton Abbey-like country estate and more backstabbing rich people than you can shake a Knives Out Blu-Ray at.

The mission is to assassinate Alexa Carlisle, the family matriarch who has just returned after faking her own death. But another member of the Carlisle family has actually been murdered, and to get close to Alexa, Agent 47 needs to play detective. So, in a gloriously ironic turn of events, you need to play reverse Hitman – trying to solve a murder while simultaneously planning one of your own. Even within the constraints of the mission, there are multiple potential outcomes, and once you’ve explored all the possible permutations of the mystery, the level still presents an open-ended sandbox on par with any Hitman level that’s come before. In a game defined by the strength of its levels, Dartmoor is the standout. Check out our Hitman 3 review for more.

The PCGamesN Awards 2021, presented by a group of Final Fantasy XIV characters

Best ongoing game

Final Fantasy XIV

The story of Final Fantasy XIV is the stuff of gaming legend. Its 2010 launch was an absolute disaster. Its 2013 relaunch turned an abject failure into the foundation for something better. Over the course of the next eight years, FFXIV became good. Then great. Then it became so excellent that it’s impossible to express your enjoyment of it without sounding like you’re trying to sell something.

For several of us at PCGamesN, 2021 was the year we ‘got’ FFXIV. Sure, it still takes about 100 hours to get going, but it’s worth it by the end. Director Naoki Yoshida and the crew at Square Enix have continued to build on those old foundations with new content that keeps getting better. The open-ended job system means that everyone has a reason to run old dungeons, keeping content fresh. Its narrative builds on a decade of world-building and character development, weaving a story that’s more effective because it’s built around an MMO you’ll spend hundreds of hours with.

FFXIV saw an astounding influx of players in 2021. Servers filled up, but somehow – a miracle in MMO terms – they didn’t break. The devs have set new standards for communication every step of the way, from multi-hour live broadcasts to regular blog posts about ongoing issues. They’ve even gone so far as to remove the game from sale to ease server loads, cutting off fresh revenue to ensure existing players are having a good experience. Perhaps most impressive of all, they’ve managed to bring a decade-long story arc to a satisfying conclusion with this year’s Endwalker expansion – a feat for which we’re struggling to recall a precedent in gaming history. FFXIV hasn’t just met expectations for an ongoing game in 2021, it’s smashed them every step of the way.

Raz helping a fellow agent in Psychonauts 2

BEST NARRATIVE

PSYCHONAUTS 2

Every level in Psychonauts 2 is a fresh story, one that’s deeply personal, written and brought to life with empathy, and delivered with a disarming sense of humour. One mental world sees you racing against a timer to prepare meals for the judges of a cooking show, as a means of helping a fellow Psychonaut overcome their performance anxiety. Another has you reconnecting a lost mind with its senses, carefully reintroducing it to sights, sounds, and more as you fend off panic attacks and sensory overload, eventually helping them find their old self.

By the end of the story, you’re surrounded by friends that you’ve helped build back up

While every mental world you visit feels absurd and otherworldly, they’re all grounded by the fact that they represent very real memories, thoughts, and feelings. It takes a very special type of game to make an emotionally affecting story beat out of a mission where you’re steering a bowling ball through a germ-riddled city on the brink of annihilation.

By the end of the story, you’re surrounded by friends that you’ve helped build back up; and ‘helped’ is the crucial word. Psychonauts 2’s story is so rich and rewarding because Raz learns early on that his job isn’t to change people’s minds or solve their problems; it’s to listen to them and support them. Check out our Psychonauts 2 review for more.

Skyrim's SKSE mod persevered despite the release of the anniversary edition

Best mod

Skyrim Script Extender

Modding is one of the cornerstones of PC gaming. We’re never short of weird and wonderful community creations for all the best PC games to harp on about, and while we’re mostly obsessed with oddball Doom mods, there have been some essential community creations this year. Crowning the PC modding scene in 2021, as in many years prior, is Skyrim, whose impressive new fan projects include a religion system and a Breath of the Wild-style paraglider.

SKSE has kept a lot of heavily modded Skyrim playthroughs running

But the release of Skyrim Anniversary Edition late in the year threatened to plunge the RPG into a ‘modpocalypse’ by updating the code in such a way that countless mods would no longer work. That’s why our winner of the Best Mod Award for 2021 goes to Skyrim Script Extender.

It’s not a new mod. More commonly known as SKSE, it’s been around for ages, and unlocks a ton of functionality for other modders. As such it’s required by a vast number of Skyrim mods – pretty much anything that involves changing behaviour, scripting events, and most projects of great ambition. Fortunately, creator ‘Extrwi’ received early access to the Anniversary update from Bethesda, and published a new version of SKSE just in time to save the Skyrim modding world from disaster.

While it’s not a bulletproof solution, and other modders will still need to do some work to get their own plug-in mods working seamlessly, it’s kept a lot of heavily modded Skyrim playthroughs running. With so many mods snatching headlines for putting the GTA Triolgy’s awful rain in Doom, or adding the cast of Ice Age to Jurassic World Evolution 2, it’s important to celebrate the fan-made frameworks that enable so much creativity in the first place.

A vViking ship sailing around a bright blue ocean in Valheim

Surprise of the year

Valheim

Perhaps we should have seen Valheim’s meteoric rise to the upper echelons of Steam’s most-played games coming; Vikings are pretty popular these days, after all. But at the start of February there didn’t seem to be much buzz for a low-poly, open-world survival game set in the Viking afterlife. Nonetheless Valheim skyrocketed straight to the top of the Steam bestseller list, selling over three million copies in just as many weeks, and becoming one of the most successful indie games of the year almost overnight.

It’s not hard to see why. Valheim’s misty, soft-focus wilderness begs to be explored, but when you inevitably stray too far from home and get bludgeoned into the dirt, you realise you must earn the right to survive in Valheim’s dangerous biomes. This progression loop is masterfully executed, leading you to new challenges just before you’re strong enough to beat them, while leaving you enough hints to figure out what to do next. Its building mechanics are robust enough for Minecraft-inspired antics like building Sauron’s tower from The Lord of the Rings. And if you’re looking for a multiplayer game to stave off the isolation blues, then watching friends and loved ones run screaming from a winsome blue troll is a memory you’ll treasure forever.

Colt Vahn from Deathloop is PCGamesN's favourite game character of 2021

Best character

Colt Vahn – Deathloop

2021 was a year to forget when it comes to great protagonists. There was boring old Ethan Winters in Resident Evil Village, who barely has two words to say about his hand getting cut off. The ever-taciturn Master Chief returns in Halo Infinite, and once again shoots dead hundreds of aliens without uttering a sentence. When we think about this year’s standout heroes, there isn’t a single character who can claim to be half as cool as Deathloop’s Colt Vahn.

The dynamic between Colt and Julianna is electric

For a dude who’s trapped in an endless time loop with no memory, you’d forgive Colt for being difficult to listen to, prattling on about the same day to himself over and over again. However, it’s clear within minutes that Colt is a cut above your run-of-the-mill protagonist. Colt’s internal dialogue is a lively, volatile, and self-deprecating tirade about virtually everything, but he’s also an uncannily perceptive proxy for the player: he asks the same questions you might, in the same situation.

It feels unfair to talk about how good Colt is without mentioning Julianna. The dynamic between the two is electric, and it really needed to be for players to engage with the story. The dialogue feels natural and familiar, almost as if actors Jason Kelley and Ozioma Akagha have known each other for years. That kind of chemistry teases the idea that Colt and Julianna’s relationship is deeper and more complicated than a simple clash between hero and villain. On top of all that, Colt’s also just plain cool. He’s brash, confident, and slick with his one-liners, but he’s also fallible, which makes him relatable and lovably goofy. Check out our Deathloop review for more.

GTA Trilogy's very ropey character models

The Lawbreakers ‘Failure to Launch’ legacy award

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition

Every year has its duds. Lawbreakers struggled with sales, Anthem’s empty world and lack of endgame content sparked a historic backlash, and Marvel’s Avengers recorded dismal player counts that sat in stark contrast to the success of the MCU. But not all duds are created equal, and 2021’s winner of The Lawbreakers Legacy Award is a doozy. Rockstar’s remaster of the GTA trilogy seemed like an open goal before it was in players’ hands – some of the most popular games of the early ’00s, prettied up, polished, and playable on modern hardware. How did we get here?

Rockstar’s remaster of the GTA trilogy seemed like an open goal before it was in players’ hands

Physics bugs routinely punt vehicles into orbit. AI upscaling has bungled a number of in-game jokes. Bridges disappear at random, and most of the character models are stretched, twisted, and contorted in ways that are deeply haunting. Even the rain effects were bugged at launch, making it impossible to see where you were going (this was, of course, parodied with a Doom mod). Compounding matters, the GTA trilogy was pulled from the Rockstar Launcher almost immediately after release while the studio worked to remove files that were “unintentionally included”. It went back on sale a few days later, but the damage was done by that point.

Honourable mention: Konami’s eFootball 2022 almost snagged this prize with its equally terrifying character models and unreliable physics. However, because it’s a free-to-play release of a football game series that’s played second fiddle to FIFA for many years now, it’s hard to argue the launch was all that anticipated in the first place.

A group of Outriders players

Best 7/10

Outriders

The Best 7/10 Award is reserved for games that aren’t outstanding, but which have that je ne sais quoi that makes them memorable.

Outriders showed lots of promise in the lead up to release, but it fell victim to the same launch-day maladies that cursed Cyberpunk 2077. Talk of bugs – including one that would wipe out players’ inventory – and a stingy drop rate for legendary items drowned out all discussion of whether or not it’s actually a good game. Here’s the thing: Outriders is a good game, just check out our review. It was never going to unseat Destiny 2 as the king of looter shooters, but its blend of Gears of War-style run-and-gun shooting with a truly impressive array of superpowers that feel great to use, especially when combined with those of your teammates, is a ton of fun to play.

As a power fantasy, each fight in Outriders feels biblical. We’ll never get tired of turning swarms of alien bugs into ash or summoning a geyser of white-hot magma to erupt beneath the feet of our enemies. Developer People Can Fly has put in yeoman’s work this year correcting the launch day technical issues, making Outriders easy to recommend for some weekend fun with your mates.

Preparing to fight a monster in D&D: Dark Alliance

Can’t believe that came out this year

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance gets our Can’t Believe That Came Out This Year Award because it genuinely feels like a game transported to our time from another era – one in which retail PC games shops were still thriving, and you could hope to find a hidden gem if you spent long enough rummaging through their bargain bins. With sluggish, squishy controls and a difficulty curve that feels cheap and unfair, Dark Alliance is only marginally improved by the addition of co-op partners who can revive you when you’ve been one-shotted by lumbering verbeeg.

Drizzt Do’Urden has been knocking around the Forgotten Realms since 1990, and Dark Alliance might be his most dated adventure yet. Check out our Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance review for more.

Balan from Balan Wonderworld - we don't know what Balan is

The what the hell is this award

Balan Wonderworld

Our What The Hell Is This Award isn’t reserved for terrible games, but rather games and industry decisions that baffle us so much we have to go for a little lie down whenever they’re mentioned. This year’s ‘winner’ is Balan Wonderworld, a game that our sister site Pocket Tactics describes as an “otherworldly disaster” in its review.

The worlds and their inhabitants are so nightmarish they belong in the pages of Chuck E Cheese fanfic

Its controls are awkward and clunky, some of its levels feature nausea-inducing scrolling effects, and the character animations are rigor mortis-stiff. The worlds and their inhabitants are so fantastically nightmarish that they belong in the pages of Chuck E Cheese fanfic, especially during the game’s many, many musical numbers. Even Balan Wonderworld’s big selling point – the ability to wear 80 different costumes, each with a unique power – is badly executed as you lose the related power-up when you get hurt.

Typically, a game like this would just be considered a flop and the industry would quickly move on. However, this was the reunion of legendary game designers Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, who previously worked together on Sonic the Hedgehog. So when Wonderworld released in March, we had nothing to say other than: what the hell is this?

Warriors of New World exploring a dungeon

Close but no potato

New World

After a couple of stumbles – though perhaps that’s being a little too generous to Crucible – it looked like Amazon Game Studios finally had a hit game on their hands with New World. The MMO’s open beta drew considerable attention from streamers over the summer, and the launch was so successful the devs had to roll out a huge fleet of empty servers to meet demand. Players praised the MMO’s focus on skill-based combat, huge PvP battles for territory control, and its satisfying open-world gathering. New World looked like it just might stick the landing.

The proverbial potato was right there on the plate, but when Amazon went to apply the hot butter with some post-launch patches, off it went, skittering across the kitchen tiles and picking up cat hair. With every patch came another raft of absurd, game-breaking bugs, necessitating even more patches that screwed things even further. Each grasping lunge at the greased-up tater sent it sailing even further across the floor until now it lies, sad and unappetising, in the dusty crack under the fridge, being pooed on by mice. Check out our New World review for more.

Our pick for best ongoing game in 2021 goes to FFXIV Endwalker

Suffering from success

Final Fantasy XIV

What cruel irony it is that after spending ten years on FFXIV, updating, expanding, and rebuilding its foundations to make it one of the best MMOs on PC, it’s become so popular that the only way to keep it playable is to remove it from sale.

It’s been several weeks since Final Fantasy XIV’s Endwalker expansion came out and only now are people finding reprieve from their hours-long queue times to get in, where some of them even got booted by error codes while they waited – basically, FFXIV spent part of December as an exclusive Los Angeles nightclub. Square Enix did tell us that this was likely to happen – heck, the team had to suspend sales earlier in the year, too – but no one thought the servers would get this congested. One of our writers logs in two hours before the end of the work day to make sure they’re just about at the start of the queue by the time they clock off.

The excitement, though, is entirely justified. Endwalker manages to do the MMO’s decade-spanning story justice, while setting players up for (hopefully) another decade of memories. Lets just hope Square Enix can find some more servers in that time. Check out our FFXIV Endwalker review for more.

The No Fucking Thanks award for innovations in blockchain tech

Ubisoft Quartz

After the amount of backlash and ill will generated by the introduction of blind loot boxes to mainstream gaming, it’s genuinely staggering that anyone could’ve thought that the one thing games really need right now is casino capitalism.

You don’t make players love games by asking them to see mtx as an investment portfolio

And yet, Ubisoft has ploughed ahead with the introduction of Quartz, its bespoke NFT platform designed to create “an ever-greater connection between you and the game worlds you love.”

We reckon there are better ways to foster that sense of connection. A limited-run minting of Tom Clancy-branded operator gear that uses blockchain technology for no other reason than that it sounds hip at the moment is a poor substitute for worlds that feel dynamic and alive, characters that give voice to our inner struggles and triumphs, and games that challenge and delight us with new applications of their inimitable interactivity. You don’t make players love games by asking them to see microtransactions as an investment portfolio.

Lady D from Resident Evil Village, grinning about her PCGamesN award win

Hades Legacy award for thirst trapping

Resident Evil Village

When we put together the Horndog Award for Outstanding Achievements in Thirst Trapping last year, we thought it was just going to be a one-off joke highlighting the extremely lusty character design in Hades. Then, in January 2021, Capcom released a Resident Evil Village trailer featuring an extremely tall woman.

The world would never be the same again.

Lady Alcina Dimitrescu seems to have tapped into the internet’s collective id, laying bare the dommy mommy fetish that we’ve apparently all developed since the start of the pandemic. She spawned a million memes, a lot of thirsty fanart, and an entire subgenre of content for OnlyFans models.

But beside all the barely concealed sexual frustration that Lady D’s popularity represents, she’s a great character, too. She presides over the best part of Resident Evil Village, playing the unstoppable Mr. X for the game’s greatest hits-style opening act. Her place in the familial politics of the Four Lords sets the tone for the entire plot of the game, and actor Maggie Robertson brings just the right combination of murderous intent and petulance to the role. In short, Lady Dimitrescu would still be an icon even if we didn’t all want to be murdered by her. Check out our Resident Evil Village review for more.

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