Photo Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge
Armies, aliens, automobiles, the legendary mascot of the Xbox, and more
Getting a new gaming PC is a bit like opening Pandora’s Box when it comes to deciding what to play. With frequent releases on Steam, a never-ending flow of free games on the Epic Games Store, a plethora of indie arthouse games on itch.io, and countless other launchers and storefronts to install and choose from, it can feel like the Netflix effect of paralysis by choice.
So if you got yourself a new PC for the holiday, or even earlier, this list of excellent games released this year is a primer on what to consider. Some may be no-brainers because they are the biggest releases of the last few months, but others should not be overlooked.
Many titles featured here can be downloaded and played via a PC Game Pass subscription, the PC version of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, while subscribers to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate get access to games on both Xbox and PC platforms. Whether you prefer to buy each title individually or subscribe to gain access to many, here are our top games with which to initiate your new gaming PC.
Image: 343 Industries/Xbox Game Studios
Halo Infinite is the sixth installment in the mainline Master Chief saga.
This may be the most obvious first choice, as it’s arguably the biggest game release of the holidays, but Halo Infinite’s open world promises to be both a technological test of PC hardware and a compelling title for some throwback solo campaign fun. Combine that with free-to-play online multiplayer that launched early, and Halo is back, baby!
Now, there are some oversights and key features missing at launch, but there is still a lot to enjoy with Halo Infinite in its current form. It hopefully only gets better from here as they eventually expand it with campaign co-op and continue to grow the multiplayer.
Forza Horizon 5
Image: Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios
Forza Horizon 5 takes the open-world racer to the lush backdrop of Mexico.
What happens when you mix together a ton of cars, Playground Games’ open-world arcade racing franchise, and the beautiful landscape of Mexico? You get the best racing game of 2021, complete with AI Drivatars based on your friends list to challenge you. Part of the fun of Forza Horizon 5 is you can play it however you want. Looking to embrace its hardcore motorsports side? There are cars and courses for that. Want to take it off-road in the mud and the muck? That’s here, too. Prefer to take it easy and just enjoy driving around? The rewind feature makes it easy to undo any careless errors that could cost you a race. Forza Horizon 5 makes for a great pick-up-and-play experience, and there’s a lot to experience among all the cars and environments.
Image: Daniel Mullins Games/Devolver Digital
Inscryption mixes horror tones with a roguelike card game.
It doesn’t have to be spooky season for you to get into one of the top indie hits of the year. Inscryption is a horror-themed deck-building card game with a blend of roguelike loop progression. The real trick, though, is how the game keeps changing things on you as the story progresses. We’re not going to get into spoilers here but be prepared for some unexpected turns.
Even if you’re scarcely a fan of card games or escape rooms — even if you just played a couple of games of Magic: The Gathering as a kid or did one escape room with friends at their peak a few years ago — you should try out Inscryption. It may not put your PC’s graphics to the test, but if you have a good monitor with quality black levels, you can really immerse yourself in the creepy aesthetic as you play cards and sacrifice little monsters to battle your eery AI opponent hiding in the shadows.
Back 4 Blood
Image: Turtle Rock Studios/Warner Bros. Games
Back 4 Blood features four-player online co-op with card-based power-ups.
Back 4 Blood is the spiritual successor to the Left 4 Dead franchise of four-player co-op zombie shooters. It not only carries a similarly styled title but also maintains some of the original Left 4 Dead developers of Turtle Rock Studios. Now, Back 4 Blood merges the classic, co-operative FPS action of Left 4 Dead with a modern take on power-ups based around a card system. The cards make each session feel a bit different, keeping you on your toes as you mow down hordes of zombies and have to adapt to what fate draws you. Aside from the cards, the weapons and quip-filled characters are the stars of the show. Get yourself three friends to team up with and blast zombie after zombie until you’ve had your fill.
Age of Empires IV
Age of Empires IV is the latest installment for the RTS series that first started in 1997.
The Age of Empires series is old enough to be past its college life and struggling through a middling job while living in a crummy apartment, but Age of Empires IV is a captivating new sequel that feels just like its roots. Anyone who has played a classic RTS before will be right at home here, though judging by conversations in The Verge Slack channels, that home is a very addictive one. Age of Empires IV expertly scratches that itch for base building, troop placement, and massive battles. The campaigns are quite dense, but be sure to try playing as the Mongols for a new twist on the old formula — with hit-and-run tactics and mobility being the new keys to the game.
Image: Acid Nerve/Devolver Digital
Death’s Door is an isometric souls-like action RPG with highly stylized artwork.
There is no prettier game from 2021 than Death’s Door. It’s enough of a joy just to look at, with a lush world that’s beautifully animated, but the gameplay feels part-Zelda, part-Dark Souls, and all-satisfying when in action. The Nintendo Switch release just came out last month, but playing it on a PC to ensure the visuals are as juiced up as possible does wonders to make this lovely virtual space as immersive and captivating as can be. Don’t sleep on this indie hit. It’s a great way to spend a dozen or so hours of your time, and come on — the protagonist crow is just so dang cute.
Hot Wheels: Unleashed
Image: Milestone S.r.l.
Hot Wheels Unleashed supersizes the stunt toy racers with a sense of speed.
Imagine you’re a kid again and given an unlimited budget to build and race the zaniest Hot Wheels track you could possibly imagine. Now, even better, you’re an adult, and instead of tying up all your money and floor space in plastic tracks and 1:64 scale die-cast metal cars, you can play Hot Wheels: Unleashed. But before you write this off as a kids’ video game, you must see the dedication the developers at Milestone put into all these toy car models. There are 60 cars for you to collect and race, with each one lovingly rendered down to its tiny toy details, with visible vehicle damage that looks a whole lot like the way actual Hot Wheels develop wear and tear. Add those visual stylings to the high-speed racing with split-screen support, and you have a fun arcade racer that looks and plays great on a high-end PC.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite
Image: Cold Iron Studios
Alien: Fireteam Elite is a co-op third-person shooter pitting players against the iconic xenomorphs.
If a game like Back 4 Blood sounds appealing for its co-op chops, but you feel that zombies are a bit tired, check out Aliens: Fireteam Elite. This is a three-player, third-person shooter pitting you against the xenomorphs of the storied Aliens franchise lore. There’s a touch of RPG passive buffs to choose in your class loadouts, but in the end, it’s alien-shooting fun with friends. Keep your comms open and your tactics tight because these acid-blooded monsters like to swarm.
Image: Double Fine Productions/Xbox Game Studios
Psychonauts 2 is the long-awaited sequel to the original Xbox title from 2005.
Few games have had such critical acclaim and fan anticipation for a sequel as the original Psychonauts. Now, 16 years later, the classic Double Fine action-adventure game finally gets its follow-up. Just like the original, Psychonauts 2 is brimming with charm, excellent voice acting, and fun writing that, while lighthearted, also tackles some deeply personal themes. It feels a bit like an older game, for better and worse, but with a fantastical-level design that is supremely unique. Psychonauts 2 takes you on a journey of joyous platforming and thought-provoking empathy. Don’t pass this one up, especially if you already have a subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate or PC Game Pass.
Image: DANG!/Devolver Digital
Boomerang X is a single-player first-person arena action game focusing on movement and speed.
Few games exhibit a sense of speed and agility quite like Boomerang X. The first-person action game is all about maintaining momentum as you fly around arenas by way of your character’s thrown boomerang. Throw it at enemies to slice them up, then vault towards it for aerial combos reminiscent of the visceral mid-air stunts of old Quake rocket jumps. The visual style and lighting of Boomerang X ensure that each arena is fun to explore, and the enemies keep it fresh and challenging. While Boomerang X is also available on Nintendo Switch, I believe playing it with a mouse and keyboard is the better experience. You get more pinpoint control, and it truly feels like a shooter of a bygone era with very fresh ideas.
Image: Origame Digital
Umurangi Generation is a post-apocalyptic first-person photography game.
OK, so I cheated a little. Umurangi Generation first came out in 2020, not 2021. But double-check that headline and do the math — consider this just an added bonus because I cannot pass up any opportunity to recommend Umurangi Generation and its Macro DLC to anyone. The Nintendo Switch version did come out in 2021, but while it does feature new tilt controls, I believe it’s worth playing this excellent indie darling on a PC for the best representation of its awesome visuals.
Umurangi Generation is a first-person photography game that drips with style and weaves an excellent narrative through environmental storytelling. Enjoy its vibrant aesthetic, expansive photographic camera controls, and fantastic soundtrack by ThorHighHeels — all while the sense of dread sets in from its post-apocalyptic world. Remember, even if you don’t want to watch the world burn, you don’t have a choice.