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Tom's Guide Awards 2021: The very best in games this year

TG Awards 2021: Gaming
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Between the PS5, the Xbox Series X and a whole slew of new GPUs, it’s been a tremendous year in the world of gaming. Games in the past year have looked better and loaded faster than ever before, which has let developers try ambitious new gameplay ideas. Meanwhile, on the hardware front, both components and peripherals continue to get smaller and sleeker, giving gamers more choices at better prices — at least when they can find the gear in question.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart showed us what the new generation of consoles can do, while Microsoft Flight Simulator let us take virtual trips around the world when it was pretty tough to do so in person. The Logitech G915 TKL demonstrated that great gaming keyboards don’t need cumbersome wires, while the HP Omen 27i displayed gorgeous, believable worlds. These games and gear illustrate why now is an incredible time to immerse yourself in the world of gaming.

Best console: Sony PS5

TG Awards 2021 Gaming PS5

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So this was a tough one to call, but there could only be one winner, and that’s Sony’s PS5. It beats Redmond’s console thanks to its bold design, stunningly fast load times, the truly innovative DualSense controllerand 3D audio support that’s seriously good. 

Outside of its hardware, the PS5 proves to be the best console thanks to exclusive games such as Demon’s Souls, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Returnal. Furthermore, the patching of some of the best PS4 games to run a lot better on the PS5 is another feather in Sony’s console cap. And there's still a lot more to come, with exclusive games like Deathloop and Gran Turismo 7. PS5 restocks might be a nightmare to track down, but Sony's latest console is very much worth it and truly a generational leap for console gaming.

Highly Recommended: Xbox Series X
The Xbox Series X is the ultimate Xbox, offering 4K gaming and making the best Xbox One games even better to play. With upcoming console exclusives such as Starfield, Halo Infinite, Redfall and more still to come, the next year or two are looking stellar for Xbox. 

Best PS5 game/Best Xbox Series X game: Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart

(Image credit: Sony)

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart may be less than a month old, but the first next-gen outing for PlayStation's famous duo is already our firm favorite. It's a fresh story covering the pair's adventures in a dimension where series villain Dr. Nefarious has achieved total victory, and their meeting with Ratchet's interdimensional counterpart, Rivet. And while the story is dotted with plenty of nostalgia hits, it stands well by itself as well as within the context of the whole series. 

The PS5's fast load times and excellent graphics really make a difference here, letting players quickly move through rifts from dimension to dimension, and the series' signature hectic gunplay is enhanced by the DualSense controller's haptic triggers. Add in the console's 3D audio capabilities and Rift Apart is perhaps the best demonstration of the PS5's power so far.

Highly Recommended: Demon's Souls
The remastered action RPG has brought the original game's grim atmosphere and challenging gameplay to a whole new audience who may have missed it the first time around.

Highly Recommended: Assassin's Creed: Valhalla
It hasn't done much to evolve the series' formula, or even the story. But AC: Valhalla still offers you plenty of opportunities to enjoy sneaking and fighting around a beautiful open world.

Best PC game: Microsoft Flight Simulator

Microsoft Flight Simulator

(Image credit: Xbox)

In a year when we couldn’t leave our neighborhoods, Microsoft Flight Simulator was a much-needed vacation to the far reaches of the globe. This absolutely gorgeous game is, as the title suggests, the latest entry in Microsoft’s long-running Flight Simulator series. What sets this entry apart from previous titles is that this time around, Microsoft used real-world topography from Bing Maps, giving players a realistic simulation of just about every place on Earth. The game contains tons of real-world planes, airports and weather conditions, as well as more than 2 million cities and towns. 

A tutorial mode brings new players up to speed in the wonderful world of aviation, while veterans can grab their trusty joysticks and dive right in. From its impressive graphics to its nuanced gameplay, Microsoft Flight Simulator is just what series fans have been waiting for, as well as a perfect jumping-on point for newbies.

Highly Recommended: Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition
Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a beautiful remaster of an underrated game, challenging players to explore the New World, and build an empire with gunpowder and steel.

Highly Recommended: Half-Life Alyx
Half-Life: Alyx is one of the first must-have VR games, making full use of the immersive gaming technology, as well as providing an intriguing new piece of the Half-Life story.

Best Switch game: Hades

Hades

(Image credit: Supergiant Games)

While Hades will soon make its way to other consoles (and also came out on PC initially), it still demonstrated that the Switch is the place to find some of the weirdest and most wonderful titles on the market. In this challenging rogue-lite, you take control of Zagreus and fight your way through a world of gods and monsters from Greek myth. The story unfolds organically each time you die and try again, giving players tantalizing new situations and bits of dialogue each time they reload. 

While the game is incredibly tough, it also rewards players for persevering. As such, anyone can triumph over the horrors of the Underworld with a lot of determination and a little bit of luck. Hades was easily one of the best games of 2020, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, now is definitely the time to do so.

Highly Recommended: Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
In Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, players explore a prequel story to the beloved Breath of the Wild. The combat is fast and fluid, and there are a ton of secrets to unlock.

Highly Recommended: Paper Mario: The Origami King
Paper Mario: The Origami King features a gorgeous papercraft art style, as well as strategic combat that forces you to think several moves ahead. It’s one of the better entries in the series lately.

Best mobile game: Genshin Impact

Genshin Impact

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Genshin Impact demonstrates that the gap between high-quality console games and high-quality mobile games may be smaller than we previously thought. Like a console or PC game, this free-to-play RPG for Android, iOS, PC and PS4 is a huge adventure, with lots of party members to recruit, areas to explore and quests to undertake. It’s particularly impressive on mobile, with colorful 3D graphics, large environments and fast-paced, real-time combat. Fans of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will particularly like the traversal gameplay, since you can also glide across landscapes as you explore an open world that resembles a watercolor painting.

Highly Recommended: Pascal’s Wager
A dark action/RPG that takes inspiration from console favorites, Pascal’s Wager is a surprisingly deep and robust iOS game.

Highly Recommended: Cozy Grove
Cozy Grove is a laid-back simulation game, in which you camp out on a haunted island — but it’s more relaxing than scary.

Best game design: Final Fantasy VII Remake

final fantasy vii: remake

(Image credit: Square Enix)

Remaking a beloved classic is no easy task, but Square Enix did a fantastic job bringing Final Fantasy VII into the modern day with this from-the-ground-up reimagining. Even more impressive than the obvious graphical leap is how much of the original game’s core design has been preserved. The switch from turn-based fights to real-time combat may be a radical departure, but Final Fantasy VII Remake still includes plenty of elements of the original’s battle system. 

Plus, being able to walk the streets of Midgar is a wonderfully nostalgic experience for any returning player. The city feels lived in and looks absolutely phenomenal, especially in the recent PS5 port. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a roaring success and the wait for the second installment already feels tortuous.

Highly Recommended: Astro’s Playroom
So much more than a throwaway pack-in game, Astro’s Playroom perfectly demonstrates the PS5’s capabilities. Its implementation of the DualSense controller’s features remains first in class even more than six months into the PS5 console’s lifecycle. 

Highly Recommended: Returnal
This tough-as-nails roguelike asks a lot of players, but perseverance is richly rewarded. Returnal might not be the most instantly accessible title, but it offers moments of fist-pumping victory that few games can match. 

Best story: Ghost of Tsushima

Ghost of Tsushima

(Image credit: Sony)

Ghost of Tsushima tells the story of Jin Sakai: a 13th-century samurai who vows to fend off a Mongol invasion by any means necessary. As an open-world game, Ghost of Tsushima strikes a delicate balance between nonlinear exploration and linear storytelling. Jin’s struggles to reconcile his two identities — the honorable samurai and the murderous “Ghost” — feel nuanced and believable. His supporting cast comprises three-dimensional characters, too, from the honorable mentor Lord Shimura, to the embittered noblewoman Lady Masako, to the crafty thief Yuna. Even the villainous Khotun Khan reveals unexpected depth as the story unfolds. 

What makes Ghost of Tsushima interesting is that the story is more than just window-dressing for the open-world exploration. Instead, the three acts tie into distinct districts on the island of Tsushima, forcing Jin into darker and darker moral territory as the game continues. It’s a complex and nuanced tale, like the best classic samurai films.

Highly Recommended: The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II puts Ellie from the previous game front and center, as she embarks on a brutal quest for revenge. The game offers heady moral quandaries without any easy answers.

Highly Recommended: Mass Effect Legendary Edition
Mass Effect Legendary Edition collects the whole Mass Effect trilogy in one package, letting players navigate their way through a quest to save the galaxy any way they see fit.

Best graphics: Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

(Image credit: Xbox)

Ori and the Will of the Wisps demonstrates that an inventive art style can trump even the most realistic graphics in the gaming sphere. This charming side-scroller is a sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest, which used a similar colorful, cartoonish art style to weave a dark story about the spirits in an enchanted fantasy world. 

This game looks even better than its predecessor, in part because it can take full advantage of the Xbox Series X’s increased resolution and frame-rate capabilities. From its vibrant blue-green forests, to its frightening brown-purple caves, to its stunning red-gold sunsets, Ori and the Will of the Wisps makes expert use of colors, landscapes and character design to communicate a whole lot without using much dialogue. The gameplay is also excellent, which doesn’t hurt.

Highly Recommended: Star Wars: Squadrons
Star Wars: Squadrons puts you in the cockpits of some beloved snubfighters, including X-Wings and TIE Fighters. It’s all lovingly rendered to look just like the movies set in a galaxy far, far away.

Highly Recommended: MLB The Show 21
MLB: The Show 21 shows off your favorite baseball players and stadiums in lifelike quality, particularly if you can play the game on one of the next-gen consoles. 

Best characters: Yakuza: Like a Dragon

yakuza like a dragon

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As the seventh installment in the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon introduces an entirely new character and setting, allowing the player to take control of Tojo Clan member Ichiban "Ichi" Kasuga. Despite the newly introduced focus on JRPG-esque gameplay, this iteration of Yakuza preserves the energetic experience, memorable characters, and a rich storyline riddled with crime genre clichés that you'd expect from one of its predecessors.

Highly Recommended: Resident Evil Village
Resident Evil Village is Capcom’s latest addition to the famous horror franchise. With its memorable boss fights, stunning visuals and versatile gameplay, this game proves to be one of the best horror games to date. 

Highly Recommended: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is undoubtedly one of the Nintendo Switch’s most successful titles, due in no small part to the way it blends interactive gameplay with adorable characters for a singularly relaxing experience.

Best music/sound: Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Spider-Man: Miles Morales

(Image credit: Sony)

The tagline of Spider-Man: Miles Morales is "Be Yourself," and the game — a standalone expansion to 2018's Spider-Man — does a great job of representing who Morales is through the soundtrack. While Morales’ web-slinging antics are still backed by epic orchestral moments, hip-hop-tinged sounds are used elsewhere to better reflect his character and to root him in his home town of Harlem. 

Much of the hard work is done by ambient tracks that blend dramatic brass instruments with optimistic or moody beats while you're swinging around New York City, but there are also some original songs which play over dramatic moments in the story. Some of the latter have even made it onto our personal Spotify playlists, and if that's not an endorsement of how well the soundtrack turned out, then nothing is.

Highly Recommended: Doom Eternal
Doom Eternal hasn't changed the recipe it inherited from Doom (2016); the industrial metal soundtrack remains the perfect accompaniment to your mission to crush the armies of Hell.

Highly Recommended: Persona 5 Royal
The original version of Persona 5 already had a fantastic jazz soundtrack; the Royal expansion simply adds more of it, and that’s just fine by us.

Most rewarding challenge: The Nioh Collection

nioh

(Image credit: Sony)

The Nioh Collection gathers up Nioh and its sequel, Nioh 2, in a lightly remastered package for the PC and PS5. The basic pitch is simple enough: take control of a samurai in a fantasy version of feudal Japan, and fight your way through swaths of human and demonic foes. Where this action/RPG series sets itself apart, though, is in its brutal difficulty. Comparisons to Dark Souls are apt, although the Nioh series is much faster-paced, with a strong focus on swordplay. 

Nioh and Nioh 2 aren’t easy, but they’re also rarely cheap or unfair, giving players plenty of opportunities to improve their skills, learn enemy patterns and pick up powerful new equipment. The balance between carrot and stick is superb, as you’ll always feel just a little outmatched, but never completely hopeless. The Nioh Collection’s improved resolutions and more fluid frame rates won’t make your journey easier, but at least you’ll see some pretty scenery before demons tear you apart.

Highly Recommended: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is multiplayer party game that came out of nowhere to become one of the most popular games of the last year. Other players are devious, and rewards are tough to acquire.

Highly Recommended: Monster Hunter Rise
Monster Hunter Rise, like other games in the series, is a deep and challenging experience, particularly if you stick around for the brutal post-game quests.

Best boss level: Khotun Khan (Ghost of Tsushima)

Ghost of Tsushima

(Image credit: Sony)

Khotun Khan is a 13th-century Mongol warlord, intent on launching a full-scale invasion of Japan. Early on in Ghost of Tsushima, Khotun nearly kills protagonist Jin Sakai in a one-sided swordfight, and the Khan’s brutality only increases from there. By the time you finally fight him near the end of the game, there’s a lot at stake, from Jin’s personal honor to the fate of Japan itself. Mechanically speaking, it’s also an intense battle, starting with a one-on-one swordfight and transitioning into an all-out brawl with Khotun and a legion of his followers aboard a fearsome warship. To defeat Khotun, Jin needs to employ every trick at his disposal, from his superior swordsmanship to his arsenal of throwing daggers, smoke bombs and explosives. While Khotun isn’t the hardest fight in the game — or the last — it’s a satisfying resolution for a character with more layers than he initially lets on.

Highly Recommended: Flamelurker (Demon’s Souls)
Flamelurker in Demon’s Souls on PS5 is just as difficult as he was in the PS3 version of the game. His strong defenses and unpredictable movements make him a tricky — and satisfying — boss to defeat.

Highly Recommended: Emperor Nefarious (Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart)
Emperor Nefarious in Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is ruthless and self-assured — everything that the comical, bumbling Dr. Nefarious isn’t. Taking him down requires a difficult, multi-stage fight with plenty of dimension-hopping.

Best gaming laptop: Asus Zephyrus G14

Asus ROG Zephyrus G14

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The Asus Zephyrus G14 overshadows a lot of its industry rivals, thanks to its great performance, incredible battery life, and unbeatable portability. This impressive gaming machine is priced at a reasonable $1,449, featuring an AMD Ryzen 9-4900HS CPU, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2060 Max-Q graphics card, 16GB of RAM, and an entire 1TB of SSD storage. And with its 14-inch 1080p display, you’ll be able to play some of the best PC games at a smooth 120Hz. As we said in our review, “it’s the sort of gaming machine that gamers have dreamed of for years.”

Highly Recommended: Alienware m15 R4
Dell’s newly introduced Alienware m15 R4 looks beautiful and will run games wonderfully. However, this powerful piece of hardware also comes with a hefty price tag of $2,150 and up.

Highly Recommended: Razer Blade 15 Advanced
The Razer Blade 15 Advanced pairs a thin, lightweight build with great game performance. However, its premium price and lackluster keyboard will raise more than a few eyebrows.

Best budget gaming laptop: Acer Nitro 5

acer nitro 5

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If you want an inexpensive gaming laptop from a reliable manufacturer, Acer is usually your best bet. The Acer Nitro 5 is a perfect example of the company’s oeuvre. You can easily get an Acer Nitro 5 for less than $1,000, and you can expect some pretty good hardware for that price: an AMD Ryzen 5 4600H CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti GPU, 8 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD, for example. (Other builds have different specs, always commensurate with the price.) 

It’s more than capable of running the latest and greatest games at modest settings, and on a 15-inch, 1080p screen, that’s probably all you need. Besides, you could easily spend another $1,000 on a fancier laptop — and that $1,000 buys an awful lot of games.

Highly Recommended: Dell G15
The Dell G15 is an excellent entry-level gaming laptop, featuring decent hardware at sub-$1,000 prices.

Highly Recommended: Lenovo Legion 5
The Lenovo Legion 5 costs less than $1,000 (depending on your build), but can run some pretty new games at respectable settings.

Best gaming desktop: Corsair Vengeance i7200

Corsair Vengeance i7200

(Image credit: Corsair)

A gaming PC is only as good as its components, and the Corsair Vengeance i7200 offers some of the best on the market today. You can choose an AMD or Intel CPU, and outfit the machine with a powerful Nvidia GeForce RTX GPU, up to and including the top-of-the-line 3090. You can get up to 4 TB of SSD storage, and enough ports for a whole suite of gaming accessories. Even the chassis is a sight to behold, bedecked with RGB lighting and a tasteful glass side panel. 

While the Vengeance i7200 isn’t cheap, it’s also not nearly as expensive as gaming PCs get. It’s also cool and quiet, thanks to liquid cooling components, and runs games beautifully at full HD, QHD or 4K settings. Naturally, it can handle productivity tasks with ease, too, making it a great choice for both work and play.

Highly Recommended: Dell XPS 8940
The Dell XPS 8940 looks like a low-key office desktop, but it can actually run demanding games at high settings, thanks to its powerful GPU.

Highly Recommended: HP Omen 30L
The HP Omen 30L comes equipped with high-end Nvidia and Intel components to run the latest games with ease, and it’s one of the quietest machines we’ve tested.

Best gaming monitor: HP Omen 27i

hp omen 27i

(Image credit: HP)

The HP Omen 27i is a gaming monitor that gets just about everything right. At 27 inches, it’s neither too big nor too small for most gaming desks. A 165 Hz refresh rate covers all but the most powerful gaming desktops, while support for both AMD FreeSync and Nvidia G-Sync ensures that the monitor will play nicely with just about any GPU on the market. It has a QHD display (2560 x 1440), and an accurate color gamut. 

Whether you made your own machine or bought a prebuilt PC, the Omen 27i renders just about any game beautifully, from its vibrant colors to its sharp resolution. Even the monitor itself looks stylish, thanks to an inventive diamond base and extremely thin bezels on three sides.

Highly Recommended: Dell S3220DGF
The Dell S3220DGF sports a colorful, curved QHD screen and an intuitive, easy-to-assemble design.

Highly Recommended: Alienware 25 Gaming Monitor AW2521H
The Alienware 25 Gaming Monitor AW2521H caps out at 1080p resolution, but in exchange, it offers a 360 Hz refresh rate — if your machine is powerful enough to run games at frame rates like that.

Best VR headset: Oculus Quest 2

Oculus Quest 2

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As an all-in-one VR headset that offers an easy way into virtual reality without the hassle of routing wires or getting hold of a powerful gaming PC, the Oculus Quest 2 is a worthy winner of the Best VR headset award. It benefits from having an intuitive controller and some impressive built-in audio skills, but it also has a rich ecosystem of games via the Oculus platform. Plus, should you wish for some PC-based VR gaming, you can plug it into a suitably beefy desktop or laptop. In short, this is the VR headset to get, whether you’re a newcomer to virtual reality adventures or a seasoned veteran. 

Highly Recommended: Oculus Rift S
If you don't mind wires and have a powerful gaming PC, then the Oculus Rift S is the VR headset for you, offering serious room-scale virtual reality.  

Highly Recommended: PlayStation VR
If you’re going down the console VR route, then your only option is the PSVR headset with a PS5, PS4 Pro or PS4. Fortunately, it’s a rather neat and easy-to-use system with a solid range of VR games.

Best gaming chair: Secretlab Omega

Secretlab Omega

(Image credit: Secretlab)

The Secretlab Omega is a gaming chair you’ll want to spend time in, thanks to its ergonomic yet sleek build and the abundance of choice it offers in materials and customization. Yes, it’s pricey, ranging from $359 all the way up to $749 for Black NAPA Leather, but you get what you pay for: this is the most comfortable chair we’ve sat in all year.

It’s also easy to put together — not always the case with gaming chairs — and available in a range of game-inspired designs featuring the likes of Overwatch, Cyberpunk 2077 and World of Warcraft. As we know from experience, it’s just the thing to keep you upright through even the most intense all-night gaming session.

Highly Recommended: Razer Iskur
With a premium build and adjustable lumbar support, the Razer Iskur is one of the most comfortable gaming chairs you can buy — even if its price tag is a little on the high side. 

Highly Recommended: Mavix M7
The Mavix M7 is another extremely comfortable and ergonomic gaming chair, offering an impressive level of adjustment options.

Best gaming keyboard: Logitech G915 TKL

Logitech G915 TKL

(Image credit: Logitech)

The Logitech G915 TKL is a smaller, sleeker version of the Logitech G915. And if you can live without a number pad, it’s arguably a better version, too. This high-end gaming accessory has everything you’d expect from a Logitech gaming keyboard: mechanical switches, discrete media keys, a dedicated “game mode” to prevent errant Alt-Tabbing and full RGB lighting. However, unlike most Logitech gaming keyboards, the G915 TKL also offers two distinct wireless modes: USB and Bluetooth. They’re both excellent, and either way, you’ll get dozens of hours of battery life, even if you turn the lighting all the way up. Thin, elevated keycaps mean that you can see each switch’s gorgeous lighting, and apart from the numpad, all the important keys are present and accounted for. It’s a fantastic example of how wireless peripherals don’t have to sacrifice quality.

Highly Recommended: Corsair K70 RGB TKL Champion Series
The Corsair K70 RGB TKL Champion Series is the tenkeyless version of our very favorite gaming keyboard. It has the same excellent mechanical switches and RGB lighting, just without a number pad.

Highly Recommended: Razer BlackWidow V3 Mini HyperSpeed
The Razer BlackWidow V3 Mini HyperSpeed offers a lot of gaming power without taking up much space, thanks to its tiny profile and excellent wireless capabilities.

Best gaming mouse: Logitech G Pro X Superlight

Logitech G Pro X Superlight

(Image credit: Logitech)

The gorgeous Logitech G Pro X Superlight eschews the garish experimental honeycomb design of some rivals, but don’t let its looks fool you: this mouse packs excellent in-game performance and long battery life into a minuscule 2.2-ounce package. The G Pro X Superlight’s wireless functionality is flawless, and there’s not an extraneous bell or whistle in sight. You can program buttons and set up profiles with the Logitech G Hub software, if you want. Otherwise, the Superlight is all business, offering competitive players a mouse that can move as quickly and accurately as their fingers do.

Highly Recommended: Razer Orochi V2
The Razer Orochi V2 is a small and sleek laptop mouse that provides excellent performance for both gaming and productivity.

Highly Recommended: SteelSeries Rival 5
The SteelSeries Rival 5 is a straightforward gaming mouse with gorgeous RGB lighting and a striking, angular design. It performs well in any game genre.

Tom's Guide Staff

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