If you were craving pure action this year, then 2021 was a great time for video games that could provide some digital catharsis.
Few things in life are as satisfying as a great action game. They’re escapism at its very best, providing a cathartic method for releasing any pent-up stress on the digital world around you. The best action games are masters of this idea, and according to the critical consensus, the ten games below are some of the very best and highest-rated examples released in 2021. This list was compiled using the Metascores from GameSpot’s sister site Metacritic. Since “action” tends to create a large tent and often crosses over with other genres, you’ll find that the list is eclectic in terms of style, tone, and overall gameplay.
First-person sword-fighting games have come a long way since the days of the original Chivalry and Mordhau, but Chivalry 2 nails the balance between a grueling clash to the death using cold steel and long-distance destruction with bows. Satisfyingly vicious and easy to pick up, Chivalry 2’s massive multiplayer maps, skill-based progression, and its collection of fine-tuned loadouts make for a brutal power fantasy.
Unlike the other games on this list, Hitman 3 is primarily a game about executing a perfect single action. Strategy and cunning have always been the best weapons in Agent 47’s arsenal, and once you’ve got the lay of the land and have identified the moment to wreak some overdue justice on a corrupt billionaire, Hitman 3 plays like a grim Rube Goldberg machine that eventually ends with someone’s name being next in line for an obituary.
It’s that path and the perfect execution of a sound plan that makes Hitman 3 such a great action game, as its more reserved nature delivers maximum impact when you finally pull the trigger.
Metascore: 87 | Read our Hitman 3 review.
Whether you’re a battle-hardened veteran of multiple Nergigante expeditions or a newcomer to Capcom’s blockbuster series, Monster Hunter Rise is both the most accessible that the franchise has ever been and its most action-packed. Compared to Monster Hunter World, Rise puts a larger emphasis on getting right down to the meat of the experience. It streamlines the hunt and takes better advantage of the Nintendo Switch’s portable nature
That’s not to say that other Monster Hunter elements aren’t present, but Rise uses its fast-paced action to full effect in each hunt. Though Rise isn’t without a learning curve, it feels more welcome to newcomers. Every expedition is a rollercoaster of thrills and danger, and with a wonderfully deep combat system, Monster Hunter Rise wastes no time in getting down to business.
Metascore: 88 | Read our Monster Hunter Rise review.
One of the sharpest games in recent memory, Ghost of Tsushima’s sword-wielding action is both a fresh display of lethal skill and a love letter to classic samurai cinema. Every swing of the blade, cunning use of shuriken, and deadly application of smoke bombs combine with fast and agile movement to create an experience that allows you to operate with surgical precision, while the game’s more honorable showdowns still make for some of the most intense moments of quick reflexes ever captured.
Whether you’re prepared to tread a more difficult path as an honorable warrior you prefer striking from the shadows, the choice is yours in Ghost of Tsushima. And either option feels absolutely sublime to experiment with in this samurai sandbox.
Metascore: 88 | Read our Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut review.
Metroid Dread doesn’t stray too far from the formula that its predecessors established, but it knows exactly where to refine its approach to old-school side-scrolling action. Dread carries over some of the ideas from Metroid: Samus Returns, the Metroid II remake that Mercury Steam also developed. The brilliant counterattack returns, as does the fluid and precise aiming system. But while Dread feels familiar, it still manages to remain fresh. The 2.5D visual design looks gorgeous in handheld mode, especially on the Switch OLED. Meanwhile, the killer robots known as the EMMI add some welcome tension and stealth elements into the overall Metroid formula. With slick controls, incredible boss fights, and heaps of secrets to uncover, Metroid Dread strikes a near pitch-perfect balance between peril, exploration, and classic Metroid action.
Metascore: 88 | Read our Metroid Dread review.
One of the best PS5-exclusives of 2021, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is the series at its old-school best. It’s filled with a wide variety of enemies, wacky weapons and gadgets, and cool worlds filled with memorable characters and set pieces. It’s simply a really well-designed action-platformer. In addition to the familiar faces of the lovable Lombax and his quirky robot pal, Rift Apart introduces another lovable Lombax (Rivet) and another endearing robot (Kit). While both Ratchet and Rivet have similar playstyles, their separate storylines ultimately make for an adventure that is more well-rounded and fulfilling. Rift Apart also happens to be a stunning display of the PS5’s power. The dimensional hopping rift sequences are quite jaw-dropping, and the combat makes great use of the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers.
Metascore: 88 | Read our Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart review.
Action is only a single part of Deathloop’s grand design, but it’s done in a manner that is both thoughtful and exhilarating, especially when you’re stuck in a 24-hour loop that’s going to require you to get your hands dirty yet again. Observation and being able to adapt on the fly are the tools of a very deadly trade here, and once it’s time to unleash chaos, Deathloop’s chunky combat is a gleeful blast of satisfying gunplay and chronal magic.
That mashup between style and substance makes for an exciting experience every time, and with a deep level of choice woven into its time-looping DNA, Deathloop pushes you to experiment with reckless abandon until you emerge as a one-man army in that final run through Blackreef.
Metascore: 88 | Read our Deathloop review.
Mario’s bread and butter gameplay has always been easy to grasp, as the plumber’s ability to destroy spines with a well-timed stomp is an idea that has made its way into dozens of games over the years. Super Mario 3D World is no exception, but it is exceptional with how it uses that classic gameplay in a 3D setting on the Switch and then further enhances it with a fresh injection of new content that feels invigorating. Mario can of course do more than just practice a lethal variant of the chiropractic arts, and it’s not long before he’s donning new costumes or grabbing familiar power-ups.
Bowser’s Fury, an experimental open-world side-story, expands the size of the playground tremendously, with the entire package being a marvelous showcase of classic platforming excellence.
Metascore: 89 | Read our Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury review.
There’s a number of reasons why It Takes Two is one of the best games of 2021. It has a story that delivers emotional haymakers right to the gut, it looks like it escaped the Pixar film studios, and each level is an imaginative wonderland to explore. The actual gameplay though? It’s co-op gaming at its finest, as protagonists Cody and May are thrown into environments where teamwork is the only option for surviving the peril ahead of them.
It Takes Two’s gameplay is both fun and clever and the marriage of clever puzzles and platforming sequences makes for one of the most inventive 3D platformers in years. It’s a wild ride that never lets up, as every level has a surprise waiting in store for those who partake in this harmonious adventure.
Metascore: 89 | Read our It Takes Two review.
Psychonauts 2 deftly juggles several ideas at any given time, and it’s a testament to its polished design that it never drops a single ball. Not just content with being both a quirky spy story and a respectful examination of mental illness, Psychonauts 2 is also a ton of fun to play, as you quickly unlock several psychokinetic abilities that tie into the game’s strong art design. Whether you’re setting inner demons on fire with pyrokinesis or unleashing bolts of telekinetic force at mental baggage run amok, Psychonauts 2 doesn’t hold back on getting the most mileage that it can from its subject matter.
Metascore: 91 | Read our Psychonauts 2 review.
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