This holiday season, gamers have a bevy of incredible titles to look forward to. As the nights draw in, the weather cools and we all retreat indoors, what better time is there to get lost in the wonders of a digital world? Publishers clearly agree, as the run up to the holidays is when most major franchises launch their latest editions and console manufacturers wage war by producing system-defining titles designed to showcase why their hardware deserves your hard-earned dollars.
To keep on top of this incredibly busy release season, we’ve compiled a list of 15 essential titles you need to pay attention to — and one you should definitely avoid. Whether it’s high-octane racing, fast-paced gunplay, emotional puzzlers, finger-crushing music games, or delightful platformers, there’s something for everyone here. Ready your fingers folks — and get ready to game on.
Rock Band 4
PS4, Xbox One
Like every great music biography, it’s the year of the comeback for music games. Harmonix has taken Rock Band to rehab, cleaned it up, stripped it back to its roots and is sending it out on an intimate tour to get fans reacquainted with its incredible group gameplay. Gone is all the fat: there’s no online play, a pared down setlist and career mode has been overhauled.
Harmonix’s focus was on Rock Band’s core functionality: grabbing three friends, deciding on the lead singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer (or, indeed, rotating between roles) and then rocking out in the living room on the series’ high quality, plastic instruments. Aiding that is a new Solos mode that lets players create their own riffs during songs — mash as many buttons as you like, there’s no penalties, just creativity. What’s more, while it’s arguably the weakest setlist to date (.38 Special, The Outfield, The Both — anyone? No?), if you’ve purchased any of the thousands of tracks available on PS3 or Xbox 360, they’ll all work here. Get ready to rock again. (Now available)
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection
Sony Computer Entertainment
Sony has a relatively light first-party lineup this holiday season. Rather than schedule any major new releases (most were pushed to 2016), they’re instead relying on remakes and remasters to pad out the calendar. Still, there are certainly worse games than the Uncharted series to overhaul. Oft lauded as among the best of the last generation, Nathan Drake’s Indiana Jones-aping adventures featured incredible graphics, sumptuous voice acting and deeply cinematic gameplay.
Naughty Dog’s flagship franchise wowed gamers on PS3 and — thanks to upgraded textures and lighting and a rock solid 60 frames-per-second at 1080p courtesy of Bluepoint Games — should wow gamers old and new all over again on Sony’s latest console. One point though, the series’ surprisingly popular multiplayer has been excised. Instead, players gain access to the Uncharted 4 multiplayer beta (penciled in for December). Sony giveth, Bluepoint taketh away. (10/09)
Yoshi’s Woolly World
If Sony’s cupboard looks barren, that’s nothing for what’s happening over at Nintendo. Almost every major release that the company teased lacks a release date or has been pushed from this year (Star Fox, we’re looking at you), leaving a small handful of titles to please the ten million people who bought a Wii U. No, really, ten million. We were surprised, too.
Snark aside, Yoshi’s Woolly World is a game that really only could have came from Nintendo (or perhaps Media Molecule). Yoshi returns to consoles in a side-scroller notable for two reasons. First is that his world and every character within is fashioned from yarn. Each texture looks as though it were hand-knitted for the game — it’s gorgeous. Second is that we Americans (and Canadians) have been forced to wait four months to get our hands on Yoshi’s yarn balls. Europe and Australia received the game in June. (10/16)
Guitar Hero Live
PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Whereas Rock Band is going back to its roots, Guitar Hero is ditching its former manager and exploring a more modern sound in a bid to appeal to those burned out on the series’ last generation. Gone are the other instruments (vocals remain), in comes a new, 6-button guitar and a focus on putting you, the player, at the center of your own live rock concert.
How will it accomplish that? Full motion video. Yes, people, FMV games are back, though here it’s part of a highly polished presentation that wants to give gamers the closest to experience of actually rocking out at a concert short of having bottles of urine thrown at you from the crowd. There’s no backwards compatibility for music here, instead Guitar Hero TV will essentially be Spotify for Guitar Hero, offering curated, constantly updated playlists for gamers to choose from (and presumably pay for). (10/20)
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Another year, another Assassin’s Creed. After the somewhat lukewarm reception of Unity last year — it was ambitious but deeply flawed — Ubisoft has transplanted gamers to Victorian London during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. Players can choose from two protagonists, brother and sister duo Jacob and Evie Frye. Jacob utilizes brute strength, while Evie uses her wits and stealth. Expect guns, swords, knifes, grappling hooks (very du jour in Victorian times, didn’t you know?) and controllable carriages.
Can it rejuvenate this rather tired franchise? It remains to be seen. If Ubisoft can actually make the game run proficiently and get the loading times to under three days, it could certainly be more enjoyable than Unity. (10/23)
Halo 5: Guardians
The game that cemented Xbox as a legitimate contender returns for its fifth outing, with an increasingly incomprehensible plot, eye-searingly pretty graphics, and at least 215% more Nathan Fillion. It also introduces substantial changes for the campaign. As well as taking control of series protagonist Master Chief, players will also control Spartan Locke and the other members of Fireteam Osiris — either as the leader, issuing commands to AI-controlled comrades, or as up to four players playing cooperatively.
Multiplayer has also been extensively reworked, stripping away the Call of Duty-inspired levelling system and putting players back onto an equal plane. Instead of adding attributes, you’ll be battling for control of the best weapons on any given map — much like the incredible glory days of the first two Halo titles. As long as Microsoft and 343 Industries can prevent the embarrassing failures of the Master Chief Collection from plaguing it, Halo 5 could be an incredible addition to Master Chief’s ongoing quest to save humanity/the universe/his own sanity. (10/27)
Minecraft: Story Mode Season Pass Disc
Mac, PC, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Android, iOS
Telltale has a solid history of turning unexpected franchises into solid, story-driven games, so we’ve every faith that Minecraft: Story Mode will do justice to the incredibly popular blocky world-builder. However, they also deserve notoriety for the most inconceivably pointless release this fall. Minecraft: Story Mode will actually release digitally on October 13, but two weeks later a disc version follows. Great, you may think, as that saves on having to download the game — except there’s a problem. Telltale releases these games episodically over a period of months. The full game won’t be available on October 27. What, exactly, does the disc contain? The very same season pass that’s available digitally — buy the disc and you’ll still have to download episodes two through five when they release. No, we don’t get it either. (10/27)
PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
With the hottest, sweatiest man-on-man action this side of PornHub and more melodrama than a Univision telenovela, WWE 2K16 is the latest annual gaming update of everyone’s favorite fake sport. Expect gameplay refinements, graphical improvements, liberally oiled (and beautifully detailed) musculature, and randomly, playable versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator. (10/27)
Need for Speed
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Another franchise that suffered from EA’s demands for yearly titles, Need for Speed took a break for 2014 — the first year we haven’t had a new NFS game since the early ’00s. This time around, we’re treated to yet another reboot in a series that’s had more facelifts than a Real Housewife. Taking inspiration from NFS’s most popular titles — Underground and Underground 2 — it’s a restrained experience this time around, with races taking place on tight, beautifully-rendered city streets and crammed with slick, beautifully-rendered real world cars.
Your focus here is winning races, unlocking points and then spending those points on micro-managing and upgrading your auto. Pick a focus, drifting or racing, and you’ll be dropped into its campaign — featuring live action cutscenes (without the awful green screens used in past entries). If developer Ghost Games can return Need for Speed to its racing and tuning past, we could have the first must-buy for the franchise in years. (11/3, early 2016 for PC)
Call of Duty: Black Ops III
PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Black Ops III flashes the story forward forty years to a future where air warfare is nullified by incredibly sophisticated air defense systems. Thus, warring nations must resort to covert operations behind enemy lines, utilizing science, technology and robotics to help soldiers become supersoldiers and… oh, who cares?
No one will play Black Ops III’s campaign. Everyone will play its overhauled multiplayer, which makes use of the future tech to give players jetpacks, advanced weaponry and sci-fi abilities to take down enemies with. Ever-popular zombies mode returns with both a campaign and multiplayer elements. Multiplayer is so popular and the main story so inconsequential that the latter was removed from the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions — they’re multiplayer only. (11/6)
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Two years ago, Crystal Dynamics rebooted the story of Lara Croft — known to gamers everywhere as the original PlayStation’s badass treasure hunter and dinosaur slayer. It was such an incredible, emotional, gorgeously depicted reimagining of Lara’s early years that we awarded it five stars in our review. For the sequel, which is a timed exclusive to Microsoft’s console, players will be treated to even prettier graphics, more tomb raiding and even greater puzzles to complete, all while controlling a more battle-hardened Lara than the ingenue we were treated to last time around. We’re already sold. (11/10)
PC, PS4, Xbox One
One of the most anticipated games this year, last year and really since Fallout: New Vegas was released in 2010, Fallout 4 is the latest mammoth effort in the post-nuclear apocalypse survival RPG franchise. Set in a ruined Boston, players (and their canine companion) will explore hundreds of locations, enjoy deeply expansive character creation, engage in romances, produce children, build, maintain and defend their own homes (which can grow to become towns), and work through the myriad of quests and side missions that typify the Fallout experience.
This time around, players will take control of their character on the day the bombs drop in 2077, before taking shelter underground in Vault 111. They’ll emerge 200 years later as the sole survivor, with the entirety of Boston and parts of the Commonwealth to explore. An improved V.A.T.S. system, detailed graphics, an enhanced color palette (goodbye, grey and brown!), and the potential for mod support on Xbox One mean that we couldn’t be any more excited for release day. (11/10)
Star Wars Battlefront
PC, PS4, Xbox One
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, gamers could find some of the best multiplayer action of the PS2 era. Battlefront took the Star Wars franchise and dropped players in the midst of many of the iconic, large-scale battles that took place within George Lucas’ universe — as well as numerous new and imagined conflicts. Handed the keys to an X-Wing, given control of a blaster, or asked to not cut their own limbs off with a lightsaber, players would fight as part of the rebels or the empire to gain control of a particular location — usually by eradicating the other team.
Now, just like the film franchise, it’s back. Rebooted by EA and using their powerful Frostbite 3 engine, it’s Battlefront for a modern era, with multiplayer for up to 40 people, 12 maps, mid-air dogfights and the ability to control a number of Star Wars’ greatest characters. If you want to battle as Luke against Vader on Hoth, with AT-ATs stomping past and TIE fighters zooming overhead, it’s all here. Oh, and it looks amazing. (11/17)
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Venerable espionage writer Tom Clancy may have died in 2013, but his name lives on through the Rainbow Six series of games (and his millions of book sales, of course). Siege strips back the franchise’s many entries and instead focuses on tense, close-quarters combat between small teams. Opposing teams are dropped into a number of environments and situations and then tasked with either completing a task or eradicating the opposite team. Hostage mode, for instance, could place one team inside a house and demand that they prevent the opposing team from breaching the building and rescuing the hostage.
Siege features a pretty incredible destruction engine, which makes the most of the game’s destructive weapons. If you want to blow a hole in a wall and charge through, guns blaring you can. On the other hand, why not send a drone, scout out the location, and plan a swift and silent attack? Teamwork will be rewarded and players will be locked to a specific class during play, so this definitely isn’t a game for those who like to play multiplayer bouts with a rocket launcher and grenades and no regard for teammates. For everyone else, it should be heart-pounding fun. (12/1)
Just Cause 3
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Speaking of heart-pounding fun, Just Cause 3 isn’t so much a shot of adrenaline as it is a pound of crack cocaine on an extremely generous I.V. drip. Rico Rodriguez and his gravity-defying grappling hook return, this time to a fictional Mediterranean island ruled by a brutal dictator with global ambitions. There’s 400 stunningly realized miles of terrain and ocean to cover, with more verticality (both above and below ground) than the previous game, as well as new planes, cars, bikes, boats, weapons, and abilities. Chief among those is the wingsuit which, alongside the grappling hook and parachute, should give players even more reason to get as much flight time as possible.
Oh, and did we mention that the destruction engine is even more thorough and advanced than ever before? And that the hook can now tether multiple objects together? We can’t wait to attach three tanks to a helicopter and make the world’s most awesome wrecking ball. (12/1)
Xenoblade Chronicles X
Another title that has taken on flagship status for the Wii U in the absence of any other first-party (and most third-party) titles, Xenoblade Chronicles X actually has a pretty interesting history. An open world JRPG, the Wii original debuted to critical acclaim in 2010, but no American release was scheduled by Nintendo. Fans demanded a release, forming organizations specifically devoted to asking Nintendo to bring the game to our shores. Two years later a limited run of discs were produced, and copies of the game now sell for up to $100. This time around there’s no such fan campaign as Nintendo has only delayed Xenoblade’s release by nine months. If you loved the original and own a Wii U, or like JRPGs, Xenoblade looks to more of the same, albeit heavily upgraded for the Wii U’s extra oomph. For anyone else who owns a Wii U and isn’t a fan of the genre, roll on 2016. (12/4)
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