Notable Video Game Releases Closing Out 2021: Call of Duty, Halo, MOAR SKYRIM
Regardless of the shortage in consoles available to purchase, 2021 has been a terrific year for new video game titles. Be sure to hop over to Ben’s Bargain’s Holiday Software Gift Guide to see a brief rundown of some of the hits, which range from novel spins on open-world games and innovations in horror and sci-fi to several celebrated rejuvenations of franchises. There are three variables clogging up the last two months in the year, though, that’d understandably scare off other developers from dropping anything too big during the period: holiday shopping in an already complicated year, the approaching release of Halo in December, and of course Call of Duty.
Even with those things in mind, the months of November ad December shaped up into a diverse, packed stretch of remasters, unique new titles, and one delayed long enough to unfortunately “compete” with CoD in the same genre during November, resulting in a nice array of titles squeezed into the last months before the holidays that could end up being worthwhile gifts. Let’s take a closer look.
Call of Duty: Vanguard – November 5 (PS4,5; Xbox O/S/X; PC)
It’s difficult to make heads or tails over whether the gaming community really feels positive or negative about a new Call of Duty title at release, as there’s always a hefty rush of impressions and opinions before and around the big date. Ultimately, this has all but stopped mattering, as the latest COD title works off the nonstop energy of its multiplayer fanbase who’ll continue to purchase the FPS juggernaut despite any iffy thoughts about the latest campaign’s tone and longevity or the multiplayer’s sameness. Despite this, the folks at Sledgehammer, Treyarch, and Infinity Ward – and Raven Software in a support role – have continued to deliver annual titles that utilize AAA polish and ambitions to keep the series immersive, versatile, and exhilarating for both campaign and online players.
Vanguard is the latest, in which the campaign takes the audience back to the World War II and shortly after, where special ops forces are tracking down the actors involved with “Project Phoenix” and a theoretical true successor to Hitler’s place in government. Alongside the interesting single-player narrative, the multiplayer hopes to shake things up with a new “Combat Pacing” function, which allows players to select the intensity, style, and team size for the upcoming match. So far, critics have received both those core aspects of Vanguard fairly well, though there seems to be some “been there, done that” attitudes towards those things and a stronger consensus that the Zombies mode is lacking this year.
Jurassic World Evolution 2 – November 9 (PS4,5; Xbox O/S/X; PC)
Sequels to sim games have a different set of benchmarks to hit than other genres, and they also tend to have a bit more of a forgiving player base when it comes to delivering incrementally better versions instead of drastically new entries. While enhanced features and expanded options will always be celebrated, there’s also lots of satisfaction to be found in picking up a simulator and discovering that a lot of the gameplay aspects remain the same, kind of like having a bunch of brand-new tools and upcoming projects yet the same workbench and organization area to know where everything’s at. Jurassic World Evolution delivers on the concept of, essentially, a “dinosaur zoo simulator” with callbacks to the movies and books, but critics generally felt that the sim could use more depth.
Evolution 2 has the opportunity to improve upon its middlingly reviewed first entry by improving its big draws, by deepening the business and construction aspects and refining its dinosaur interactions. It hopes to do so by widening the workspace maps – relocated to the US for more landscape variety — and placing more unique demands upon the players, such as maintaining animal diets and catering to different visitor tastes. Improvements in those areas seem less pertinent to game-makers Frontier Developments than enhancing the authenticity of the dinosaurs themselves, though, upping the species count to 75 and ensuring that their behaviors authentically intersect on a more frequent basis. Whether that’ll amount to enough to make Evolution 2 a worthwhile upgrade remains to be seen.
Skyrim: Anniversary Edition – November 11 (PS4,5; Xbox O/S/X; PC)
At this point, the multiple iterations of Skyrim across several consoles have transformed into a running joke – a meme, if you will. For the most part, all the re-releases have had their purpose for showing up when they did, from lateral ports to other consoles and virtual reality accessibility to new console upgrades that’d hopefully tide players over until Elder Scrolls 6 finally arrives. The mantra’s pretty simple, according to Bethesda’s studio head: so long as players are buying and enjoying Skyrim, they’ll keep finding ways of re-releasing and upgrading the celebrated open-world RPG. Thus, when the announcement came that the studio would release an “anniversary edition” of Skyrim designed for Xbox Series X and PS5 consoles, few if any people were surprised. So, what else could possibly be added?
In essence, the Anniversary Edition of Skyrim makes it easy for players to have an up-to-date version of the complete Special Edition game – including all official DLC — that’s also beefed up with a ton of small to moderate additions through Bethesda’s Creation Club, ranging from artifacts to activities and quests. This includes brand-new content released alongside the Anniversary Edition from the Creation Club, such as fishing, a simulator-ish survival mode, and new quests. The Anniversary Edition also touches up the visuals for next-gen consoles, though those on the Xbox Series X will likely see no appreciable difference over the already optimized version of the Special Edition. There’s a $20 digital upgrade options for those who already own the Special Edition, but there’s also a complete physical copy of the Anniversary Edition for $50.
GTA: Definitive Trilogy – November 11 (PS4,5; Xbox O/S/X; Switch; PC)
It’s hard to overstate how influential the sequence of Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas was to the video game landscape. GTA III brought together different aspects of free-roaming action and emergent gameplay into a singular experience, Vice City took that blueprint and gave it a distinct, violent attitude … and then San Andreas upped the attitude, narrative potency, and sheer volume and variety of things to do to such a degree that it almost felt like a simulation. The ability for players to do essentially whatever they wanted in a “sandbox”, to create whatever degree of chaos they wanted, became a blueprint for other games to follow that range from revolutionary and historical assassin sims to animated show tie-ins. They’ve aged, but their legacy exists in the bones of countless modern titles.
One would naturally assume, then, that games with such a rich legacy would receive high-quality remasters, especially during a time when remasters are hotter than normal. The recently renamed Grove Street Games, previously known as War Drum Studios, the developers behind mobile ports of this same trilogy, have undertaken the challenge with this Definitive Edition, and they showed clear inspiration early on in how to approach the project. From what aspects to preserve full stop (such as the physics engine) to which aesthetics should be cleaned up and which ones should be amplified, it sounds like worthwhile promises. The execution, however, has been polarizing, due in large part to the underwhelming visuals and a lack of editing and refinement, alongside a hefty share of technical glitches.
Shin Megami Tensei V – November 12 (Switch)
It took a bit of time, but Atlus has really grasped one fact about their Shin Megami Tensei series: the fanbase still really, really likes the third entry, Nocturne. Even as the spinoff Persona series mounts in popularity and creates its own hot spinoffs – like the fighting-based Arena line – there remained plenty of enthusiasm behind the prospect of a remastered iteration of the PS2-era Nocturne, which was finally released to critical acclaim earlier this year. Aside from the rerelease, the enthusiasm has also spread into the development philosophies of the long-awaited fifth entry in the primary numbered Shin Megami Tensei series, where the vague but somewhat telling description of its “profound charm” has been laced into the new entry alongside the more objective demon-raising aspects of SMT IV.
As one would expect, players gain control of a high-school student who ropes a few buddies into a demon search through underground tunnels. Shortly after entering the tunnels, the player gets transported to an alternate reality version of Tokyo embroiled in a war between angels and demons, where the existence of the high-schooler – and his friends — soon becomes linked with that of a god-like being so that the students can get directly involved with the battle. From there, the signature turn-based combat system of the Shin Megami Tensei series and the frequently challenging nature of its battles take hold, supported by a choice-and-consequence system that’ll help dictate the sort of ending you’ll receive. It’s a manifestation of much enthusiasm that’s currently exclusive to the Switch.
Halo: Infinite – December 8 (Xbox O/S/X; PC)
Xbox turns 20 this year, and it’s hard to argue with the assertion that the most popular … well, thing, period, to ever come out of Microsoft’s console would be their exhilarating sci-fi shooter series, Halo. The first confidently labeled itself “Combat Evolved” and the distinction didn’t feel unmerited, providing an engaging campaign and multiplayer experience that handily dethroned previous competitors such as GoldenEye, escalating the popularity of LAN parties and shaping the PvP landscape as it’s known today. Its sequels would refine the positive aspects of that experience, even when the campaign’s storytelling or brevity would wobble and waver across both Bungie and 343’s installments. After half of a decade away from regular installments, Master Chief has decided to jump back into action for the 20th anniversary of Xbox in Halo: Infinite.
With the creative energy of former Bungie writer and cinematics director Joseph Staten as the project lead of the campaign, Halo: Infinite aspires to bring the series back to its original glory in the modern era, tying familiar aesthetics and plot devices into a new story of alien invasion and world repair. Players once again control Master Chief for the entirety of the game as they zip across the landscape of Zeta Halo, opening up the gameplay for free roaming and emergent battles while also sticking to a firm campaign with its sights sets on Cortana. The multiplayer also has its heart in the right place by focusing on familiar modes such as capture the flag and slayer, while also incorporating new powers and designs to spice up the formula. More than anything, though, folks who’ve played Halo: Infinite have reaffirmed the expected: the gunplay is outstanding, and should make either campaign or multiplayer a blast.
The end of year has a cluster of other interesting titles worth looking into, though one of them may or may not be Battlefield 2042, which has been getting dragged through the mud by the community and certainly is up against some hefty competition in the shooter genre through here. Just Dance 2022 (November 4) gets the party moving at the end of the year with a smattering of new songs and intricate choreography, while Football Manager 2022 (November 9) keeps the pace slow, familiar, yet addictive with its updated roster simulation gameplay. Similar to Far Cry: Blood Dragon, the Borderlands-themed DLC Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep (November 9) has received a standalone release, while Frogwares has returned to the Sherlock Holmes for something of a prequel, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One (November 16), that focuses on the detective’s career in his early twenties. There’s also a space combat game called Chorus (December 3) worth keeping an eye on, as well as a futuristic platformer Solar Ash (December 2).