2018 Gift Guide: Best Video Games of the Holiday Season
In a year of anxiety and uncertainty around nearly every corner, it’s almost comforting to see so many staples of the video game realm distracting folks from what’s going on in the real world. One might lament the absence of popularity toward new properties, but the ability to get immersed in the long-awaited return to a western environment from Rockstar, a historically dazzling presentation of ancient Greece from Ubisoft, and a gritty yet mesmerizing rendering pf Norse mythology from Santa Monica Studio are all quite welcome. The industry seemed intent on delivering what one could consider the “comfort food” of video games pretty much all year long, continuing into the final months with new sequels from other beloved franchises.
Below, we’ve gathered together over a dozen of the assorted titles that have impressed across this year and will likely impress once their release rolls around, if prior installments are any indication of what’s to come. From open-world immersion and player-versus-player battling to the constraints of platform games from years back, there’s a lot to relish in the year’s releases. Be sure to head over to Bens’s Bargains Hardware Guide to figure out which of the below games have been paired with consoles in easy-to-wrap bundles.
Gifts for the Sandbox Wanderer
For those that need to get absorbed in a lengthy departure from the real world that grants tons of freedom, these games leave the modern era and explore open-world locations in The Wild West, even further back to ancient Greece, and a post-apocalyptic version of West Virginia.
Red Dead Redemption 2
- Regardless of the Rockstar Games pedigree, the original Red Dead Redemption still surprised players with exactly how well-done it was. Long-awaited, the sequel has exceeded expectations.
- Control a new character, Arthur Morgan of the Van Der Linde gang, while exploring a fictionalized version of the late-1800s Wild West: a prequel to RDR.
- Playable from either a first-person or third-person perspective, Red Dead Redemption 2 heavily deepens and refines the mechanics of the first installment. It’s been transformed even more into a simulator, down to autonomous hair growth and weight gain, dialogue trees, and weapon maintenance.
- Choice and consequence is a key factor in RDR2, with beefed-up honor and morality mechanics.
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
- Ever on the cusp, Assassin’s Creed has finally gone the path of role-playing games with Odyssey, a tale that goes even further back in time than Origins. The origin of Origins, I suppose.
- Unusually, Odyssey has very little to do with the Assassins themselves; Origins was an overhaul, and Odyssey feels like it’s sailing even further away from the familiar. The connection lies in the modern-era storytelling involving Layla, the virtual-reality explorer from Origins, as she pursues relics integral to the Assassins’ agenda.
- Gender choice, branching storylines, and multiple endings follow along with the open-world exploration aspects that hallmark the franchise. The rendering of ancient Greece is predictably sprawling and astounding, latching onto the historical essence of the series.
- To call Fallout 76 controversial would be an understatement, as it’s the first installment in Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic universe that operates entirely online and hinges on multiplayer interactivity.
- Transpires in West Virginia, just outside the setting of the original Fallout 3, while the visual presentation mirrors the vivacity of Fallout 4.
- There are no human NPCs, as the other players – the other survivors – are the only others around. Quests and world-building hinge on audio logs, notes, and computer interfaces.
- Crafting and base-building have been tweaked and significantly deepened, while weapon degradation has returned, further emphasizing the simulation facets. World is 4x larger than Fallout 4.
Gifts for the Old-School Brawlers
The experience in staying up late at night brawling against friends has a long pedigree that stretches back many console generations, nearly 25 years of ‘em. Since, with the prominence of the internet, a lot of things have changed in terms of how players can combat against each other whenever they want, yet those marathon sessions amid a party atmosphere are still some of the best times gamers can have with one another. Two of the genre’s most prominent couch combat franchises are enjoying new releases this year, one of which is just about guaranteed to be a smash hit at gatherings.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
- Bandai Namco are also taking their first crack at the popular crossover fighting-game franchise Super Smash Bros. in the dangerously titled sequel, Ultimate.
- The premise remains the same as others: utilize the distinct abilities of a wide array of characters to punch, kick, and otherwise force ‘em out of the visible zone.
- All the characters have been updated to their most recent iterations, and feature numerous appearances; there are three versions of Legend of Zelda’s Link! Close to 75 characters have been announced.
- Tons of game options and over 100 different arenas produce an absurd number of options, while numerous styles of controllers will be usable through adapters.
Soul Calibur 6
- Bandai Namco return to their roots for the sixth installment in the Soul Calibur franchise, a soft reboot that goes back to the first game’s narrative in the 16th century.
- Combat involves two opponents wielding weapons in traditional fighting-game mechanics, dueling in a three-dimensional space that can mildly react and destruct with the combatants.
- Heavily focused on the single-player narrative experience, but also branches into online battle mode and character customization.
- This installment’s guest character is Geralt of Rivia, from the Witcher series.
Gifts for Those on a Quest for Sequels
Developers aren’t oblivious: they know that sequels cannot rely too heavily on the storytelling of past games, so that newcomers can jump right in and enjoy what’s happening without necessary backstory. That means each sequel ends up being an opportunity to improve on what works and fix what doesn’t, both in terms of storytelling and gameplay components. One of the below games proves to be the embodiment of refinement, while the other promises to be yet another coexistent part of its world’s lore as its first new entry into the current slate of consoles.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
- The rugged, grounded reboot of Lara Croft returns for the third installment in her origin story, following her pursuits of Trinity as they lead her into Mayan doomsday prophecies.
- As the narrative rounds out Croft’s development into her “final form”, the craftsmanship of the prior games develops in a similar fashion to her character: refined and consistent.
- An increase in tomb raiding and exploration has been frequently cited as its strongest suits, bringing the franchise even closer to how Tomb Raiders of the past functioned.
- Considered a more cinematic iteration than its predecessors, but the technical polish and atmosphere makes it a worthy culmination, if not quite the best game.
- One of the guys behind the original pair of Darksiders games, David L. Adams, returns for the third with his new development team, Gunfire Games.
- Darksiders 3 tells the story of Fury, another of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a female magic-user whose tactics differ from those of her compatriots, War and Death. Carrying over the grand mythology of the previous games, she’s out to destroy the Seven Deadly Sins.
- While combat seems similar to the prior games, the usage of elemental properties and diverse weapons mold to Fury’s distinct capabilities. Fewer enemies, higher difficulty. It’s been announced that gated combat isn’t built in this time around, and that enemies will scale to Fury’s level, notably whenever one of the Deadly sins gets defeated.
- A seamless open world provides a fluid high-fantasy landscape for Fury to explore.
Gifts for the Exclusive Hunter
Few things for gamers are quite as satisfying as console exclusivity for a title released on their “chosen” system, especially when it’s really, really good. Not just high enough in quality that it’d be nice to play that game if someone were to ever pick up one of those specific consoles, but such a talk-of-the-town release that excels so much in what it sets out to do that others are drawn to that specific console. There’s a bit of both this year, but the one where a popular superhero swings around a recreation of New York ends up being a tried-and-true system seller.
- The webslinger finally gets the game he deserves, courtesy of Insomniac Games, the folks behind Ratchet & Clank and Sunset Overdrive.
- Throws Peter Parker into a monumental save-the-world scenario as a prison break unleashes his familiar foes, using New York as the free-roaming landscape. Plot finds a way of tying a huge number of villains together into a convincing narrative, not unlike that of one of the Batman: Arkham games.
- The controls grant both freedom and versatility, allowing Spidey to do pretty much anything the comic-book character could do, from climbing and swing between buildings to overhead attacks. In short: Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can.
God of War
- A franchise reboot done right. Lead character Kratos gets transplanted into the realm of Norse mythology, existing as both a quasi-sequel and a dramatic revamp of previous installments.
- Instead of chained blades and a static camera, the former God of War has been granted a magic-infused axe and experiences the world from an over-the-shoulder, rotating perspective. Tense, hefty combat leans more on tactics than full-throttle hack-‘n-slashing, a desire from the developers to create something deeper and more challenging (kinda like Dark Souls).
- Throughout his quest, accompanied by his son, Kratos upgrades gear and abilities through mechanics more aligned with RPGs than previous entries. Beefs up the cinematic experience with a one-shot, no loading-screen visual design, propelled by an epic storyline that ties together both his new existence and the shadows of his old life.
- PUBG have become a recognizable acronym for a reason, as gamers all over have designated it as one of the best battle royale shooter experiences available.
- The player’s character drops onto a battlefield via parachute, gathers weaponry, and then – either solo or with a team – eliminates their competition before an energy barrier closes them in entirely. Hazards systematically bombard areas of the wide combat zones, adding elements of danger as the arena closes in on the contestants.
- Straightforward concept results in exponential variations in strategy, from decisions about how to initially land and explore the region to how to use the shrinking stage as a tool.
Gifts for [E]veryone
While previous versions of this column in the gift guide mostly center on the fact that these are rated E for Everyone, both games in this section have a second meaning. Yes, both are, of course, rated E; however, they’re also representations of legendary platform characters, and the warm feelings involved with playing these games and familiar characters will speak to both newcomers and those who gamed in the ‘90s, a 2-decade spread.
Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy
- If you’re disappointed at the lack of Crash games on the recently-released roster for the PS Classic (mini), fret not, as this collection drops in to save the day.
- The trio of games – Crash Bandicoot, Cortex Strikes Back, and Warped – have been rebuilt from the ground up with tweaked, beautiful visuals and remastered audio. New gameplay elements have been implemented throughout to modernize the experience, including enhanced checkpoint and save functionality.
- The idea was to spruce up the aesthetics while retaining the precise gameplay experience of Crash’s tornados and jumps through at-times challenging levels, which it’s done.
Mega Man 11
- Celebrating the franchise’s 30th anniversary, the 11th installment in the franchise finds Mega Man in a more realistic state, abandoning the 8-bit revival from MM9 and MM10.
- As with other modernized iterations of classic platformers, this one tries hard to recapture the precise feel of the old-school controls with current high-definition polish. A few new gameplay elements have been added, including a last-ditch overload attack when the situation’s dire, as well as periphery functions including time trials and online leaderboards.
- An array of difficult levels ensure that people of any age can get through this latest Mega Man, from newcomers needing a boost to the hardcore that appreciate crippling hindrances.
Gifts for Those Not So Easily Spooked
Don’t be scared to give these to the horror aficionado in your life as a holiday gift, as they both capture distinct and absorbing types of atmosphere that they’re sure to love. Granted, these might be the games that they’ll shelve until a later period outside the joys of the season, but when the mood strikes, they’ll be glad you thought of their fear factor.
Call of Cthulhu
- The vast mysteries of the cosmos are brought to consoles with the “official video game” version of Call of Cthulhu, loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s story and the pen-‘n-paper RPG it spawned.
- In development for a long time at Cyanide, this semi-open-world horror RPG focus on a detective whose investigative pursuits point him toward the arrival of the Great Old One.
- Prides itself on making players question the realities of what they’re observing, messing with the protagonist’s sanity as they make choices involved with cracking the case.
- Eerie atmosphere is, of course, key, as the investigator interacts with both objects and people through conversation to unlock details about the environment.
- Red Barrels continue the combat-free, found-footage thrills with Outlast 2, in which the protagonist, Blake, searches for his wife through a cult-occupied area of Arizona.
- Like the first game in the series, it sets to emphasize the “survival” in survival horror, forcing Blake to be a largely powerless journalist who must use stealth and smarts to get by. This time, psychological horror entwines with the physical horror, resulting in a hybrid of scare types while Blake uses a higher-quality camera (and its night vision) as his only real advantage.
- Graphical realism has been amped up to compliment Blake’s new equipment, taking the player even closer to the realism of the scares.
- Comes packaged in the Outlast: Trinity set along with the original Outlast and its expansion, Whistleblower.