2017 Gift Guide: Best Video Games of the Holiday Season
Hard to deny that gaming has reached a point where open-world exploration has transitioned from being not just worth touting as a feature in a game, but an objective and necessity for many single-player experiences out there. One might view that as something negative, but this also comes with two strong positives. For one, the quality and versatility of sandbox games continues to grow with each year, expanding to even more unique settings and proving that it’s not just Bethesda and Rockstar who can pull it off. And secondly, as backwards as this might sound, this shift toward persistent open-world experiences draws more attention to the stellar games that actively avoid submitting to the trend. As an extremely solid year nears its end, there’s plenty of quality stuff that could’ve slipped through the cracks for the gamers in your life, ripe for gifting over the holiday season.
Below, we’ve gathered together a dozen of such games, from vigorous shooters to innovative sci-fi games and the gallant return of everyone’s favorite blue hedgehog. And yeah, quite a few splendid open-world games. Also, you can hop over to Ben’s Bargains’ Hardware Gift Guide for a rundown of consoles and add-ons they might enjoy, too.
Gifts for the Rapid-Fire Aficionado
For those players who love the struggle in keeping up with whizzing shots and the jitters of explosions, these games unleash chaos through alternate historical timelines and legendary sci-fi universes.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
- The sequel to the polished, energetic “reboot” of the classic Wolfenstein. The New Colossus picks up several months after the events of the The New Order, following “B.J.” Blazkowicz’s battle against the Nazi in an alternate world where they won World War II.
- War-fueled storytelling is also of a personal nature tied Blazkowicz and his romantic life, again tapping into a deeper, more emotive narrative than expected.
- First-person shooter gameplay doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but the cover-based, dual-wielding mechanics and adaptable artillery result in visceral combat throughout chaotic environments.
- Did they mention killing Nazis? Because you kill a lot of Nazis.
Star Wars: Battlefront 2
- DICE’s follow-up to Battlefront, their long-anticipated overhaul of the Star Wars-themed skirmish simulator made popular on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2. Players reenact scenes of battle between the Rebellion and the Empire, transpiring on familiar planets from the universe.
- Multiplayer plays a crucial role in the success of this title. A big draw to this sequel comes in the single-player campaign, though, featuring female Imperial soldier Iden Versio as she interacts with characters and events leading up to J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens.
- Environments include planets spread across all three phases of the Star Wars universe, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace to [redacted] in The Last Jedi.
Gifts for the Sci-Fi Geek
There’s more to science-fiction games than merely pew-pew action and futuristic armor. The pair of games below prove it, tapping into strategic usage of one’s surroundings in a space station and exploring the nooks and crannies of a distant familiar galaxy.
- The team behind Dishonored go to outer space with Prey, a fusion of stealth, strategy, and shooting which Arkane Studios has dubbed a spiritual successor to System Shock.
- Main character Morgan is being hunted by aliens in a space station orbiting one of Earth’s moons. How the player chooses to handle the situation will dictate the pathways taken by the plot, transforming the game into something of a role-playing experience not unlike that of Dishonored.
- Finding innovative solutions to problems is encouraged, assisted by unlocked abilities as Morgan progresses through the sprawling space station.
Mass Effect: Andromeda
- Following the controversy of how they ended their original Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare takes the wildly popular franchise to another galaxy. New characters, new organizations, new locations: a fresh start free of the prior games’ baggage.
- New characters include a brand-new protagonist, Ryder, who’s haphazardly thrown into a position of leadership as they gather a ragtag group of allies to discover ark ships, explore alien “vaults”, and colonize planets.
- Still feels like a true Mass Effect game, propelled by third-person shooter controls infused with tech/biotic spellcasting, and responsive dialogue and choices that, in the end, feel like an “apology” for Mass Effect 3.
Gifts for Those That Like Sneaking Around
Neither of the games included below would be considered innovative, since both largely piggyback on the success of their prior installments in what they do right. But, that’s just it: they do those things very, very right in their returns to the lore of Middle-earth and the Order of Assassins.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
- More of the same as Shadow of Mordor? You have my sword. A sequel to the surprising action-stealth game set in the cinematic version of Tolkein’s literary universe, it continues the story of Talion, a Gondorian captain assisted by an elven spirit infused within his body. Plot involves the creation of a new Ring of Power and what’ll happen if it falls in the wrong hands.
- To progress, tactical stealth is often required, else Talion will be engulfed in orcs. Planning from different perspectives and using unlocked capabilities can make all the difference.
- The unique Nemesis System returns. Shadow of War generates orc enemies with personalities that can become confident, enraged, or fearful, escalating as they go up ranks in Sauron’s army.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
- Ten years in, Ubisoft have taken their consistently popular stealth franchise somewhere truly innovative: ancient Egypt. Nothing same-old, same-old about the setting this time around.
- Gameplay has also evolved. The stalking and parkour elements remain, but the third-person combat has shifted in responsiveness and precision to allow for strategic hits and potential misses. Oh, and climbing up to a perspective point to “scan” an area and reveal a map? Gone. The points are there, but the function’s different.
- Origins depicts turmoil created by a pharaoh’s ambitions, impacted by the spite and resilience of Cleopatra and the advances of the Roman Empire. Like other installments in the series, real-world events twist together with retroactive fiction, this time revealing the origins of the order that’ll become the Assassins.
Gifts for the Exclusive Hunter
Warring between gaming systems has gone on since, well, the development of gaming systems, with owners and loyalists of specific consoles bickering over which of their exclusive titles are better. Those “conflicts” have mostly eased off and transformed over time into sheer appreciation for the privilege of being able to play certain games that others cannot, and 2017’s exclusive situation is no exception, especially the one below released by Nintendo that’ll possibly end up being this year’s best.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- If you’ve played one Zelda game, you’ve played ‘em all, right? Hey, LISTEN. That logic doesn’t apply to Breath of the Wild.
- Tinkers with the game’s setting to heavily reflect a deconstructed environment following a period of machines and technological advancement. Hyrule now sprawls as a true open world, with enemies of varying difficulties that Link can encounter at any time.
- Link can pick up and use weapons and other gear, which gradually weaken in strength until they’re broken; he can make his own potions; and he can switch out and customize his armor. Legend of Zelda has evolved into a true action-RPG.
- The story’s a decent enough heroic yarn, but the real joy of Breath of the Wild comes in the multitude of shrines scattered across the land, which contain puzzles and trials that reward Link with increases in his capability.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
- For those who don’t have a Switch, there’s another option for a melancholy, post-machine medieval sandbox adventure.
- A thousand years in the future, the setting revolves around society’s return to simplicity after an apocalyptic calamity, hinged on tribe-based collectives surviving against machines. Aloy, an outcast hunter adept in archery and spearing, battles against the huge mechanical enemies and works to prevent a mass extermination of humankind. Its emotional, science-fiction infused narrative produces a lengthy campaign.
- Skill trees, upgrades, and conversation choices lend Horizon: Zero Dawn the moving parts of an action-RPG, factoring into strategic long-ranged combat against highly powerful enemies. Crafting weapons, potions, and storage enhancement play a part in that, too.
Gifts for [E]veryone
It doesn’t get more wholesome than spin-dashin’ and goomba-stompin’, does it?
- The team at SEGA tries yet again to bring Sonic the Hedgehog into the modern era … and succeeds.
- How’d they do it? By quite literally duplicating the 16-bit aesthetic of the original games for a run of new levels, wedged between precisely duplicated – yet slightly tweaked — levels from previous games. It’s like Sonic Generations in many ways, only the vintage levels are just spruced up with 60fps fluidity of motion, and that’s it.
- Play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles. How’s that for nostalgia? Imagine using Tails to grab the rings in Green Hill Zone.
- Love for the series can be seen in the final product, offering a lot of value – both in the levels and in the feelings it generated – for $20. Pictured: the $100 collector’s edition with lotsa goodies.
Super Mario Odyssey
- Mario’s first outing with the Nintendo Switch is, predictably, a smash hit as he sets off on a 3D “odyssey” to save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser, the giant spiky lizard dude who hopes to marry her.
- Heavily reminiscent of the design and spirit of Super Mario 64, the player roams the world and discovers new obstacles, all which feed into powering Mario’s tophat-shaped airship, the Odyssey. The perspective can shift from 3D to 2D in certain areas, with gameplay that undeniably reminds one of the classic side-scrolling Mario games.
- Makes ample, yet smart use of the Switch’s dual motion controls with the Joy-Cons. They’re optional, but the consensus seems to be that folks really dig the responsiveness.
Bargain Blockbuster Gifts
Whether it’s waiting for a price drop or acting on the knee-jerk impulse to buy on release day, $30 seems to be the sweet spot in terms of bargain shopping for games. Both of the games below, one a remaster and another a new release, dropped at that price and offer grand-scale, intense experiences despite the low price tag.
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen Remastered
- A rush of open-world action-RPGs were unleashed on gamers in the wake of Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, varying in difficulty, personality, and versatility of role-playing. Few succeeded in the balance between all that in the same way that Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma did, though.
- With their heart stolen by a dragon, the lead character becomes the chosen “Arisen”, a hero destined to slay said dragon. The Arisen accepts a royal invitation and embarks on tasks involved with the “Wyrm Hunt”, propelling the player to quests aplenty and hurling them against large, challenging beasts throughout.
- Customization abound in Dragon’s Dogma, from the character creation and evolution of their class to their gear and their selection of “pawns”, spectral party members accompanying the Arisen. This transitions to the combat, which can be furthered tailored to the selected classes with myriad abilities.
- This next-gen release – which improves graphical fluidity — includes the Dark Arisen expansion elements, which includes tightened mechanics and a new high-level endurance realm to explore.
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
- The final entry in the “Kaldwin” saga of games that started with Arkane Studio’s breakout hit, Dishonored.
- Centers on the exploits of armless, one-eyed pirate Billie Lurk — again voiced by Rosario Dawson – as she pursues a weapon specifically designed to kill the spectral being known as the Outsider. Billie isn’t armless or missing an eye anymore, bequeathed with enchanted prosthesis that also give her familiar special abilities.
- With the removal of the chaos system and a full bestowment of powers out of the starting gate, Death of the Outsider encourages the more brutal and volatile side of the series’ stealthy endeavors. There are still trophies/achievements for a lack of killing and detection, but the world reactivity isn’t there to wag its finger at you for assassinations.
- It’s shorter, but the asking price reflects that while still packing a wallop.