Pro: Fun naval warfare
Con: Slow start
Best for: Conspiracy theorists and out-of-shape free runners
Retail price: $49.99
In the third major Assassin’s Creed title, Ubisoft has taken its mystical covenant of assassins to the New World, dropping your character and his very unique set of skills directly into the American Revolution.
The story itself runs through many of the highlights of the American Revolution — which can seem a bit on-the-nose at times — but certainly gives players a real sense of place. The game swaps out its former protagonist, the Italian Renaissance-era Ezio, for an American Indian named Connor.
For fans of the series, all of the elements that make Assassin’s Creed stand out are here: stealthy gameplay, hints of puzzles and playful intersection with history. There’s also the option, later in the game, to try some fighting on the high seas — something that it executes very well. Not only do players feel like they’re part of a larger naval skirmish, but the game also injects elements such as capricious weather to keep things interesting.
The game gets off to a slow start, which is just one indication of the pacing problems that the developers struggle with, but fans will want to stick with the game to get to the good stuff. The game also drops in just enough new mechanics, such as improved controls for running and jumping, to revive a series that was frankly growing a bit stale.
Pro: Deeper story line
Con: Harder than you may remember
Best for: First-person shooter connoisseurs
Retail price: $59.99
Halo 4 had a lot to lose. It’s been five years since players last controlled Master Chief, and the latest title in the series is the first made in the hands of a new studio, 343 Industries.
For the latest installment, developers explored the story line of the Halo universe more deeply than in previous titles, which gives the game a stronger emotional punch than ever before.
While people who know the franchise and its characters will pull the most out of the new, more story-driven game, it’s still fun for first-timers to pick up and get to know. Weapons are varied and situation-specific, requiring a good deal of shooting strategy.
The multiplayer in Halo 4 is also strong — almost a game in and of itself — that lets players pick up where the story campaign ends. In multiplayer mode, players are cadets in the army at the center of the Halo universe, running training exercises and fighting battles to complete their missions. The game also rewards players for varying their tactics, letting them attain higher levels more quickly when they try different combat strategies.
One thing that may catch fans off-guard is the new studio’s decision to up the difficulty levels on the game to offer a new challenge, even for seasoned veterans.
Pro: Very open
Con: Can feel a bit unfocused at times
Best for: Masters of their own fate
Retail price: $59.99
In an industry dominated by sequels and series, Dishonored stands out this holiday season for being new. That alone has earned it high marks from reviewers, who applaud Arkane Studios for coming up with an original story line.
A lot of story lines, actually, which it weaves into a very complex game. The protagonist is a disgraced former high-ranking royal court official. He has a few missions, one of which is to rescue a kidnapped princess while trying to get to the root of a plague that is killing his home city. Arkane has been advertising the game as a very open title that lets players choose their own adventures as they build toward the game’s conclusion. The downside of this is that sometimes the gameplay can take on too many narratives at once.
Players also have a variety of options as they play through the game to suit their own morality. The developers have built in an advanced stealth mechanic that will let talented (or patient) players sneak by enemies without resorting to murder.
That’s not just a way to get players to challenge themselves. The decisions the main character makes also affect the larger game’s atmosphere. More deaths mean more plague rats to overrun the city, and they have an effect on the title’s final ending.
Pro: Strong, strategic gameplay
Con: Not the game you probably remember
Best for: Armchair generals
Retail price: $59.99
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a reboot of a popular game from the late 1990s and early 2000s, this time taken on by the strategy game experts at Firaxis Games.
Things won’t be exactly as former players remember them, but the studio has taken pains to stay true to the basic bones of the original titles.
That starts with the basic premise: Players are leading a team at XCOM, an elite force of soldiers, that has been formed and deployed to protect the world against alien attack. Players set, train and lead the soldiers into a series of tactical battles against pesky extraterrestrials. The game rewards players who build teams with a variety of skills — for example, soldiers win skills and promotions with more battlefield experience. But don’t get too attached — as in the original game, once a soldier is killed in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, they are gone for good.
The strategy extends beyond the battlefield. Back at base, players will have to consider a different type of strategy game: balancing the planet’s needs, resources and funding. Commanders at XCOM have to deal with the politics of 16 world powers, each of who provide funding for the organization, and players have to walk a fine line when choosing missions in order to keep their funding.
Pro: Addresses complaints from earlier versions
Con: Very bloody
Best for: Hack-and-slashers
Retail price: $59.99
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge was widely criticized when it was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in March. Fans said the latest game in the series, which built a reputation for being difficult, didn’t live up to previous titles.
So for the Wii U version of the game, developer Team Ninja made an effort to return to its difficult roots and up the gore factor to please its biggest fans.
They certainly didn’t fall short on the gore level. Not only do regular attacks draw more than the Red Cross-approved level of blood, but players are encouraged to attack injured enemies in point-rich bloody takedowns that send body parts flying. It’s great, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge is a launch title with the Wii U console and takes some advantage of the new console’s tablet-like controller. Players can access their gear and other menus through the controller’s screen. Team Ninja has also added some additional features to the Wii U version of the game, such as the ability to play cooperatively, that may please fans disappointed with the earlier versions of the game.