TIME

7 Things You Need to Know About Destiny‘s Expansion The Dark Below

Bungie's first official expansion to Destiny, it's online first-person shooter, is out now for PlayStation and Xbox game consoles

It’s been awhile since I visited Bungie’s Destiny, the last time being when I slipped quietly past level 20 back in September. I’d done all I needed to, seen the rejiggered solar system’s sights and saved humanity, just like you…and whatever subset of the nearly 10 million players Activision claims have registered the game actually polished off The Black Garden. I’m a story guy, not a grinder, so with The Divisive Mind in my rearview mirror, I set the game aside.

Until today: the first expansion, The Dark Below, is now available to download (it’s $20, unless you’ve already purchased the Expansion Pass for $35, which gets you the second yet-to-be-released content extension). Here’s the breakdown of what’s on offer.

You can raise your Light Level to 32

The official level cap remains 20, but Bungie’s concession to grinders involves letting you clap pieces of rare armor on that, if you do the math properly, can boost your stats as if you were in fact leveling beyond 20–all the way up to Light Level 30 before the expansion.

The Dark Below adds two more Light Levels, meaning there’s new rare armor that’ll let you armor-buff your Guardian a trifle more.

You can square off with a god

Or what The Hive call a god, anyway, according to the new story intro’s melodramatic narrator (The Hive, in case like me Destiny‘s jargon’s already dissolved from your brainpan, are the race of burrowers living on the Earth’s moon).

I’m assuming you get to do battle with a specific big bad: technically the tagline reads “tasked with stopping the resurrection of an ancient god, Crota.” One of those “hopefully you fail the stop-the-resurrection test, so you can actually fight something devastatingly cool,” in other words.

Your new ride’s a Legendary stunt bike

Meet the EV-30 Tumbler Sparrow, a Legendary-rated, level 100 durability stunt-hovercraft that’ll let you drive faster, fly across chasms and pull off midair tricks. You get this automatically when you pick up the expansion.

Here’s the rest of the new stuff

Next to the story content, there’s a new cooperative Strike, “The Will of Crota,” where you and your Fireteam can do battle with Crota’s number one as she tries to expand the Hive army.

There’s also a new six-player Raid, “Crota’s End,” staged in the Hellmouth (a preexisting location in the Ocean of Storms on the moon) with new enemies and ways to fight them.

And you get three new competitive multiplayer arenas: the Pantheon (a maze-like Vex temple situated in The Black Garden), Skyshock (an interplanetary defense array designed for both vehicle and infantry combat) and The Cauldron (a Hive site tailored for close quarters fighting).

PlayStation owners get exclusive content

Sony’s Destiny-plus arrangement with Bungie extends to The Dark Below: PlayStation 3 and 4 owners get an extra cooperative strike, “The Undying Mind” (level 20, on Mars), as well as a new exotic shotgun, dubbed The 4th Horseman.

The expansion may be locking out some players

I had something akin to this experience myself, but not because I bought The Dark Below: I inadvertently let my PSN membership lapse, which firewalls some (though not all) of the game’s content.

The actual bug (according to various Reddit users by way of GameSpot, anyway) locks players out of the game entirely upon purchase of the expansion, presenting them with a countdown timer instead, and preventing some players from bypassing it.

I’m checked with Bungie on the issue, and I’ll update this point if they get back to me.

That Paul McCartney Destiny music video isn’t required viewing

It’s surreal–I’m not saying in a good or bad way–watching Return of the Jedi-light-enveloped Paul McCartney superimposed over Destiny‘s planetary theaters, singing and gesticulating amidst small squads of seated Guardians.

See for yourself.

TIME Video Games

The 8 Most Impressive Video Game Reveals You Missed This Weekend

No Man's Sky
Hello Games

Check out the weekend's most amazing game announcements and trailers, collated and annotated

Whatever you thought of this weekend’s debut Game Awards, it lured a sufficient number of respectable game studios, who brought with them more than a few intriguing announcements and never-before-seen trailers. Multiply by all the new material Sony trotted out at its first ever PlayStation Experience (also this weekend), and the ordinarily news-lethargic first weekend of December turned out to be full of surprises.

Here’s a look at the most impressive announcements and trailers from both shows:

Adr1ft

Everyone’s comparing 505 Games’ Adr1ft to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, because both involve someone in orbit floating through the wreckage of who-knows-what. Best case scenario? We’ll get to play a video game that one-ups Cuaron’s Gravity (which needlessly mangled basic scientific principles) by making rigorous physics per the hostile extremes of orbital space the game’s unremitting antagonist.

Drawn to Death

Drawn to Death is a “hand-drawn arena shooter.” That’s how The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency studio lead David Jaffe describes it, anyway. It’s impossible to tell how (or whether) the game’s going to set its gameplay off from other arena shooters, but it certainly looks unique.

The Forest

Alpha versions of The Forest have been playable since May on Steam, but the open-world survival game’s surprise confirmation for PlayStation 4 could signal a 2015 final release. In the game, you’ve survived a plane crash only to find yourself stranded in the wilderness who-knows-where, and observed by strange, debatably hostile, behaviorally nuanced (in unprecedented ways) humanoid creatures.

Hazelight

Hazelight–is it the name of the game and the studio?–was a monumental tease that offered no indication whatsoever about the sort of game two guys sitting on a boxcar having a smoke and moon-gazing amounts to. But it’s by one of the lead developers of Brothers — A Tale of Two Sons, and that alone makes the clip worth including here.

No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky may turn out to be a gorgeously vast patina of a cosmic exploration game, given its claims of procedurally generated galactic play-space times infinity. No one’s yet come close to grappling with fundamental design paradoxes whereby escalating randomness correlates negatively with player interest (imponderable haphazardness = boundless blah). But we’re still in “imagine what if” mode, and this latest trailer offers new wrinkles for consideration: a planet with purplish protuberances and another with undulating topography, a two-legged Star Wars-ian robot/vehicle and walk-in warp points.

Tacoma

If you watch Tacoma’s trailer and think “Hey, Bioshock!” some of the game’s developers actually worked on BioShock 2. But given what they pulled off with Gone Home last year, I presume we’re in for something mind-bending. A lunar transfer station run/built by “Virgin-Tesla”? As in Richard Branson plus Elon Musk? Could we be in for another futurism-skewering interactive narrative?

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

So Uncharted 4 looks nuts, and I say that as someone who doesn’t give a hoot about graphics in games nowadays. Sony wanted to make an impression, and boy did it: there’s over 15 minutes of “yes, you’re really seeing what you think you’re seeing” impressing going on in this actual-gameplay-rendered-using-a-PS4 video. And check out the creepy prehistoric-looking jungle. All that’s missing: a cameo by King Kong.

Zelda Wii U

If Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. saved the Wii U from oblivion, Zelda Wii U (we don’t know it’s official name yet) could be the game that clinches its comeback. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t offer an alternative fullscreen view, but even watching this video of a video, it’s clear the new Zelda’s going to be vast–and judging from that quip about horses not running into trees, it’s aiming to remedy slipshod genre conventions (like heinous equestrian controls).

TIME Video Games

The First Sony PlayStation Changed Everything About Gaming

Sony's original PlayStation launched in Japan on December 3, 1994, 20 years ago today

My first experience with Sony’s original PlayStation occurred almost a year before yours: in the display window of a Babbages in an out-of-the-way shopping mall in western Iowa.

Babbages, many have probably forgotten, was a franchise named after Charles Babbage, the guy credited with inventing the mechanical computer, that sold computer software and console games back when you could still buy stuff like Peachtree Accounting in biblical boxes from brick-and-mortar outfits. I worked there during my last year of undergrad part-time, less for the money than to be closer to my hobby.

My store manager was a connoisseur of the improbable, popping up with this or that strange gizmo months before it registered on the public radar. (this was the early 1990s, the Internet embryonic and everyone still looked to magazines for breaking info.) And so when Sony released the PlayStation in Japan on December 3, 1994, he imported one, told none of us, and dropped it in one of the store windows for fun.

I remember reporting for duty and noticing a racing game running demo laps in that window (I had no idea what Ridge Racer was at that point) and doing the equivalent of one of those cartoon double-takes. It’s doesn’t look like much now–you can see what I saw in the video below, complete with the world’s first Redbook Audio-caliber soundtrack–but pretend it’s still 1994, Babylon 5‘s just getting started, the original Jurassic Park only hit theaters last year, and the best-looking game you can play at home is Doom–a first-person shooter that’s technically only 2D with a bit of clever height fakery.

By 1994, I thought console gaming was in my rearview mirror. I’d graduated from a Super Nintendo to a Pentium computer a few months earlier, and so 1994 for me was System Shock and Tie Fighter, X-COM: UFO Defense and Master of Orion, Master of Magic and Warcraft and Wing Commander III. Many would argue gaming still hasn’t surpassed some of those titles.

But none of that stuff (including 1993’s Doom) looked half as sharp and smooth and visually grounded as Ridge Racer on that crazy little from-the-future import PlayStation. 3dfx’s Voodoo Graphics passthrough card for computers was still years away, and seeing smooth, lifelike full 3D actually working in a game felt like watching a moon landing. I’d played Sega’s Daytona USA at arcades and recognized the processing chasm that still existed between high-end arcade experiences and home computing ones: with Ridge Racer, the PlayStation all but eliminated that gulf, and it was torture waiting those subsequent nine months to lay hands on a U.S. system. (The PlayStation didn’t debut in the U.S. until September 9, 1995.)

Nowadays I take 3D in games for granted. Figuring out how to represent plausible reality spaces (or various forms of unreality spaces that take their cues from three-dimensional ones) has always been a stopgap process, a technology-facilitated march toward a kind of retinal verisimilitude that’s still underway. The medium’s only part of the message, and my interests shifted long ago from workaday graphic whiz-bangery to design facets like simulated intelligence and interactive rhetoric and the sort of compositional visual artistry so wonderfully expressed in games like Inkle Studios’ 80 Days or Ustwo’s Monument Valley.

But in 1994, we were still dreaming of the world to come, one flush with sleek roadsters and smooth-framed race tracks and arcade ports that didn’t feel like downgrades from their souped-up, quarter-chewing equivalents. In late 1994, home computers were still ridiculously expensive, Nintendo’s Project Reality was just a rumor and Sega’s Saturn was a hypothetical that had pundits twisting over its advanced but at that point developmentally esoteric architecture.

Into that space Sony poured the PlayStation, a system born of a failed add-on deal with Nintendo (the original “PlayStation” concept was to be a Sony-developed optical drive for the SNES), and the first game console to eventually sell over 100 million units worldwide–surpassed only by the PlayStation 2. Companies like Atari and Nintendo and Sega played crucial roles in gaming’s formative decades, but when it came to capturing the public’s hearts and wallets, the original PlayStation completely recalibrated our expectations.

TIME Video Games

There’s an Amazing New Way to Enjoy Game of Thrones

Most Pirated Shows
HBO

The first episode of Telltale Games' new Game of Thrones-inspired series just dropped

I admit I’m behind on my Game of Thrones watching. Has anyone else of note met an artery-opened, throat-gurgling end since the close of season one? (Wait, don’t tell me!) But I’m all caught up on appreciating studios doing solid translations of TV shows to games, and it sounds like The Walking Dead darling Telltale just added another arrow to its growing quiver.

“​Phew, the new Game of Thrones game is actually good,” reads Kotaku’s review, proceeding to state what you’d imagine would be the case in any event: “Fans of the books and, in particular, fans of the show, will almost certainly enjoy the hell out of it.”

Entertainment Weekly seems equally upbeat about the game, writing that it “evokes its source material while staking its own claim on the franchise.”

Game of Thrones the game (out now for PCs and consoles), in case you’re a Thrones-the-TV-series fan but unfamiliar with Telltale’s oeuvre, involves a bunch of artfully presented backdrops and characters and narrative themes inspired by the HBO series’ interpretation of George R.R. Martin’s vaunted fantasy series. Imagine yourself moving a screen pointer around medieval backdrops and clicking on stuff, interacting with objects, playing as various characters at different points and selecting responses in dialogue with others. That’s about as complex as the gameplay gets in what’s traditionally described as an “adventure” game.

What makes it interesting for Thrones-series fans is twofold: Telltale’s been granted license to create new characters and tell their own stories, so essentially new sideline material further detailing and re-angling Martin’s world, and along the way you’ll bump into big leaguers like Cersei and Tyrion Lannister, Margaery Tyrell and Ramsay Snow, each voiced by the corresponding series actor. The game takes place between seasons three and four of the TV show.

What it’s not: a game of jumping, leaping, shooting, fighting and so forth. That’s not how adventure games work. Instead, the emphasis is on exploration, puzzle-solving and making ethical choices that can lead to divergent outcomes that’ll ripple through future episodes (this being the first of six, dubbed “Iron from Ice”).

If you’re not averse to spoilers, Wired has a terrific, satisfyingly longish dialogue about how those choices shaped its two writers’ unique experiences working through the first episode.

 

TIME Video Games

13 Reasons I’d Still Pick Nintendo’s Wii U Over the PS4 and Xbox One

The case for Nintendo's flagship console in 2014.

A year ago, the argument over which game console to buy went something like this: The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were shiny black spec-troves of next-gen performance assurances glossed with wishful gameplay hypotheticals wrapped around the reality of comparably anemic launch titles, whereas the Wii U had Super Mario 3D World, LEGO City Undercover, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Pikmin 3 and The Wonderful 101. The best PS4/X1 launch game, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, was on the Wii U, too, and so the choice seemed obvious, at least through December 2013.

But 2014 turned out to be a weird year. People actually bought the new consoles, despite much morbid prophesying in the years leading up to their arrival about the death of set-tops. The PlayStation 4 went on to sell so many units worldwide that by August even Sony was scratching its head in bewilderment. And while the Xbox One appears to be selling at lower volumes (Microsoft’s been reticent about its performance), it’s still outpacing life-to-date sales of its predecessor. Both companies are performing at levels they weren’t supposed to, in other words.

Nintendo, too. Pundits prematurely mourned the Wii U (including yours truly) after gloomy fiscal 2013 figures in early May, as Wii U sales slowed to a trickle. But the Wii U rebounded a week later off the arrival of Mario Kart 8, and the company on the whole rebounded in October (thanks to indefatigable Mario Kart 8 sales) when Nintendo announced a surprising fiscal course reversal. Nintendo’s Wii U has at last check sold over 7 million units, and that’s before Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U or the forthcoming Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker hit the books.

MORE: This Is Why Nintendo Is Crushing It All of a Sudden

So 2014 basically wants to plunder your bank account (and probably already has). And the looting’s just started: we’re now looking at a console triumvirate in 2015, each system staking out sustainable turf, and each now boasting a bevy of unmissable existing games and anticipated upcoming ones. What to do?

You could buy them all, of course, but that’s a hardcore move and financially impractical for most. You could pick two, and even if you’re dead set on owning gaming with a PC, PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, there’s a powerful argument here for the Wii U as a must-have secondary system, given the caliber of its exclusive content.

But let’s assume you have none of the above, and that you’re finally ready to pull the trigger on something that isn’t a smartphone, tablet or PC. Were that my circle to square, and if I didn’t do this for a living…

I’d still pick the Wii U…

1. Because it still has the first- and second-party games I most want to play now

It’s been a good year for third-party games you won’t find on Nintendo’s Wii U. Alien: Isolation, Far Cry 4, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Dragon Age: Inquisition are terrific. But you could also argue the rest of 2014’s triple-A darlings are basically recycling bin material: Diablo III, Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, The Last of Us and Halo: The Master Chief Collection look tremendous in their new digs, but they’re still remakes of games we already played, however compellingly wrinkled.

As far as standout exclusive new-IP goes, the Xbox One has Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 2 (and maybe Titanfall), while Sony has Final Fantasy XIV and Velocity 2X. But that’s it. And, not that I’m complaining, the PS4 and Xbox One are basically cheap midrange PCs, parleying the lingua franca of a decades-old gaming paradigm interface-wise. Any notion of inventive holism pretty much died when Microsoft unbundled Kinect from Xbox One.

Nintendo’s playing a very different game with its very different-looking console, where, absent robust third-party support, it’s doubled down on first- and second-party properties, as well as banking on the fact that no one else (on consoles, handhelds, computers, or mobile devices) has the sort of franchise cross-demographic appeal it does. You could call that requirement to self-propel a liability — or an opportunity.

Thus on Wii U, you now have a small library of standouts, like: Bayonetta 2, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Hyrule Warriors, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, LEGO City Undercover, Mario Kart 8, New Super Mario Bros. U, Pikmin 3, Pushmo World, Super Mario 3D World, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and The Wonderful 101. It’s an enviable exclusive lineup by any measure.

Nintendo’s also been making something of the fact that on Metacritic, eight Wii U games (Super Mario 3D World, Rayman Legends, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Bayonetta, Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and Pikmin 3) currently hold critic scores of 85 or higher and user scores of 8.5 or better, compared with just two games all told across rival consoles. I’m ambivalent about score aggregation sites (and scores in general) as quality arbiters, but it is interesting to note that rare confluence of critical and public appraisal.

2. Nintendo doesn’t need third parties the way Microsoft and Sony do

The point in any for-profit business is, by definition, to be profitable. If Nintendo can figure out how to stay in the black, given the company’s first- and second-party software attach rates, I’m not sure how much unit sales matter in terms of who’s first, second or third, so long as there’s steady growth.

No, you’ll never see crazy Grand Theft Auto V figures on the Wii U, where you’re selling tens of millions of copies of a game across platforms with a combined install footprint of over 150 million units (for that matter, it’s hard to conceive of Mario Kart Wii sales levels). But at 2 or 3 or 4 million units a piece, the bestselling Wii U titles are selling at perfectly respectable levels given the number of systems in the wild.

And if the Wii U continues to make install base inroads and its first/second party attach rates remain high, Nintendo may be all the support Nintendo needs to make good on its platform for at least the next several years, while at the same time being able to plausibly brag that the Wii U has the best games per capita.

It’s a shame Nintendo hasn’t been able to lure more third-party bigwigs, but whether that’s the development environment (the Wii U lacks processing headroom, contrasted with its peers) or the chicken-egg install base conundrum, it’s also ironically turning out to be a bootstraps referendum on a company’s ability to singlehandedly revitalize its flagship platform.

3. Nintendo just opened a massive new game development center in Kyoto

An addendum to the last point, Nintendo of America president and CEO Reggie Fils-Aime confirmed in a phone interview that the company’s focus is now squarely on Nintendo-delivered content.

“We have to use our first-party and increasingly second-party content to grow our install base, that’s our mission,” Fils-Aime told me, then qualified this by noting Nintendo just opened a research and development facility in Kyoto, right next to the company’s global headquarters.

“This R&D center will be the home to 1,500 game developers,” Fils-Aime said. “Companies would be thrilled to have that many game developers working on their business. We have these game developers creating content exclusive to our platforms.”

Again, the key phrase here is doubling down. It guarantees nothing, but to the extent educated guesses matter when making buying choices, I’d say it means we’ll see a lot more Nintendo-led content emerge from Kyoto in the years to come–content designed to justify the kinds of idiosyncratic holistic experiences that Nintendo specializes in.

4. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is already buoying the system (as Mario Kart 8 before it)

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U sold just shy of half a million copies in the U.S. alone from November 21 to 23, making it the fastest selling Wii U game to date. That’s not a surprise, given the franchise’s appeal and the game’s unanimous critical plaudits. But looking at how much Mario Kart 8 alone did for the platform, it also undergirds the argument that Nintendo may be able to sustain the Wii U simply by delivering compelling Nintendo-incubated experiences rolling forward.

5. Speaking of, the Wii U’s 2015 lineup looks terrific

Some of the games I’ve personally been waiting for longest on any platform arrive next year: Splatoon (a cooperative anti-shooter in which teams attempt to slime swathes of a base with paint-guns for points), Yoshi’s Wooly World (the followup to Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii), Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (the followup to Kirby: Canvas Curse for the Nintendo DS), Xenoblade Chronicles X (a spiritual sequel to the best open-world roleplaying game I’ve ever played), Star Fox (the behind-the-scenes E3 demo I played was a little shaky, but some of the ideas and related “Project” mini-games were intriguing) and of course the enigmatic new The Legend of Zelda (you can take “enormous high-def world” for granted–producer Eiji Aonuma’s plans to subvert classic Zelda tropes is far more interesting).

6. Off-TV gaming still rules

Yes, Nintendo hasn’t made the second screen as novel and vital an interface as the Wii Remote and Nunchuk were for the Wii, and yes, the system’s meager wireless range (about two dozen feet) can be prohibitive. But if you want to yield control of your TV to someone else, the Wii U GamePad is the perfect size and interface to game off-screen, and an indulgence I’ll miss if the Wii U’s successor nixes the option.

7. It’s the only portable game console

The Wii U remains the only game system you can readily shlep around like a handheld, and one with friendlier ergonomics for longterm sessions than either Sony’s PS Vita or Nintendo’s own 3DS. The PS4’s slender enough, but you’d need to lug a screen with you, and it’s the screen that’s probably the biggest hurdle here. By folding the screen into the gamepad, Nintendo has essentially designed the first portable gaming platform that doesn’t in some fundamental way (think the tiny thumbsticks on the Vita) compromise the interface to said platform.

8. It’s powerful enough…

No, the Wii U can’t run games like Far Cry 4 or Assassin’s Creed Unity (looking as good as they do on PS4 or Xbox One, anyway), but that’s also the wrong reason to buy a Wii U. Look at the right reason–the system’s unmatchable first/second-party lineup–and the Wii U shines as a high-def platform in its own right.

For the record, several Wii U games on the system run at native 1080p (including Super Smash Bros. for Wii U). But even the ones that don’t–those running at 720p or some sub-1080p variant, say Mario Kart 8–look fantastic on a 1080p screen.

9. …while not at all power-hungry

Relative to the PlayStation 4 (137 watts) and Xbox One (112 watts), the Wii U sips just 34 watts of power on average when playing games, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. When streaming video, it employs less than half as much power (29 watts) as the next-worst console (the Xbox One at 74 watts). Its standby power is less than 1 watt (versus 8.5 watts for the PS4 and 15.7 watts for the Xbox One), and in annual energy use, it rates 37 kWh/y, versus 181 kWh/y (PS4) and 233 kWh/y (Xbox One).

10. It has the Virtual Console plus Wii backward-compatiblity

The PS4 still plays PS4 games and the Xbox One, only Xbox One games. The Wii U plays Wii U games, but also the entire Wii library (over 1,000 and counting), as well as NES and Super NES classics via the Virtual Console, from Super Metroid to F-Zero and Earthbound to Super Mario Bros. 3.

Sony is tinkering with its PlayStation Now streaming service, now in open beta, but the service forces you to make compromises, chiefly visual ones related to streaming inconsistencies derived from the intrinsic fickleness of the Internet.

11. It’s an unabashed games console, not a media player

Nintendo makes no bones about this, and that’s actually kind of nice. The PS4 and Xbox One are either too cumbersome or thermally challenged to nestle in cramped entertainment centers, nor are they as versatile as something like an Amazon Fire TV or Roku (or even an Apple TV, if you’re after iTunes library streaming).

You can access basic streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube on the Wii U, and I’ll grant that Nintendo would benefit from adding music alternates like Spotify or Pandora. But I don’t miss Blu-ray or DVD or music CD support, because I don’t use physical media in set-top boxes anymore (and haven’t for years). That’s just a way-the-wind’s-a-blowin’ thing.

12. Amiibo adds gameplay wrinkles no one else has

Amiibo–Nintendo’s take on the toy-game market dominated by Skylanders and Disney Infinity–was designed from the get-go to work with each Nintendo game uniquely. And while current Hyrule Warriors and Mario Kart 8 functionality seems superficial (either daily bonuses or costume unlocks), its integration with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is all but essential.

In the latter game, your amiibo becomes your sparring partner, leveling up as you train it and “feed” it stat boosts and mold it into something that’s uniquely your own. You can then use it in battles against other players’ amiibos, or–and this is a crucial idea-seller for me–as a way to study your own strengths and weaknesses: if you’re great at a certain maneuver, your amiibo will be too, but if you’re not doing something you ought to be, say raising your character’s shield, neither will your amiibo.

13. It’s still the cheapest current-gen console

$300 plus two pack-in games (Super Mario 3D World & Nintendo Land), versus $400 for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and $350 for Microsoft’s Xbox One (until $50 off deal expires in early January). That $50 to $100 differential adds up to additional games and accessories.

There’s also no annual subscription fee to access Nintendo’s online services, which, contrasted with Sony and Microsoft’s all but mandatory fees, saves you another $50 to $60 per year.

And while games like Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Hyrule Warriors and Mario Kart 8 have made the leap to $60, the Wii U still has the most non-indie sub-$60 games today, from Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, New Super Luigi U and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD to LEGO City: Undercover, Nintendo Land and Wii Party U.

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TIME Video Games

The 10 Craziest Things I’ve Done in Far Cry 4 So Far

Ubisoft

Ubisoft's Nepal-inspired Himalayan sandbox doubles as an adrenaline-junkie thriller

Far Cry 4 throws a spanner into the narrative that Ubisoft lost its mojo this year, by which I mean the Assassin’s Creed Unity debacle, though “debacle” probably overstates the issue.

A quick word about Unity: It’s not a bad game, it’s just not the series-upending shift we were led to expect. Plus, it shipped with bugs, a glitchy navigation system and a tendency to stutter in game-impacting ways when fighting amongst the game’s ballyhooed masses. No wonder Ubisoft delayed the game’s release from October. In hindsight, they should have pushed it off to December, or even early 2015.

Not so Far Cry 4, which shipped relatively trouble-free and flush with incremental improvements in accord with the studio’s modest prerelease claims. If you come to Ajay Ghale’s Himalayan romp expecting narrative profundity, or a more subversive take on the Westerner-in-exotic-climes trope, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you just want Far Cry 3‘s elaborate playscape with a better sense of activity equilibrium and all the play systems not so much further sanded as subtly sandpapery (offering gratifying pushbacks, particularly in combat scenarios), this is it.

It’s also the most Point Break of the games in the series, bristling with utterly preposterous high octane thrills. Here’s a list of the ones I’ve managed to pull off so far:

Hijack a vehicle…from another vehicle

You can execute this bit of vehicular derring-do one of two ways: driving alongside another vehicle, looking toward the driver and clicking the takedown button, or doing the same from your lofty perch in the “Buzzer,” the game’s able gyrocopter.

There’s even an achievement for the vehicle-to-vehicle version of this stunt, but you’ll need to pull it off riding shotgun, meaning you’ll want to recruit a skilled co-op pal and driver to help you do the deed.

Take an outpost by lobbing grenades from the gyrocopter

It’s a measure of how important verticality is to Far Cry 4 that each time the game deposits you in some new story-space, it gives the elevation alongside the place name–and the gyrocopter’s your ticket to exploiting it.

Why wouldn’t you take Far Cry 4‘s versatile sky-ride with you everywhere, circumventing combat snarls and geographic chokepoints?

It’s a workable theory if you’re trawling for loot chests, masks and all the game’s other collectible miscellany (below its stall point, anyway). But in practice, Ubisoft has built in offsets that complicate aerial ubiquity, namely this one: the gyrocopter moves like a floating boulder, meaning you’re easy prey for snipers as well as the game’s insanely distance-accurate combat regulars.

But if you’re intrepid and handy with the game’s M-79 grenade launcher, you can knock out the game’s smaller outposts quickly, helped along by the miracle of kickback-free physics.

Square off with a herd of honey badgers

The toughest animals in Far Cry 4 by a Kyrati mile if you’re hunting by way of bow and arrow aren’t its deathly-fleet tigers or you-flattening bears, they’re a little creature the world barely knew before this video went viral. Good luck taking just one out with a bit of recurved carbon fiber and fletching, much less a pack if you happen to invoke the unfortunate wrath of a squadron.

Irony, thy name is mellivora capensis.

Take a radio tower by wingsuit

This one’s tricker than it sounds: you’ll need (a) a sense of optimal height and distance, and (b) timing to deploy your parachute, and (c) further spot-on aiming to steer your parachuting body onto the sloped rim of the tower’s topmost areas, and (d) to do all of that with a tower that’s situated low enough so you don’t stall out the gyrocopter climbing to a high enough altitude to make a, b and c possible.

No, you can’t simply land the gyrocopter on the tower top and step out. I’ve tried at least a dozen times, and maybe I’m just inept, but the game always ejects me (and the gyrocopter) several meters off the side of the tower.

Note: Be careful you don’t steer into the zip-line as you’re parachuting in, or you’ll hook that by accident and find yourself angling all the way back to the ground in a blink.

Take a fortress while riding an elephant

You’ll need the “elephant rider” skill to saddle a pachyderm, but once you have it, you’re all but invincible in small scrums where you can overpower enemies by charging and bashing them. (vehicles, too.) There’s even a related elephant-riding achievement, and you can hasten progress toward it by directing your four-legged be-trunked tank at one of the game’s guard-choked fortresses.

Yes, the guns-a-blazin’ route invites the guards to sound the alarm and call in reinforcements, but so long as you’re adept at knocking helicopters from the sky with the grenade launcher, those extras become opportunity targets.

Pro tip: It’s best to stealth-eliminate any snipers on the ramparts first, else you’ll find yourself ended moments after alerting the guards to your presence.

Get chased all the way up a radio tower by a killer tiger

I kid not, this happened to me. After lobbing bait near the base of a tower and rushing past a lured tiger–then attacking my enemies–to scale the first ladder, I discovered tigers in Far Cry 4 are as deft at jumping impossible distances as the domestic cats I’ve owned when it comes to clambering up kitchen larders.

In other words: heights in Far Cry 4 offer fleeting respite from giant man-eating cats.

Climb Eklo Beindu Summit and watch the sunrise

Eklo Beindu Summit would be the mass of vertiginous cliffs and precipitous overhangs situated in Far Cry 4‘s south-central area, and they represent the most impressive instances of combat-free, grapple-based sightseeing I’ve encountered so far. If you want to get lost in the game’s climbing puzzles for upwards of hours, angling ever-higher as you scan for grapple points and optimal swing arcs over chasms, Eklo Beindu offers several worthy collectibles, and better still, some of the game’s finest views.

Kill an enemy from 60 or more meters away with an arrow or bolt

Another achievement-related feat, this one’s best performed by an outpost that’s situated near foothills or a cliff, so you can take advantage of height to get close enough to spy your target while maintaining sufficient distance.

The game doesn’t model wind, so you’ll always fire straight, you’ll just need to take into account gravity and aim slightly over your target instead of dead on.

Fly thousands of meters in the wingsuit

Fly 5,000, in fact, and there’s an achievement in the bargain. The quickest way to do this: take the gyrocopter as high as it’ll go near Khilana Bazaar (the first outpost you’ll liberate in Kyrat’s southwestern area), leap out, fly as far as you can, then pull up the map, quick-travel back to the outpost’s safe house (re-parking a gyrocopter that sits just up the road), and repeat.

Catch sight of a giant bird carrying a pig into the sky

Not a piglet, I’m talking about a full-grown fattened swine here. Birds in Far Cry 4 are second only to the honey badger when ranking wildlife by unexpected creepiness. Think the gooney birds in J.B. Stamper’s Tales for the Midnight Hour.

TIME

Everything You Need to Know About Nintendo’s New Toy Figurines

Ty Milford / Nintendo

They're called Amiibo and they can do some incredible things

If I have a single critique of Nintendo’s amiibo, it’s that information about the company’s toy-game versions of its iconic characters like Mario, Link and Yoshi has been scattershot since the figurines were first revealed at E3 in June.

Nintendo rectified this by putting up a helpful amiibo website recently, but there’s still a fair amount about how amiibo works—and what makes them unique in a now fairly crowded toy-game market space—that you have to cobble together for yourself. The figures themselves sell in informationally blank receptacles, exhorting you to simply “collect, customize, and compete.” They don’t come with instructions, nor do the games they’re designed to initially work with offer robust tutorials.

So if some of these are on your holiday maybe list, here’s everything you need to know, including my initial impressions of some of the launch models.

We’re not sure what amiibo means either

But when I asked Nintendo’s director of product marketing Bill Trinen about it, this is what he told me:

They came up with the name in Japan, and the ‘amii’ portion comes from a little something in Japanese that conveys the sentiment of friend, of playing with your friend. That’s what they’re really trying to convey with it. I think for us it sounds a little like amigo. That’s not the origin of the name, but it conveys the intent.

The figures launch on November 21 alongside Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

That’s the release date for both franchises in North America, and at this point. And each of the dozen amiibo figures available at launch, as well as the ones coming later this year and early next, are part of Super Smash Bros.‘s massive fighter lineup.

Amiibo as it exists on November 21 is clearly biased toward Smash, too–the golden base tops even sport the Smash series’ trademark crosshatch logo.

They’re not ridiculously expensive

Nintendo’s suggested retail price is $12.99 per figure, which is what everyone appears to be selling them for heading into the holidays. With a dozen figures available at launch, they’ll set you back $156 if you’re looking to collect the set.

The figures talk to your Wii U GamePad using NFC

NFC, or near-field communication, is just a standard for two devices to communicate wirelessly over extremely small distances. In amiibo’s case, the figures have chips in their bases that activate when placed near the NFC sensor in the Wii U GamePad (you just tap the amiibo figure’s base to the designated area). If you own a Wii U, it’s the lower lefthand space on the GamePad with an icon that looks like a white rectangle pushed into a corner.

They don’t require batteries

The amiibo stands are roughly half an inch thick, bottom to top, without ingress points–they house no power sources because the NFC chip in each figure’s base is activated by its proximity to the Wii U GamePad’s NFC sensor. The figures don’t need batteries or anything else that’ll need replacing to do what they do, in other words.

Here’s every amiibo announced, and when it’s coming

The first 12 amiibo figures launch on November 21, and include the following characters: Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, Fox, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Peach, Marth, Yoshi, Villager and Wii Fit Trainer.

Nintendo’s planning to release six additional amiibo figures figures this December (dates unspecified): Diddy Kong, Zelda, Luigi, Captain Falcon, Pit and Little Mac.

And in February 2015, we’ve been told to expect: Bowser, Toon link, Sheik, Sonic, Mega Man, King Dedede, Ike, Rosalina & Luma, Shulk, Lucario and Meta Knight.

Here’s the list of amiibo-compatible games at launch

At launch, amiibo supports two games: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Mario Kart 8, and the updates to those games which enable amiibo functionality are live now.

And the list of amiibo-compatible games (probably) in the offing for later this year

Nintendo has announced amiibo support for both Hyrule Warriors (already out) and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (due on December 5). Nintendo’s Trinen told me he expects the amiibo update to Hyrule Warriors to arrive shortly after amiibo’s launch this week, though it’s unclear if we’ll see Captain Toad‘s update arrive in December or slip into 2015.

How does amiibo work in the launch games?

It’s different with each game, and this is where amiibo can get a little confusing. With Activision’s Skylanders and Disney’s Infinity, those franchises’ respective figures are designed to work in relatively uniform ways with very specific games.

Amiibo, by contrast, was designed from the get-go to work with each Nintendo game uniquely. As Trinen put it when I spoke with him, Nintendo designed amiibo such that each studio can build amiibo functionality into their game in whatever way they feel best suits the gameplay, thus how your amiibo functions in one game may bear no resemblance to the way it functions in another.

In Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, for instance, your amiibo becomes your sparring partner. It levels up as you train it and “feed” it stat boosts, in essence molding it into something that’s uniquely your own. You can then use it in battles against other players’ amiibos, or as a way to study your own strengths and weaknesses: if you’re great at a certain maneuver, your amiibo will be too, but if you’re not doing something you ought to be, say raising your character’s shield, neither will your amiibo.

In Hyrule Warriors, by contrast, using amiibos will unlock special once-a-day weapons or bonuses–unique ones if you use the Link or Zelda amiibos. And in Mario Kart 8, using an amiibo unlocks new racing outfits: basically costumes inspired by each amiibo that your Mii character can wear.

What other games will amiibo support?

Nintendo’s confirmed at least three future games will support amiibo: Mario Party 10 (2015), Yoshi’s Woolly World (spring 2015) and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse (February 13, 2015).

It’s a safe bet that others, especially anything mainline like the next Legend of Zelda, will also include some form of amiibo support.

They’re seem beautifully made

I don’t collect action figures and have little experience of miniatures beyond some exploratory Warhammer figurine painting in the mid-2000s, but the three amiibo figures Nintendo sent me–Mario, Link and Kirby–seem immaculately manufactured. Each has a stylish pose and instantly recognizable expression, crisp design lines, intricate texturing and zero color bleed between even the tiniest zones.

They don’t work with Nintendo’s 3DS

Not yet, though Nintendo plans to eventually support the 3DS by way of a special NFC attachment the company’s pegged for 2015. For North American gamers in 2014, amiibo only works with the Wii U.

Amiibo does work natively with the “New Nintendo 3DS”–that’s its unofficial English name by way of Japanese translation at this point, anyway. But that slightly more powerful and joystick-doubled version of Nintendo’s dedicated gaming handheld isn’t available in the U.S. this year, and unless you’re fluent in Japanese, there’s no reason to bother importing one. Chances are we’ll see the new 3DS stateside in 2015, but Nintendo has only confirmed availability in Japan, Australia and New Zealand for 2014.

TIME Video Games

Far Cry 4 Review: The Best Far Cry Yet

Ubisoft

Ubisoft's latest offers gorgeous Himalayan views, immaculately well-balanced gameplay and cathartic pandemonium

This is how crazy Far Cry 4 can get: I’m droning just above the treetops in a ramshackle gyrocopter, scouting for macaques, when I spy a trio of the pale-furred primates loping near the edge of a precipice. I descend slowly through stands of firs, my rotors audibly clipping branches, preparing to leap out, when I hear the telltale tattoo of machine guns talking—the country’s militia trading gunfire with insurgents.

Bullets suddenly smack into my body, thump-thump-thump. My vision narrows. I jab a greenish syringe into my arm and bail out of the copter—still hovering at the lip of the cliff—spreading my arms and legs and arcing in a wingsuit toward the terrain below like a fired missile. With seconds to land, I deploy my parachute and tumble into more trees, rocks, snarled undergrowth…and the sights of one pissed honey badger, which growls like it definitely cares, then leaps at me, cobra-like, to eat my face off.

Surviving Far Cry 4 often feels like that, abrupt and slightly mad and sequentially unhinged. It’s you in a jam band, an improvisatory celebration of net-less oneupmanship (versus your own best performances) as you vector from mission to mission. The experience is somewhat like being a pinball, lured off course by too-cool-to-ignore distractions, bounding into bedlam with the fleet-footedness of a huntsman by way of an exuberant toddler.

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And lo, what distractions in this brave new world of drivable elephants, scalable summits, sartorial safaris and literal B-movie stunt quests. As named, the Far Cry games are about hurling you into slight caricatures of otherworldly milieus full of both serious and utterly frivolous things to do. The first and third entries in the series were staged in sultry equatorial spaces (the former eventually turning full-on Island of Dr. Moreau), while the second channeled Kurtzian jungles and savannah through a lens Anton Chigurah. Think part first-person shooter, part Lonely Planet, part Tarantino abattoir.

Far Cry 4 sculpts its vamp on that equation out of Nepalese remoteness and Himalayan verticality, and the results are predictably head-turning. Look out from any point in Kyrat, Ubisoft’s fictional Nepal, and you’ll note the sunlight glinting naturally off ornate bronze prayer wheels, throngs of thousand-leafed autumnal trees and undulating highways of calligraphic prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Look further and you’ll spy plumes of distant smoke drifting stratospherically, blinking radio towers on miles-away hilltops and the intricately scalloped terraces of far-flung vertical farms. Then look up to where the horizon line should be to find the Himalayas towering like upthrust fangs, each snowy crag or escarpment crisply articulated, every draped and drifting cloud bank ethereal. There’s a sense of visual continuity here that seems only matched, in hindsight, in Bethesda’s 2011 hit Skyrim.

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Set the game’s new look aside, and you could argue Far Cry 4 hasn’t changed much since players strained to salvage Jason Brody’s Pacific vacation. Kyrati-American Ajay Ghale wages a parallel, accidental campaign against a maniacal (but endlessly amusing) despot. He’s returned to scatter his mother’s ashes but then, whoops, he’s wrestling tigers, scaling mountains and squaring off with a megalomaniacal fashionista! But that’s an oversimplification. This is both the game Far Cry 3 was and wasn’t.

Ubisoft

You still play a stereotypically displaced Westerner (Kyrati-American or no) in a freely explorable danger-scape, leveling up superhuman abilities and weapons as you fight to liberate thug-filled outposts. And you still do so by glassing enemies with binoculars, mulling over different attack approaches, hypothesizing ideal takedown scenarios and tripping auxiliary triggers like freeing lethal animals in cages, or lobbing “bait” to summon others.

Those animals still haunt regions of the world map, and you still hunt them to craft upgrades that pad out your ability to schlep stuff. And overlying that, you’ll still have to scale and sabotage nearly two dozen towers (here broadcasting propaganda) to de-fog swathes of the map and spotlight new activities. These are what Ubisoft’s taken to calling “pillars” in its primary franchises, and you’re either into the idea or not.

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But Far Cry 4 also builds gainfully on what Ubisoft’s learned about crafting freeform microcosms. Take your guides through the game’s main story: two parental sides of a Kyrati rebel force (after Nepal’s maoist insurgency) calling itself The Golden Path. The friction between their prosecutorial styles unlocks unique missions and rival story paths, some of which culminate in extremely discomfiting moments as you’re dressed down by the game’s incisive writers and get-under-your-skin voice actors, the strategist you shunned arguing the other’s illogic witheringly. As usual, there are no right or wrong choices here, only more or less relatable ones.

Ubisoft

The rest comes down to well-executed fan service. You can zip to almost anywhere now in the handy gyrocopter, or survive impossible falls and cobble together breathtaking impromptu maneuvers with the wingsuit. The new “hunter” class enemy basically has thousand-yard x-ray vision, can nail you from as far off and, in a bit of inspired insidiousness, turns animals against you. All of this adds delightful emergent wrinkles to combat scrums.

The most difficult outposts are now called fortresses, and they’re so brutally and brilliantly difficult the game actually recommends performing other tasks to “weaken” them before you muster and assault (but you’re always welcome to try sooner). Vehicles now have an auto-drive feature that turns control over to the A.I. so you can focus on shooting, solving an ages-old problem. (Expect this one to be emulated in other games.) And cooperative play now happens in the main world, not adjunct to it, so while friends can’t co-play story missions, they can drop in or out at will to tackle anything else in your version of Kyrat, or vice versa.

MORE: Assassin’s Creed Unity Review: Not Quite the Revolution We Were Promised

That the war’s progress still comes to a standstill as you gallivant around the countryside is no more a problem here than any of the game’s other non sequiturs: hundreds of loot chests that lie in the open waiting just for you; that you groan with disgust as you gut animals but make not a sound when head-popping thousands of enemy soldiers; your ability to wield non-metaphorical superpowers for goodness sake; and the idea that everyone else prattles on while you say almost nothing. (Though, it’s perhaps the better compromise if you’re not a manic quipster.) You could pretentiously call any of that ludonarrative dissonance, or just settle for “game design circa 2014.”

Ubisoft

But my favorite parts of Far Cry 4 lie in its quieter, unscripted moments, ones where I’d notice an inconspicuous grapple point glinting at me from high above, only to climb thousands of feet and find myself swinging between precarious protrusions toward terra incognita, inching up or down my grapple rope and angling to land just so on a silver of ledge-space.

There’s another kind of game that lives inside Far Cry 4, one that’s not about the hails of bullets or checking off victory points or slicing open a stockade’s worth of wildlife. You can play that game for hours here if you like, exploring Ubisoft’s Kyrat in trancelike quietude, but the gameplay rewards are marginal–exploration for its own sake has to suffice. How much longer before someone offers a viably nonviolent parallel path through one of these games? One that involves playing not as the guns-a-blazin’ savior, but a character more like the war correspondent in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks—the person whose perilous job it is to chronicle the war instead of waging it, and perhaps bring a sense of accountability to the chaos and madness.

5 out of 5

Reviewed using the PlayStation 4 version of the game.

Read next: Everything You Need to Know About World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

TIME Video Games

Everything You Need to Know About World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Blizzard

Blizzard's latest expansion to World of Warcraft is finally available. Here's what's new

Warlords of Draenor sounds like the sort of thing you’d find in the B-movie section of your local gas-n-shop, maybe starring Jean Claude von Damme and Dolph Lundgren wearing horned helms and codpieces.

But in this case it’s the moniker on the latest expansion to the most popular MMO in history, available now (PC, Mac) for $50. If you’re new to the series or thinking about returning and wondering what’s changed, here’s a look at Draenor‘s standout features.

Characters can finally hit three digits

Happy 100th level, World of Warcraft characters, you’ve more than earned it (in fact you’ve probably slogged like few gamers will ever slog just getting to the last expansion’s heady nine-zero). Characters in Draenor will be able to leap from 90 to 100 at last, commensurate with new abilities and access to the world of Draenor itself.

One character can leap to level 90 immediately

This sounds a bit like handing a toddler a clutch of dynamite–or asking them to figure out how to work the mechanism that sets it off–to me. But if you’re so inclined, Blizzard will let you boost one character straight to level 90. Seasoned players looking to fast-level an alternate character will be grateful, but if you’ve never played the game, I worry it’ll be like expecting someone who just learned how to play chopsticks on the piano to dash off a plausible rendition of Bud Powell’s “Tempus Fugit.”

Blizzard

The story’s actually kind of interesting

I couldn’t tell you a thing about the World of Warcraft-verse’s fiction, and I played at least one character up to the mid-70s back in the day. But I remember when the Cataclysm expansion hit, and how nice it was to see Blizzard trying to frame all its relentless creature farming and errand-running with better scripted story beats that made leveling up, at least at the lower levels, feel less like cynically pinballing from one punctuation-crowned signpost to another.

Draenor pulls a J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) and taps a dimension-hopping storyline to shunt players over to an alternate history timeline and the days a comparably fractional number of gamers were going gaga over Warcraft II back in 1996. (Allow me to speak directly to Warcraft II nerds for a moment: characters like Grom Hellscream, Ner’zhul, Gul’dan and Blackhand put in appearances.)

I could attempt to paraphrase what that adds up to, or just hand the mic to Blizzard:

It is the era of an Old Horde, forged with steel rather than fel blood. A union of great orc clans, the Iron Horde, tramples the planet Draenor beneath terrifying war machines. Azeroth falls next. Worlds uncounted will follow.

You must mount a desperate charge on Draenor – savage home of orcs and adopted bastion of stoic draenei – at this pivotal moment. Your allies are legends from across time; your fortress a foothold in an alien land. Lead the armies of one world against another…before the future itself is unmade.

No, you can’t change keystone World of Warcraft history, this is just Blizzard’s way of letting players goof around with beloved Warcraft-ian lore without tying the writing team’s hands.

It’s the biggest graphical overhaul in years

Blizzard’s approach to art design with World of Warcraft always had two things going for it: it’s a PC game and so scales to whatever native display and resolution you like, and it employs a Disney-like cartoon aesthetic that transcends the notion that visual progression is some sort of linear march toward photorealistic fidelity (whatever that even means in the context of imagined worlds anyway).

Nonetheless, Draenor has some visual tricks up its sleeves. According to Blizzard, the classic Warcraft races “sport higher detail, updated animations, and new visuals that reflect the soul of their original models.”

Blizzard

It has a more pliable quest system

Blizzard describes Draenor‘s new quest system as “refined” and “flexible,” and in a crucial reward-related sea change, the company notes that “any quest can randomly award bonus rare or epic items.”

You can carve out your own fortress-space

New dungeons (seven), raids (two), bosses, class talents and abilities you’d expect, but Blizzard’s adding fixed-world-point garrisons this time: customizable home bases that include addable substructures like alchemy labs, salvage yards, tanneries and more. There’s even a meta layer that’ll let you set up trade routes or recruit followers (read: loyal minions!) you can then deploy to go dungeon-spelunking, run errands and craft items in your stead, whether you’re on or offline.

The new map looks huge

Draenor is kind of enormous, with seven areas and one PvP to explore, a “land of magma and metal, stone and steam,” writes Blizzard.

City-forges wrap her twin moons in smog, and wheels deform the earth. Vicious saberon, winged arakkoa, spike-skinned gronn, and more unusual creatures rule the edges of the world, feasting on anything they kill.

Enigmatic draenei refugees have built a coastal foothold into a glimmering state replete with the libraries and worship-halls of their timeless civilization. Meanwhile, the Iron Horde’s slaves labor on engines of war pointed at the draenei and worlds beyond.

Blizzard

It’s not the last expansion

I wondered if Draenor might be World of Warcraft‘s swan song, given this is the 10th anniversary of the game and subscriptions have dropped in recent years (at its peak in October 2010, World of Warcraft had 12 million subscribers). But according to Blizzard just last month, subscriptions are up from a post-peak low of 6.8 million to 7.4 million worldwide. That’s a predictable Draenor-related bounce, sure, but a reminder of how significant the upswings can be, if Blizzard can keep the new content rolling.

And no, Draenor definitely isn’t the last expansion for Blizzard’s tireless MMO: according to the game’s lead designer Ion Hazzikostas, there’s every intention for the game to soldier on for at least another decade. “I definitely can’t tell you what our 20th anniversary is going to be. I can tell you there is definitely going to be one,” Hazziokostas told Cnet in a recent interview, adding that the company is “definitely planning into the future, talking about what the next expansion is going to be, and what the one after that is going to be.”

TIME Video Games

Assassin’s Creed Unity Review: Not Quite the Revolution We Were Promised

Ubisoft

Ubisoft's recreation of the French Revolution looks and sounds incredible, but the game's design leaves something to be desired

I’m perched on a Notre Dame gargoyle, Batman-like, some 70 meters above a rabble-thronged square. From here I can see the gabled roof of the Palais de Justice and Sainte-Chapelle, the royal church’s spire the next highest object punctuating Paris’s Seine-circled Île de la Cité. Across the river I spy the Louvre, and along the right bank, the Grand Châtelet.

Swiveling 45 degrees, a medieval temple overlooks the 3rd arrondissement. Turning another 45, there’s the Bastille, its broken crenellations like the jags of a giant shattered tooth. The cathedral’s shadow darkens the square below me, where hundreds of tiny figures jostle one another, dangling flaming effigies on poles, chanting, squabbling and occasionally scuffling with the guards, the city alight with hope and terror.

Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s attention to French Revolutionary Parisian detail is remarkable, every landmark and monument built to scale. (It’s also intimately scalable by the player.) Distractions abound: you could spend an hour registering the gothic minutia of a Rayonnant edifice’s tracery, or another enumerating biblical scenes in a church’s stained glass windows. Observe the burnished filigree crowning the massive wrought-iron gates to the Cour du Mai, the Corinthian portico of the triple-domed and frescoed Panthéon, or the sun glinting off lustrous iconography blanketing the dome of Les Invalides. It’s all here, and kind of nuts.

So is Unity a game or interactive diorama? Another tale of secret warring societies supported by its dazzling late 18th century metropolis, or architectonic fetish with a side of pulp?

Ubisoft

Maybe both. But then you push a button and leap from your roost and start moving through this ridiculously intricate insurrection simulator, clambering over realistically uneven slate rooftops and corroded chimneys linked by fictional passage-smoothing plank and rope skyways, only to find the actual game sagging beneath the weight of its world design. In short, Unity is a phenomenal world-building achievement held back by a glitchy navigation system.

Moving through the Assassin’s Creed games has always been fidgety, but it’s steadily improved over the years. Unity feels like a step back, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. Perhaps it’s the busier world geometry, its handholds and footpaths multiplied who-knows-how-many-fold, making it even easier to snag on something. Sometimes it’s clearly the game’s impaired frame rate in large crowds lagging behind your input. (That’s not an idle complaint; the game actually stutters severely in spots.) Maybe it’s just buggy. Maybe some of that will be ironed out in future patches. What I do know, is that Arno, the game’s French protagonist–an assassin who’s confused revenge for redemption in the game’s story–sometimes has a mind of his own.

If I push one way, he’ll occasionally leap in another. If I zig, odds are one out of four he’ll zag. I expect some slack in any 360-degree motion system, but this is something else. I haven’t fought the controls like this since the original Assassin’s Creed. It’s harmless enough when you’re wall-crawling freeform, but under the gun, say in one of those target-tailing missions with bonus challenges like “don’t touch the water,” whiffing the mission because Arno decides to dive off a wooden post into the drink instead of leaping to the next one on the third or fourth replay is exasperating.

But the biggest problem is that sometimes Arno won’t do anything at all.

Ubisoft

Climb a building with clearly navigable points and sometimes Arno gets stuck. Not “That next thing’s too high up, find another way” stymied, but “Why am I halfway up this continuous lattice and hitting all the right buttons and he’s frozen stiff?” I’m not misreading the path, because if I hammer the buttons or reset the thumbstick, he’ll swing into action and clear the distance, no problem. And I ran into this in even the simplest scenarios: dangling from a rope between buildings or hanging from the edge of an unobstructed platform (he’d neither climb nor drop), or trying to dive Dukes of Hazard style through an open window (hammering the button the game keeps telling me to hammer while ignoring my input). This is next-gen parkour?

It’s a shame, because so much else about Unity‘s design overhaul works. The new 3D overview map helps you better pinpoint objects in a 3D world. A downward free-run option (hold a button to climb down automatically) makes descending from even the highest points quick and safe. And Eagle Vision, the game’s spot-the-bad-guys radar system, now only works for brief periods, encouraging more judicious use.

There’s even a modest roleplaying angle: weapons, clothing, stealth moves and combat abilities–most familiar with a few wrinkles–are now spending-based unlocks that let you finesse your play style meaningfully. One of those skills, lockpicking, finally strikes the right balance between twitchy and skillful and now applies to doors that can open up alternate routes in missions. Those missions now feel like proper assassination puzzles, the game dropping you outside heavily patrolled fortresses and folding in optional goals you can engage to tweak your infiltration routes or unlock distractions. Carried over to the new cooperative play modes, where you and up to three other players can work together to dispatch operatives or recover loot, and Unity surpasses its predecessors.

Ubisoft

Some of the improvements are simple subtractions: The removal of automatic counters revitalizes combat, which regains some the original’s brutal simplicity and timing-related volatility. Guards on alert can no longer be assassinated from hiding spots (like hay wagons), encouraging shrewder stealth tactics. The home improvement game has fewer spending tiers and ties this more to side missions like the frontier activities in Assassin’s Creed III. And assassin-recruiting, training and deploying is no more, eliminating a pseudo-strategic moneymaking layer I never particularly liked.

Other changes seem like half-measures or outright missteps. Adding a button that lets you crouch gives you more approach options (to say nothing of making you feel stealthier), but the new guard-luring gimmicks–cherry bombs or taunting guards to probe by letting yourself be spotted then breaking the sightline–often fail because the guards seem to know you’re waiting and stop short of your hiding spot, even as you absurdly pepper them with fireworks.

While combat is more gratifying and enemies more aggressive, your bag of tricks remains small and the opponent A.I. types still too undifferentiated. (I powered through the game using the same attack-parry-stun-attack combos.) The new press-a-button-to-stick cover system often disregards your input and can’t be depended on during hair-trigger maneuvers. And what passes for a future story about leaping between servers and playing through alternate timelines to avoid detection (the series is basically The Matrix meets Ken Follett) recalls the dreary “Desmond climbs” missions in Assassin’s Creed III, where you prosaically pushed the thumbstick in the direction you wanted to travel and watched stuff happen.

Ubisoft

Speaking of the story, Ubisoft was wise to make it about Arno and keep most of the Revolution’s politicking in the background, but the character as written barely connects. Whatever we’re meant to feel about the things he endures, whatever the writers intended beyond a bit of brooding, debauchery and sense of being dragged along by tidal forces, Arno’s a little boring, his arc more an undifferentiated slope. His romantic interest has far more brio, and makes you wonder what might have been, had you been able to explore her story instead.

Shall I bother to malign the ending? Have endings in these games ever delivered? Here it’s another anticlimactic, predictable and tediously difficult mess, where–minor spoiler warning–you’re essentially dueling with Emperor Palpatine (think about what Palpatine’s known for), making use of none of the things you’ve just spent the entire game learning to do, while he chants “I have you now!” (Yes, that’s verbatim.)

“The past is not lost, the past lives inside us,” says a narrator during the game’s intro. It’s supposed to be a reference to the game’s parapsychological conceit about genetic memory, not ironic commentary on the game design. Unity has plenty of moments where some of its re-grounded systems harmonize, but too many where they don’t. Historical flavor and architectural verisimilitude alone can’t carry a game, and may in fact be part of what works against this one, even as I’ll admit to being gobsmacked at the audacity of Ubisoft’s city-replicating exercise, a towering achievement unto itself.

3 out of 5

Review using the PlayStation 4 version of the game.

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