TIME Video Games

The 15 Most Anticipated Video Games of Summer 2015

Check out our list of the games to watch for summer 2015

Check out the most anticipated games for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS due this year, including Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Knight, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Blizzard’s Heroes Unlimited.

  • ARK: Survival Evolved

    Hey look, another dinosaur game! What are the odds? Better still, it has nothing to do with LEGO, so viva la difference, then head over to Steam Early Access, where the game’s now available in beta. What’s it about? You, naked and starving on an island, hunting for resources, fending off primeval critters and either cooperating with or warring against hundreds of fellow players.

    PC

    June 2

  • Heroes of the Storm

    Blizzard’s newest idea is a team-brawler mashup, where you skirmish online against other players as one of several heavy-hitters plucked from the publisher’s iconic Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo franchises.

    PC

    June 2

  • The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited

    Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series was always arrowing toward a massively online multiplayer installment, and ZeniMax Online Studios’ freshman effort wasn’t half-bad when it launched on PCs in April 2014. But the delayed console versions stand to benefit from substantial extra time in the oven, as well as the company’s shift from a monthly subscription fee to free-to-play.

    PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    June 9

  • Kholat

    In February 1959, nine hikers in the Russian Ural mountains died; to this day, the cause of their death remains unknown. Kholat, an open-world, first-person “horror experience,” imagines what might have happened, dropping players years later into the spot where the mysterious event unfolded. Top that off with actor Sean Bean handling the story narration.

    PC

    June 10

  • LEGO Jurassic World

    Why haven’t we had more dinosaur games? No idea, but we can thank whoever green-lit director Colin Trevorrow’s upcoming Jurassic World popcorn-chomper for tugging at Warner Bros. purse-strings, thus giving Traveller’s Tales another chance to uncork its goofball LEGO shtick, this time taking on Isla “four films later and no one’s learned a thing” Nublar.

    PC, PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One, Wii U, 3DS, PS Vita

    June 12

  • Batman: Arkham Knight

    The eponymous villain in developer Rocksteady’s third (and final) engagement of DC’s Batman mythos should hopefully breathe a little life into a series long overshadowed by the Joker. The biggest change, aside from the biggest sandbox version of Gotham we’ve seen and shift to new consoles, is the inclusion of the Batmobile—like a grim vamp on Insomniac’s dualistic Ratchet & Clank, as you shift between the Dark Knight and his tricked out ride to solve puzzles or assist you in battle.

    PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows

    June 23

  • Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

    It’s the first expansion to the hands-down best MMO on consoles (and in the top two or three on PC) today. The usual things apply: new areas to explore, a new playable race and the level cap’s been upped to 60. But you’ll also be able to build airships and fly to floating stratospheric continents, plus Square Enix is adding support for OS X (Apple) computers.

    PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows

    June 23

  • God of War III Remastered

    It’s God of War III (originally for PlayStation 3) jacked up to full 1080p at 60 frames per second, and sporting a new feature that lets you take, edit and share in-game photos.

    PlayStation 4

    July 14

  • Feist

    Feist, a beautiful, otherworldly sidescroller that’s been in development forever, is about a tiny fuzz-covered creature (think Fizzgig from The Dark Crystal) exploring spooky chiaroscuro forests, mountains, caves and swamps.

    PC

    July 23

  • Until Dawn

    A group of twenty-somethings, a secluded mountain hangout, and one horror-filled night. You’ve seen it a million times, but Supermassive Games is pushing the idea that each time you play through Until Dawn–and you’ll have to complete it repeatedly to figure out what’s really going on, apparently–you’re following one of thousands of possible paths.

    PlayStation 4

    August 25

  • Madden NFL 16

    This year’s Madden once more overhauls the controls, tweaking QB maneuvers (body-relative throws, touch and roll out passes) and adding what EA’s calling a “risk/reward catch and pass-defend system.” The emphasis, along with de facto visual, online and backend refinements, appears to be on helping you create splashy, photographical moments.

    PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One

    August 25

  • Mad Max

    Mad Max, an open-world vehicle combat game, could be another bland movie-game tie-in…or, like the film itself, it could surprise us all. Current odds are on the latter: its developer, Avalanche Studios, has yet to drop the ball, and it’s already hit a few out of the park (see their acclaimed Just Cause series).

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    September 1

  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

    “The Phantom Pain” makes Metal Gear Solid V sound a little silly, like a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys book, but publisher Konami’s stealth-gaming sandbox spree Metal Gear Solid V promises to deliver smarter enemies and a game world “200 times” that of last year’s prologue, Ground Zeroes.

    PC, PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One

    September 1

  • Mighty No. 9

    A Mega Man rethink by another name, Mighty No. 9 takes that 2D platforming classic’s ideas—a robotic protagonist, clever weaponry and crazy end-level boss battles—and adds unique transformational abilities gathered from defeated enemies.

    PC, PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One, Wii U, 3DS, PS Vita

    September 15

  • FIFA 16

    With the FIFA scandal ongoing, the cleanest way to get your football fix (that’s “soccer” for Americans) may be FIFA 16. But the biggest news this year is EA’s inclusion, long overdue, of female footballers (the first FIFA Women’s World Cup was held back in 1991), including 12 women’s national teams.

    PC, PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 & One

    September 22

TIME Video Games

3 Reasons Nintendo Should Switch to Google Android

Wii U
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Nintendo's Wii U console, above, and touch-pad controller sit on display during an interview with Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America Inc., in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.

And three reasons it's a terrible idea

What are the odds Nintendo’s next platform, possibly a suite of devices codenamed “NX,” would emerge running a flavor of Google’s popular operating system, as claimed by a single anonymous insider in a column by Japanese biz paper Nikkei?

I know no more than you, but you’d have to call the odds long if you’re a student of Nintendo’s modus operandi. We’re talking about a company flat out allergic to ceding control of bedrock platform control mechanisms like operating systems and software development toolkits. Nintendo has far more in common with an Apple in this regard (Cupertino’s made its bones as a diehard hardware/software self-roller), obsessed with architecting every element of the software-hardware chain. The company views that delineation between software and hardware as a false dichotomy, in fact.

Read More: Inside Nintendo’s Bold Plan to Stay Vibrant for the Next 125 Years

But in the spirit of responsible (that is, skeptical) speculation, here’s why Nintendo might or might not switch to an open albeit rival-controlled platform like Android.

The argument for…

Because Nintendo could use the help

The Wii U’s operating system two-and-a-half years on feels decades out of sync with its software. I don’t mean its visual aesthetic, which I prefer to the bland asceticism of the PlayStation 4, or the sheer geometric clutter of the Xbox One. But consider Apple’s iOS (since it and the Wii U’s overlay could be cousins, though Nintendo was doing the rowed-icons thing already in 2005 with the Wii). Now imagine if it took a dozen seconds to load iOS “Settings” each time you tapped the icon (instead of just one). And then imagine it took another dozen to get back to the Home screen when you closed out.

That’s the plight of the Wii U, for reasons no one to this day (save Nintendo) fully understands. Shifting to Android would theoretically ground the company’s Next Big Thing in a developmental environment better tuned for speed.

It (maybe) squares the third-party circle

The Wii U isn’t selling as well as Nintendo might like for one reason: third-party support. Where do fans of games like Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider, The Witcher 3, Diablo III, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor go to play some of the bestselling games in video gaming history? Not the Wii U.

Yes, the Wii U may also have capability issues running some of those games (that’s an issue outsourcing the operating neither helps nor hinders, incidentally). But the third-party developers I’ve spoken with over the years claim the biggest problem when it comes to the question of porting games to the Wii U, is that the system’s uniqueness, as with any unique architecture, adds enormous cost overhead to the game’s budget—a situation exacerbated by the Wii U’s limited install base. It’s classic chicken-egg-onomics.

Read More: Nintendo CEO Reveals Plans for Smartphones

Shifting to Android could, given the number of developers fluent with Google’s operating system, reduce the platform’s development learning curve, and if nothing else, lure vast troves of so-called independent developers. (The real question here, of course, is how outré the interface winds up being. If you have to add functionality that isn’t present in other versions of your game, it could still wind up costing tons in development.)

Nintendo wouldn’t have to pay Google a penny

Android in the form of “Google Mobile Services” is free. Unless Nintendo wants to host other services on its future devices like Google Play, or other Google-branded apps (which it surely won’t), Google doesn’t charge OEMs a licensing fee. In theory, therefore, an Android-powered platform (or suite of platforms, mobile to console to whatever else Nintendo’s thinking) would allow Nintendo to benefit from the popularity and maturity of Google’s platform, while keeping Google’s hands off its profits.

And the case against…

Nintendo cares too much about being in the driver’s seat

Hopping into the cockpit with a rival pilot has longterm risks, no matter how you spin it. What if Google tweaks its OEM strictures down the road? Will Android remain free in perpetuity? What if Android itself changes in ways Nintendo doesn’t like? And can you really see Nintendo playing the periodic Android upgrade game?

Nintendo’s 3DS, a proprietary mobile device, is doing fine without Android

Nintendo’s 3DS is the best-selling dedicated games console of this generation, including PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, full stop. Add up publicly declared PlayStation 4 and Xbox One sales and Nintendo’s handheld has that figure beat by miles. And the 3DS has done so running a fully Nintendo-fied operating system.

Read More: 8 More Fascinating Things Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata Told TIME

That’s in part because Nintendo’s first-party games have performed tremendously, but it’s also because third-party support for the device has been strong. There’s no reason to assume Nintendo’s next mobile platform wouldn’t be capable of doing the same. Whatever analytic doomsayers say, there’s no evidence anyone’s planning to abandon one of the most iconic brands in video game history, nor is it clear they’d be any less likely to partner with Nintendo on another proprietary next-gen platform, if the company can get the backend right.

This could all be a smokescreen for something minor

Let’s question an assumption everyone else routinely makes: that NX is the successor to Wii U, or 3DS, or somehow both. Is NX really Nintendo’s Next Big Thing, or is it just code for something meant to happen adjunct to the company’s Actual Next Big Thing? What if NX is just the next step in Nintendo’s already-announced plan to partner with Japanese mobile titan DeNA to carve out space in the traditional mobile gaming space? Which is to say: really just a means to promote Nintendo’s IP, and therefore operate as more of a marketing tie-in to its really really next big gaming idea?

As I said up top, I could be wrong about any of this. If I had to guess today, I’d bet Android plays a much smaller role in the company’s future than a lot of the headlines are implying. But maybe it will, and maybe that’s been Nintendo’s super-secret ploy all along. True or no, the long game for Nintendo is definitely afoot.

TIME Video Games

Splatoon Is the Best Game Nintendo’s Made in Years

Nintendo

The iconic Japanese developer rolls out another brilliant first-party game that's unlike any other

How goofy was the elevator pitch for Nintendo’s Wii U team shooter Splatoon? Play as a head-tentacled, paintgun schlepping biped that can morph into a turbo squid? Zip around multiplex obstacle courses, squaring off against fellow ink-spuming cephalopods while spraying viscous goo to brand your turf? Grind on gloop-splashed rails like a madcap Tony Hawk/Jackson Pollock mashup?

Too weird to succeed? I hope not, because with all due respect to rethinks like last year’s Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, I haven’t played a Nintendo game this gonzo and flat out fun in years.

Here’s how it works: Two squads of four players (not platoons, though that’s what inspired the catchy portmanteau) battle in skatepark-inspired arenas, outfitted with ink-spewing gadgetry and one imperative, to cover as much of the area’s ground space with your team’s color as possible before time runs out. The controls are simple: pick up the Wii U’s tablet controller, thumbstick in the direction you want to move, and swivel the tablet in the one you want to shoot.

You can ink over already saturated areas and take out enemies by assaulting them with your weapon, but don’t look for kill counts or headshot tallies, because Splatoon is about maximum coverage, not carnage—an anti-sanguine splatter-fest, and a graffiti vandal’s dream come true. And it only sounds shambolic. There’s a deep tactical shooter lurking beneath all that polychromatic spatter.

Before you’ve so much as glimpsed the leveling and gear grind, you’ll have to grapple with Splatoon‘s funky shapeshifting tactic, either firing paint slugs as a slow-moving bipedal Inkling, or holding a button to insta-morph into a squid. In squid mode, you can dart across ink-glazed surfaces, moving twice as fast while recharging your dwindling ink supply. Swim into enemy ink, of course, and you’ll slither to a stop, opening yourself up to enemy fire.

Splatoon builds on its ink-traversal idea by letting you craft “roads” through enemy lines, or swim up otherwise unclimbable platforms. What if Tony Hawk had to lay pipe to get anywhere? It’s a smart, often pivotal incentive to fashion shortcuts, take out snipers, cut through enemy-covered terrain, or get somewhere high fast to maximize your ink-spatter-to-surface-area ratio (the further ink falls, the more area its soaks). Think an extreme sports game meets a jet ski racer meets a coloring book.

The possibilities snowball when you factor all the gear abilities (dozens of speed, damage and stealth perks associated with headwear, shirts and shoes) and special weapons (bombs, mines, ink-tornado-flinging bazookas, mongo paint-rollers) that you can buy from shops with cash earned by leveling up in online matches. But it’s also beginner-friendly: The game keeps special weapons in check by requiring you ink so much ground before they unlock, then limits how long they’re usable. And a helpful “super jump” does away with lonely re-spawns (at your base, after someone takes you out) by letting you touch a teammate’s icon on the Wii U GamePad’s screen and rocket across the map to wherever they’re currently battle-painting.

Don’t let how insane any of that sounds put you off playing. It’s not how Splatoon feels in action, whether inking some quiet corner, or in a duel with a higher level opponent. Low level players can routinely steamroll high level ones, because Splatoon‘s basic maneuvers work as a kind of competitive equalizer. I’m not talking about luck, or something like Mario Kart‘s blue shell, where there’s an ultimate rock that can crush someone else’s scissor, just that Nintendo’s designed the game so that how you play—your “play style,” as the company puts it in the manual—often trumps what you’re playing with.

I do wish Splatoon had an offline bot mode so you could practice when the matchmaking service peters out (you can “recon” levels solo, but that’s it). And the game definitely needs an option to cancel while waiting for an online match to start. As it is, once you’ve agreed to join, Nintendo locks you to a timeout while searching for matches (the clever little Doodle Jump-inspired game you can play on the Wii U GamePad is amusing but poor compensation). It’s there to help seed the game’s online pool, but having to flip the Wii U’s power switch to kill the process when real life intervenes is plain unfriendly.

I wasn’t able to try the Battle Dojo, a 1-on-1 mode where you and another player in the same room compete by shooting ink at balloons. And I’ve only dabbled with the offline story mode, though it’s so far classic Nintendo: platform through linear levels with ink-related conundrums, then battle cunningly designed bosses (think Shadow of the Colossus‘s enemy-climbing angle, only with ink). It’s as cutesy and goofball and clearly designed to fit within Nintendo’s family of future-looking franchises as you’d expect of a new IP as heavily marketed as this one’s been.

But those activities feel like distractions from Splatoon‘s triumphant team-play mode, the game’s heart and soul, and the reason a guy like me, no fan of competitive online shooters, can’t stop playing the darned thing. There’s nothing else quite like it, nor the cathartic dopamine jolt to be had when you squid-skim up a paint-smeared quarter pipe, an Inkzooka at the ready, leap over the edge, take aim with your weapon, and reduce a startled opponent to goo.

5 out of 5

Reviewed on Wii U

TIME Video Games

This Is What Pac-Man‘s Creator Thinks 35 Years Later

TIME talked to the creator of one of the most important characters in gaming history

He’s made billions off slot-fed quarters, starred in 15 mobile games since 2008, featured in that goofy Bud Light commercial at this year’s Super Bowl, and even appeared his own Google Doodle. Who would’ve thought 35 years on that we’d still be raving about a banana-colored, dot-noshing disc with a love/hate ghost fixation and a more-than-mild fruit fetish?

Today marks the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man‘s arrival in Japan on May 22, 1980, an arcade game whose eponymous character remains the most recognizable in the annals of gaming. We caught up with Pac-Man‘s Japanese creator, Toru Iwatani, who reminded us of what inspired the character, then told us how he feels about the game today.

Iwatani first saw Pac-Man in a pizza

It’s a long-told tale, but in case you haven’t heard it, Iwatani says his inspiration for the Pac-Man character came from one of the most popular dishes in the world.

“While thinking about the word ‘eat’ when taking a piece of pizza, I saw that the rest of pizza looked like a character, and that’s how Pac-Man’s iconic shape was created,” says Iwatani. “I realized that although keywords such as ‘fashion’ and ‘love’ would appeal more to women, my opinion is that the word ‘eat’ is universally appealing and would attract their attention as well. That’s why I went with this idea.”

At the time, arcades were basically boys clubs

“In the late 1970s, there were a lot of games in arcades which featured killing aliens or other enemies that mostly appealed to boys to play,” explains Iwatani. “The image of arcades was that they were darkly lit and their restrooms were dirty.”

Iwatani wanted to make arcades into date hangouts

“This perception [of arcades as dude hangouts] was similar in Japan,” says Iwatani. “I wanted to change that by introducing game machines in which cute characters appeared with simpler controls that would not be intimidating to female customers and couples to try out … and couples visiting arcades would increase.”

35 years later, Iwatani sees the game as plausibly feminist

“My opinion is that Pac-Man became popular with everyone, from youngsters to elders to men and women because of our original idea to make a game that spoke to both female customers and couples,” he says. “Empowering Pac-Man to chase the ghosts gives players a refreshed perspective on the game’s core gameplay, and I think this idea also appeals to a new generation of female players who have grown up empowered and want to be the pursuer rather than being the pursued.”

He “modeled” the sound effect Pac-Man makes when swallowing to sound designer Toshio Kai himself

“I asked for a game version of the typical Japanese mimetic words ‘Paku Paku’ that’s commonly used to describe people eating food,” explains Iwatani. “I described the ‘swallow’ sound effect that I wanted to Kai-san by eating fruit, and by making actual gurgling sounds.”

He sees Pac-Man as one of the medium’s exemplars

“It might be a bit of a stretch to use a Beatles comparison, but if the song “Yesterday” is looked at as THE standard musical number for music, then I think Pac-Man is THE standard for games. Thus, Pac-Man will be loved forever, and I’m proud of that.”

And there’s still more he’d like to do with the character

“Outside of the original Pac-Man within the maze-game concept, there was the Pac-Land arcade game in which Pac-Man appeared as more of a full character with hands and feet giving him more abilities (the game also took him out of the maze),” says Iwatani, reflecting on some of Pac-Man’s later appearances. “And there’s Pac-Man World, when Pac-Man entered a 3D world.”

“I’ll keep working on ideas for Pac-Man,” he says, then slyly adds “Perhaps there’s room for a singing Pac-Man in the future.”

 

TIME Video Games

Here’s Everything We Know About the Warcraft Movie So Far

After a decade, it's finally coming out

The upcoming Warcraft movie—an epic fantasy drawn from one of the most popular video game franchises in history—doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be better than the next biggest action-tastic blockbuster scheduled for June 10, 2016.

Think of it as a little like the two campers chased by a bear (the bear, in this case, symbolizing critical presumptions that any film based on a video game must by definition be dreadful): you don’t have to beat the bear, you just have to outrun the next guy. What do we know about the film so far, aside from the fact that its fellow runners-from-bear include an Angry Birds film, a Ratchet & Clank film and an Uncharted film? Here’s the breakdown:

It’s been in the offing for nearly a decade

That’s the nature of projects like these: sometimes they bounce all over creation before coming to fruition. Blizzard announced plans to develop a live-action Warcraft film back in May 2006. The film resurfaced intermittently, in various stages of development, for years after, but didn’t really move forward until 2013, when Blizzard announced it had brought esteemed filmmaker Duncan Jones onboard.

Its director’s last two films were solid

We can thank Warcraft director Duncan Jones for both 2009’s Moon and 2011’s Source Code, two totally different (one introspective, the other a little gonzo) science fiction films that had one thing in common: they didn’t suck. Jones seems a deft hand both behind the camera and in front of a word processor (he wrote the story for Moon, and co-wrote the screenplay for Warcraft).

Jones surfaced on the project after Blizzard parted ways with the film’s former director, Evil Dead‘s Sam Raimi. Blizzard’s properties couldn’t be less in his wheelhouse, tonally and historically speaking, but he’s a coup (for Blizzard) by any measure.

And Jones seems to understand a crucial tenet of contemporary filmmaking

“I hear this ‘CGI in film sucks,’ mantra again & again,” wrote Duncan a few months ago on Twitter, rejecting the blanket claim that computer generated imagery wrecks movies. “It doesn’t,” he continued, arguing that “It’s a tool like any other. It can be done well & it can be done shit. The best CGI has you forgetting its CGI, and accepting the visual as whatever it is supposed to be. Like props. No one has an issue with ‘props’ in film, do they?”

Blizzard’s own Chris Metzen wrote the story

Metzen is to Blizzard as George Lucas to the Star Wars saga: the world-builder responsible for Blizzard’s iconic Warcraft, Diablo and StarCraft narrative universes. It’s his story vision that Jones and co-screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) distilled into the film’s script.

How excited should that make you? If you’re not a Warcraft wonk, it’s impossible to say. And if you are, ask yourself this: How excited have you been about the frame stories (not the gameplay) that Blizzard’s been telling in these games for the past two decades?

It’s about orcs fighting humans

Blizzard’s first Warcraft game was called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. That pretty well sums up the film’s elevator pitch: humans versus orcs! (Or “the alliance” versus “the horde,” in Warcraft-speak.)

Okay, so with Jones attached, we’ll hopefully get a bit more storytelling subtlety than the games provide, ideally something more introspective and character-driven that capitalizes on Warcraft‘s basic two-sided racism trope.

It has a few female actors, but the cast is mostly guys

It looks like Paula Patton (Déjà Vu, Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol) and Ruth Negga (Breakfast on Pluto, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) are the only two women of note. If you want to see a bunch of guys getting their Gladiator on, on the other hand, box presumably checked.

The guy who scored HBO’s Game of Thrones is doing the music

That would be Ramin Djawadi, also known (and respected) for his work on films like Blade: Trinity, Iron Man and Pacific Rim, as well as TV shows like Prison Break and Person of Interest.

It was originally due this December

We can thank Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Warcraft‘s bump to mid-2016 (not the film’s production—filming itself ended back in May 2014). Not even an estimated $100 million film based on a video gaming juggernaut (the highest grossing game of all time, with revenue eclipsing the highest grossing films of all time) could stand against Disney’s upcoming take on a galaxy far, far away.

TIME Video Games

5 Reasons People Love The Witcher So Much

Wondering why a game called The Witcher keeps popping up in your social media?

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt arrives Tuesday, like a meteor heralding an extinction level event masquerading as a gritty Slavic myth-o-rama. The doomed: all sandbox fantasy roleplaying games prior, forced to measure up and found wanting.

Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s tale of a cat-eyed, glam-haired, drug-elevated monster slayer, once as obscure as Bethesda’s hence primetime-friendly The Elder Scrolls series, now separates money from pockets with ease. Preorders for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are past one million, the studio reported last week. That’s more than half as many total copies sold of 2011’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, itself both a critical and commercial triumph.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt thus looks poised to shatter its predecessor’s numbers, buttressed this time by PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions launching simultaneously (The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was for PC and Xbox 360 only).

So what is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Only the biggest open-world roleplaying game of the year, one of the most critically acclaimed in years, and the final act of a trilogy that since the first act arrived in October 2007, has been as keen to upend morally simplistic, male-angled fantasy tropes as that other epic fiction franchise everyone raves about.

If you’re newcomer-curious, here’s a quick review of why people love The Witcher so much.

It’s based on sophisticated fantasy writing

Thank Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski for the Witcher-verse and its guttural, morally ambivalent, antihero. Sapkowski, whose first books appeared in the early 1990s and weren’t translated into English until the late 2000s, placed his protagonist Geralt of Rivia in a mimetic fantasy world with enough socio-economic nuance to ground a political science dissertation. Here be racism, sexism, classism, economic inequality and injustice, wrapped in a bleak, often cynical worldview informed by a nation with a history of repeated occupation and counter-occupation by larger, historically thuggish rival powers.

Your mileage will definitely vary

The original game offered three possible endings, and not just superficial codas where one or the other cutscene plays before the credits roll. Pivotal decisions in The Witcher could upend the narrative course, determining who lived and died, and dictating who might ally with or turn against you when crucial battles arrived.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, though still restricting players to progressive level-like areas, further developed that organic storytelling formula, boasting 16 possible endings with so much interactive nuance to its narrative pathing that multiple play-throughs could feel like completely different games.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which shifts the series to freeform exploration, expands its possible outcome tally to a whopping 36, and the developers claim those windups are born of organic pivot points along the way that add up to hundreds of narrative permutations (that, in a game where a single pass takes upwards of 50 hours).

The fights are way better than most

All roleplaying games are really elaborate fighting games, so the clicky-tappy things you wind up doing over and over–in some cases for hundreds of hours–has to be both novel and progressive. Studio CD Projekt Red’s approach has been both in each of The Witcher games, progressing from a clever rhythm-focused keyboard/mouse model in the original, to deep toolboxes of offensive and defensive maneuvers augmented by secondary tricks and talent trees that unlock ever more nuanced abilities.

The world looks and feels like nothing else in fantasy gaming

Square Enix’s Final Fantasy games are more graphically inventive (they’re certainly more gonzo!), sure, but in a crowded field that’s been tediously riffing on Tolkien for decades, The Witcher games feel like idiosyncratic curios. Inspired by Slavic mythology, its bosky dells, ruin-flanked hills and patchwork fields sound paradoxically elegiac notes, juxtaposing heart-stopping sunsets filtered through wind-whipped trees with war-wracked, blood blackened fields of corpses, sometimes piled like cordwood. And instead of squaring off with trolls, orcs, goblins, dragons and multicolored blobs of dungeon-delving goo, you’re up against folkish, far weirder-sounding Eastern European creatures like striga, necrophages, bruxa and vodyanoi, as well as warped takes on traditional fiends, e.g. noonwraiths, alghouls and dagon worshippers.

But the most marvelous monsters in the game aren’t mythic at all

As I put it when reviewing the original game eight years ago: “For all the wonderfully ‘un-Tolkien-y’ alghouls and echinops and graveirs and bloedzuigers you’ll grapple with, the most hideous monsters in the game aren’t the ones with six or a dozen consonants crowding a single vowel, but other humans, like you.”

TIME Video Games

10 Most-Anticipated New iPhone Games

Have a look at our picks for the most promising iPhone games yet to come this year

We’re already playing some of 2015’s best iPhone games—take a bow, Sorcery! 3, Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure, Planet Quest and Ryan North’s To Be or Not To Be—so here’s a look at what’s left (that we know of, anyway) between now and year’s end.

  • Guitar Hero Live

    “No console? No problem,” reads the tagline for the handheld version of Activision’s upcoming rhythm rock-a-thon rethink. “The full game experience will be available on select mobile devices,” boasts the publisher, referring to a big-screen experience that’s designed to put you onstage with a live-ish reactive band and audience. How’s that work on a 5-inch screen? We’ll doubtless find out at E3 next month.

    Late 2015

  • Disney Infinity 3.0

    If playing Star Wars in story-less, multiplayer-focused, first-person shooter battle arenas turns you off—hello, Star Wars Battlefront!—then Disney Infinity 3.0 represents our best shot at solo-supportive, sandbox-based, story-driven Star Wars experiences. Look for characters like Anakin, Luke, Leia, Han and Vader to broaden Disney’s toy-game stable, and like last year’s version 2.0, the iPhone version of 3.0 should be all but identical to its console and tablet peers.

    Late 2015

  • Minecraft: Story Mode

    Telltale Games

    Did Minecraft need a narrative when part of the game’s triumph is the way it drives players to create their own? We’re going to find out when adventure-maker Telltale Games puts its imprimatur on the Lego-like sandbox builder later this year.

    TBD 2015

     

  • Age of Empires: World Domination

    The Age of Empires real-time strategy franchise fizzled a long time ago, and hasn’t seen a hit in years, so there’s understandable trepidation about this mobile-oriented version’s prospects. Can newcomer KLab Global resuscitate defunct creator Ensemble Studios’ once-beloved series? Pull it off without inundating players with freemium nagging? We’ll see.

    TBD 2015

  • Zodiac

    Boasting heady tunes by Final Fantasy XII‘s Hitoshi Sakimoto and expert scenario design by Final Fantasy VII‘s Kazushige Nojima, Zodiac is a 2D roleplaying game that marries side-scrolling levels with turn-based combat. Sounds a little like Valkyrie Profile, no? The difference: Zodiac transpires in an “ambitious” persistent online world, and supports cross-platform play (with Sony’s PS Vita handheld, and possibly others yet to be announced).

    TBD 2015

  • Ember

    If the demo teaser for N-Fusion’s Ember reminds you even a little of Ultima VII: The Black Gate, that’s no coincidence–the developer admits its upcoming fantasy quest-spinner was inspired by Origin’s classic 1992 title, remembered for its still rarely equalled depth of world and character design.

    TBD 2015

  • Firefly Online

    It’s one of TV’s most beloved science fiction tales reimagined as a roleplaying game in which players can pilot their own ships, assemble their own crews and trade with (or create missions for) other players. The original cast came back to handle voice work for their characters, which appear throughout the game.

    TBD 2015

  • Super Meat Boy Forever

    It’s the official sequel to 2010’s acclaimed platform game starring a tiny cube of flesh that darts and leaps through hundreds of trap-filled levels.

    TBD 2015

  • Forma.8

    You’re stuck orbiting an alien planet, your reserves nearly depleted, so you deploy a tiny probe to the planet, hoping to retrieve an underground energy source and continue your journey. Studio MixedBag dubs Forma.8 a “Metroidvania” (that is, Metroid plus Castlevania), wherein you’ll explore a mammoth and interlinked series of levels, solving puzzles and battling enemies to accomplish your goals.

    TBD 2015

  • Clockwork

    Explore a 400-year-old clockwork metropolis as Atto, a mechanical boy who sets out to mend both his malfunctioning machine city and its many robotic inhabitants—human survivors, who abandoned their organic bodies centuries ago to escape the ravages of a deadly plague.

    TBD 2015

TIME Video Games

5 Things I Love About The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

How does Polish developer CD Projekt Red's long-awaited fantasy three-quel stack up? Here's what we think so far

Let’s talk about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, an obscure sounding fantasy roleplaying game you’re either here reading about because you’re a bona fide Witcher wonk, or that you stumbled into after President Obama unexpectedly namechecked the series while visiting Poland last June (no really, he did).

For those in the latter column, a quick review. The Witcher games stem, some might say improbably, from several fantasy novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski in the early 1990s. The series concerns a potion-drinking mutant named Geralt, the eponymous “Witcher,” who hunts monsters for a living. Though Geralt is portrayed as apolitical, elaborate political plots eventually emerge in both the novels and games, forcing Geralt (and in the games, therefore, players) to grapple with ethical dilemmas that mirror contemporary real world ones.

Think Western fantasy, but through an Eastern European lens—more folkloric Brothers Grimm than epically biblical Tolkien. Think political intrigue, character depth and world building on par with HBO’s Game of Thrones. And in The Witcher 3‘s case, with CD Projekt Red finally jumping the series to a fully open world, think grand on a scale that surpasses the term. Think post-Skyrim.

I’ve had the game for less than a week, and don’t ask me how far along I am, because at two dozen hours, I’ve yet to see its middle. But I’m having a blast. It’s not perfect, and at points (see below) it can seem obtuse, but hour for hour, I’m happier with it than I was Skyrim—and at the 24-hour mark I was still pretty chuffed about Skyrim.

My impressions of the game so far, running the PlayStation 4 version:

The engine under this hood is pretty sporty

You think I’m talking about the graphics? In a moment. I’m referring to load times—the time it takes for a game to cycle up—because they’re crucial when you’re restarting from save points, say you keep whiffing fighting a mini-boss. The Witcher 3‘s load times are partly obscured by narrative recaps, but still unusually quick. When you figure the game’s juggling a play-space bigger than either Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V‘s, one that’s seamless once it’s up and running (there’s no scenery pop-in) whether you’re wandering in and out of buildings or plumbing underground dungeons, it’s no small triumph.

And it’s visually stunning

I don’t mean technically, since we’re accustomed to games that deftly model bosky sandboxes with resplendent cities and chaotic ruins and endless subterranean haunts. I’m talking about who made the game (CD Projekt Red, headquartered in Poland) and what informed their visual worldview. Put it this way: The Witcher 3 looks nothing like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Speaking as someone who’s spent months in Poland, the Baltics and Russia, it feels more like that. Light cuts chiaroscuro columns between swathes of stormy blackness draped over fir and oak forests punctuated by meticulous medieval structures and grass-choked wagon wheel roads. The wind knocks stands of trees and patchy scrub around like shaken springs, and cloud-fog hangs off foothills and mountains in wispy skirts. It feels older and creepier, but also elegiac and incredibly beautiful, if that makes sense (speaking as an American who’s probably doing the whole romanticizing-the-other thing).

CD Projekt Red

How do you convey to someone what a blood-red, storm cloud framed, lighting-flanked sunset looks like if you happen to come across one tromping through Poland’s Lower Silesian Wilderness? Show them a sunset in The Witcher 3.

Deceptively conventional quests morph into delightful rabbit holes

Tired of running delivery boy errands and “go kill X monsters” treks designed to fill out space in games like this? You’ll still find them here, but the design team threw in heaps of meaningful wrinkles, upending tropes by extending the backstories to quests and folding in deductive sequences that drawn upon your extrasensory abilities (some can be over a dozen steps long). And when they can’t do that, they’ll just send you on quirky goose chases with surprise denouements to keep you off balance.

And that’s what it’s really about when you’re crafting challenges for players, isn’t it? Preserving an air of mystery and situational novelty? Developer CD Projekt Red has worked to thwart conventionality since it launched the series, and you can see it shining through any one of The Witcher 3‘s idiosyncratic missions.

The scripted encounters soar

Someone needs to write about the real war, says Geralt at a point early in the game, “not colorful banners or generals making moving speeches, but rape, violence, and thoughtless cruelty.” He’s chatting in a tavern with an academic who’s just explained what’s driven him out to the front, to chronicle the war.

“Rape and cruelty are details of no import to the war’s course, trinkets on the garment of conflict you might say,” replies the academic, betraying a kind of dangerous, elite romanticism, as well as callous disregard for Geralt’s vaguely antiwar position.

It’s an uncomfortable moment that could stand for any other in the game, an exchange that’d feel at home in a George R.R. Martin novel, and one that’s still sadly unusual in a video game, where incisive much less subversive writing takes a backseat to anodyne platitudes about war, or whatever else (one of gaming’s great mistakes has been its cooption of the false dichotomy between authorial intention and player control).

But not The Witcher 3, where beautifully voiced and philosophically provocative interactions are the norm for virtually every encounter in the game, be it part of the main quest or any of the secondaries. True, The Witcher 2 already showed us that CD Projekt Red could write, but The Witcher 3 pulls that level of depth off in a game world that’s exponentially bigger. It’s like stumbling into a strange, baroquely ornamented wine cellar stuffed with vintage bottles, every one.

And each location feels unique

Every rutted path, split-rail fence, thatch roof, copse of trees, bricked ruin, walled village and corpse-haunted battlefield feels handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, and you can wander for hours without repeats. Imagine the time it must have taken, given how vast The Witcher 3‘s play space is, but what a visual payoff and triumph. You could write plausibly poetic travelogues about the game’s distinctive vistas, whether sloshing through Crookback Bog, taking in the heart stopping view from Kaer Gelen castle, hiking around the craggy monster-thronged foothills of Bald Mountain, or getting lost in the wonderfully nuanced architecture of metropolitan Novigrad.

CD Projekt Red

But the world’s also stuffed with vacuous nobodies

Cities and towns are choked with citizenry going about their scripted business, and you can chat with any of them. Trouble is, almost no one has much more than a catchphrase to work with. Wander through a village and you’ll be assaulted by “talk” prompts, but tap to do so and you’ll be treated to a barrage of boilerplate-isms: “Yes?” “Erhm?” “Step away.” “Nordling?” “Hm?” “What do you want?” “Tidings from Vizima?” Et cetera.

Conversational window dressing just wastes precious time in ginormous games like this. Better to disable that level of interactivity outright and let the ambulatory props shuffle through their subroutines. Save talking for situations that involve actual talking, in other words.

And the interface needs work

Getting Geralt to properly interact with something, say another person or chest of goods, feels a little fiddly, requiring too much sidling up or scooting backwards to conjure the prompt.

The way things are labeled also feels a little lazy: When you’re out gathering flora for The Witcher 3‘s alchemy game, for instance, the prompt you’ll see is generically “Gather Ingredients,” instead of a more helpful “Gather [name of ingredient].” Why ask players to stop and pull up a dialogue box, when you could more readily specify what they’re looking at as they wander by?

Combat can be quirky

I love The Witcher 3‘s third-person battle ideas for the most part–a mix of swordplay and tactical spellcasting that mostly works–but two things stand out as sore spots.

The game binds your ability to “parry” in battle to the same button that triggers “Witcher Sense” out of battle (it’s an extrasensory ability Witchers use to “see” thing others can’t). The problem is that you’re sometimes shuffled out of, then back into, combat mode so fast that you grab the button to parry, but invoke the other ability instead, laying you open to blows.

The other issue, a little more serious, is the way targeting works. The system as it stands lets you focus your attention on different opponents by flicking the right thumbstick while you maneuver with the left one. But the game’s enemies often reposition themselves so quickly, and often assault you in close-in rows, that it’s all too easy to accidentally target the guy right behind the one you want to hit, which causes you to attack past the front line and open yourself up to unblockable flank damage.

CD Projekt Red

The world itself, though gorgeous, has shortcomings

Spatial physics? Who needs ’em! Instead of building off basic line of sight principles, where you might use ledges or walls or giant trees to sneak up on an opponent, enemies simply “sense” you through plainly obfuscating geometry. They’ll even brokenly fire arrows through trees, either a glitch or collision detection oversight that outs the environment as a facade in combat. Less ambitious open-world games manage to pull this stuff off competently, so why not The Witcher 3?

(For that matter, why can’t Geralt sneak? I’m not asking for Thief or Dishonored or Assassin’s Creed here, but Witchers aren’t tanks, and Geralt’s surely capable of creeping up on squads of foes, so why can’t he at least attempt to here?)

And despite its delays, the game still has bugs

My first two matches of Gwent (a semi-interesting collectible card game you can play with other characters in the game for money) crashed the game hard. And while hanging out in a tavern, a horse (not mine) outside wandered over and stuck its head through the tavern wall—creepy for all the wrong reasons.

TIME Video Games

Star Wars Is Coming to Disney Infinity

Even characters from The Force Awakens will make it to the game

Toy-game wonks, listen up: Disney’s Infinity video game series will, as rumored, mark its third outing by packing Luke, Han, Leia, Darth Vader and many more into all new Star Wars-themed play sets when version 3.0 arrives for all the current and last-gen consoles, PC and mobile (iOS, Android) platforms this fall. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuting this December, I’m sure you’re totally surprised!

Disney, which harbors some of the world’s most iconic entertainment franchises (Star Wars, The Muppets, Marvel, and of course all the core Disney IP), announced Tuesday that Disney Infinity 3.0 will hit this fall. The Star Wars: The Clone Wars-focused starter pack, which includes a “Twilight of the Republic” play set, Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano, will set you back $64.99. That’s a little lower than its typical asking price, says Disney, and all of the 1.0 and 2.0 figures and power discs will be compatible with 3.0.

Disney says it plans to release three Star Wars play sets, the first (above) set during Episodes I-III, the second during the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) and the third, available a bit later this winter, based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In addition to those, expect new 3.0 play sets that tie into Infinity‘s previous Pixar- and Marvel-angled installments, a few tweaks to Toy Box mode (new gameplay types, including racing, platforming and farming) and new characters, including Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron), Sam Flynn and Quorra (Tron: Legacy), Mulan (Mulan) and Olaf (Frozen).

Back to Star Wars, because that’s why you’re here, Disney says that in addition to the Clone Wars-themed “Twilight of the Republic” play set, another dubbed “Rise of the Empire” will check various original trilogy boxes, letting you play as Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and Vader, pilot X-Wings or the Millennium Falcon in space battles, or poke around planets like Tatooine, Hoth and–wait, sorry, not a planet–Endor.

And that’s just for starters. Disney says to expect more figure and play set announcements in the lead up to the game’s release.

TIME Video Games

The 10 Best Star Wars Games

That you can play right now... May the 4th be with you

Happy Star Wars day! Want a trove of games—released a long time ago, but in a galaxy just down the way—to help you while away the nearly 5,500 hours that stand between today and the ballyhooed debut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on December 18?

Here you go then, a compendium of gaming’s brightest vamps on George Lucas’s Campbellian space opera, now living in what Disney calls its “Star Wars Legends” line (formerly the “Expanded Universe”). That, if you hadn’t heard, is Disney’s controversial wave-of-the-hand relegation of everything not the films, TV shows or recent books to “maybe it did/didn’t happen” status. So much for Luke Skywalker rubbing elbows with Kyle Katarn, or you usurping a 4,000-year-old Sith Lord to become one yourself.

But never mind that, because games are innately anti-canonical—subversion’s in their DNA. And while some on this list were more genre acolytes than pioneers when they first appeared a decade or more ago, a few managed to be exemplars of the medium for their time.

My only guideline in culling these 10 from the record books, was that they had to be playable on currently available platforms. So think of these as less a “best Star Wars games ever” lineup (though they’re nearly that) than the best you can sample without having to track down the original hardware or software.

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

    Arguably the apotheosis of all the Star Wars games, Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic transported players thousands of years into the galaxy’s past, folding iconic lore like Jedis, Sith Lords, lightsabers and droids into a baroque reinterpretation of Lucas’s science fantasy verse. You’ll find some who’ll swear Bioware’s take on Star Wars bests even the original trilogy (including The Empire Strikes Back), and given the caliber of games Bioware was releasing at the time (both Baldur’s Gate installments), it’s easy to see why.

    How to play: Android, iOS, GOG.com, Mac, Steam

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords

    Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords was a bug-riddled and unfinished mess when it first arrived in late 2004. Time and sufficient patching have thankfully rectified most of its shortcomings, allowing players to experience one of the most insightful and reflective Star Wars stories on the books. Credit design lead Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Pillars of Eternity), whose exhilarating vamp on the Star Wars universe simultaneously deconstructed it.

    How to play: GOG.com, Steam,

  • Star Wars: The Old Republic

    What if the esteemed studio that gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic crafted a modern MMO that revisited the era’s storied 4,000-year-old playground? EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, released in 2011 and still going strong, capitulates to MMO tropes (like fetch-and-deliver quests ad infinitum), but dressed in better-than-average, more personalized storylines.

    How to play: swtor.com

  • Star Wars: TIE Fighter

    Sure, 1993’s Star Wars: X-Wing was terrific, but it took 1994’s TIE Fighter to catapult developer Totally Games’ series to legendary status. For the first time in gaming history, players could campaign for the other side, exploring the Empire’s strangely compelling machinations–peace by the sword–through ingenious white-knuckled sorties, piloting vulnerable Imperial star fighters without combat backstops like deflector shields. TIE Fighter remains one of the best flight simulations ever made, a tour de force of mission design, plausibly brutal Newtonian deep space dogfighting and subversive storytelling.

    How to play: GOG.com

  • Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga

    My favorite moment in the friendly, rollicking, collection-angled Lego Star Wars games happens early on, in Lego Star Wars itself when you’re poking around Mos Eisley, playing co-op with a friend. At one point you come across a pile of unassembled Lego bits and bobs. You don’t have to do anything. You can just walk on by. But tap a button to whip the mess together, and you’ll find yourself staring down an Imperial AT-ST. At which point my companion yelled: “We just built our own boss monster!”

    How to play: Android, iOS, Mac, Steam

  • Super Star Wars

    I’m skirting my platform stricture here, but if you’re still rocking a Wii, you can pull this platforming run-and-gun down via Nintendo’s Virtual Console for 800 points ($8). Take note of the game’s first-person, pseudo-3D levels, where you can zip around flattened Tatooine landscapes in Luke’s land speeder, lobbing energy balls at enemies. Nintendo called this “Mode 7″ back in the day, and while it looks dated today, seeing it in games like F-Zero and Super Star Wars in the early 1990s was a revelation.

    How to play: Virtual Console (Wii)

  • Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II

    Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II stands as the first Star Wars game that let you experience, however crudely, the combat life of a Jedi Knight. Other games had let you swing the franchise’s iconic lightsaber or pull off Force tricks from sidewise perspectives, but Dark Forces II put that lightsaber (and those force powers) in your hands, then leveled the camera where your eyes would be, propelling you through puzzle-filled levels flush with enemies you could optionally choke or throw or envelop with tendrils of bluish lightning.

    How to play: GOG.com, Steam

  • Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

    Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast may harbor lower lows (uneven level design) than its predecessor, but it’s also packing higher highs (lightsaber play, force powers). And it remains an essential play if the whole “be a Jedi Knight” thing ranks high on your list of Star Wars-ian fantasies.

    How to play: GOG.com, Mac, Steam

  • Star Wars: Empire at War

    No one’s yet produced a Star Wars strategy game to rival the genre’s best, but Star Wars: Empire at War comes the closest. Developer Petroglyph, harboring designers who’d worked on pioneering the real-time strategy games Dune II and Command & Conquer, folded competent terrestrial and space-based real-time strategy battles into a galaxy-spanning meta campaign that gave players control of heroic figures like Leia, Han Solo, Darth Vader and the Emperor himself.

    How to play: GOG.com, Mac, Steam

  • Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds

    Yes, developer Ensemble slapped a coat of Star Wars paint on Age of Empires II, but worse things have happened in gaming. The result was a respectable, reasonably deep real-time strategy game that offered just enough Star Wars flavor—albeit steeped in prequel lore, fair warning—to make it passably more than Age of Empires 2.5.

    How to play: GOG.com

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