Welcome to summer’s end, the season where the air outside seems to sharpen and we’re turning lamps on sooner (the better to game in the evenings without having to draw the curtains or blinds, naturally).
It’s also the start of the busiest time of the year for gamers, the most lucrative annual window during which the industry rolls out its multimillions-marketed newcomers and supergroup sequels.
This season’s shaping up to be about the multi-platform perennials, with exclusives down to a trickle. It’s a little unusual, too, because several of the franchise publishers and studios — pilloried in recent years for sticking to the safe and predictable in their fiscally groomed annual rollouts — are trying harder than we’ve seen in years to do unique things with their respective money-spinners.
Before you dive in, a word on the selections: fall runs from September 22 to December 21, so if you don’t spy a game you’re looking for below, you can find it in one of three places. It could possibly be on a second list that’ll follow this one and focus on the season’s less prominent games. It might be outside the fall window entirely (probably bumped to next year, as were Batman: Arkham Knight, Dying Light, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Battlefield Hardline). Or it could be in unconfirmed limbo-land, meaning it’s listed nebulously as “Q4 2014” and may or may not arrive before the New Year (I’m looking at you, Super Smash Bros. Wii U and Ori and the Blind Forest).
Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes
Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes represents Disney’s second charge into the toy-game space, this time mashed up with the corporate behemoth’s Marvel property characters as well as comics maven Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Powers, Alias) working the writer’s box.
The first-wave characters amount to 16 Marvel superheroes sorted into three play sets with corresponding stories: The Avengers, Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy (weirdly, Nick Fury comes in the Spider-Man and not the Avengers set).
Disney’s also significantly retooled its Toy Box mode, where players can forge their own mini-worlds, making the tool more granular and interface-friendly, and the company notes all Disney Infinity characters old or new work in the sandbox, though characters are still restricted to their play sets, save for a handful that can cross over if you collect coins found in each set.
September 23 / iOS, PlayStation 3 & 4, Wii U, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
If someone built a Zelda game that stripped most of the storytelling and roleplaying and exploration out, then replaced it with stepped-up combat (but included all the protagonist’s signature moves) versus battalions of Hyrulean Soldiers and Bokoblins and Deku Babas, would you play it?
That’s the question in this team-up between Koei Tecmo (Dynasty Warriors, Ninja Gaiden) supervised by Nintendo Zelda series producer/director Eiji Aonuma. It’s not a proper Zelda game, but that’s by design, and it sounds like it’s more than just a hack-and-slash, in that it rewards thoughtful execution of balletic battle maneuvers over thoughtless button-mashing.
September 26 / Wii U
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is a Lord of the Rings-inspired game that delves into Tolkien’s legendarium after the events of The Hobbit, and that may well do for Lord of the Rings games what Batman: Arkham Asylum did not just for Batman games, but gaming in general.
Imagine the Arkham series’ sophisticated, combo-driven, arena-style combat merged with an emergent simulation of gang hierarchies (here, Tolkien’s Uruk-hai, a.k.a. incredibly badass orcs) and volatile vendettas that culminate in a pliable webwork of escalating threats to you and others (that is, the A.I.) within that network.
Push Shadow of Mordor‘s A.I. ecology of plebes, captains and warchiefs and it pushes back, though even inaction is a form of action: watch the time march by and your enemies will evolve and strengthen independently to become even tougher foes.
September 30 / PS4, Windows, Xbox One (November 18 for PS3 and Xbox 360)
Forza Horizon 2
At E3 2014, this southern Europe-located road racer’s creative director sat in front of a display screen that offered astonishing Xbox One views of vehicles that seemed almost hyperreal.
As we watched someone navigate a gleaming 2015 Lamborghini Huracán through the game’s open world, the director delivered line after line of crisp, immaculately rehearsed bullet-point-ese, talking up the game’s expansive scale (three times bigger than the original Forza Horizon), the improved Drivatar technology (A.I. vehicles you can race against, based on the driving attributes of real players’ in your friends list) and the startling way light now refracts through drops of moisture, the render tech plausibly simulating something as intangible but essential as the earth’s atmosphere.
September 30 / Xbox 360 & One
Super Smash Bros. 3DS
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a big deal, because the 3DS is still a big deal (the 3DS, released in early 2011, has sold over four times Sony’s record-busting PlayStation 4 units-wise). That, and it’s been eight years since we’ve had a new Smash Bros. game. The last one, Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii released back in 2006, just passed 12 million units worldwide. The Smash Bros. series as a whole lives in that lofty, rarefied group of game franchises that have sold more than 20 million copies.
That’s the power of Nintendo. No one else has its first-party allure. And while I can’t claim to be any good at the Smash Bros. games, I probably enjoy them more than anything else in fighter-dom. The series’ modestly reimagined debut on 3DS is still a four-player brawl where you’re trying to knock your opponents off the play field, layered with strategic depth stemming from character abilities, item traits and level design.
The twist this outing is that you can modify Super Smash Bros. characters (Miis or Nintendo icons), transfer them between the 3DS and Wii U versions of the game, or train characters using Nintendo’s upcoming Amiibo toy-game figurines.
October 3 / Nintendo 3DS
Skylanders Trap Team
Toy-game pioneer Activision returns with another Skylanders and a narrative hook to justify selling even more plastic geegaws: the series’ big bad, Kaos, has freed the worst of the worst, and it’s up to players to nab them using translucent “traps” that physically connect to an NFC-enabled “Traptanium Portal.”
Once captured, you can turn the bad guys into good guys (they work for you), but comprehensive do-gooding sounds real-world pricey: Activision says you can collect over 60 Skylander toys, and trap more than 40 villains (you can only have one villain per trap).
The most interesting development this round may be Activision’s support for mobile devices, whose specially-tailored Traptanium Portal includes a tablet holder (it works like a kickstand) as well as a wireless gamepad, letting you play the full game just as you would on consoles, but on the go.
October 5 / Android, Fire OS, iOS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 3 & 4, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360 & One
Sony’s Driveclub was originally supposed to ship around the PlayStation 4’s launch last November, but wound up delayed until early 2014, then delayed again, which is one of these flip-a-coin, good-or-bad signs.
This is developer Evolution Studios’ maiden voyage with a road racer, but the studio’s banking from years of experience developing the gonzo off-road Motorstorm series. And while it’s hard to get a sense for what makes Driveclub drastically different from other road racers–the trailers are the usual gleaming vehicles prowling high-octane catwalks–the novelty here seems to be cooperative play: that you can form clubs of up to six players, each working to advance your club by completing challenges.
October 7 / PlayStation 4
Project Spark is Microsoft’s game about making games for Windows, the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Think of it as a creative gamepad, mouse/keyboard, tablet (SmartGlass) or Kinect manipulated canvas, touted in videos as a kind 3D fantasy play-scape you can reshape from macro to micro, retooling the way objects behave down to the smallest levels, all of them shareable with other players.
Topping the list of cool, unexpected features: you don’t need a $60 a year Xbox Live membership to play, and the game stars Conker, the slightly obscene, alcoholic squirrel last seen in a 2005 Conker’s Bad Fur Day remake for the original Xbox.
October 7 / Windows, Xbox 360 & One
It’s been decades since I’ve found anything to like about an Alien movie or video game (granted, I seem to recall enjoying 1997’s Alien Resurrection a bit more than its screenwriter, Joss Whedon, but then it only had to be better than Event Horizon, The Postman, The Lost World and Starship Troopers). And sadly typical of iconic ideas every moneymaker wants to draft off of, no one’s yet managed to craft another experience that translates the sense of existential, almost nihilistic dread we felt seeing Ridley Scott’s Alien for the first time.
“I guess it all started because no one had made the game that we wanted to play, a game that really captured the spirit of the original movie,” says studio The Creative Assembly’s Al Hope, the game’s creative lead. That’s Alien: Isolation‘s promise, a game set between the events of the films Alien and Aliens that’s explicitly not another rambunctious, alien-killing, glorified shoot-em-up, but rather a thoughtful horror-stealth game starring you as Amanda, daughter of Ellen Ripley (the gender stereotype toppling protagonist played by Sigourney Weaver in the films), sleuthing for information about your missing mother on a derelict space station.
October 7 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
The Evil Within
A new survival-horror game directed by the creator of the Resident Evil series (Shinji Mikami) that deliberately walks the genre’s increasingly action-focused gameplay backwards to reinvent it? What could go wrong?
We’ll know soon enough. The game’s plot sounds awfully cliched: an unwitting detective, a ghastly murder, a phantasmagoric asylum and an unstoppable supernatural force. But the idea, according to Mikami, was to subvert survival-horror conventions by slowing the pace, fractionalizing access to weapon ammo and revisiting the land of ridiculously cramped confines.
My hands-on time with the game at E3 didn’t bowl me over (muddy controls, not very scary enemies, difficulty seeing anything), but I’m hopeful the full experience and that area in context justify whatever chances the studio took.
October 14 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
If you’re rocking a computer or last-gen console, you’re in for a very Borderlands 2-like experience (plus new items and weapons) in 2K Australia’s prequel-sequel to one of publisher 2K Games’ most successful games yet. The story this time, to the extent anyone cares, follows the last game’s villain, Handsome Jack, and his turn to criminality.
The twist: low or no gravity motion mechanics that’ll force you to rethink how you get around, since the game transpires both on the Moon and in space.
October 14 / Linux, OS X, PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth
If you’re not put off by the notion of a game that unfurls at the pace of paint drying (and in plenty of cases, paint dries faster) and you count yourself a fan of hard-sci-fi-informed interstellar strategy games, this is quite possibly the most important PC game to come along in years.
Some of us have been waiting exactly 15, in fact, for a spiritual successor to Firaxis’ Alpha Centari. And now that game’s finally here, building on the turn-based strengths of Civilization V‘s resplendent new engine and shift to hex-based play, and hopefully–fingers triple-crossed after all the trouble with Civilization V in this regard–sporting computer opponents that can actually play the game competently here.
October 24 / Linux, OS X, Windows
It’s hard to know what to make of Bayonetta 2 amidst escalating concerns about gender representation in gaming: is its unsubtly sexualized imagery–the protagonist throwing back her head and sighing as a lance slow-mo slides along her body, for instance (watch from 0:26 above)–a celebration of feminine sexuality? Or gratuitous, stereotype-riddled, male demographic targeted exploitation?
Series fans are probably going to shrug off that question and fuss instead over the game’s hack-and-slash particulars. Are the controls and combat maneuvers and time slowing mechanics up to the original game’s acclaimed standards? Are the angelic and demonic enemies versatile and unique enough to sustain interest? And above all else, is the game (and remastered inclusion of the original Bayonetta) compelling enough to warrant buying a Wii U?
October 24 / Wii U
Sunset Overdrive, developer Insomniac’s first try at an open world game, is Microsoft’s only major Xbox One exclusive this fall (not counting Halo: The Master Chief Collection).
At first blush, it sounds eerily similar to Sucker Punch’s Infamous games: irreverent dude with super powers who can grind on rails and scale walls has to save his dystopian city from nefarious forces. But on closer inspection, the differences pop out: a hyperrealistic, punk-informed, quasi-parkour game by way of a zany skateboarding simulation by way of what looks almost like a metropolis-sized circus playground.
October 28 / Xbox One
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
The annual Call of Duty rollouts have become some of the grandest run-of-the-mill events in gaming: mechanically predictable, fictively clumsy and dramatically overwrought, but selling in the gazillions anyway–even as the users generating those record-selling figures weirdly storm review score aggregators to gripe and bring the average numbers down.
Advanced Warfare wants to capsize those assumptions by bringing in heavy guns like: Kevin Spacey, lending both his visage and voice to the game’s ostensible villain (as well, perhaps, as more credibility to the story about a private military corporation gone rogue); studio Sledgehammer, whose co-founders previously worked at Visceral Games on the Dead Space series; and near future warfare tech in the way of exoskeletal suits that give players superhuman abilities, lending the game a sci-fi feel, though one grounded (so we’re told) in meticulously researched extrapolation from existing military concepts.
November 4 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
Assassin’s Creed Unity
2014 could go down as the year annual franchise games caught a glimpse of their spiraling sameness in the mirror and opted for more than superficial change. To that end, Assassin’s Creed Unity is Ubisoft’s–and specifically sub-studio Ubisoft Montreal’s–stab at reworking its popular action-stealth series from the ground up, as groundbreaking a shift, according to the design team, as the first game was when it appeared in 2007.
Tackling the hugely complex period leading up to and through the French Revolution (an inexorable historical destination for this France-based publisher), Unity changes the way you parkour through its Parisian urban-scapes (you can speed down the sides of towering structures as well as up, however improbably), reinvents the way it handles combat (counter- and chain-killing are both gone), lets you move into and out of buildings without separate load areas or scripted animations, and lets you play the game’s story cooperatively, optionally, with up to three other assassins.
November 11 / PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
The indefatigable Halo series is back in a kind of glorious, seam-splitting, mongo-deluxe collection that crams all of the numbered games from 1 through 4, including multiplayer maps and game mode extras, onto a single Blu-ray disc. Think of it as nigh ecclesiastic fan service conveniently intersecting with 2014’s calm before next holiday’s Halo 5: Guardians tempest.
Each version’s been fully remastered here (better lighting, shadows, reflections, other little details, including tweaks to the already-remastered Halo: Combat Evolved) and runs at 60 frames per second and 1080p resolution, though Halo 2 gets the lion’s share of improvements, as this November marks that original Xbox sequel’s 10-year anniversary.
You’ll also get two interesting additives on the disc: playlists, meaning roll-your-own lineups of levels (or Microsoft-curated ones), so that for instance, you can opt to play the Master Chief and Arbiter levels in Halo 2 sequentially instead of intermittently; and access to Halo: Nightfall, a live action digital feature produced by director Ridley Scott that ties into next year’s Halo 5: Guardians.
November 11 / Xbox One
LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Picking up the threads where LEGO Batman 2 left off, Traveller’s Tales’ three-quel pits Batman and pals against Brainiac, the alien android better known for harassing Superman. Not to worry, Supes is here, along with some 150 other heroes and villains from DC’s storied universe.
If that sounds pretty much like the last game with the numbers jacked up, it’s because it is. And that’s the most worrisome thing about what Warner Bros. has been doing with the LEGO series of late, tributing its own iconic IP in these charming rehashes of earlier ideas without meaningfully driving the gameplay anywhere.
November 11 / Nintendo 3DS, iOS, OS X, PlayStation 3 & 4, PS Vita, Wii U, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue
I’d be shocked if Ubisoft didn’t give Assassin’s Creed: Rogue the PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One treatment at some point down the road (perhaps standalone, perhaps as part of an eventual remastered collection–imagine that).
In the meantime, you’ll have to dust off those last-gen boxes to play Ubisoft’s late-breaking narrative sequel to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag unveiled just last month (its story bridges Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III). As in Black Flag, Rogue‘s naval game will predominate, only here you’re sailing through ice-riddled boreal seas as an Irishman and former member of the eponymous Assassins, who’s mysteriously switched sides and joined the rival Templars.
November 11 / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor
They’re still making World of Warcraft expansions? They are indeed. We’re still looking at nearly 7 million people playing the game, in fact, which–whether anyone wants to criticize the game for overstaying its welcome or no–makes the quibble pretty much economically irrelevant.
Warlords of Draenor, which follows Mists of Pandaria‘s release two years ago, is Blizzard’s fifth expansion to its MMO-to-rule-all-MMOs. The new features probably won’t barrel you over: The level cap, which topped out at 60 when the game launched 10 years ago in 2004, finally hits three figures (from 90 to 100). The game’s getting its customary graphical uptick (in this case, its the older races being improved) and a smattering of new dungeons and raids. And Blizzard’s adding user-created garrisons that let players recruit in-game characters to handle loot-gathering busywork.
November 13 / OS X, Windows
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The first Dragon Age game, Origins, was a decent enough romp, so long as you parleyed Dungeons & Dragons and didn’t mind the way the game mistook expletives, implied sex and blood spatter for narrative gravitas. But the second installment was a mess of half-measures designed to appeal both to button-mashing action fans and stat wonks, excelling at neither.
Dragon Age: Inquisition revamps BioWare’s dark fantasy series by opening up the game world (it’s not Skyrim-sized, but far bigger and spread out than the last two games) and delivering a combat system that, while still action-oriented, allows for deeply strategic, tactically-nuanced and preplanning-driven battles.
Some of those battles–I can confirm this firsthand, after watching a demonstrator tango with a dragon–may take upwards of 15 minutes to half an hour and involve multiple stages to complete; you sense the MMO genre’s fingerprints here, perhaps in a good way.
November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
Far Cry 4
The last time we got to ramble around the Himalayas in a big ticket game was Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2, and what a gorgeous glimpse that was. Far Cry 4 looks to be far prettier, but unlike Uncharted 2, it’s a sprawling open-world shooter that models the mountainous microcosm of a play-box you get to tramp around (snared by the horrors of a regional civil war) with incredible verisimilitude.
Plus: see 4:25 in the gameplay video above (warning, language), and among the many side-activities and forms of travel Far Cry 4 supports, you’re looking at the world’s first game-based wingsuit simulator.
November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 & One
LittleBigPlanet 3‘s two biggest changes are as follows: One, instead of the series’ lovable, burlap-adorned, but ultimately singular protagonist, the game will have four, each with unique abilities design to complement the others’ and help solve the new game planet’s multifaceted puzzles. And two, the series’ original developer and creator, Media Molecule, is on to other things, replaced by series newcomer Sumo Digital.
If you’ve already invested in either of the last two games, Sony says their content (in particular, all the user-generated levels) is transferrable to LittleBigPlanet 3, turning this third installment into something of a LittleBigPlanet emporium. And if you’re a hard-nosed level tinkerer, the level creator now supports a whopping 16 (versus just three) layers of depth, and the levels themselves are only limited in scale by the size of your hard drive.
November 18 / PlayStation 3 & 4
Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V‘s been around for nearly a year, but it’s on this list because Rockstar’s remastered version may well outsell everything else this fall when it lands on both of the new consoles. (It’s the sixth-bestselling video game of all time, courtesy the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and the bestselling game of the past half-decade).
It’s also far more rhetorically nuanced and thoughtful than its critics give it credit, a sort of misanthropist’s revelry glossing subtler, darker points about American consumer culture. Calling it misogynist, for instance, misses its point, but then that’s also part of its point.
November 18 / PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire
Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are the latest in publisher Nintendo and developer Game Freak’s remakes of older, ridiculously popular Pokémon games. Here, they’ve added Greek letters to their original names, Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire.
The originals for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance are over a decade old, so the most obvious change is going to be from primitive 2D to the reimagined 3D graphics and the 3DS’s dual-screen interface split. The rest of the changes amount to the sort of arcane minutia only Pokémon devotees will understand, but that’s sure to have them lining up in droves to buy both versions when they ship in late November.
November 21 / Nintendo 3DS
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Write to Matt Peckham at email@example.com