Grand Theft Auto V
In Rockstar's sandbox crime spree opus, you can explore — bear with me here — a state park, oil fields, a penitentiary, an ocean highway, a mountain observatory, a power station, a lumber yard, a national office of security enforcement, a lighthouse, a carnival boardwalk, a fort, a scrapyard, parks, cable cars, trails, tunnels, vineyards, golf clubs, bowling alleys, truck stops, islands, off-road racetracks, strip clubs, wind turbines, scenic drives and views, and the sprawling city of Los Santos itself, occupying a fraction of the map. You’ve never seen a game world as thoroughly realized.
Steer clear if... You're easily offended.
What the critics said: "...as irresistible to play as it is to admire, a super-sized version of the already super-sized Grand Theft Auto IV with the best parts intact and all the impurities leeched out ... the most refined game Rockstar’s ever published." (TIME)
ESRB Rating: Mature
Metal Gear Solid V
Loping across The Phantom Pain‘s hardscrabble Afghani-scapes, lighting on soldiers bantering about communism and capitalism, playing tapes of cohorts waxing philosophic about SALT II, Soviet scorched earth policies and African civil wars, questioning who I’m supposed to be—sporting metaphorical horn and tail, both hero and villain—all I know is I’m going to miss the defiance, the daring, the controversy, the contradictions of this acclaimed stealth series. This, given creator Hideo Kojima’s breach with publisher Konami, is his last Metal Gear game, so it’s poetically fitting that it turned out to be his best.
Steer clear if... Convoluted stories or the prospect of surveying more than shooting in sprawling open-world areas turn you off.
What the critics said: "...it’s the game’s ruthless artificial intelligence that ties it all together so superbly. The Phantom Pain sports the most unpredictable, exploitation-resistant opponents we’ve seen in a sandbox game." (TIME)
ESRB Rating: Mature
You're probably tired of hearing about Minecraft...unless you're one of the more than 100 million who've bought studio Mojang's block-juggling phenomenon. Exemplifying gaming's ability to surprise, this is that rarest of experiences you can return to repeatedly, whether cataloguing treacherous critter-patrolled depths in survival mode or drafting contraptions like working computers from its endless canvas of cubes. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions follow nearest the Java-based PC version's features, and offer their own perks in the bargain, including the indispensable option to play local split-screen.
Steer clear if... Setting your own gameplay goals isn't your thing.
What the critics said: "...this edition is perfect for playing in your living room with friends" (Meristation); "...A larger world and higher resolution only adds to the experience, making this the best console version out there" (XGN); "...the game is still great, and this is the best way to play it on console" (Vandal Online)
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
The Witcher 3
Studio CD Projekt Red’s open-world miracle The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt approaches high fantasy roleplaying perfection -- assuming you like slow-burn character dramas with courses of action that have frequently bleak, inexorable outcomes. The Witcher 3's grand, brooding, ethically nebulous tale of a mercenary mutant's quest to find his vanished adopted daughter is to the rest of video game roleplaying as George R.R. Martin to J.R.R. Tolkien.
Steer clear if... Games that can easily devour a hundred hours seem a bridge too far.
What the critics said: "...the sense of scale in The Witcher is pretty consistently confounding [and the writing] signal[s] a different tone, one that rises above the typical pablum of high-fantasy that, to my ears, bleeds together meaninglessly" (TIME)
ESRB Rating: Mature
In Jonathan Blow and studio Thekla’s The Witness, mysteries abound on a deserted island that may or may not exist. The island is beautiful but oblique, sublime yet functionally inscrutable. Glowing screens with maze-like grids are everywhere, connective cables snake through sun-dappled underbrush or down into cavernous passages. All of it leads players to ever more bizarre, seemingly impenetrable line puzzles. It’s weird and gorgeous and categorically defiant.
Buy this game if... You've loved puzzle games like Myst, but want to see what an experience that grapples with the issues raised by those games looks like. (Digital downloads)
Steer clear if... You're not prepared to think deeply (and patiently) about a challenge before solving it.
What the critics said: "...a way of ingeniously hiding locks and keys and entire modes of inquiry in plain sight. Blow’s triumph lies in his insight into the thresholds of human perspective, how information travels and agglomerates, and how, given the right frame of mind, any of us might move mountains" (TIME)
ESRB Rating: Everyone