THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT
As open-world experiences go, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt takes high fantasy to new heights with its staggeringly massive world and rich, engaging storytelling. The grizzled Geralt of Rivia finds himself in landscapes that are as picturesque as they are treacherous, where otherworldly beasts and crazed cultists lurk in the wilderness. There are unforgettable side-quests and delightful supporting characters to distract you at every turn, but you best remember Geralt’s primary goal: finding his adopted daughter (and witcher-in-training) Ciri before some supremely evil people get to her first.
That’s not to say that you need to rush through the main story, because taking the time to stop and smell the eviscerated corpses is well worth it. The sword-and-spell-casting combat looks stunning on new-gen, and the deep upgrade system gives you plenty of options to slay your way. There are a few hitches – notably some framerate issues that can hopefully be patched out – but the sheer depth of the overall experience makes The Witcher 3 a triumph among action RPGs. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got to return to a rousing round of the in-game card battler Gwent.
Batman: Arkham Knight is another biff-pow display of Rocksteady’s exceptional craftsmanship in bringing a classic comic icon to life. Though combat and stealth are again refined and expanded within Batman’s beautifully rain-slick city, the game’s elegant design is reflected not in its individual components, but in how well they connect with one another, like nodes in a web.
Though the Batmobile’s roaring arrogance has made it a controversial addition to the Arkham series, there’s no question about how integral it is to Batman’s latest patrol. Conceptually, it’s meant to be a way to move quickly in a much wider slice of dour ol’ Gotham, and its visual appearance is, of course, inspired by Batman’s history of driving – as The Riddler calls them – rocket-powered hearses. But Rocksteady dives in fully and makes sure the vehicle connects to combat, stealth and every part of Batman. The overall game’s polish and continuity can be seen in one motion, with the Batmobile hurtling down an alley and launching Batman into full flight, right through a window and into a savage display of ne’er-do-well punishment. It’s one move, one world and one of the coolest moments of 2015. It’ll get you pumped to track down every last super criminal, including whoever masterminded the dreadful PC port.
MORTAL KOMBAT X
t takes a lot to make a fighting game appeal to the masses. You need slick graphics, excellent presentation, and the kind of depth that’ll ensnare those highly skilled players who people want to watch. Mortal Kombat X has got all that, and more. While the Fatality finishers still pack in more gore than you can shake a disembodied limb at, MKX brings a lot of new, refreshing ideas to the table that really make this fighter stand out.
For starters, there’s the variations mechanic: every combatant has three unique movesets to choose from before each fight, letting character loyalists mix things up and giving the roster a wildly diverse variety of playstyles. You’ll also have a blast playing through the elaborate story mode, which introduces a swath of likeable newcomers while imbuing familiar faces with a kind of admirable maturity not commonly seen in games. The online play still has a few kinks that could be worked out, but fans of the Mortal Kombat series – or fighting games in general – will have one hell of a time with MKX.
ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST
Ori and the Blind Forest somehow manages to be diamond tough and lovingly tender at the same time, balancing out its demanding difficulty with a story that’ll practically yank your heartstrings right out of your chest. Playing this open-world platformer puts you in a wondrous state of conflict: the tight controls inspire you to run free throughout the lush world, but the sheer depth of the beyond-gorgeous backdrop art makes you want to stand still and gaze at the environment for hours.
The protagonist Ori is such a cute li’l critter that it’s hard to watch the fuzzball die again and again while you struggle to overcome the many deathtraps and spike pits in this treacherous forest. But you’ll get over any bruises to your ego, so long as you remember that you’re the one responsible for plunking down checkpoints before delving into the trickier bits. The degree of challenge here may rattle anyone without an affinity for hardcore 2D platformers, but Ori’s dazzling presentation has a universal, heartfelt appeal.
WOLFENSTEIN : THE OLD BLOOD
The Old Blood is a strange beast. As a six-hour, stand-alone prequel to 2014’s excellent Wolfenstein: The New Order, it puts us through a grinder of tense, exciting, and memorable shootouts in some really great settings. But while The New Order shined brightest during its quiet moments of exploration and character development, The Old Blood never really gives you time to catch your breath during its descent to zombie-filled strangeness. That unrelenting pace makes it lots of fun, but not as thoughtful as its stand-out predecessor.
Taking place during the late ‘40s, The Old Blood once again places you in the blood-soaked boots of B.J. Blazkowicz, back before he saved the world from Deathshead’s alternate-history evil. The story this time around has you infiltrating mountainside fortresses, escaping Nazi prisons, and fighting waves of zombies, but nothing about the story ever really felt memorable. Like so many entertaining but forgettable shooters before it, The Old Blood comes across more like an automated shooting range, most notable for presenting you with diverse locations to shoot all manner of baddies in. From the torchlit halls of Castle Wolfenstein to cryptic caves underneath burning villages, you briskly move from place to place, and encounter to encounter. While this speed keeps the action hot, I really did miss New Order’s surprisingly effective detours into character relationships, non-combat areas, and story. That felt brave and bold in a way this doesn’t.
Project Cars has been one of the year’s surprise success stories, to the extent that Slightly Mad Studios has just announced a sequel while the first game’s barely two months old. It’s not hard to understand why. The partly crowd-funded racer has tapped an audience that other racers seemed to be ignoring. It turns out that not everyone wants a social racing focus, Top Gear tie-ins, American racing superstars or the world’s best photo mode, but lots of people do seem to want a game with a fairly straight race-by-race, championship by championship career mode, the option to play full race weekends, a realistic approach to tyre wear and damage and AI racers that are neither robotic nor psychotic. Project Cars delivers on all these counts.
In many respects, it’s maturing nicely too. Now on its 1.04 patch, the PS4 version is smoother running, has cleaner edges and is less prone to the menace of screen tear, all of which make for a slightly better experience. And while we can’t say whether it’s a combination of patches, our own control tweaks or just experience that have done the trick, we’re finding the handling more predictable and consistent these days. Some classes of vehicle – particularly the open wheel racers and karts – can be a nightmare to drive, but that’s what we’d expect. This isn’t a game you can play like Forza 5 or Gran Turismo 6, screaming around the corners with the brakes on and hoping for the best. It requires a little more of the thought and discipline you’d find in PC’s sim racers, though with driving aids on it’s more approachable than Assetto Corsa and the like.