If there is one thing this cursed year of lockdown has been good for, it’s been video games. The right game – in a way that a box set cannot – will give you a sense of steady progress and achievement, a series of goals; and a world more forgiving and expansive than the four walls of your living room. My kids, for instance, have become very good indeed at Mario Kart Wii and have built vast empires in Minecraft; and I don’t dare look at my own total playing time on World of Warcraft.
With the prospect of the tier system continuing well into the new year, now is a good time to stock up on the best new goodies. The big news in gaming this autumn has been the release of the latest generation of consoles. Up and down the country there will be kids hoping that Santa has room in his sleigh and coin in his pocket for a wallopy new Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 – both £449.99.
The buzziest launch title for the latter is probably Spider-Man: Miles Morales — which puts Peter Parker on the bench to go web-swinging with his alternative universe counterpart Miles Morales. You’ll be zapping, kicking and bashing enemies in acrobatic style while swinging around a lovingly-rendered Harlem. Hardcore gamers, meanwhile, will revel in the gothic stylings and formidable difficulty curve of Demon’s Souls, a relaunch of the feted 2009 action RPG. (There are a lot of remakes and sequels this year – see also Final Fantasy VII, Doom Eternal, The Last of Us Part II and another instalment of a loveable platformer in Crash Bandicoot 4.)
Other titles that’ll give the new consoles’ frame-rates a workout will include Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla — probably the flagship title for the Xbox Series X, which comes (boo) with no launch exclusives of its own. Another installment in the venerable time-travelling stealth/action adventure series, Valhalla lets you play a vengeful Viking called Eivor in a vast reconstruction of Dark Ages Britain and Norway. In a Zeitgeist-friendly, GamerGate-baiting move, you can play Eivor as either male or female as you raid, pillage and eviscerate your way through his/her scrofulous world.
And if you’re after cinematic treatments of exotic worlds — with added stabbing — Kurosawa fans will also appreciate Ghost of Tsushima, in which you play a samurai defending his homeland by slice-‘n’-dicing Mongol invaders in 13th-century Japan. Put it this way: you don’t get to write any haiku in Assassin’s Creed.
Space invaders? Yes, of course there’s space stuff too. Nerds like me will be keeping an eye out, for instance, for the first-person outer-space dogfighting to be had in Star Wars Squadrons – pitting the Galactic Empire against the New Republic in a slice of time after the events of Return of the Jedi. And, unexpectedly, the meatheaded shooter series Gears of War has been reimagined as a strategy game in Gears Tactics. Just as much swearing and gore: but a tiny bit of brainpower now required.
For those of us who binged on the outstanding Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, our most devout hope will be to find in our stockings a copy of the long-awaited latest game from the studio that made that one, CD Projekt Red. Cyberpunk 2077, released at last on December 10th. Set in Night City on a futuristic US West Coast, it promises hi-tech gadgets, icky body-modification, immersive open-world action… and the quest for immortality. All this, plus Keanu Reeves living in your character’s brain.
For more family-friendly interactive fun, though, Switch owners are going to be turning to another new release: Mario Kart: Home Circuit. Here’s a weird one: a “mixed-reality” game in which you race actual remote-controlled cars around your actual living room using the first-person kart-racing interface familiar from the previous games. Drifting round the kitchen table; negotiating a chicane through the chair-legs, all the while dropping banana skins and firing virtual red shells at your real-life opponents. It sounds ridiculous and fun and your cat is especially going to love it.
Also one for the kids – and a tonic for those who think videogames are an automatic high-road to spinal curvature, chronic obesity and sofa-sores on the bottom – is the latest installment in the super-popular Just Dance series, Just Dance 2021. Available for Switch, PS5 and Xbox alike, this gets players up and boogying in time with the ever more exotic dance-moves of the on-screen characters. “Dance Monkey”? You asking?
Christmas came early for players of the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, with the Shadowlands expansion dropping in late November for retail WoW players and an expansion for WoW Classic – making the new raid instance Naxxramas available to top-level players – coming a week or two later. As a WoW player, I could be expected to say this, but a subscription — the price of a pint or two a month – is an entertainment budget thriftily well spent. The game will eat your life, and your life will thank it for doing so.