It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . unless you’re the one who has to sift through this year’s massive library of games to find that perfect gift.
Welcome to the 2016 holiday season, which promises to be a special one for video game fans of all ages and styles. The PlayStation 4/Xbox One era of games is currently in full swing (and now have the power of 4K and HDR visuals), virtual reality has hit the mainstream, and quality titles dotted this year’s gaming calendar.
It should all leave gamers salivating come gift-opening time, but until then, those buying gifts for their special someones won’t have things as easy. So here are a few tips to help you make the perfect gift purchases this holiday season:
1) Is PlayStation VR ready for prime time?
Sure, all those wires can be clunky, but PSVR is here to stay – and it’s worth every penny. When Sony dropped PSVR on the market a month ago, it released the most affordable version of high-level virtual reality gaming you can find, and it did so with plenty of careful, cautious thought.
At $399, PSVR is exactly half the price of the PC-powered HTC Vive ($799), but it already boasts a potent library of games, many of which are also affordable. No, that’s not cheap, but note too that the library of PSVR games manages to be budget-friendly: Batman Arkham VR and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood VR, two terrific titles exclusive to PlayStation, are $19.99.
In 2016, virtual reality doesn’t get much better than this.
2) Are the console refreshes worth the upgrade?
It depends. Both Sony and Microsoft released their first console refreshes this year, dropping the PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One S, respectively. Neither is a universal must-own, although both have are worth considering in the right situation.
If you’ve been waiting to join the Xbox One/PS4 era, now is the time to do it, because both the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One S are potent machines. The PS4 Pro in particular is as good and powerful as a gaming console gets in this era, built for the future of gaming and maximized if you have a newer TV capable of 4K and HDR visuals. It’s forward-thinking in many ways.
The Xbox One S isn’t quite as landmark, and gamers are best served waiting on Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, due out next year. But the machine still has its value as the most versatile 4K Blu-Ray player on the market.
3) Is there one gaming gift that definitely can’t go wrong?
If you can find it, yes. Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition is a $59.99 powerhouse of a machine, the ultimate gift this holiday. Essentially, Nintendo slaps 30 of the best games from the era of the old graybox Nintendo into a miniaturized version of that iconic console, then makes it plain and simple for gamers to fall in love all over again.
It’s price-friendly, and it capitalizes on the nostalgia of many veteran gamers, plus the games and the old controller are easy enough that youngsters can get into the action too. The downside is that the NES Classic Edition is incredibly hard to find, although Nintendo said in a statement that there will be a “steady flow of additional systems through the holiday shopping season and into the new year.”
4) Does the PC market have anything worth exploring?
Check out the Razer Blade Stealth, the most intriguing gaming laptop on the market. The Stealth is Razer’s first ultrabook built for the mainstream, so it’s more price-friendly than similar devices (starting price: $999) but is still driven by a Core-i7 processor that can run the likes of Civilization VI with ease.
It doesn’t play nice with say, Hitman, but it’s not meant to do that: It’s a laptop meant for the mainstream. That doesn’t mean the gamer in your life will be disappointed, though: The Stealth can also be paired with a Core unit that offers the power of an external video card. The Core must be purchased separately . . . but you can leave that for the gamer in your life to buy for themselves, too.
5) This year’s must-own game is . . .
Battlefield 1. It’s been a terrific year for games (more on that up next), but Battlefield 1 stands above the rest, blending a potent campaign with a deep multiplayer mode. EA Dice’s finest Battlefield in years jumps around World War I in satisfying fashion in its campaign, and delivers a deep multiplayer mode that supports up to 64 players. Hard to beat that.
6) Any other multiplayer-driven games guaranteed to satisfy come gift-opening time?
It was a year full of blockbusters that delivered, so yes. Titanfall 2 was everything that the original game wasn’t, finally delivering a solid campaign and pairing that with one of the best multiplayer suites of the year, powered by Last Man Standing (think of it as a sort of Royal Rumble with mechs) and Bounty Hunt modes.
And that was only the tip of the iceberg, really. Blizzard is known for the Diablo and Warcraft franchises, but its team arena title Overwatch was well-constructed and can deliver 100s of hours of fun to multiplayer-focused gamers. Just be aware: Like Star Wars: Battlegrounds of last year, there’s no single-player component to Overwatch.
Meanwhile, Activision churned out another quality Call of Duty title in Infinite Warfare, which includes a significantly rebuilt (and ridiculously fun) Zombie Mode. And aging Activision title Destiny got a significant revamp with the Rise of Iron expansion. Both are solid choices for gamers looking for a blend of multiplayer action and story.
The best blend of those two things, however, goes to Gears of War 4, an Xbox One exclusive that continues the Gears saga that ended on the Xbox 360, introducing a new cast of characters. The new crew isn’t quite as compelling as Marcus Fenix and Co., but J.D. and friends are solidly wisecracking, and the story is good. And Gears 4’s Horde Mode multiplayer is as addictive and deep as ever, especially if you can get the right team together.
7) What about story-driven games for gamers who don’t care for online company?
This is where 2016 really thrived – and where developer Square Enix enjoyed a banner year. The minds behind the just-released Final Fantasy XV released several terrific games before this latest FF, headlined by Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The follow-up to 2013’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution delivers the most immersive gaming world of 2016, a cyber-steampunk universe with plenty to do and explore and a story that takes plenty of twists and turns.
And that was hardly Square’s only trick this year, either. Square Enix started the year by rolling out HITMAN, one of the finest stealth/assassination games you’ll ever play, with a host of open-ended levels that have Agent 47 working to assassinate a variety of targets in nearly any way you can imagine. Seven episodes were released over the course of the year and all are available now; the lone downside of HITMAN is that it’s not on disc just yet, so it doesn’t make for much fun to unwrap.
And if any game could rival Mankind Divided’s world, it just might be Bethesda’s Dishonored 2, another open-ended action/stealth game with a terrific story. Dishonored 2 is also female-friendly, letting gamers choose to play as either first-game star Corvo Attano or Empress Emily Kaldwin. It’s satisfying experience either way.
8) Anything for the kids?
Disney’s Infinity franchise is no longer an option, but that doesn’t mean children can’t fall in love with the toy-come-to-life category of games. Skylanders: Imaginators is a perfect option for a youngster, giving them the ability to essentially create their own cartoon-like toy creature and take it into an platforming adventure. (And if you really want to be nice about this one, you’ll then purchase a 3D-printed version of that creature from Activision for that young gamer. Yes, they can do that).
Meanwhile, the LEGO Dimensions franchise continues to grow, and it’s easily the most fun series in the genre. What could get better than building with LEGOs, then playing with that in a video game? New sets drawing from Fantastic Beasts and the recent Ghostbusters film add to the fun.
9) Any games from early 2016 that can’t be forgotten?
Dark Souls III. The latest effort from FromSoftware and Namco Bandai is quite easily the finest game of its genre, surpassing even last year’s Bloodborne. Be warned that Dark Souls III is not easy, but it’s not supposed to be, either: The franchise is known for its challenge. The latest game, however, marries speed to the always-nuanced combat system.
Uncharted 4, a PS4 exclusive, told a spectacular story and may have marked the end for Nathan Drake, one of the stars of gaming in recent years. This isn’t a game experience to be wasted by the gamer, though; if you pick this up for a youngster, spend the extra $20 and grab them last year’s Uncharted Collection so they can play up to the newest game and truly enjoy the story.
10) Is this a year that sports games can be skipped, that they simply refresh rosters?
Nope. In fact, this was a banner year for sports titles, with three games taking things to new heights. Madden NFL 17 is the finest football video game yet, thanks to a deeper franchise mode and pinpoint controls, and NBA 2K17 sets a new bar for basketball video game realism (even though it is far from easy).
MLB The Show 16, a PlayStation 4 exclusive, and FIFA 17 are more skippable this holiday. Both are solid, although they don’t feature the earth-shattering upgrades of the Big 2 sports titles this year.
11) What about Nintendo? Anything cooking there?
Yes and no. The company has already announced a new console, the Switch, due out early next year, so this is not the time to invest in the Wii U, and it’s really not worth running out to pick up games for the aging console, either past one title: Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE. Mirage Sessions is a strange Japanese RPG, and it’s not for everyone, but anyone who appreciates the equally eclectic Shin Megami Tensei role-players will love this.
The 3DS continues to have value, though, and this holiday, it’s home to several absolutely terrific games. The finest portable game on the portable console is easily Super Mario Maker 3DS, a game that takes all the fun of Mario and lets you make your own levels. It was good on the Wii U last year, and it’s even better (but just as fluid) on the 3DS. Pokemon Sun and Moon, meanwhile, update the classic Pokemon formula while retaining all the old-school fun of the series.
And if you have a diehard RPG fan in the family, don’t forget about Fire Emblem: Fates, the latest in Nintendo’s turn-based strategy RPG series, which was released early this year.
12) It’s always games and consoles? Anything a little more interesting that could make a great gift?
Definitely, since this is the year that gaming got creative and customizable. That was evident in the Xbox Design Lab (check out: xboxdesignlab.xbox.com), where you can build a personalized Xbox One controller, selecting everything from colors to surface textures to inscriptions. It’s a fun and easy experience, and if you don’t want to do the customizing, leave that for the gamer in your life: You can also purchase a Design Lab gift code.
For the hardcore online gamer in your life, consider Astro’s new A50 wireless headset, which looks sleek and sets up in a matter of minutes. And for the PC gamer, grab Razer’s DeathAdder Classic mouse, a powerful weapon for the PC shooter fan.