Leading the pack is one of the best games of the year, Grand Theft Auto V, which also happens to be one of last year’s best. Remastered, buffed up with new missions, control schemes and the option to play from first person, the game shines on the Xbox One and PS4. Meanwhile, a pair of cross-generational blockbusters-to-be — the hunting and exploring adventure Far Cry 4 and the rasslin’ sim WWE 2K15 — are releasing on all consoles in the same year. The first batch of Mario Kart 8 DLC is out, and there’s also Tetris Ultimate to fill your puzzle needs.
Grand Theft Auto V
(Xbox One, PS4, $60, Mature)
Rockstar’s sprawling open-world crime saga is reborn with stunning graphics, expanded campaign and online gameplay. There are loads of new things to see and do in the game’s virtual sandbox parody of Los Angeles. You can swap between the three lead characters, all criminal burnouts whose storylines intersect with one another as they try to scrap their way to the top of the underworld heap. The series’ penchant for vicious satire, eyebrow-roasting set pieces and deep, intuitive gameplay are all back in spades. The game has so much to see and do — almost none of which feels like busywork — that it’s easy to be overwhelmed and tough to stay on task to plug through the story missions.
Since so many gamers wore out the game last year on the PS3 and Xbox 360, what matters most about the rerelease is a reason to return for another go-round. The ability to toggle between third and first-person perspectives make the madness seem entirely new. While the first-person mode is a hindrance during shooting missions, it makes the driving more immersive. There are also tons of new songs on the radio stations, new missions to take on and vastly expanded online play, which now rounds up 30 players to take part in the mayhem. There are also photography, flight and racing challenges, and all your online progress from the last-gen version transfers over to the current one. There have been tons of new-gen rereleases this year, and Grand Theft Auto V is one of the most expansive of the lot.
Far Cry 4
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $60, Mature)
While previous Far Cry games were determined to reinvent the franchise with vastly new settings and gameplay styles, Far Cry 4 sticks close to the Far Cry 3 template. Once again you’re plunged into a remote setting — this one a secluded mountain empire inspired by Tibet — bent on overthrowing a flamboyant tyrant by taking out encampments and guiding a rebel faction to aid your cause. The wilderness bounds with wild creatures to hunt down and repurpose as weapons. You can both kill and craft the remains into item and weapons upgrades, or hop on the back of a war elephant to romp over pedestrians. The world of Far Cry 4 feels vibrant and pulses with bombastic, destructive wonders.
The storytelling is solid, but unobtrusive, taking a backseat to let you create your own narrative, defining your character by the way you inhabit, attack and control your surroundings. Cooperative multiplayer is an unrepentant blast, letting you round up a posse for creative freelancing. The PS4 version lets you share a two-hour multiplayer demo version with up to 10 friends, who will no doubt become intrigued enough to go out and get their own copies. The multiplayer adds a sense of freshness the campaign sometimes lacks, especially for those who were obsessed with Far Cry 3. But online or off, this is one of the year’s most exciting action titles.
Mario Kart 8 DLC
(Wii U, $8, Everyone)
Available as a standalone $8 purchase or as part of a two-pack bundle for $12 — with the second part due out in May — the first expansion gives you plenty of reasons to revisit my favorite game of 2014. The Zelda-themed pack adds eight courses in two new circuits, three characters and four vehicles to the fray. The tracks are standouts that match the level of creativity and forward momentum in the excellent mainline game, and are challenging enough to get you to spend hours striving for perfect three-star scores.
The new characters are Link, Tanooki Mario and Cat Peach. It’s the sword-swinging Link that’s the star of that bunch, and it’s no surprise to see online races populated with the green-hatted hero. The other two additions are disappointing throwaways, and the new vehicles likely won’t draw you away from your favorites. Since the first pack is so solid, it makes sense to spring for the bundle in order to save $4 from what obsessives will undoubtedly spend on the next round.
(3DS, $30, Everyone)
Tetris has been made and remade so thoroughly on portable systems that it takes an ingenious effort to separate from the pack. Tetris Ultimate may not be ingenious or distinguished, but it’s undoubtedly one of the finest roundups of the addictive falling-blocks game. Four-player multiplayer makes for fevered line-clearing, and several new modes — the star of which is the power-up frenzy called Battle Ultimate — provide fresh twists on the standard formula.
As intriguing as the new modes are, it’s the main game that tends to draw you back again and again. The formula has been so thoroughly mastered that Tetris Ultimate adds nothing, but at least developers were wise enough not to screw it up with distracting add-ons. The $30 price seems steep, especially since there are clones you can play on your smartphone for free, but purists who crave the 3DS button layout and two-screen setup will want to treat themselves to this, a version that nails the basics and throws in enough new stuff to freshen things up.
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $60, Teen)
A back-to-basics new-gen reinvention of the wrestling sim, WWE 2K15 wows with impressive visuals, presentation and animation. The gameplay skews far more conservative, seeming intent only to not mess things up too badly, resulting in a game that may look better than previous versions, but plays just the same. Just about anything a WWE obsessive would want to see is here, with an impressive character roster, all painstakingly motion-capped and bestowed with a wide range of signature moves. The announcer banter is varied and entertaining, and the cheesy cut-scenes ooze the flavor of the awful-yet-endearing TV programming.
There are plenty of options for modes and matches, and no shortage of extra features to grapple with. The problem is that few of them feel necessary or fully developed. Tacked-on career and historical modes do little to hook you enough to grind through the flat content, and online play is content to check off the basic modes while steering away from innovation. This game feels like something of a launching point for future entries that will no doubt be smoother and flashier.