It usually takes until September for the blockbuster games to emerge, but publishers are getting a jump on things by unleashing three heavy-hitters that have gamers pumped to bust their budgets to play during the waning days of summer. First up is a blast from the past. Gears of War comes back from the dead in a revamped Ultimate Edition, looking and playing better than ever before. Football fans can prepare for the fast-coming season by strapping on their virtual pads for Madden NFL 16, and horror movie freaks can find their shrieks in Until Dawn.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition
(Xbox One, $40, Mature)
Even though it’s nearly a decade old, Gears of War doesn’t feel creaky at all. The methodical, cover-based shooter drove the genre in a more strategic direction in 2006. With its cover-based, flanking and melee-heavy mechanics, the likes of Call of Duty and Halo away from the Doom-style free-for-all run-and-gun origins of the genre. Although the series has been dormant since the middling Gears of War: Judgment, it’s slated for a re-emergence on the Xbox One, heralded by a rock-solid remaster of the original game. Fending off the menace of the Locust Horde has never looked or played as well, raging at 60 frames per second in 1080p.
Although it’s disappointing Microsoft didn’t spring for a wholesale series compilation along the lines of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, it’s satisfying to play a thoroughly advanced version of a game you fell in love with when you were younger. Enhanced graphics make the game’s gloomy world shine with intense detail, and its mulitplayer scene comes alive in both co-op and competitive modes, with all previously-released DLC maps making a return. The story also gets a boost, with five new chapters that fill in plot holes and round out the characters. It’s a pleasure to play one of the best last-gen games on the Xbox One, but it only gets you greedy for more. Hopefully similar treatments for the other two parts of the mainline trilogy are on the way.
Madden NFL 16
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $60, Everyone)
After hitting its current-gen flow with last year’s release, this year’s Madden throws plenty of heft into the presentation and storytelling aspects of the game. The introductory sequence, which has you take control of the Steelers as they face the Cardinals in the Super Bowl, demonstrate the way the series has evolved in short order. Engrossing shots, graphics and commentary give the game an NFL Films-caliber quality that makes you want to go back and replay it again and again. Although the main gameplay doesn’t hold up to that standard, it’s not as much of a dropoff as you’d expect. This is the most watchable version of Madden yet created.
The gameplay also holds up. Each season, developers single out an aspect of the game to focus on, and pass receiving and coverage gets the nod this year. There’s a new rock-paper-scissors minigame that flashes onscreen when the ball draws near. You can opt to lock down for a possession grab, snag it on the run to stretch your yardage or bully the defender for an aggressive snatch. Depending on your choice, you make yourself more vulnerable to a drop, fumble or interception while also gambling for strategic purposes. The running game and line battles still need work, but overall this is a superb Madden entry.
(PS4, $60, Mature)
Combining wondrous 80s and 90s teen horror movie cliches with an adventure game structure and some tense moments of quick-time event action, Until Dawn is just ridiculous enough to be brilliant. Set in a cabin in the woods plagued by a psycho serial killer, the story involves the ill-fated attempts of nubile stock characters to avoid certain death and survive to see another scene. Hayden Panettiere, wearing just a towel for a significant portion of the game, heads up the exquisitely motion-captured cast. Along with The Order: 1886, this is one of the most gorgeous PS4 games out there.
There’s added challenge to the affair because you’re not allowed to go back and reload saves. You’ll have to live with whatever dumb choices you make, and the smallest tweaks to snap decisions can lead to entirely different outcomes. In many situations, there’s no better choice than another. For instance, you’ll find yourself being chased down a hallway, forced to choose at a moment’s notice whether to hide in a closet or scamper through another doorway. This means you’ll find yourself forced into awful outcomes, or lucked into surprise success, through no real fault or credit to your choices. The haphazard storytelling may be frustrating, but it manages to keep cranking out the thrills.