Hot Games of the Week Reviewed: October 27th

The past few days have seen launches of some of gamedom’s most successful and enduring franchises. With Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which hit shelves Friday, the series goes back to its single-player origins rather than squandering resources on hit-or-miss multiplayer that failed to capture the spark of the main campaign. And yesterday saw the release of Halo 5: Guardians, the stunning current-gen debut that capitalizes on the promise of last year’s Xbox One remasters of the previous mainline series games in Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Also back from the dead is Guitar Hero, which reinvents itself by taking cues from streaming music services and delivering a more authentic axe in Guitar Hero Live.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

(Xbox One, PS4, $60, Mature)

The annual series makes its strongest showing in years, doing away with the usually superfluous multiplayer mode to take a long, hard focus on the single-player campaign. Set in Victorian London, the plot plays out as an ongoing gang war, as you guide twin assassins through a gradual takeover of each of the rapidly industrializing city’s boroughs. Just as in Grand Theft Auto V, you can toggle between the two characters — one male and one femaleĀ — at almost any moment. Missions take you on footraces atop trains, underneath the city in the murky sewer system and into the guts of gigantic factories. As usual in the series, there are a ton of historical figures you bump into, start rivalries with and enlist as allies. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell. Humorous, poignant writing gives each of the characters and events a flavor and resonance documentaries can’t touch.
The past couple Assassin’s Creed games had been plagued with glitches at launch, but Syndicate is as polished as any game in the series. The setting may be one of the driest taken on by the globe and timeline-hopping franchise, but it makes up for the lack of pep and wonder by digging more deeply into details that establish the setting in convincing ways. The voice acting, motion capture and facial expressions are some of the most masterful I’ve seen in a video game, making it feel as though you’re playing through a PBS series more than a digital stalk-and-kill-fest. Both mainline and side missions are varied and elegant, and the open world teems with buried secrets and Easter eggs. The overall plot of the series has been chasing its tail for years, and has long since been lost in nonsense, but that doesn’t matter because the protagonists are so relatable that you care enough for them to see their story through.

Guitar Hero Live

(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, $100, Teen)

Shaking up what it means to be a music game, Guitar Hero Live takes cues from the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, unleashing a neverending stream of music that you can sample in various free and pay formats. Dubbed Guitar Hero TV, the seamlessly-integrated online mode that lets you use credits you can buy or earn by in-game success to unlock individual song plays or blocks of time. As you rock out, you can keep your eye on a chart on the corner of the screen that tracks how you’re doing on the particular song’s leaderboards. Innovation bleeds from every corner of the game, from the design of the new guitar, which has six buttons meant to imitate the fingering you need to play chords on a real instruments, to the menus and visuals.
The main campaign has also been overhauled, doing away with dopey animations in favor of real-life crowds who cheer or grumble at you depending on how accurate you are with your note strumming. What could have been a cheesy throwaway ends up paying off in a major way, making it feel as though you’re in front of a crowd. If you thought it hurt to be booed off the stage after a screwup, try picking yourself up to play the next song on your set list after failing onstage and staring out into a sea of disapproving faces. This feels like less of a sequel than a wholesale reinvention. With an endless stream of new songs continuing to pipe in viva Guitar Hero TV, this is a game that will stay fresh and vital for months to come.

Halo 5: Guardians

(Xbox One, $60, Mature)

Making its long-awaited currrent-gen debut, the hallmark shooter franchise turns the standards storytelling on its head. Do-everything megahero Master Chief is now just a cog in a larger saga, teaming with three other Spartans who do battle with not only Covenant forces but brothers in arms. The story swaps back between the point of view of him and his crew to a rival faction headed up by Locke, who is convinced that Master Chief has gone rogue and must be stopped cold. Far more team-based than the previous games’ lone wolf-favoring mechanics, you need to coordinate with your player or AI-coordinated teammates. When you die, you can call for a quick revival, making it so you almost never find yourself restarting missions.
Multiplayer has also been touched up, granted e-sports-friendly balance and customization options the previous games had. The tight, effective matchmaking and well-honed lobby system Halo games have had for more than a decade are more refined and smooth, creating an addictive upgrade loop that makes it easy to lose hours more than you planned on when you sit down for “just a match or two.” New modes shake up old paradigms, providing plenty to explore and develop new strategies to master. The level-building Forge map is more comprehensive than ever, letting you take on a series of tools so vast and varied that you feel like you’re getting as much to work with as the developers themselves. While the campaign and multiplayer gameplay remains steadfastly old-school, there’s enough freshness here to make Halo seem as vital as it did in its Xbox 360 days.

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