Heading into the final stretch of the year, downloadable games have taken over the conversation. Ubisoft released its final 2014 boxed straggler, The Crew, but just about all of the other major releases are digital only. The highest-profile is an expansion for one of the year’s bestselling games: The Dark Below for Destiny. There is also a sequel to one of the most beloved downloadable game franchises in Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, and a top-down, co-op friendly puzzler in Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris. And Game of Thrones finally manages to make a successful transition to video game form as a Telltale Games episodic download series.
(PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, $60, Teen)
In an excellent year for racing games, The Crew has the misfortune of bringing up the rear and sucking the exhaust fumes from the lead pack. While not as abhorrent as some reviewers gripe it may be, the racer seems lackluster because it’s stuck in neutral in too many aspects in which its rivals excel. Without an extra gear to distinguish it from other racers, The Crew stalls out of the gate and fails to catch momentum, even when its vaunted multiplayer takes hold. Even compared to last-gen entries such as Gran Turismo 6, everything from the menus to the backgrounds to the racing itself seems off-pace and dated.
The concept is appealing enough. As part of an underground racing circuit, you speed around an open-world map of the United States, dodging the cops as you jockey with opponents. The execution, though, can’t quite match the promise. The clunky visuals can’t match those of Microsoft’s Forza series, and the sluggish sense of speed rarely convinces you that you are barreling down the freeway with abandon. Things pick up considerably when friends and strangers are involved, ratcheting up the fun tremendously, but you get the feeling you’d all be doing better if you picked up the party and moved to one of the many superior racers out there.
Destiny: The Dark Below
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, $20, Teen)
Destiny may not have lived up to its hype as a paradigm-shifting blend of first-person shooter and massively multiplayer online gameplay, but it’s managed to carve out a dedicated group of obsessive fans a franchise needs to make it an undeniable force. Along comes The Dark Below, a sizable expansion that gives the game the hyperdrive boost it needs to maintain momentum just as it’s starting to fade.
Three multiplayer arenas, a level cap increase, new story missions, a co-op strike and the six-player raid Crota’s End fill out some of the mainline game’s plot holes and structural shortcomings to give Destiny more of a sense of what pre-ordering customers were looking for back when it was released. Gone is the sense that you level up too quickly, only to be lost in a shapeless mire and forced to grind to access the best content. The missions infuse new life into the universe, pulling you along the explore/battle/loot loop with ease. If the other expansions that follow The Dark Below to live up to this one, Destiny fans have much to look forward to.
Fantasia : Music Evolved
(Xbox One, Xbox 360, $60, Everyone 10+)
By far the dorkiest game I have gotten my hands on this year, I can’t deny the joyous appeal of Fantasia: Music Evolved, a rhythm game that turns you into a hand-waving fool. Drawing on the mix of surreal visuals with eclectic music of the Fantasia movies, the game turns you into a conductor. You react to visual prompts, sweeping your hands in arcs, punching violently, and generally frightening your pet and roommates. The game takes excellent advantage of the Kinect sensor, which tracks your awkward movements with impressive accuracy, making you feel as though you’re in direct control of the sounds and shapes onscreen.
There’s a scoring and star rating system in effect, which feels much the same as what developer Harmonix has used in its Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, but it feels forced and insignificant. If your goal is to hammer away on the same songs and levels to ace them and move on as though you’re playing Angry Birds, you’re missing the point. Fantasia: Music Evolved is best when you forget about numbers and let yourself slip into the color, shape and music-fueled spell the game casts. Although hardcore gamers may be turned off, this is a solid titleto throw on at a party, as well as something to enjoy with non-gamers.
Game of Thrones: Telltale Games–Episode 1, Fire from Ice
(Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS4, Vita, $5, Mature)
Telltale Games is fast catching up with Lego game developer Traveller’s Tales in sheer volume. Just as seemingly any franchise can get the Lego treatment, pretty much anything can be morphed into a point-and-click, choice-driven adventure story. Unlike Borderlands, which Telltale just took on, Game of Thrones is a natural fit for the genre. Telltale sticks to what makes the HBO show so great, drawing on the rich lore, obtuse morality and rampant sex of the source material.
Flat presentation would make fantasy material like this fall flat, but superb voice acting and convincing animations — down to stirring, gravitas-selling facial expressions — make the story hit hard. While not as flashy or eager-to-please as some of Telltale’s other efforts, it feels as though the stage is being set for greater things. The first episode gets some of the necessary housekeeping out of the way, setting the stage for what are hopefully several seasons of fascinating twists to come.
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions
The graphics are still intentionally antiquated, but rough edges have been smoothed out, giving the levels a glimmer of futuristic polish that make them impossible to mistake for those from previous Geometry Wars entries. The shooting also gets some welcome variations, tossing aside the blow-up-everything-that-moves demands of past games in favor of distinctive enemies that require precision and strategy to take down. As expected, the difficulty ratchets up with alarming speed, which may discourage the weak-willed but satisfy the urges of thrill-seekers. In what feels like the definitive (and possibly last) entry in the series, the game becomes a promise fulfilled.