Due to their popularity as gifts — as well as society's stubborn tendency to regard them as toys instead of as a lucrative, influential mass medium — fall is peak video-game season. New releases hit shelves and online stores every week from September through Black Friday, each generally preceded with nearly a year’s worth of hype and marketing and preorder campaigns. Long before Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. were psyching each other out with superhero movie-release dates, video-game publishers were playing scheduling chicken with Call of Duty and Destiny launches.
Fall games are sprawling affairs that are rarely able to communicate just what makes them distinctive in the brief trailers you may have seen. As such, allow us to present you with a guide that explains why this year’s crop of big games are popular, so you can remain conversant should the subject crop up at a fun mixer. Or if you want to play them yourself.
1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (Released September 1 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC)
The immense cost and scale of the fall blockbuster gaming season often results in games that, like movies, are focus-tested and engineered to appeal to the safest, most profitable demographic that can be measured. This doesn’t make the games bad, necessarily. Just a bit same-y.
The Metal Gear Solid games defy that tendency while also checking all the necessary boxes. They’re espionage games that require you to infiltrate hostile combat zones and escape, sometimes with information, other times with people. Getting caught is not desirable, but it is manageable — if you’re skilled enough and bring the right tools, you can make lemonade. Explosive, bullet-ridden, weird-as-hell lemonade.
This is what makes Metal Gear Solid V popular — all that fun sneaking and shooting. But it’s not what makes it weird. Hideo Kojima does.
Kojima is the lead designer and writer behind the Metal Gear Solid games. While each title in the franchise is made by many people, it’s Kojima's ethos that shines through, and it makes his games unlike anything else in gaming. They are thematically rich yet barely coherent, capable of great emotion yet frustratingly juvenile. In Metal Gear Solid V, hiding under a cardboard box like a Looney Tunes character is a legitimate tactic, as is strapping rocket balloons to unconscious soldiers and goats to whisk them away. You will find yourself rescuing child soldiers from a harrowing prison one moment, and then listening to the absurd reason why a female assassin must not wear anything more than a skimpy bikini the next.
Equal parts absurd and compelling, Metal Gear Solid V is strangely unique in gaming.
2. Super Mario Maker (September 11 for Wii U)
One of the most persistent negative stereotypes about video games is that they are meant for children. Adults are supposed to leave them behind.
Few game publishers seem to inadvertently reinforce this more than Nintendo. Its name is synonymous with video games, and its characters — Mario, Donkey Kong, Link — are among the most recognizable to the non-gaming layperson. Its games are also charmingly childlike in their approach, eschewing violence and embracing a full-on cute assault.
Then you play them as an adult — which many, many people do — and realize that what you regarded as childish is actually superlative craftsmanship, where imagination and perfection meet to create an experience that really is for everyone and anyone. Super Mario Maker takes Nintendo’s most famous franchise and gives players the keys. You can create your own levels, and play through those that others have made and shared via the internet. You can break all the rules. It sounds like tremendous fun for gamers of any age.
3. Destiny: The Taken King (September 15 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, and Xbox One)
Destiny: The Taken King is the only game on this list that isn’t really a new game, but rather an expansion of last September’s sci-fi shooter Destiny. As the word implies, an expansion is meant to build upon and enrich a previously released game, extending the original story and adding new gizmos (mostly guns, in Destiny’s case). That’s their strength and their weakness — they can reinvigorate old games, but they also require that you still have those old games, and your mileage may vary based on how invested you were in the first place.
The Taken King is a clumsily titled pivot from the awkward first year of Destiny, which was defined by a terrible story and convoluted systems that required explainers to navigate. Nevertheless, Bungie, the acclaimed studio that created Destiny, slowly tinkered with the game to gradually make it a more complete, satisfying experience — so long as users are willing to pay for two of the bigger, more substantial upgrades.
With extensive video tours streamed via Twitch over the last month, Bungie is working hard to ensure that any curious parties know that Destiny: The Taken King is the thorough reworking the game needed — and the campaign is so convincing that it will likely prove irresistible to anyone who has spent any amount of time with the original. There always has been a lot to like about Destiny. At its heart, it's a game about shooting things with your friends, and when you get enough pals together to take on the game’s biggest challenges, there’s nothing quite like it. For its first year, Destiny couldn’t help but get in its own way. For its second, it’s finally stepping aside. It will be fascinating to watch where it goes from here.
4. Lego Dimensions (September 27 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U)
“Toys-to-life” is the name of a wildly popular video-game genre that involves collecting real toys that can then be used as in-game characters via a plastic doodad that connects to your console. It’s clever because while you can play and enjoy these games right out of the box, they don’t reach their full potential unless you purchase more figurines and see what they add to the mix.
It’s a very capitalist genre.
Even so, toys-to-life games are a lot of fun, and they’ve been bleeding parents dry since 2011, when the popular Skylanders series launched. Since then, Disney has jumped in the fray with the ambitious Disney Infinity series, as has gaming giant Nintendo, with its quirky amiibo figurines. All of these series are interesting in their approach to the genre and generally fun (although expensive) additions to any gaming library, but this fall marks the launch of a fourth big name in the toys-to-life arena: Lego.
Lego Dimensions is the first toys-to-life game to feature something that was actually a toy first, and an immensely popular one, at that. The game will also feature Lego characters from 14 different popular franchises — everything from Doctor Who and Scooby Doo to DC Comics superheroes and the Wizard of Oz — meaning it’s quite possible that Lego may get away with carving out a big chunk of an increasingly crowded field. It might even make for the best toys-to-life game yet — if gamers are willing to pay up.
5. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 (September 29 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, and Xbox One)
You know how tentpole movie franchises have decided to start ignoring bad sequels and instead position new films as sequels to whichever movie everyone last loved? Video games are doing the same thing.
The Tony Hawk Pro Skater series of games is one of those all-time classics, with its first two games held in the highest possible regard among game enthusiasts of a certain age. But the series struggled to innovate and keep things fresh with new games that abandoned the Pro Skater moniker in favor of aggressive theming (like Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland) or new gimmicks, like 2009’s much-maligned Tony Hawk: Ride, which came with a plastic board for players to stand on.
After lying dormant for much of the current decade, the series is returning to the name that made it famous in the hopes that it signals a back-to-basics approach that will yield stacks of nostalgia dollars. Like a member of The Expendables, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater is rising from a retirement that it didn’t entirely want but perhaps needed in order to return to something resembling its former glory. We'll soon find out whether it should have bothered.
6 and 7. Rock Band IV; Guitar Hero Live (October 6 for Playstation 4 and Xbox One; October 20 for Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U)
One of the most fascinating fads to sweep the video-game world was the rise and fall of interactive music games. Starting pianissimo with the takeover of 1998’s Dance Dance Revolution, before eventually reaching a fortissimo peak with Guitar Hero in 2005 and Rock Band in 2007, gaming in the mid-to-late '00s was filled with color-coded plastic guitars and drum sets. For a brief time, music games were the ultimate social-gaming experience, and anyone with the required peripherals could host a spontaneous jam session. Then, just as quickly as they rose to prominence, music games went silent at the start of the 2010s.
For some reason, 2015 has been earmarked for their big comeback.
Two of the biggest names are returning this year, with Rock Band 4 and Guitar Hero Live each hoping to reinvigorate the dead genre. The former does this by playing up nostalgia — those old plastic instruments and downloaded songs will, should you still have them, work in this new version, which also includes new tricks.
Guitar Hero Live, on the other hand, is trying something different. While continuing to focus solely on simulated guitar-playing, the new game features live-action, first-person camera footage of venues you play, full of real-life crowds and band members who will either love you or hate you depending on the quality of your playing. It's just a more elaborate way of indicating how good you are at hitting notes as they scroll on the screen.
Ultimately, both games are still banking on you being willing to keep a bunch of plastic instruments in your basement.
8. Assassin's Creed: Syndicate (October 23 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC)
At their best, the annual Assassin’s Creed games offer a conspiracy-soaked brand of historical tourism, creating vibrant replicas of real cities from different eras and casting you as a member of an ancient order of assassins tasked with advancing your faction’s goals.
At their worst, they're games that barely work when released.
That’s the chief reason the 18th-century-London-set Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is on this list. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity was set in Paris during the French Revolution, and it set an inauspicious high-water mark for what game publishers could get away with releasing. Unity was a buggy mess when it came out, requiring a large number of updates in the weeks after release just to get it functioning the way the developers intended.
The response to Syndicate, then, is important. In no other entertainment industry is it acceptable to ship such messy, incomplete work, but video-game publishers seem to get away with it. They're confident that you will pay for a game in advance just by showing a pretty trailer or promising exclusive pants for your character (not making that up), regardless of whether the game will work as promised. This occurred as recently as this summer, with the PC version of Batman: Arkham Knight.
The Assassin’s Creed games have the potential to be quite good, and often are, but right now they’ve become the poster child for an especially indefensible aspect of the games industry.
9. Rise of the Tomb Raider (November 10 for Xbox One and Xbox 360; TBA 2016 for Playstation 4, Playstation 3, and PC)
Once upon a time, Lara Croft was one of the biggest characters in all of video games. The star of the Tomb Raider series, her adventures were kind of like those of a modern-day Indiana Jones, but weirder and with more guns. She was groundbreaking, a prominent female character at a time when there were few. (This, unfortunately, would result in horribly sexist marketing).
2013’s franchise reboot, simply titled Tomb Raider, worked hard to complete Lara Croft’s slow march toward more modern sensibilities with a game that focused less on making Lara attractive to male gamers and more on crafting a compelling story of survival with a more realistic and grounded hero. Rise of the Tomb Raider looks to continue that journey, turning Croft from hardened survivor to dedicated adventurer — and a what looks like a sure-footed follow-up to a fantastic reboot done right.
10. Star Wars: Battlefront (November 17 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC)
Oh, look, a trend. Star Wars: Battlefront is yet another return to a much-loved-yet-still-abandoned series of games, but this time with the benefit of corporate synergy. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens on track to be a contender for Biggest Movie Ever this December, it's nice to have a video game for fans to get excited about. Hence, the Battlefront revival.
Like its name suggests, Battlefront is a war game set in the Star Wars universe, with all of its pew-pew lasers, screaming fighter-engines, and even the occasional Jedi/Sith. It looks terribly fun, if a bit shallow, as the game doesn’t offer much in the way of a new Star Wars story to tell — just online shoot-fests to test your mettle.
Even if you’re not nostalgic, it might be worth getting into just for the sheer spectacle of it all. The games industry has gotten very good at making games about shooting things, and DICE, the studio behind Star Wars: Battlefront (as well as the hit Battlefield military-shooter franchise), is among the best.
11. Fallout 4 (November 10 for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC)
Come this November, Fallout 4 is going to be the only game anyone talks about for the rest of the year, and with good reason: It’s probably going to be excellent.
The Fallout series began its life as an obscure computer game that ballooned in popularity when Bethesda Game Studios (of The Elder Scrolls fame) took over the series with its third installment and brought it to home consoles. Taking place in an alternate, retro-futurist history where the ideals and dreams of 1950s America were fully realized before being blown to hell in all-out nuclear war, Fallout’s appeal lies in how open it is: You can be any kind of person you want. You can be noble and help people you come across, or murder and steal your way across the postapocalyptic wasteland. You can get caught up in the game’s story, or you can wander until you stumble across something strange and unsettling, like a secret lab occupied by one man and his endless crowd of clones.
Fallout 4 is peak holiday gaming — a game that will do well because it’s supposed to, because it has been marketed and shown off in a way that makes it impossible to see as anything other than tantalizing, because the publisher excels at cultivating player "loyalty" by getting consumers so hooked on its games that they keep coming back for more. It's the gaming equivalent of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. It will make as much money as one, too.