The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are finally upon us. But once you're done with the unboxing, the mandatory day-one updates, and teaching Kinect to detect your skeleton, there are some important decisions to make. While many of the new consoles’ biggest selling points are features that have nothing to do with with gaming, they’re still primarily game machines, so you're going to want something to play. We're here to help.
Console launch lineups are notoriously bad, and this generation isn't all that different. There aren’t many games available for either console just yet, and a good majority of those that are out are either terrible or just plain forgettable. Don't let that fool you into thinking there's nothing to play, though: as long as you know where to look, there are great gaming experiences to kick off your new life in the next generation. Here are the best.
Sony’s ongoing courtship of indie developers is no secret, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the best PlayStation 4 game at launch is a downloadable retro shooter. Resogun comes to us from the same team behind the excellent PS3 game Super Stardust HD, and it features much of the same appeal: it’s a flashy, addictive shooter that will keep you glued to the television for hours.
At its most basic Resogun is a lot like the arcade classic Defender. You’ll need to protect human characters while fighting off waves of enemies, and you’ll actually have to use your ship to deliver those humans to safe zones throughout the level. What’s especially unique about the game is that those levels are cylindrical, essentially letting you go around in circles as you fight and avoid enemies. Since you can see those enemies on the other side of the level, you’re able to plan out your strategy in advance — an incredibly useful feature since Resogun’s levels are absolutely swarming with bullets and bad guys, forcing you to both memorize movement patterns and have a twitchy trigger-finger in order to survive. As you rescue survivors you’ll unlock new weapons to make things a bit easier.
It’s manic and intense, the kind of game that requires focus: you’ll really need to get into the zone to get that high score. As with past games from developer Housemarque, the audio / visual experience feels designed to help you get in the proper state of mind, with flashy graphics and a thumping soundtrack that are perfect for helping you focus. Resogun may be a retro twin-stick shooter, but it’s also one of the most visually impressive next-gen titles so far. There’s just so much happening on screen at once, and despite the never-ending stream of explosions and lasers, the game runs smoothly throughout.
Resogun doesn’t reinvent the wheel: it takes one of the oldest formulas in gaming, but it tweaks and transforms it to create something fresh and new. It won’t blow your mind, but that doesn’t make it any easier to put the controller down.
If you’re not into violence or cars, you’ll find the game libraries for both consoles a little lacking at present. Knack is the exception. It’s a family-friendly experience that looks like a DreamWorks animated feature and plays like a standard platform game, making it one of the most refreshing games on the PlayStation 4.
At its core Knack features a pretty standard blend of platforming and third-person action. You’ll be battling with evil goblins using a variety of attacks, and when that’s done, you’ll have to do a bit of jumping to move on to the next room full of bad guys. It’s fun, if simple, and a particularly great experience for younger gamers, though the difficulty spikes and haphazard checkpoint-system can make Knack more frustrating than it needs to be. Knack is also a very linear experience, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case — you constantly feel the push to move forward, which really helps give the game momentum.
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Killzone: Shadow Fall is a prime example of why graphics don’t always matter. Its grim dystopia is a perfect showcase for the next generation of game consoles, with stunning vistas and detailed environments. Even the guns look cool. But the gameplay is so decidedly mediocre that it's impossible to recommend in a world already over-saturated with fantastic shooters.
Contrast’s central mechanic is full of potential: you move objects around in the real world to create shadows, which you then navigate as a platforming silhouette. Unfortunately, thanks to boring puzzle design and a host of technical issues, the concept falls flat, resulting in a short and largely frustrating experience. Even Contrast’s wonderful sense of style can’t save it.
This more traditional formula is thankfully augmented by a few inventive ideas centered around the titular character himself, Knack. As you defeat enemies you’ll collect items called relics, which can be absorbed to make Knack progressively bigger and bigger. It’s satisfyingly easy to smack around bad guys when you’re a hulking brute, and you can even grow large enough to knock over buildings, Godzilla-style. The fun of turning into a giant — even if only briefly — is one of the game’s biggest joys, and the swirling relics look amazing. The rest of the game looks great, but the relics effects stand out as a particularly next-gen graphical touch.
There’s a lot of potential for the concept, too, though Knack doesn’t quite go far enough with the idea, making it feel somewhat underutilized. Instead, you’re left with a competent platform game set in a charming world, with brief moments of ingenuity. It’s not a game that will sell you on a PS4 — but it is the only PS4 game you can play with your kids.
Need for Speed Rivals
Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have their exclusives, but some of the best experiences are available on both. In fact, you can even play Need For Speed Rivals on your current console. But if you do, it won’t look quite this good: the gorgeously rendered cars and open world make Rivals one of the most visually stunning next-gen games currently available.
There’s more to it than just pretty graphics, however. No matter where you play it, Rivals is a fantastic experience. As opposed to simulations like Forza or Gran Turismo, Rivals is a pure arcade experience, letting you drive impossibly fast while pulling off crazy stunts. Its structure is somewhat reminiscent of Burnout Paradise: a big, open world filled with plenty to do and lots to explore.
You progress by completing lists of objectives — like specific races or time trials — but you’re given the freedom to do things how and when you want. If you’re not in the mood to race, you can simply venture out into the world. You can actually earn points (used for upgrades and new cars) simply by speeding around and pulling off sweet drifts. But doing so will attract the attention of the cops — and if they catch you those points are gone, creating a delightful sense of tension. The career mode lets you swap back and forth between playing as cops and racers, though being on the wrong side of the law is decidedly more fun, with more to do and the ability to customize your vehicles.
Rivals may not have been created exclusively for next gen, but it’s still one of the best-looking games on either console. The sense of speed is absolutely incredible, and the game moves smoothly even when there are half a dozen cops riding your tail and a rain storm is moving across the sky. It’s simply gorgeous, and looks even better when you’re speeding past at 200 miles per hour.
Forza Motorsport 5
Forza Motorsport 5 is quite possibly the best visual showcase for the next generation of consoles. The painstakingly rendered cars are virtually indistinguishable from reality, and the courses are so detailed and lush that it's easy to get distracted and take your eyes off the road — I spent way too much time simply looking at my car collection from every conceivable angle. But the best part of the latest Forza isn't just that it's absolutely gorgeous — it's also one of the best racing sims I've ever played.
Like the rest of the series, Forza 5 does an excellent job of easing you into the experience; it may be a simulation, but it's an approachable one. You'll start out racing hatchbacks and low-end sports cars before working your way up to high-powered racers and preposterously expensive luxury cars. The game goes out of its way make racing easy for newcomers, from the helpful lines on the road that show you the ideal route to the rewind feature that lets you redo mistakes mid-race. It's also an experience clearly made by people who love cars: the hosts of Top Gear will lovingly explain why each car is important, whether it's a lowly Honda Civic or a breathtaking McLaren Formula 1 car. They love these cars, and they want you to love them, too.
This was all true of past games, and Forza 5 simply continues to refine the formula with controls that feel fantastic, thanks to the new Xbox One controller and its vibrating triggers. Other racers also feel more, well, human, thanks to the Drivatar system: the game tracks how you and your friends drive, and even when you're in single-player mode, other cars will take on the characteristics of your friends' racing styles. The result is a series of races where your opponents feel a little less perfect, giving you a better chance at winning. It also just feels good to pass by a car with your buddy's gamertag on it. While the game’s graphical leap is impressive, the Drivatar system might just be the most next-gen thing about Forza: it creates a persistent feeling that you’re playing with others, and gives the other racers an added sense of realism.
While many launch games feel unfinished, as if they were rushed out the door to coincide with new hardware, Forza 5 feels like just the opposite. It's polished, deep, and has dozens of hours' worth of content to dig into. It's the kind of game that typically comes out well into a console's lifespan, not at launch, and it's probably the best reason so far to own an Xbox One.
It may be fondly remembered, but the Killer Instinct series was always more flash than substance. The new reboot of the franchise doesn't change that in any way — but that's not a bad thing. It's a big, bold throwback that doesn't sacrifice fun in the name of needless complexity.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Killer Instinct on the Xbox One is its business model. Following in the footsteps of web and mobile games, Killer Instinct features a free-to-play structure: you can download the game for nothing, but you only get one character. If you want to play as anyone else you'll have to spend some cash, and feature-wise the game is pretty bare bones at launch. Even if you splurge on the extra characters, there are only six fighters to utilize, and the game doesn't have much of a single-player component outside of a simple survival mode. Right now the focus is on multiplayer, both local and online, with more characters and a single-player arcade mode expected as post-launch downloadable content.
But even with few game modes and a skimpy cast of characters, Killer Instinct is a blast to play. It doesn't have the depth or complexity of games like Street Fighter, but that's part of what makes it so enjoyable: you don't need to be a master to enjoy it. Even before you learn the ins and outs of the controls and move-sets (which is pretty easy thanks to a very useful tutorial mode) it's possible to pull off satisfying combos and flashy special moves. Killer Instinct manages to strike a nice balance between being fun for button mashers and having enough depth that skilled players don't feel ripped off. And though it's small, the roster of fighters is diverse, giving you a range of play styles to experiment with.
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Ryse: Son of Rome is a beautiful, cinematic experience that looks better than just about anything else on a console — it’s also incredibly boring. Ryse's aggressively generic and obsessively violent third-person action is further saddled with long cutscenes, a terrible camera, and a world and characters that are hard to care about in any way. No amount of decapitations can make Ryse interesting.
Lococycle isn’t just the worst Xbox One game so far, it’s also easily the most offensive. It begins with a live action, 15-minute-long cutscene featuring a staggering number of terrible racial stereotypes, and it doesn’t get much better from there. To make matters worse, the game behind all of those ill-advised jokes is remarkably bland, filled with quick-time events and boring action.
And, of course, it doesn't skimp on the spectacle. Like its predecessors in the arcade and on the SNES, the new Killer Instinct is beautifully over the top, with ridiculous character designs and stunning special effects. The backgrounds are a particular highlight: a fast-paced duel on Glacius' snowy ice-planet stage is one of the most beautiful sights you'll see on an Xbox One. Killer Instinct is already a great game, but with more features and content on the way it will likely only get better.
Dead Rising 3
Dead Rising 3 isn't much of a looker. It also suffers from many of the same problems as past games in the series, namely frequently clunky controls and terrible writing filled with lazy stereotypes. But it's also the only game where you can duct-tape a spinning saw to a sledgehammer and swing it around in a staggeringly huge crowd of zombies.
Unlike like many next-gen games, Dead Rising 3's biggest selling point isn't its enhanced graphics: the important thing is the sense of scale. The series has always featured incredibly large hordes of undead, and in Dead Rising 3 those hordes are even bigger. Zombies are just about everywhere, and when they congregate en masse the results are impressive: standing on a ruined truck in the middle of a sea of hungry zombies is a terrifying spectacle. That is, until you remember the impossibly sharp sword in your hands. With the right weapon, a horde of zombies can be fun.
As with past games, you can use just about every object in the world as a weapon, whether you're smashing a television over a zombie's head or grabbing a baseball bat and swinging for the fences. But even better is the ability to combine objects into new, insane super-weapons that are ridiculously fun to play with — and the same goes for vehicles. Driving a car through a crowd of zombies is as fun as ever, but you know what's better? A customized steamroller with flamethrowers and spikes. Dead Rising 3 is at its best when it gives you the freedom to simply explore its over-the-top weapons and vehicles and wreak havoc on the unsuspecting undead.
Dead Rising 3 is the prototypical sequel: it builds on its predecessors simply by adding more. It doesn't fix many of the problems — like awkward movement and terrible jumping — that can make these games incredibly frustrating at times, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. It has problems, but when you're steamrolling hundreds of zombies, those problems don't really matter.
Of course, these games are only a sample of what's in store for the two consoles. PS4 and Xbox One games will only get bigger and better over time as developers learn the ropes of the hardware. And that’s not just an empty promise: there are plenty of great-looking games just over the horizon that have already been announced. We’ve even played with a few. Whether it's indie games like Below and Transistor or AAA shooters like Destiny or Titanfall, the future is bright, even if you don't decide to take the plunge just yet.