Mass destruction has gotten to be a November habit with me, right up there with turkey and bad football. Video game controller in hand, I’ve been annihilating digital terrorists, aliens, and even a fair number of British redcoats. And like a man who’s overindulged on Thanksgiving, I feel really good about it, mainly because the games are really good.
Start with Halo 4, the latest in Microsoft’s string of sci-fi blasters that features the series’s iconic hero, the Spartan warrior called Master Chief, and his digital sidekick Cortana. Lost in space after the climax of Halo 3, the Chief is awakened from hibernation to fend off an assault by the evil alien cult, the Covenant. But there are new enemies as well, robotic creatures called Prometheans who prove distressingly hard to kill.
They’re all led by the malevolent Didact, a being with rather unpleasant plans for the human race.
And then there’s Cortana. The chief’s electronic companion through countless battles is slowly going insane. Only by defeating the Didact can the Master Chief hope to save her. But when he can no longer trust Cortana’s guidance, how can the Spartan hope to win?
It’s a nice setup for a robust and exciting game. The software was developed by 343 Industries, which has taken over for Bungie, the company behind the original Halo series. They’ve sharply upgraded the graphics and audio effects, making this the best-looking and sounding title in the series.
Still, the game lacks the wallop of Bungie’s final entry in the series, 2010’s Halo: Reach. That game, a prequel about the start of the human-Covenant war, turned a team of Spartan super soldiers into engaging, credible characters, then killed them off one by one. Go ahead and laugh, but I still get sentimental about it. Halo 4, not so much. But it’s still a rock-solid first-person shooter, well worth a play.
There’s plenty of emotional impact in two other new titles. For example, the protagonist of the cerebral, complex adventure Assassin’s Creed III, is a half-European, half-Mohawk Indian inhabitant of New England in the mid-18th century. When his mother is brutally murdered by agents of the ancient order of the Knights Templar, Connor (his Mohawk name is darn near unspellable) joins an equally ancient brotherhood of assassins who have been fighting the Templars over several centuries and five previous video games.
In his quest for vengeance, Connor allies with American revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams and George Washington, advances the cause of liberty, and of course, kills a lot of redcoats —mostly with knives, swords, or bare hands. Call it a first-person slicer.
Gamers hoping to fling themselves headfirst into a digital bloodbath may be disappointed. This game is often slow going early on, with long sequences designed to teach players the skills needed to win. A great deal of game play involves sneaking rather than fighting. The player learns to scale walls, race across rooftops and treetops, tiptoe past belligerent sentries.
A complicated game control system doesn’t help matters. Just figuring out which button to push and when is occasionally infuriating.
But stick around. The game’s intense battle sequences deliver a rousing payoff, while its clever story line will power you over the sticky spots. Be prepared for the best plot twist I’ve yet seen in a game, a turnabout that had me reeling. Other shooters may deliver a higher body count than Assassin’s Creed III, but none has a higher IQ.
Still, brains aren’t everything. For me, there’s no substitute for sheer kinetic mayhem, which brings us to Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
The first Black Ops game, released in 2010, set a new standard for military games with its blend of merciless action and 1960s Cold War paranoia. When I learned that the sequel would be set in the future, my heart sank. If it’s all about robots and ray guns, they might as well call it Halo 5.
Not to worry. The dank cynicism of the original is still in full effect, thanks to a story rooted in US-Soviet conflicts during the 1980s. Part of the “collateral damage” was a Nicaraguan child whose father is whacked by the CIA. He grows up to become a global narcotics trafficker and a relentless enemy of all things American.
By 2025, he’s rich and powerful enough to force a showdown that he hopes will bring the United States to its knees.
The story line supplies a patina of realism that’s often missing from the actual game play, which is at once too difficult and too simple.
Why so many bad guys attacking at once? And why do they die so willingly? While not exactly easy, I found that Black Ops II was far less demanding than Assassin’s Creed III.
Which was fine by me. Its narrative force and intense action make it the most fun I’ve had pulling a trigger in quite a while, and my pick for the year’s top shooter.