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The Best Video Games to Get Lost In This Holiday Season

November is the season for blockbuster video games — not even the pandemic has changed that. In fact, the video game industry has seen record spending and profits in 2020. At the same time, the decision to set aside as much as $60 (and, often, 60 hours) to play might be tougher this year, as the economic downturn affects purchasing decisions. Nonetheless, the perennial question persists: With a new slate of big games, as well as new video game consoles, what’s worth it?

Some recommendations of what to play, and what to play on, follow. Because it’s gaming, where little is simple — with certain games requiring certain devices — this list is more of a flowchart. May you arrive at useful advice.

If you are thinking about leaping into the next generation of game consoles, good on you if you can even find one. They keep selling out online, even with a price tag of as much as $500 for an Xbox Series X from Microsoft or a Sony PlayStation 5. Both are powerful, meaning they’re capable of running visually impressive games, but as with any new console, they lack many excellent exclusive games — at least for now. Most of these consoles’ games still run on the older Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

But for those who are determined to get one soon, it’s worth looking into slightly cheaper options. The new, book-size Xbox Series S is weaker than the Series X but can still run all of the same games and costs $300. Sony is selling a variation of the powerful PS5 that, without a disc drive, costs $400.

ImageAstro’s Playroom makes use of the capabilities of the PS5’s new DualSense controller.

The PS5 plays one of the season’s more pleasant surprises, Astro’s Playroom, which is preinstalled on each new console. The game lets players guide cute robots through colorful technology-themed obstacle courses. The draw, however, isn’t what you do or even how good the game looks. It’s how it feels. For decades, game controllers have been able to rumble like a muted cellphone in order to convey the impact of an explosion or car crash. Astro’s Playroom is designed to show how the PS5’s new controller, called the DualSense, can do more. It skitters when an Astro bot runs across sand and pulses heavily when the bot waddles through water. Most impressively, the controller’s trigger buttons can resist the squeeze of the players’ forefingers in distinct ways: providing the slow-resisting sensation of compressing a spring, for example, or the sudden snap of a robot hand crushing a plastic ball.

Demon’s Souls Remastered is also technically only for PS5, though it is a remake of a PlayStation 3 game that is among the medium’s most influential of the last dozen years. On its face, it’s just another single-player video game that lets players control a knight, a magician or another protagonist, and fight men and monsters while looking out for deadly traps. More subtly, it’s a game of low-key multiplayer assistance and treachery from a lead creator who was inspired when strangers wordlessly helped him during a snowstorm. As a result, Demon’s Souls is designed to be a brutally difficult game whose hardships are leavened by the ability to leave helpful messages and warnings of dangers for other players. On the flip side, players can also invade each other’s games and wreak havoc.

Over on the Xbox Series S and X, the best exclusive isn’t a game but a subscription service. Xbox Game Pass, available for about $10 a month for this console and its earlier iterations, grants players access to more than 250 games — including all of the previous Xboxes’ marquee, Microsoft-published offerings. Game Pass is regularly spiced up with new releases that would otherwise need to be bought separately (on Xbox consoles or other devices), including this month’s newest chapter of the captivating sci-fi action-adventure Destiny 2: Beyond Light. Headliners aside, Game Pass includes a bevy of smaller, odder games that many people might otherwise hesitate to try. If it’s part of the deal, though, why not sample 2017’s Mudrunner, which is a serious simulation game about driving huge trucks through deep mud? Or Carto, a delightful new mapmaking adventure game?

Credit…Giant Squid/Annapurna Interactive

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Watch Dogs Legion, two of the season’s most interesting games, are on the new consoles but also PC, Google Stadia, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Both games come from Ubisoft, the powerful publisher that made headlines this summer amid widespread accounts of sexual misconduct in the company, which led to the dismissal or departure of top developers and executives. As that unfolded, rattled rank-and-file developers still toiled to create these games.

Valhalla largely positions the player as a ninth-century viking named Eivor who leaves Norway for England, where he or she builds a settlement, challenges monarchies and swings an ax through many Anglo-Saxon enemies. It’s a visually spectacular game packed with character-driven vignettes, though it requires an audience with the stomach for playing as an invading settler.

Watch Dogs lets you play as members of the resistance in a fascist near-future London where the surveillance state and a privatized police force dominate the population. The game depicts a detailed and heavily populated London, then enables players to recruit and take control of any one of the thousands of people rendered in that city. That means you can play as a sneaky old lady, a brutish member of the Queen’s Guard or whoever else appears. It’s a neat trick that compensates for the game’s seemingly well-intentioned but shallow politics.

For something smaller, there’s The Pathless, a colorful game set amid dreamlike forests and temples. It’s available now for PS4, PS5, Apple Arcade and PC, the subscription gaming service for iOS. In The Pathless, you play as an archer who explores beautiful terrain with the help of a bird who can carry her across chasms. The game’s best feature is the archer’s ability to run ever faster if you can successfully shoot targets with arrows as she moves. Its greasy momentum is thrilling and easier to achieve than it sounds, thanks to an auto-targeting system.

Other than Carto, the Nintendo Switch doesn’t run any of the games mentioned here so far. Its biggest November release is Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, a spinoff to the acclaimed action-adventure The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Where Breath of the Wild was a quietly epic adventure in a war-torn world of knights, castles and monsters, the new game is a cacophonous prequel that replaces the earlier games’ unmatched opportunities for virtual nature hiking and exploration with combat, more combat and still more combat. It’s a bit like following up a great novel with a theme park ride. You’ve got to really want to see these characters again.

A better Switch game to get this season is Hades (also for PC). Released in September, Hades may prove to be the best game on any platform all year so it still deserves attention. You play as Zagreus, son of Hades, and must fight and talk your way out of the underworld, taking patronage — and powers — from Greek gods as you go. Hades is classified under “rogue-lite,” a video game genre that challenges players to progress as far as possible, knocks them back to the start when their character dies, but lets them try again with any powers they gained in prior attempts. In Hades, that structure supports the snappily told story about Zagreus’s failure-filled efforts to reach his mother in the land of the living. As one critic noted, a game about having to repeatedly try to escape hell might be 2020’s most fitting.

There’s something good to play on any of these devices. And, take note, the big-release season isn’t over yet. The most hyped game of 2020, Cyberpunk 2077, has been repeatedly delayed and is currently expected on Dec. 10. It turns out that blockbuster season is longer this year. The developers need more time. Don’t we all?