It generally takes a little while for developers to get comfortable with a new console system, so as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 approach their third birthdays, gamers are starting to get a sense of their true potential.
2016 hasn't offered quite the embarrassment of riches that last year did in terms of quality software, but there are plenty of top-tier titles to keep players happy. And in many cases, those games are made so well that they'll hold a player's attention much longer than titles from a few years ago.
If you're not a gamer, though, separating the good from the bad can be tricky as you do your holiday gift shopping. Here are some can't-miss suggestions.
We have included links to buy the products we are highlighting. In some cases, if you purchase an item from our link, we will collect a small percentage of the sale. This has no impact on editorial decisions about what we are recommending. Proceeds from these sales will be donated to the Council for Economic Education, which supports economic and financial education.
This action-adventure series from developer Naughty Dog has consistently been a top-ranking PlayStation exclusive, but this final installment is in a league of its own. There are breathtaking venues, big laughs and some genuinely tear-inducing moments. And it's all packaged with some incredibly well-tuned game play. Even some developers of other big holiday titles concede privately that "A Thief's End" is a shoe-in for 2016's game of the year.
The "Civilization" series has been defined through its 25-year history as the king of addictive game play. This latest installment of the strategy series — the objective of which is to rule the world — proudly keeps that torch burning bright. You'll engage with your cities differently this time around as you race to conquer by means that range from military deployment to establishing a dominant religion. The diplomatic settings with other civilizations are more refined than before, and the game is equally welcoming to veterans and newcomers.
"Dishonored" — 2012 — was a terrific surprise, offering players real choices in their actions, then adjusting to those decisions as you prowled the rooftops and disabled opponents — lethally or nonlethally. This time around, you'll assume the role of either original protagonist Corvo Attano or Emily, the now-grown child he rescued in the first game, each with their own special abilities, which are customizable. As in the original, you can choose stealth or action as your method of completing missions — and your actions will spawn different circumstances.
Activision is injecting new life into its flagship series this year, taking the well-honed warfare game play of "Call of Duty" into outer space. And that sci-fi twist could give it a boost among fans who have been grumbling about the series becoming a bit repetitive in recent years. The multiplayer mode will, as always, be the big draw of the game. And to enhance the appeal, developers have remastered 10 of the most popular multiplayer maps from "Call of Duty 4."
This organized crime franchise from Take-Two doesn't get the attention of (or boast the sales of) the publisher's other bad-guy-centric franchise, but this installment is worth a look. Set in Louisiana in the 1960s, it explores not only issues of loyalty, but race — sometimes deftly, sometimes quite clumsily. The action is solid and the soundtrack will have you debating whether to drive directly to your next assignment or take the long route to enjoy the tunes.
While "Call of Duty" opted to jet into the future, this year's installment of the competing "Battlefield" franchise harkened back to the past — and it's being praised as one of the series' best games in years. Set during World War 1, the game features classic weapons (ranging from hand-to-hand combat in the trenches to airplane dog-fights) and fast-paced game play. It's a gorgeous title, taking advantage of the graphical abilities of the consoles. And its 64-person multiplayer mode will be a big draw for action fans.
Action games are often dark affairs, with muted colors and shadowy environments. "Overwatch" takes things in a different direction, with bright palettes and a sense of whimsy. Developed by "Diablo" and "Warcraft" creator Blizzard, the multiplayer game offers 21 heroes to choose from, each with distinct abilities and weapons. It's a team shooter that isn't overly violent and focuses instead on cooperation and strategy.
It's been five years since the last installment of this series' original trilogy hit shelves and three years since we've seen any sort of "Gears" game. It's still a flagship franchise for Microsoft, but it's being made by a new team these days. The action is just as fast-paced, though, and the enemies are just as fierce. This time, however, you'll be fighting as the son of original protagonist Marcus Fenix.
The original first-person shooter made a triumphant return this year. And it did so by staying true to its roots. There's a threadbare story, sure, but the point of "Doom" is to massacre demons, often in the goriest method possible. It's a pure adrenaline rush (and one that's certainly not suited for young players), but in an era where so many shooters try to layer too many other elements into a game, it's a refreshingly fun throwback to what made the genre great.
The perennially popular sports franchise implemented some big changes this year that only made it better. The controls have been improved to make the game more welcoming to a larger audience. There's a $1 million tournament to lure eSports athletes. Added features like blocked kicks makes for more exciting game play. If the person on your list is a sports fan and doesn't already have this, it's an easy choice.
Want to go old school this year? Really old school? This miniaturized version of 1985's Nintendo Entertainment System comes with 30 games, including "Super Mario Bros.," "Metroid," "Donkey Kong" and "The Legend of Zelda." It doesn't offer the graphical opulence of modern titles or online multiplayer, but you will be able to save your games easier than you did in the '80s. And you can show your kids the origins of their favorite Nintendo characters.