I used to set my alarm on Saturday mornings so I could get up early, sit in front of the TV with my sister and watch the latest episode of Pokémon. We'd eat breakfast while glued to the adventures of Ash and his pals, and meet whichever new creature was introduced in that episode. The Pokémon TV series was amazing to me back then, because it pulled back the curtain on a world I'd stared at for so long on my black and white Game Boy screen. In the games, all the monochrome pixelated houses and Pokécentres looked alike. People talked in short, repetitive phrases. Interacting with Pokémon was limited to static sprites and menus. But on TV, the world of Pokémon was allowed to sprawl, hand drawn, into huge, lifelike cities and neverending countrysides populated with characters and plotlines developed over countless episodes. How did humans and Pokémon live together? What did battles really look like? Where did humans get all their meat from? I scoured each episode for clues.
Warzone was for me the best thing about Halo 5. This player versus environment versus player mode saw first-person shooter carnage across enormous maps - the biggest the Halo series had ever seen - with computer-controlled enemies and player-controlled spartans going at it.
"Fast and agile" is how Crytek describes the spider, one of Hunt: Showdown's two currently available boss monsters. "Fast and agile", oh, and "immune to poison". I've spent a few hours in the creature's rough vicinity now, listening to its feet rattle across the ceilings of barns and slaughterhouses, and I worry this is selling it short. "Fast and agile" makes me think of doomed management consultancies and Lucio from Overwatch, whereas the words I'm searching for have no consonants and far too many vowels. They are words lifted direct from the 50 million-odd lines of genetic code human beings share with fruit flies. They are words that always end in exclamation marks.
Few settings have captured the imaginations of game developers and players like Chernobyl, the site of a reactor explosion in 1986 that created one of the world's few actual nuclear wastelands. The legendary Exclusion Zone - now, would you believe, something of a tourist attraction - has provided the stage for countless virtual conflicts and survival stories. There are the indirect recreations, such as Big Robot's bleached starship graveyard The Signal From Tölva, or the Erangel island map from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - an abandoned Soviet testing facilty in which the wanderer is forced towards rather than away from the centre by an ever-encroaching sea of blue energy. And there are truer-to-life portrayals like Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission or GSC World's STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which gives you the run of an Exclusion Zone in which space-time is starting to fall apart like overcooked pasta.
Disease has always been joined at the hip to superstition and fantasy - the term "influenza" once referred to the influence of unfriendly stars - but there's something especially, horribly otherworldly about the flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which claimed over 50 million lives. Invisible to the microscopes of the era, the Spanish flu was a phantom terror, its spread censored to shore up morale in the closing stages of the Great War. Where other outbreaks had ravaged children and the elderly, this one bizarrely reserved its worst excesses for hearty young adults: its effects included "cytokine storms" that turned stronger immune systems against themselves, drowning the afflicted in their own bodily fluids. With no cure forthcoming, many sufferers fell back on folk remedies and occult treatments, lining their nostrils with salt, tying ribbons to their arms and burning brown sugar or sulfur to chase away evil miasmas. It's from this tangle of science and myth, monsters of the imagination versus the monsters of the laboratory, that Dontnod's long-in-development Vampyr takes its cue.
It's the eyes that really get to you - scores of them, glittering coppery-red like the pilot lights on a hundred flamethrowers. And that ceaseless ebb and surge of tiny, ravenous bodies, darting at your heels only to wince back from the glare of your torch. A Plague Tale's corner of 14th century France is home to many terrors - the black death, the Inquisition, raiding English soldiers - but the most tenacious and oppressive are the rats, a lethal mass swirling through towns hollowed out by disease and erupting from the shambles of battlefields. It's a threat you must learn to live with, while guiding nobleman's daughter Amicia and her sickly infant brother Hugo to sanctuary, and a threat you can turn to your advantage. The rats aren't fussy about who they devour, after all, and one girl's chittering Gothic metaphor is another girl's handy terrain trap.
While the Sea of Thieves closed beta answered many questions about Rare's big new shared-world pirate game, it left many questions unanswered. Chief among them, perhaps, was, is this it?
Size matters on the Sea of Thieves, but when you're up to your berringed earlobes in pirate gold, cunning is king. Earlier this week myself and three other buccaneers spent an hour chasing a single, wily captain in the game's closed beta. Our target led us a merry dance, steering his nimble sloop in amongst the looming rock spires by the aptly named Shipwreck Bay, but eventually he made a break for the open sea, and with the wind behind us and our galleon's sails at full spread, we quickly closed the distance.
How long can you survive? It's so simple and so effective: build a base and protect it from the enemy zombie hordes. Not the ones milling about on the map, although they do trickle towards your base and sometimes with proper intent, but the actual hordes. When they approach they get a special announcement and a clock ticks down to their arrival, and a big skull represents them marching across the map. So much drama! When they turn up, you'll know why.
A third-person action-RPG with XP loss on death, bonfire mechanics and a taste for the grotesque, Code Vein has been billed as Bandai Namco's in-house alternative to the Souls series, trading Bloodborne's fetid strain of European Gothic for a world of anime vampires. Witness the marketing tagline, "prepare to dine". So it's a slight shock to find that the new game breaks one of From Software's unwritten core principles straight out the gate. Integral to every Souls game is the experience of loneliness, that sense that you are the only moving object in a cyclopean expanse of dead architecture and stagnant myths. True, you can summon allies to aid you, but these are presented as fleeting, ethereal interactions, and you never feel like you have "companions", exactly. It's more a question of being haunted by kindred spirits as you set out through the wasteland alone.
Here is what I knew about Dragon Ball FighterZ before I played it at Bandai Namco's Paris expo last month: 1) developer Arc System Works is the seasoned creator of painterly, 2D beatdowns responsible for BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, 2) Dragon Ball is a venerable manga in which absurd hunks with radioactive mullets make planets explode by, as far as I can tell, experiencing really bad heartburn, 3) ???? 4) profit, going by ecstatic reactions to the closed beta. Now that I've laid hands on it, I can replace "????" with "FighterZ is quite an accessible fighting game, for all its multiple-decade backstory and arcane terminology". Fear not, dabbler - if like me you struggle to sort your Gokus from your Gohans and your Ultimate Z Changes from your Sparking Blasts, you can still make headway here by doing quarter circles with your thumbs and sitting back as the TV catches fire.
There are few experiences as crushing as being properly roasted in a fighting game. The coordination goes from your thumbs; the blood drains from your face; all sense of strategy implodes as blow after blow snakes through your defences and punts you helplessly around the stage. At this point your opponent isn't really fighting you so much as their own limitations: you are merely a ship tossed on the ocean of their skill. Soulcalibur 6's new Reversal Edge system is a hard check to all that, a slick, accessible subgame that resets the momentum and gives the out-matched combatant a chance to regroup. For that reason, it is likely to prove as controversial among experienced Caliburners and masters of fighting game psychology as it is welcome among greener players.
One of the more pleasant surprises during an occasionally bleak Sony conference at last month's Paris Games Week was the reveal of Concrete Genie - a wistful third person adventure game gently exploring themes of bullying and childhood through luscious hand drawn art that stands out in contrast to its moody urban environment.
Let's take a second to salute Driveclub, the PlayStation 4 launch title that missed the launch, and then stalled upon its final release thanks to a number of technical gremlins and design oversights. Despite that drama, it flourished into something quite remarkable - a muscular racer with a touch of Project Gotham Racing's flair to its handling and some of Gran Turismo's polish in its impeccable looks. Against the odds, it became what's set to be one of this generation's finest driving games.
Monster Hunter, in case you didn't already know, is great. A series of boisterous action games that charge you with tracking down and felling preposterous, wonderfully realised beasts before skinning them so that you might make a new pair of trousers from their hide then go and hunt some more. It's an intoxicating loop honed over generations, though not without inheriting a few of its own little quirks along the way.
Just when you think you know someone near and dear, they go and surprise you all over again. It's been some 12 years since Shadow of the Colossus' original release, and one remaster and a fresh new remake later it's lost absolutely none of its ability to awe. This is a game whose power hasn't diminished one iota in all that time, and in Bluepoint's exquisite remake it's a game with the capacity to spring a surprise or two, no matter how familiar you are with the original.
I've played Ni No Kuni 2 a couple of times now, and I can't shake my growing concerns for it. I loved the first Ni No Kuni and was delighted when - after four years - a sequel was finally announced. More than anything else about the first game, I remember its warmth: the story of Oliver and his mother in our world, the characters in the fantasy world of Ni No Kuni itself, and the cast of Pokémon-style familiars I picked up along the way.
Here's something to make you feel old: the original Assassin's Creed launched a whole decade ago. It's been 10 years since Assassin's Creed featured grumpy old Altair, imprisoned poor Desmond, and introduced now-ingrained concepts such as the Animus, Abstergo, and snazzy clothes with hoods.
Star Wars: Battlefront 2 is set to have a far more engaging multiplayer than the original 2015 reboot. At DICE's headquarters in Stockholm I had the chance to check out four competitive modes: a chaotic 40 player Galactic Assault game on Naboo, and the recently introduced space dog-fighting of Starfighter Assault. Now, I'd already seen these two demos from E3 and Gamescom, but the Arcade mode's survival mission, and 8v8 Strike mode on Takodana were new. And it's in the Strike mode in particular that DICE's efforts to bolster the multiplayer portion of the game became apparent.
As if it wasn't obvious enough from the stage upon which Capcom chose to introduce the newest Monster Hunter, this one's going to be a little different. Monster Hunter World, which opted out of the series' traditional Japanese debut to break cover during Sony's conference at this year's E3, is a hard play for the west, an attempt to win over an audience that the series has been wooing for a while now. Will it manage to do so? I'm not entirely convinced it can, but also I'm not entirely fussed - because either way, Monster Hunter World ushers in some very welcome changes for the series.
Strange Brigade, the new game by Sniper Elite studio Rebellion, is a charming beast, a breathless romp right out of the pages of a hammy British adventure mag. It's Brendan Fraser's rolled up shirt sleeves in the sandy archaeological action film The Mummy, his beefy fists thumping mummified monsters because they jolly well deserved it! It's all "Treacherous Tombs!" and "Chaps!" and smoking card character portraits. It's fairly irresistible.
Back at Gamescom, I got the chance to play around an hour of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Nintendo's big role-playing game exclusive pencilled in for launch on Switch this Christmas. I'm told I was the first person at the show - and apparently the first outside of Nintendo - to go hands-on. Surprisingly little has been seen so far, bearing in mind the game's impending launch, so I'm a little lost when I find myself dropped a dozen or so hours into the game's campaign. I'll be learning its many battle systems on the fly - and I do definitely spend my entire time with the game learning, as layer upon layer of gameplay unfurls itself and things slowly, mostly start to make sense.
Star Wars Battlefront 2, and its all-new space battles, demand absolutely nothing of you. Maybe a couple of rounds to figure out the spectacularly counter-intuitive flight controls, if you're anything like me - but nothing else.
Remember the Mario Kart video that was doing the rounds for a while? The one where Luigi takes out Waluigi and then follows it up with a long, cold stare as he hurtles past in his kart? It's great, you should watch it. The Mario Rabbids team think so too, having named one of Luigi's abilities "Steely Stare" in honour of this defining moment for the gangly Mario brother.
I was, like most people, initially unconvinced. Horrified, even. The announcement video, which Capcom unleashed during the Evo fighting tournament, revealed a character as hideous as he was gargantuan. He looked so big, so outrageously proportioned, one wondered whether he could even jump. Could other characters jump over him? Could he be thrown? And then the mind wandered... how ridiculous would Cammy's air throw look performed on this monstrosity? How about R. Mika's double butt slam to the face super? In short, Abigail looked dumb as hell. Have you lost your mind, Capcom? What is this abomination? What is Abigail?
Absolver could be one of the rare genuine progressions in the fighting game genre. Like most fighting games, Absolver requires patience, thought and meticulous timing to succeed. But at the heart of the third-person brawling is an interesting and unique combat deck system that lets you create your own combos.
To my surprise and delight, one of 2017's very best video games is made by none other than Sonic Team. Yup, that Sonic Team - the developer formerly known as Sega AM8, the one behind behind Sega's iconic mascot and the very same studio that's been by the hedgehog's side through the good times and the bad.
Usain Bolt? Really? The recent announcement that the world's fastest man is to feature in Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 seems a strange, misleading and possibly even misguided step. PES has earned its reputation not on gimmicks, but by taking the sport it simulates very seriously indeed. A headline-grabbing move this may be, but it's also a little desperate, and not very PES at all.
Last year's head-turning Layers of Fear was a dark and twisted evening's entertainment. For Polish developer Bloober Team it was a start. Observer, a retro-futuristic game about mind-hacking, is what comes next. It takes what Layers of Fear began and cranks it all the way up. All that warped weirdness? It's back in abundance. All that tense, oozing atmosphere? It's everywhere you walk. But Observer is longer, richer and fuller than its predecessor - and it's a real stunner.
If you ever played World of Warcraft, you'll be familiar with its cities. For me it was Stormwind and Ironforge, both huge virtual spaces packed with buildings, NPCs and, crucially, players. I'd go there to meet up with my friends, show off my cool new gear and of course check the mail.