With a blistering few weeks that have seen hundreds of titles hit stores, it’s easy to be overwhelmed if you’re a nongamer shopping for the perfect gaming-related gift. And while there are a few rules of thumb you should follow, such as steering clear of movie tie-in games, you’re best off if you tailor your gift toward the preferences of your recipient. With games, as with music, it’s best to hit up the person who’ll be getting the gift for some helpful hints. But if that’s not possible, here are a few types of gamers, along with titles you might consider picking up for that player.
For the unemployed: If you know someone who’s lost his job and is wondering whether things could get worse, there’s no better way to reassure him than to give him a 100-hour game set in a world so bleak that people use bottle caps as money. In addition to being one of this year’s best games, “Fallout 3” (rated M, $60 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, $50 for PC) is also the one with the most stuff to do. I recently had a whole week of vacation to wander the post-nuclear ruins of Washington, D.C. I put in nearly 40 hours and barely scratched the surface. This single-player shooter/role-playing game hybrid is perfect when all your gaming buddies are at work.
For the dog-lover: Even a diehard cat person like me spends a good chunk of my “Fable II” playtime interacting with my canine companion. You get your dog near the start of the game (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360), and almost immediately after you’re let loose on the world at large, he unearths a ball you can use to play. As you progress, you’ll teach him tricks and enjoy the fruits of his labor as he sniffs out treasure and gives you a heads-up about nearby bad guys.
For would-be rockers: Whether you pick up “Rock Band 2” or “Guitar Hero: World Tour” (both rated T, available on every console in a variety of configurations and prices) will depend most on which game’s song list better fits your gift recipient, but you should also factor in the skill levels of the foursome who’ll be playing the game. For the more casual, party crowd, I recommend “Rock Band 2,” which is a bit more forgiving of mistakes. If a player flunks out of his song, his teammates can rescue him and pull him back into the song. In “Guitar Hero,” if one person fails, the rest of the band gets dragged down with him. This, along with “GH’s” song-creation mode, seem aimed more at the hardcore player. Also worth keeping in mind: If a gamer has the first “Rock Band,” she can export all but three of that game’s songs for use in the sequel.
For actual rockers: More than any of the consoles, the DS has proved that video game systems need not just be sources of entertainment. “KORG DS-10 Sythesizer” (rated E, $40) isn’t a “game” at all. Instead, it’s a reimagining of the KORG MS-10 analog synth, with the knobs being replaced by the DS’ touch screen. Here’s a video of it in action:
For the guy who hasn’t enjoyed a game since “Tetris”: With entertainment giants Electronic Arts and Steven Spielberg behind “Boom Blox” (rated E, $40 on Wii), the game shouldn’t be as underloved as it is. Players use the Wii remote to manipulate blocks in myriad ways through about 300 stages. When you’re finished, you can use the level editor to create your own set of challenges. “Boom Blox” features single- and multiplayer modes.
For Peter Pan: The PS3’s “LittleBigPlanet” (rated E, $60) appeals to the inner child in all of us, with vividly colored worlds, a cute cloth protagonist and a level editor that lets up to four players cooperate on building their own stages.
For speed freaks: “Mario Kart Wii” (rated E, $50) is the best racing game on the Wii, while open-world racer “Burnout Paradise” (rated E10+, $30) is the best bet on online-enabled PS3s and 360s.
For the daredevil: Players race across rooftops delivering packages in “Mirror’s Edge” (rated T, $60 on PS3 or 360, $50 on PC). Some people might need to pop a couple Dramamine, though, as the game’s first-person perspective and windmilling arms and legs have made a few players of this parkour adventure ill. Those with a strong enough stomach will find one of this year’s most distinct titles. “Mirror’s Edge” is also the perfect game for the pacifist. It’s possible to finish the game without firing a shot, thanks to nifty moves that let you disarm your foes, empty their guns and toss them aside.
For siblings who like to beat the (digital) tar out of each other: With a cast of memorable Nintendo characters, “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” (rated T, $50 on Wii) is the beginning and end of fighting games on Nintendo’s system. On the PS3 and 360, your best bets are “Soul Calibur IV” (rated T, $60) and “Virtua Fighter 5” (rated T, $40 on 360, $20 on PS3 with no online play on PS3). “Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe” (rated T, $60) is worth a look for comic book fans.
For those who think we’re not alone: Believers in aliens will find plenty to like in shooters “Gears of War 2” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360) and “Resistance 2” (rated M, $60 on PS3). The former features humans battling a menacing race known as the Locust, which lived beneath the ground of the humans’ world for who knows how long before Emergence Day. The latter is an alternate version of history in which an alien species known as the Chimera touched down in Western Europe before Hitler got a chance to run amok.
For gamers convinced everyone but their three closest friends is out to get them: If your paranoid gamer has a core group of at least three friends he likes to play with, you can’t miss with Valve’s “Left 4 Dead” (rated M, $50 on PC, $60 on Xbox 360). The zombie apocalypse title lets four people work cooperatively against a horde of undead to make it to the end of four different B-movie-style scenarios. Once a foursome grows confident against the computer, they can square off against four other players, taking turns as the survivors and the zombies. It’s a great gift for paranoid couples, as well, as two players on one console can join up with two more friends online, or play offline co-op, with the computer controlling the other two survivors. My “L4D” highlight? Yelling, “Get it off me! Get it off me!” right along with my character, Louis. For a similar experience, try “Gears of War 2’s” Horde Mode, which lets up to five players work together against the computer.
For the anti-social commuter: I’ve never been much of a handheld gamer, but if I were, the Nintendo DS remake of “Chrono Trigger” (rated E10+, $40) would be at the top of my to-get list. The game, in which a motley crew of adventurers travel through time to save the day, is the best role-playing game of the Super Nintendo era and arguably the greatest ever. Also worth a look on the DS is another Square Enix RPG, “The World Ends with You” (rated T, $40). This has not been the year of the PlayStation Portable, but “God of War: Chains of Olympus” (rated M, $40) from March is worth giving to anyone who’s getting a new PSP this holiday.
For the future surgeon: “Strategic dismemberment” is the name of the game in “Dead Space” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on PC). The creepy, sci-fi shooter takes place on a spaceship overrun by ruthlessly fast necromorphs, an alien life form that reanimates human dead and fashions them into nimble killing machines. The only way to take them down is to “Cut off their limbs,” as one early game note (written in blood, natch) advises.
For the future butcher: “Ninja Gaiden 2” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360) features far more severed limbs per minute than “Dead Space,” but it’s a much less precise affair. The game eschews the stealthy assassinations practiced by ninjas of yore in favor of a story that lets players flip out and kill ninjas, robots, demons and other assorted baddies. It’s exhileratingly fast-paced, and frustratingly difficult, in a good way.
For the sports nut: Electronic Arts’ “Madden NFL” is pretty much the only game in town for football, but you have choices in the realms of hockey and basketball, with both EA and 2K Sports fielding titles for those sports. If the review aggregator sites are to be believed, your best bet for hockey is “NHL 09” from EA. For hoops, you’ll want to try “NBA 2K9.” “NHL 2K9” does make a nice effort to appeal to hockey noobs. Because the next crop of Major League Baseball titles is due out sometime in March, that sport’s games tend to make mediocre gifts this time of year. “MLB Power Pros 2008” (rated E, $40) is the Wii’s best baseball title, though it doesn’t make much use of motion controls.
For the gardener: “Animal Crossing: City Folk” (rated E, $50 on Wii) and “Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise” (rated E, $40 on Xbox 360) are both deep “god” games that let the player tend a virtual patch of land. “Animal Crossing” is a bit more social, with gamers interacting with talking animal inhabitants of a town. “Viva Piñata” focuses more on trying to capture or attract different species of piñata animals to your garden.
For the Lego-obsessed builder: “Lego Star Wars,” “Lego Indiana Jones” and “Lego Batman” (all rated E, available for most consoles and handhelds) are fun, but if you’re older than, say, 6, you’ve probably noticed you don’t really get to enjoy the toy’s famous creativity. Instead, you hold down a button while your character creates a predetermined object using the Legos provided. If you want a deeper experience, check out vehicle-based platformer “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” (rated E10+, $40, Xbox 360). You’ll travel the world in vehicles that you build and tweak yourself, using parts you scavenge as you adventure.
For the chronically late to the party: It seems like “Grand Theft Auto IV” (rated M, $60 on PS3 or 360, although you can probably find it for cheaper) has been out forever, but gamers who missed the boat back in April might appreciate the chance to climb aboard, especially with the recent announcement that the game’s first downloadable expansion, “The Lost and Damned” will hit the Xbox 360 at the end of January.
For the gamer who loves a good story: The PS3’s exclusive “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” (rated M, $50) may not be an action-packed thrill ride, but it concludes one of gaming’s most loved franchises. Gamers will be watching a ton of in-game movies during this one, so willingness to sit back and watch is key. If you’re looking for a gift that’s a bit more action-packed but with a story just as compelling, “BioShock” (rated M) was my favorite game last year on the Xbox 360. It’s now $30 on that console. The recently released PS3 version is $60, and 2K Games has made some exclusive downloadable content for the Sony version.
For the showertime crooner: Sony’s venerable “SingStar” franchise sets the bar for all other karaoke games. There are two installments (rated T, $60 for a bundle that includes a microphone) on the PS3 and too many to name on the PS2. On the 360, your best bet is “Lips” (rated T) which comes with two light-up, motion-sensitive mics for $70. Younger would-be singers might like “Disney Sing It,” which is rated E and available on all platforms, bundled with a microphone. That game features songs from “Hannah Montana,” “Camp Rock” and other Disney productions.
For the collectible card shark: Gamers who’ve sunk a ton of time into card games like “Magic: The Gathering” will appreciate “Culdcept Saga” (rated T, $20 on Xbox 360). It comes up short in the graphics and sound department, but the gameplay is fantastic. The deep title fuses elements of board games with the collectible card aspect, and unlike “Eye of Judgement” on the PS3, it doesn’t require you to spend additional money to gain new cards. Everything is unlocked during gameplay. Do your gift recipient a favor and point him toward CuldceptCentral.com, which features leagues, tournaments and tips.
For the gamer who has everything: Buying for someone who’s got a whole shelf full of games? Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all offer prepaid cards that can be used to buy downloadable games and goodies via the consoles’ online service.