It’s the holidays, time for you to shop for a gift for the gamer in your family, but you do not play video games yourself. If there’s a cardinal rule of shopping for video games, it’s “Don’t buy a game tied to a movie or TV show.” Follow that general rule, and you’re already a step ahead of the other nongaming relatives. Sure, there are a few exceptions to the rule – the game for James Cameron’s “Avatar” might end up being one of them – but it’s a rule for a reason.
Otherwise, the key is to find out what type of gamer you’re buying for, then plan accordingly. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions. One glaring omission from this list is Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on PC). This is a gift guide, not a “best games of 2009” list. With “Modern Warfare 2” already the fastest-selling game of all time, I’m assuming your gamer already owns it.
For hypercompetitive family or roommates who occasionally like to help each other: “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” (rated E, $50 on Wii). Nintendo’s latest Mario game is a two-dimensional affair that hearkens back to the original “Super Mario Bros.” The twist this time out, though, is that up to four people can play at once. With the ability to, accidentally or deliberately, steal fellow players’ power-ups or send them tumbling to their deaths, this game has the potential to ignite a lot of heated arguments that’ll seem hilarious in retrospect.
For the chrome fetishist who worships at the altar of speed: “Forza Motorsport 3” (rated E, $60 on Xbox 360), above. Sony’s “Gran Turismo 5” might give this game a run for its money, if and when it ever comes out, but for now, Microsoft’s latest “Forza” is the best-looking, most realistic racing game on the market. This is a series for the racer who wouldn’t dream of putting a scratch on his car, and the game’s innovative rewind feature ensures you can quickly undo a bad turn or a slight bump with the press of a button. PS3 car junkies should check out Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed: Shift” (rated E, $60 on PS3 or 360). It’s a notch just below “Forza,” but the graphics and handling are nothing to sneeze at.
For the couple who had the “Indiana Jones” theme played at their wedding: “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” (rated T, $60 on PlayStation 3). Nathan Drake’s quest for the wish-granting Cintamani Stone is packed with acrobatics, gunplay, explosions and deceit. It’s also got a movie-worthy script and first-rate voice acting talent. As a bonus, the multiplayer features include a deep movie-making machinima mode for the budding filmmaker. [Review]
For the baby boomer, or people who know a baby boomer: “The Beatles: Rock Band” (rated T, $60 on Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii, game only). Even nongamers have successfully grasped the play-along-with-music premise of the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” games. And what better way to have a multigenerational game night than to play along with the Beatles? Bundles including controllers modeled on the Fab Four’s original instruments are a bit spendy, but if you don’t yet have a houseful of plastic instruments and are looking to save money, pick up the “Rock Band 2: Special Edition” bundle at a discount, then buy the Beatles game separately. [Review]
For the team player: “Left 4 Dead 2” (rated M, $50 on PC, $60 on Xbox 360), “Borderlands” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on PC) or “Halo 3: ODST” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360). Tired of being headshotted by foul-mouth 15-year-olds in “Modern Warfare 2?” These games let you team up with up to three friends and wage war against computer-generated foes who talk little smack. And they’re all terrific.
For the adult gamer who’s not ashamed to whip out a handheld gaming device in a crowd: “Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars” (rated M, $30 on DS or PlayStation Portable). This wholly independent story set in the “GTA” universe has been rated by some critics as the greatest handheld game of all time.
For the gamer who has owned dice with more than six sides: “Dragon Age: Origins” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on PC), above. Bioware made a name for itself with “Baldur’s Gate,” “Neverwinter Nights” and “Knights of the Old Republic,” well-crafted, well-written role-playing games set in the Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars universes. Now part of Electronic Arts, the studio has come up with two great franchises set in wholly original worlds. The first, “Mass Effect,” has a second installment due out in January. The second, “Dragon Age,” debuted this fall. Fans of past Bioware games should feel right at home, and the game’s complex moral dilemmas are a refreshing update of the typical black-and-white, good-vs.-evil choices that have plagued the genre.
For the jaded adult gamer: “Brütal Legend” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3): If you’re tired of adventuring in the same half-dozen worlds, Sonoma native Tim Schafer’s latest game is worth a look. “Brütal Legend” tells the story of Eddie Riggs, a roadie voiced by Jack Black who finds himself magically transported to a world inspired by classic heavy metal album covers. (Yes, those ones.) The world is fresh, the characters original and the writing hilarious. The gameplay isn’t as fresh as the script, but Schafer’s team at San Francisco-based Double Fine doesn’t embarrass itself, either. A dark horse candidate for my game of 2009. [Review]
For the budding battlefield tactician: “Halo Wars” (rated T, $40 on Xbox 360). Even though it sold more than a million copies, this game was overlooked by a lot of folks because it isn’t a “real” “Halo” game. It’s a real-time strategy title, not a first-person shooter like every other title in the series. But the swan song from “Age of Empires” developer Ensemble Studios features a smoothly streamlined console control scheme that doesn’t feel “dumbed down” compared with keyboard-and-mouse counterparts. Although it still would have been nice if they allowed mapping of hotkeys to the 360’s Messenger Kit. [Review]
For the gamer who painstakingly hunted down every last pigeon in “Grand Theft Auto IV”: “Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360). This disc-based released compiles the two well-reviewed, downloadable add-ons for “GTA IV,” “The Lost and Damned” and “The Ballad of Gay Tony.”
For the Wii owner who’s getting a bit older and is looking to move beyond Mario and minigames: “Metroid Prime Trilogy” (rated T, $50 on Wii), above. This single disc contains all three “Metroid Prime” games. The two titles from the GameCube era have been updated so that they control like the Wii’s “Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.” Each of these titles was arguably the best game on its respective system when it released, so there are a lot worse things you can do than spend money on this hybrid of light first-person shooting, exploration and puzzle-solving.
For the family looking for more “Wii Sports”: “Wii Sports Resort” (rated E, $50 on Wii, includes one Wii MotionPlus needed to play the game): Other games have tried to replicate the magic of Nintendo’s “Wii Sports,” which helped make Nintendo’s console into a bona fide phenomenon after sales of its last machine, the GameCube, stagnated. But none of these knockoffs has succeeded quite like Nintendo’s own sequel, “Wii Sports Resort.” The game, designed as a showcase for Wii MotionPlus, which allows for more nuanced motion control, features more than a dozen new minigames along the lines of those found in “Wii Sports.” If you’re buying this as a gift, though, you’ll probably want to pick up at least one extra Wii MotionPlus. The game comes with just one, and this is the sort of title that’s best played in groups. Don’t buy the extra MotionPlus at GameStop, though. They’re still charging $5 more than everyone else. [Review]
For the comic book nut: “inFAMOUS” (rated T, $40 on PS3) or “Batman: Arkham Asylum” (rated T, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on PC). “Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2” is an obvious choice, and a decent one, but these two superhero games are among the year’s best titles. “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” which is unrelated to the movie “The Dark Knight” has the caped crusader battling a host of nemeses in Gotham City’s notorious psychiatric prison. PS3 exclusive “inFAMOUS” has you playing as a courier who finds himself imbued with superhuman powers following a terrorist attack on the obviously New York-inspired Empire City. The open-world gameplay and cool, comic book art style made this game my favorite PS3 title of the year. [“inFAMOUS” review]
For the gamer who grew up on Mario but has a PS3 now: “Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time” (rated E10+, $60 on PS3). A case could be made that the “Ratchet & Clank” series by Insomniac Games (the same folks behind the “Resistance” games) has out-Marioed Nintendo’s flagship franchise. In any case, the series has become known for great visuals, ridonkulously huge weapons and memorable characters who do a lot more than spout the occasional line of vaguely Italian jibber-jabber.
For the gamer for whom the phrase “go medieval on your ass” means dressing up in chain mail: “Assassin’s Creed 2” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 on PC). In Ubisoft’s follow-up to the game that let players act as an assassin during the Crusades, gamers journey to Renaissance-era Italy to relive the experiences of a vengeful young nobleman.
For the PS3 owner who didn’t have a PS2: “God of War Collection” (rated M, $40 on PS3). In anticipation of next year’s violent, mythology-infused sequel, Sony has dusted off the first two “God of War” games and given them a fresh coat of high-definition paint, complete with trophies and a irresistible budget price.
For the sports fan: This didn’t used to be true, but for nearly every sport on the market other than baseball and basketball, you’re safe going with the Electronic Arts game. The “Madden NFL,” “FIFA” and “NHL” franchises are at the top of their game. For baseball fans, I recommend PS3 exclusive “MLB 09: The Show” for purists and “The Bigs 2” for those looking for a more arcade-driven experience. In the world of basketball, “NBA 2K10” reigns.
For the gamer who has more games than you can count, or who didn’t fit any of the above categories and has an Internet connection: Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all sell prepaid cards you can use to buy downloads from online stores for the Wii, DSi, Xbox 360, PS3 and PlayStation Portable. Even if it seems like your gamer has everything he or she could possibly want, they’ll always be able to use one of these cards to download songs for music games, map packs for online shooters, or even whole games available for download. These cards also pair nicely with a lot of the games on my list. Throw in a card with “The Beatles: Rock Band” on the 360 or PS3, for example, and your gamer will be able to download additional songs from “Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
For the “Rock Band” or “Guitar Hero” Xbox 360 player who thinks he has everything: Xbox 360 Wireless Microphone ($60, although you can easily find it for cheaper). Microsoft’s light-up, wireless microphones are simply a must-have if you play any of the full-band music games on a regular basis. The mic also comes packed in a bundle with “Lips Number One Hits,” a karaoke game (rated T, $60, also floating around for cheap). The “Lips” franchise has a ways to go to before it catches up with Sony’s “SingStar” series, but it’s hard to quibble with what’s basically a great microphone with a free game thrown in.