For a change, the winter months are giving gamers something to be excited about. The first three months of the year have traditionally been a dead zone for new releases, as publishers scrambled to get everything into stores before Christmas.

Last year, the video game industry finally realized that so many games were coming out in October and November, deserving titles got lost in the shuffle. In response, a bunch of games were pushed back into the relatively quiet January-to-March window. Now, the winter months have become so crowded with big releases, some games are being delayed again, until spring.

Here’s a guide to games worth watching between now and the end of March. New games generally cost $60 on the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on the PC and Wii and $40 or less on the PlayStation Portable or DS. Some titles have not yet been rated by the Electronic Software Ratings Board. If I left out your most anticipated game, feel free to sound off in the comments.

Bayonetta_horn

“Bayonetta” (Jan. 5, Xbox 360 and PS3, rated M): The latest from Hideki Kamiya (“Devil May Cry,” “Viewtiful Joe,” “Okami”) was released to rave reviews in October, when it made its Japanese debut. Starring a witch with clothes made of her own hair and guns attached to her boots, “Bayonetta” is a twisted, nonstop thrill ride with lush visuals, a pulsing soundtrack and plenty of attitude. You’ll transform into a variety of forms, pull off crazy attack combos worthy of “God of War” and “Ninja Gaiden” and kill things with your hair. The gorgeous art style and sheer inventiveness and variety of enemies I faced in the 13 minutes I spent playing the demo had me hooked.

“Darksiders” (Jan. 5, Xbox 360 and PS3, rated M): In THQ’s action RPG, you take on the role of War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who must grapple with having his powers taken away before he’s cast down to Earth.

“Dark Void” (Jan. 19, PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, rated T): You’ll get transported through a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, then end up flying around with a jetpack to fight off aliens with designs on Earth. The latest game from Capcom is expected to become a Hollywood movie sometime down the road.

pax3

“Mass Effect 2” (Jan. 26, PC and Xbox 360, rated M): It’s amazing that Electronic Arts-owned BioWare can put out this highly anticipated sequel just a couple of months after pumping out “Dragon Age: Origins.” “Mass Effect 2,” the second game in a planned trilogy of sci-fi epics, picks up right where the first game left off. If you still have a “Mass Effect” save file, a number of the decisions you made in that game will affect how things unfold in the sequel. BioWare incorporated criticism of the first game’s combat mechanics, planetary exploration and dull side quests into improving the new game. Fear not, though. You’ll still be forming a diverse party of characters and carrying on weighty moral conversations with half the galaxy, in a good way.

web_mag

“MAG” (Jan. 26 on PS3, rated M):Don’t let the generic name (which stands for the even more generic “Massive Action Game”) fool you. Sony’s online shooter promises to let hundreds of players do battle online. Up until this point, games like “Halo 3” and “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” have let console gamers play with a dozen or two of their friends, tops. If “MAG” truly takes off, previous war-themed games could end up feeling like mild disagreements.

“No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle” (Jan. 26 on Wii, rated M, $50): All of two dozen people played the first “No More Heroes,” a highly stylized action game that was the first title to use the Wii remote speaker as a sort of cell phone. This one’s worth a look if you’re an older Wii owner who enjoys the occasional Quentin Tarantino-style bloodbath and lots of nods to gaming history.

“Star Trek Online” (Feb. 2 on PC, rated T):It’s a massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the “Star Trek” universe. The usual subscription fees apply.

“BioShock 2” (Feb. 9 on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, rated M, $50 or $60): The return to underwater utopia Rapture casts players in the role of a prototype Big Daddy, the deep sea diving suit-clad guys. As in the first game, you’ll do battle with the demented denizens of a utopia gone wrong, choosing to save or enslave the game’s ghoulish Little Sisters. Unlike the first game, this one also includes online multiplayer modes.

screen_000104

“Dante’s Inferno” (Feb. 9 on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, rated M, $50 or $60): Don’t expect this to pack anywhere near the literary or emotional heft of the work it’s based on. Instead, you’ll hack and slash your way through several layers of hell, killing everything that moves in levels modeled after the seven deadly sins. Surely, there are worse ways to butcher the classics.

“Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction” (Feb. 23, Xbox 360, PC, DS): The latest adventures of Sam Fisher seem to have been delayed about a dozen times. But this time, Ubisoft means it. The “Splinter Cell” series is sort of like Ubisoft’s answer to Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid” franchise.

“Mafia II” (Feb. 28, PC, Xbox 360, PS3): The first “Mafia” game, set in the 1930s, made waves when it was released on PC back in 2002, but the console ports on PS2 and Xbox were somewhat lacking. Hopefully, developer 2K Czech won’t repeat past mistakes. I’m a big fan of unconventional historical settings (anything that isn’t World War II or medieval times), so a ’40s/’50s-era gangster game could hit a sweat spot.

MADJACK_Screenshot10

“Heavy Rain” (February, PS3): The latest game from the studio behind the cult favorite “Indigo Prophecy” tells the story of four different characters trying to hunt down a serial killer. In a cool twist, all four characters are playable, and if one of them dies, you lose that character for the rest of the game.

“Final Fantasy XIII” (March 9, rated T, Xbox 360 or PS3): English-language bloggers who’ve tried out the long-awaited next installment in Square Enix’s flagship series have said “FFXIII” is incredibly linear, without much room for exploration. Expect to fight a lot of monsters and watch a lot of cut scenes, all of them exquisitely rendered.

“Battlefield: Bad Company 2” (March 30, rated M, PC, Xbox 360 and PS3): This multiplayer first-person shooter has been in beta testing for the past few months and clearly has designs at taking “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” down a peg.

PressAnnc04

“God of War III” (March 30, rated M, PS3): Named the most anticipated 2010 game at Spike TV’s recent Video Game Awards, this one is destined to be a megahit. Gamers will return to Olympus with the aim of destroying it, and it’s the last installment of a planned trilogy.

“Gran Turismo 5” (March 30, PS3): This racing game has been in the hopper seemingly forever. Expect it to play much like Microsoft’s excellent “Forza Motorsport 3” for the Xbox 360. It’s a realistic racing sim where the goal is to keep your cars free of dents and drive really fast.

“Red Steel 2” (Feb. 16 or March 23, Wii): The first “Red Steel,” which was the first Wii game to feature both sword fighting and gunplay, let folks down because its controls ultimately were too inelegant to be much fun. The sequel tries to remedy this by featuring compatibility with Wii MotionPlus. Amazon and IGN list a bundle of the game and MotionPlus releasing on Feb. 16 for $60. If you’ve already invested in the peripheral, you may have to wait an extra month or so to buy the game by itself. Hmm…

“Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4” (Spring on PC, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, PSP and DS): Anyone who’s seen “Lego Star Wars,” “Lego Indiana Jones” or “Lego Batman” knows what to expect here.