Thursday’s post dealt with deciding which game console and motion controllers to give as gifts. Today, I’ll take a look at some titles that would make great holiday gifts. I’ll be avoiding big hits such as “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” “Red Dead Redemption,” “Mass Effect 2” and “Super Mario Galaxy 2,” figuring many gamers already own those titles.
Though there are a few older games on here, my list is skewed toward titles that came out in 2010. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments if I left out your favorite game. This guide is considerably longer than what ran in the paper Friday, with additional games and gift ideas sprinkled throughout. (Update: As I explained in the comments, one of the pitfalls of doing this sort of list is that as soon as you think you’re done, you remember another game you meant to include. I’ll be adding another game or two over the weekend and also dropping in a bunch of images and links.)
For fans of historical fiction: Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” series features a grown-up plot that spans the modern day, the Crusades and the Renaissance. Many gamers may have overlooked the series’ first two games because they released in sequel-dominated November. But with this November’s “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3), Ubisoft has made it two great games in a row. Set in the modern day as well as the Renaissance, “Brotherhood’s” single-player adventure has the player exploring the streets and rooftops of Rome while interacting with historical characters including Machiavelli and Copernicus. If your gift recipient is new to the series, start them off with “Assassin’s Creed II” (rated M, $30 on Xbox 360 or PS3), whose story prefaces “Brotherhood’s.” The first game, while enjoyable, is set during the Crusades and received less spectacular reviews. Consider it optional.
For the Nintendo nut who’s played every Mario game: The excellent “Kirby’s Epic Yarn” (rated E, $50 on Wii) is a two-dimensional, platform-jumping adventure that’s packed with innovative level design and charm. Featuring a leading character made of yarn and homespun, fabric-and-quilt worlds, this relatively easy game packs in more smiles per hour than anything I’ve played this year.
For the gamer who likes to read: Game magazines are rife with writers who are way too cozy with game publishers and advertisers all too willing to put the screws to a publication who gives them coverage they don’t like. The independently produced Kill Screen magazine is a great gift for the thinking gamer. The current issue includes articles on the financial lessons of “Starcraft” and the historical accuracy of “Assassin’s Creed II.”
For “Call of Duty” nuts who’ve been feeling antisocial: THQ’s “Metro 2033” (rated M, $50 on PC or Xbox 360) is a grim, single-player shooter with “Call of Duty”-style controls set in the Moscow subway system following a nuclear apocalypse. It’s got a fantastic story, excellent voice acting and a neat money system that requires players to use their best bullets to purchase better equipment.
For the grump who thinks people should learn how to play real instruments instead of playing games like “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero”: Music games finally have their rebuttal to the most common complaint leveled against them. Yes, “Rock Band 3” (rated T, prices vary for Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3) really can teach gamers how to play a real instrument. Thanks to the inclusion of “Pro Mode,” it’s now possible to learn how to play along with songs using realistic controllers or even actual instruments, rather than the familiar five-button, guitar-shaped controller. With purchase of a separate adapter, the game is compatible with real, MIDI-enabled keyboards and drum kits, and Fender is making a special guitar that can be played right along with the game.
For the music nut who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is dead: Activision has really stepped up its game with “DJ Hero 2” (rated T, prices vary for Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3). The “DJ Hero” games are built on the same premise as “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” but instead of playing a fake guitar, you’re manipulating a turntable controller with a cross-fader to splice together two music tracks and add your own flair. If your gamer has the first “DJ Hero,” the games use the same controller.
For children of video game skeptics: You probably know at least one parent who hates video games, thanks to their ability to turn children into homework-avoiding, responsibility-shirking drones. And while limiting children’s play time is something I can get behind, there are a few games on the market that encourage kids’ creative side. “Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts” (rated E10+, $20 on Xbox 360) is a colorful platform-jumping game starring a cartoon bear and his bird sidekick. But the meat of the game involves using your imagination to build wacky vehicles – from submarines, to motorcycles, planes and helicopters – to complete the various challenges the game throws at you.
Electronic Arts “Create” (rated E, $40 on Wii, Xbox 360 or PS3) is in a similar but less structured vein, minus the cartoon characters. It’s a giant sandbox in which you can design all sorts of Rube Goldberg-type creations. It’s taken a few lumps for lacking structure, but think of it as the video game version of playing with blocks.
For the kid who dreams of making games for a living: Sony has been doing great things with titles such as “LittleBigPlanet: Game of the Year Edition” ($30) and “ModNation Racers” ($40) for the PS3. These games, a platform-jumping title and a kart-racer, are from traditional genres, but they both feature robust content creation tools that allow players to design their own levels, tracks, characters and vehicles. Once players are finished creating, they can post their work online, where other gamers can download it and offer feedback.
For the Disney buff: You can’t beat the premise of Disney’s new “Epic Mickey” (rated E, $50 on Wii). Early Walt Disney character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit whisks Mickey away to a world called Wasteland, and the mouse must set about making things right. The game features plenty of references to Disney cartoons both classic and obscure. If you want to be the coolest gift giver ever, take your recipient to visit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. The refurbished building in the Presidio features plenty of the animator’s early work and will enhance players’ appreciation for “Epic Mickey.”
For the FBI agent who likes his coffee black: This year was unusual in that it saw the release of two games obviously inspired by early ‘90s cult TV hit “Twin Peaks.” In the so-bad-it’s-good “Deadly Premonition” (rated M, $20 on Xbox 360), players take control of FBI agent Francis York Morgan and investigate the murder of a young woman in a bizarre small town. In “Alan Wake,” which also takes a few cues from “Lost,” gamers play as a bestselling novelist in search of his wife, Alice. She’s gone missing in a Washington logging town menaced by a sinister dark presence.
For the “Legend of Zelda” nut who doesn’t own a Wii: THQ’s “Darksiders” (rated M, $20 for Xbox 360 or PS3) is a darker, edgier take on Nintendo’s exploration-oriented adventure games. Atlus Games’ “3D Dot Game Heroes” (rated E10+, $40 on PS3) presents itself as a pixilated, blocky version take on the Zelda formula. Its blocky characters look about what you’d expect characters from mid-‘80s Nintendo games to look like if they were converted to 3D.
For the kid whose parents own a PS3: If you know a young kid who’s just getting into gaming, give him “The Sly Collection” (rated E10+, $40 on PS3), a compilation of three child-friendly classics from the PS2 that have been upgraded for Sony’s newest console. Players control a sneaky raccoon and his band of thieves in a mixture of platform-jumping and stealth. The disc also includes all-new minigames designed to be played with the PlayStation Move, though the three games themselves are played with a standard controller.
For the action game nut who’s already become a God of War: Sony’s “God of War III” (rated M, $60 on PS3) was arguably the biggest, blade-swinging action game of the year. But if the gamer on your shopping list hasn’t gotten enough of fighting off crowds of bad guys with an array of violent weapons, 2010 was a great year for action games. Take a look at the fast-paced, smooth “Bayonetta” and “Dante’s Inferno” (both rated M, $30 for Xbox 360 and PS3). And don’t overlook “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow” (rated M, $60 for PS3 or Xbox 360). It doesn’t have the exploration that became a series hallmark, but it does have hordes of enemies you can mow down with a whip and plenty of dark, brooding atmosphere.
For the driver with too many speeding tickets: “Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit” (rated E10+, $60 for Xbox 360 or PS3, $50 for PC) is the ultimate game of cops and robbers. You play either as an errant speed demon or police officer, with the civilian trying to avoid capture as long as he can. The longer the chase progresses, the more tools each player unlocks. Developer Criterion Games, best known for the crash-oriented “Burnout” titles, missed a bit of an opportunity by not including a split-screen mode, which means the meat of “Hot Pursuit” is in its online mode. The game requires an online activation code shipped with new copies but sold separately for $15, so buying it used is a bad bet. The Wii version is widely regarded as inferior, which is why it’s not listed here.
For the lapsed handheld gamer: Regular readers of GameWit know I’m not able to make time for a ton of handheld gaming, but of the portable titles I’ve played this year, “Valkyria Chronicles II” (rated T, $40 on PlayStation Portable), “God of War: Ghost of Sparta” (rated M, $40 on PSP) and “Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies” (rated E10+, $35 on DS) have stood tallest.
Other racing titles worth a look are Disney’s destruction-oriented “Split/Second” (rated E10+, $40 on Xbox 360 or PS3) and “Gran Turismo 5” (rated E, $60 on PS3), which is aimed at the hardcore car fetishist.
For the family who loves board games: With scalable puzzles that lead to a different criminal every time, Disney’s “Guilty Party” plays a lot like a video game version of the board game “Clue.” Up to four players take turns interviewing suspects and gathering clues, with ever-popular minigames determining which investigators succeed and which ones flop. (Don’t worry. The difficulty level of the minigames is scaleable, too, which means even nongamers can have an easy time.)
For fans of a great story: Both “Nier” (rated M, $30 for Xbox 360 or PS3) and “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West” (rated T, $40 for Xbox 360 and PS3) have won high praise for their deep, mature story lines, but both were dinged by critics for flaws some gamers will be willing to overlook.
For the gamer who already has all these games: If you just don’t know what to buy for the gamer on your list, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all sell prepaid cards that can be used to download games and/or add-ons from their consoles’ online marketplace. If you’re buying for a PC gamer, consider a gift card for a site like New Egg, where your recipient can buy new software or upgrade his existing rig.