Blogger’s note: My holiday gift guide ran in The Press Democrat a little over a week ago. I held back a bit on posting to the blog because I wanted to add even more games. It’s been a great year, and even this list doesn’t hit all my favorites. I’ll circle back around and acknowledge more great titles at the end of the year.
The holiday gift-giving season is in full swing. To help prevent you from becoming that clueless relative who buys “Lord of the Rings: War in the North” for the gamer who wanted “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim,” here’s a rundown of video games from this year that should please most gamers on your list.
General rules to follow: Make sure you’re buying games for the correct machine. Your gift recipient can’t play the new “Legend of Zelda” on her Xbox 360, and a Wii can’t play PlayStation 3 discs. Secondly, try to avoid games that are obvious movie or TV tie-ins. They’re rarely good.
Hardware: If your gamer is looking for a new machine to play games on, you really can’t go wrong with any of the consoles currently on the market. The Wii’s life cycle seems to have wound down significantly, but you can score Nintendo’s console (with no games) for just $100 if you look around. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are a little more future-proof. Microsoft’s Kinect has given the company a lot of buzz, but it’s telling that most of this year’s hot titles for the hands-free controller are sequels to games that launched alongside the system.
On the handheld side, the PlayStation Portable will be replaced by the PlayStation Vita early next year. Nintendo’s 3DS is relatively new and, therefore a bit expensive at $170. But the glasses-free 3D is a lot of fun if you have a gadget fiend to shop for. You can also ignore dedicated gaming devices and go the tablet, mobile phone, iPod Touch or PC route. Earlier this year, I wrote about how building a PC is easier than most people think it is. I’ll be focusing a little more on gifts you can wrap up and hand to someone, but prepaid gift cards for Apple’s App Store, Microsoft’s Xbox Live, Nintendo’s digital stores or Sony’s PlayStation Network make great stocking stuffers.
For the broke gamer: This fall gave us four big, high-profile titles that anyone could happily sink dozens, if not hundreds, of hours into. Lone wolves will appreciate “Skyrim,” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] a massive, open-world role-playing game full of magic, elves and dragons. Gamers who like to get together a few friends and play cooperatively will appreciate “Gears of War 3” (Xbox 360) [review], whose “horde” and “beast” modes let players team up to take down computer-controlled enemies. More cutthroat, competitive gamers will appreciate the twitchy “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” [review] or the more tactical “Battlefield 3” (both PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review]. These four games are titles many players picked up on Day 1, but if you’re shopping for a budget-constrained gamer who hasn’t bought anything in a while, he’ll thank you profusely for one of these.
For the owner of a dusty Wii: The Wii U, Nintendo’s next console, isn’t expected until late next year, but it largely seems as if publishers have moved on from the Wii. Nintendo itself almost seems to be saying “goodbye” to the console with the release of just two big high-profile titles this year. “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” garnered more praise than “Kirby’s Return to Dreamland,” but either would be suitable. Also worth a look, “Lost in Shadow,” a fusion of platform-jumping and puzzle-solving that released in January and was barely marketed. You should be able to find it for less than $20.
For the masochist: From Software’s “Dark Souls” (Xbox 360, PS3) [review] takes a minimalist approach to the action role-playing game. “Dark Souls” features an epic fantasy world to explore, but unlike “Skyrim,” there’s very little dialogue and almost no plot. There’s just you, your weapons and magic and a world full of hostile creatures that will kill you, over and over, as you master a difficult game through trial and mostly error.
For the comic-book nerd: “Batman: Arkham City” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is the sequel to arguably the greatest superhero video game ever made. You can knock it a bit for being a bit more of the same, gameplaywise, but the open-world, urban setting is reminiscent of Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” games and suits the caped crusader well. Sucker Punch’s “Infamous 2” (PS3) actually functions better as an open-world superhero game. It’s set in a fictional city clearly inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, and the numerous flooded zones pose a hazard to the electricity-slinging Cole McGrath.
For the aspiring game designer: Sony’s “LittleBigPlanet 2” [review] for the PS3 felt like a step backward in terms of its campaign, but it counteracted that shortcoming by including deep level-creation tools that let its players build everything from pinball games to beat-‘em-ups. If you’re shopping for a kid who vows to work in the video game industry, “LBP2,” along with “Minecraft” on the PC, are great places to start.
For the old-school gamer who’s just getting back in: It’s been a great year for comebacks from classic franchises. A new “Mortal Kombat” (Xbox 360, PS3) that stays true to the series’ gory, cartoonish roots hit stores back in April. More recently, we’ve gotten a 3D remake of the classic “Legend of Zelda” game “The Ocarina of Time” for the 3DS and a high-definition reworking of 2001’s “Halo: Combat Evolved” on the Xbox 360. PlayStation 2 cult classics “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus” were prettied up and bundled together [review] in a budget-priced PS3 package. On the 3DS, “Mario Kart 7” and “Super Mario 3D Land” are new titles but will be instantly familiar to devotees of the core Nintendo franchises.
For the rich kid: “Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure” (PC, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3) is a toy marketer’s dream. The colorful, platform-jumping/action game comes with a “portal” device you attach to your console that scans in action figures, which are sold separately. Diabolical? Yes, but “Skylanders” looks great and has a story penned by a couple of Pixar vets that its target audience will gobble up. A starter pack that includes the game, the portal and three figures will set you back $70, and each figure costs $8. My advice: Find a few other folks with “Skylanders” and swap figures.
For the “Mad Men” buff: Rockstar Games’ “L.A. Noire” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is a detective story set in a stunning re-creation of post-World War II Los Angeles. The hard-boiled thriller shares a few actors with the TV show centered on a 1960s ad agency. Thanks to Team Bondi’s Motion Scan technology, their faces are re-created in game.
For the sci-fi fan who aspires to be a detective: Like “L.A. Noire,” Eidos Montreal’s “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] puts players in the role of an investigator trying to solve a complex mystery. Instead of traipsing around postwar Los Angeles, though, “Deus Ex” takes you to Detroit, Montreal and Hengsha, China, among other locales. Set in 2027, the corporate espionage tale revolves around the burgeoning biotech industry and features complex, adult themes tech geeks will love.
For the speed demon: Microsoft’s “Forza Motorsport 4” (Xbox 360) is the most polished racer to come out this year, but if you’re playing on the PS3, Codemasters’ “F1 2011” Formula 1 racer is a nice consolation prize. (That game is also available on the PC, 360 and 3DS.) If more arcade-style racing is your thing, take a look at Codemasters’ rally-oriented “Dirt 3” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) or Ubisoft’s unusual “Driver: San Francisco” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3). The latter title’s core gameplay element of being able to shift your consciousness from body to body (and therefore from driver to driver and from car to car) allows for a fantastically fun game of tag in online multiplayer.
For the pub trivia champ: THQ’s reintroduction of 1990s PC hit “You Don’t Know Jack” (PC, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3, DS) [review] is perfect for competition-minded groups of adults out to prove who’s the smartest in the land. The cleverly worded questions often require a little quick thinking to parse, making “YDKJ” a little less reflex-oriented than other “buzz-in” style party games. The game’s frequent double-entendres and semi-obscure references make it a great party game for adults.
For the family who games together: Ubisoft’s “Rayman Origins” (Wii, Xbox 360, PS3) is a vibrant, colorful platform-jumping game that might have the year’s best art direction. It supports up to four players, but the catch is that there’s no online play. PS3 owners looking for a similar experience they can take online should check out “Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One” [review].
For the perpetual bachelor with a Rubix Cube fetish: Atlus’ “Catherine” (Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is easily this year’s most hard-to-describe title. It’s a tower-scaling/block pushing puzzle game grafted onto a supernatural soap opera. It features talking, murderous sheep, bits of trivia about alcoholic beverages, twins who finish each other’s sentences and a hideous, R-rated monstrosity called the “Amoral Beast.” If David Lynch made “Q*bert” or “Solomon’s Key” in 2011, it would have looked something like “Catherine.”
For the zombie hater: This year’s games featuring the undead come in two flavors. “Dead Island” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is occasionally tense but not really scary. It’s an open-world game with a role-playing-game-style crafting and leveling system, set in an island paradise. It was fairly buggy when it launched, but the world now is that patches have much improved it. If your gift recipient never got around to Capcom’s “Dead Rising 2” yet, this year’s “Dead Rising 2: Off the Record” remix is the definitive version. If your recipient loves games that go bump in the night, “Dead Space 2” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is a fantastic horror-themed shooter that owes a lot to the “Alien” movies.
For the high-score king: People Can Fly’s “Bulletstorm” (PC, Xbox 360, PS3) [review] switches up the usual first-person shooter format by throwing in a lot of over-the-top dialogue and a points system that encourages creative kills with the game’s diverse arsenal of death-dealing weapons. Why shoot a guy in the chest when you can wrap an explosive time bomb around his legs, then kick him into an explosive barrel and take out three of his buddies in one shot?
For the Kinect owner looking for a change of pace: Three of this year’s big Kinect titles are sequels to the best launch titles (“Dance Central” “Your Shape” and “Kinect Sports”). Those sequels are all looking good, but their existence a year after Kinect’s launch speaks to the fact that developers aren’t really interested in taking a lot of risks with the new technology. If you’re buying for a Kinect owner looking for something a bit different, consider Ubisoft’s colorful “Child of Eden” [review] or Twisted Pixel’s “The Gunstringer” [review], which comes with a free code to download “Fruit Ninja Kinect.” For something completely different, take a look at Sega’s “Rise of Nightmares” [preview], a horror title aimed at adults that’s so over the top and gory it’s probably best suited to a roomful of hip grown-ups.
For the religious scholar: “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” (Xbox 360, PS3) [review] is an unusual platform-jumping action game that takes its inspiration from noncanonical religious texts. A relatively short game, it was a bit of a stretch at its $60 launch price but can be found for half that nowadays.
For the fan of “Grand Theft Auto” with a sophomoric sense of humor: When I saw “Saints Row The Third” (Xbox 360, PS3) at E3, the THQ representative showing off the title used the phrase “over the top” about a dozen times in a 10-minute presentation. The preorder bonus included something called “Professor Genki’s Super Ballistic Manapult.” This game is a zany, puerile romp in which members of the player’s street gang are treated like celebrities. It’s also not really for kids.