Rankings and commentary by George Mathis / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Video games make for popular Christmas gifts, but, at up to $60 a pop, it pays to pick one that will be thoroughly enjoyed. Hundreds of games are released each year, making the decision-making process complicated. Gift cards are a way out of the shopping dilemma, but how do you know junior will select something age appropriate and fun for the long haul? Flipping through the following guide guarantees Santa delivers no duds. Included are games for every age and major gaming console. Prices are current as of late November.
Few games make time fly like The Sims. The latest version of the strategic life simulation, Sims 3, was released way back in 2009, but regularly released expansion packs breathe new life into it. Seasons adds a lot of visual diversity. Winter, for example, brings snow, and the ability to create snowmen and igloos. Festive Sims will even decorate their homes with Christmas lights. Sims that aren’t dressed appropriately for the weather will get sick, so be sure to put on a coat before going snowboarding. There’s no new city for Sims to explore, but UFOs and alien abductions, a fan favorite from Sims 2, are back. (Price: $20 download; Score 77; ESRB Rating Teen; Developer: The Sims Studio; Available on Mac and PC) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Batman is not supposed to be cute, but the Caped Crusader and dozens of other characters from the DC universe certainly are in this literal block buster. As in previous well-regarded Lego titles, players control familiar characters that punch, smash, shoot and jump past equally adorable toy enemies, including Lex Luthor and The Joker. But there’s also a lot new here. Most obvious is, for the first time, Lego characters have voices. The dialogue is entertaining and the voice actors are super. New abilities, like Wonder Woman’s handy lasso, add variety. And, Gotham City is an open world, giving kids plenty of places to explore while collecting Gold Bricks. Parents will appreciate the ability to join the fight for a few moments in co-op mode. (Price: $15 on Amazon; Score: 80; ESRB Rating: E10+; Developer: Traveller’s Tales; Available on PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Imagination and a good vocabulary are the only tools required to enjoy this top-notch puzzler, a revved up sequel to the 2009 Nintendo DS classic. Players are given a “magical notebook” that will depict anything the player types. For example, if there’s a puzzle that tasks the adventurer with putting out a fire, typing out “fireman” will make a firefighter appear to douse the flames. Or try typing “black hole,” that gets rid of almost anything. There are many ways to solve each puzzle and parents will get a kick out of watching what their kids create. (Price: $60 for Wii U, $30 for PC download; Score: 81; ESRB Rating: Everyone; Developer: 5th Cell; Available on: PC, Wii U) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Nintendo released a new console, the Wii U ($300), just in time for Christmas, but the Japanese company’s best game is decidedly old-school. New Super Mario Bros. U is a fine 2D platformer that relies heavily on nostalgia, but it works. The level designs are clever and reward exploration of hidden nooks and crannies. The eight game worlds visited by up to four leaping players are distinct, and most levels feature a new gameplay gimmick to keep things interesting. (Price: $60; Score: 82; ESRB Rating: Everyone; Developer: Nintendo; Available on: Wii U) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
The military technology of the future -- robots, glider suits and gloves that let soldiers scale cliffs like Spider-Man -- is selling a lot of games today. Black Ops II, a first-person shooter set in 2025, grossed over $500 million in sales in 24 hours, making it the biggest entertainment launch of all time. Action in the single-player campaign feels a bit dated, but new “Strike Force” missions, where the player controls military assets from high above the battlefield can, for the first time, alter the storyline. The real firefight is online with hundreds of thousands of other armchair grunts. New is “league” play which better matches players of similar skill levels. (Price: $60; Score: 83; ESRB Rating: Mature; Developer: Treyarch; Available on: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Copyright, Microsoft, 2009. All rights reserved.
Master Chief, the protagonist of the mega-selling Halo franchise, returns in a blaze of predictable glory. The single-player campaign of the first-person shooter is a visual stunner but there’s not enough new here to make Halo 4 truly special. Combat has not evolved. Sure, there’s a new race of cybernetic aliens to shoot, the Prometheans, that, can teleport when wounded, but they’re asl susceptible to a shotgun blast as the familiar Covenant. New Promethean weapons serve the same basic functions (sniper rifle, shotgun, assault rifle) as human guns. The main plot is forgettable, and a romantic subplot involving Cortana -- Master Chief’s clothing impaired holographic assistant -- should feel creepy to anyone that’s had a real girlfriend. So why the high score? Multiplayer remains great fun and it seems everyone is playing it. There’s 10 maps and an editor that lets players create an unlimited number of new killing fields. At least nine more officials maps will be released. Episodic content, essentially new missions, are also planned. (Price: $60; Score: 85; ESRB Rating: Teen; Developer 343 Industries; Available on Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Zombies are everywhere -- books, movies, TV shows and video games. But what about a video game based on a TV show based on a graphic novel about a zombie outbreak? That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it turns out well. Unlike the popular TV show, the series of short “episodes” (the first five will be compiled in a Dec. 4 release) focus on alternate characters. The first episode, “A New Day,” puts players in the shoes of an escaped convict protecting a 6-year-old girl after the undead breakout. The intriguing part of the game is making the life-or-death decisions that flesh out the protagonist and determines who helps who in the future. This is more of an adventure book than a fast-paced shoot-em-up, but when it comes time to kill a zombie, the gore literally flies. (Price: About $5 per downloaded episode, $30 for disc of five episodes on Amazon; Score: 86; ESRB Rating: Mature; Developer: Telltale Games; Available on Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
Sequels often take the easy way out, relying on the success of the original instead of fostering innovation. But Borderlands 2 improves the 2009 release in every way, creating an even more violent game world chock full of feral beasts, men and, oddly enough, humor. The plot is predictable, but characters are well-developed and feature excellent voice acting. There’s plenty to explore on Pandora, and it all looks beautiful, especially at higher-resolutions on Mac or PC. Borderlands 2 is primarily an excellent first-person shooter with role playing elements thrown in. The frequent shooting and looting allows characters to add skill points. Plowing through the main quest will result in a quick death at the hands of seemingly overpowered foes, but side quests, which add precious skill points, are, fortunately, hugely entertaining. (Price: $35 on Amazon; Score: 89; ESRB Rating: Mature; Developer: Gearbox Software; Available on Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
The quest for nigh-endless adventure ends with the purchase of Guild Wars 2, a massively multiplayer online role playing game that, unlike many, requires no monthly fee. Hundreds of thousands of real people share the immense, visually impressive world of Tyria, where starting characters choose between five races, eight classes and multiple skills and professions. Rolling up a different character will reveal new quests, which encourages replays. Combat is fluid and entertaining and level-capped areas are challenging, requiring players to wisely use their skills instead of hoarded, powerful weapons. Online crowds make some of the large battles chaotic, but players are always free to pursue more personal journeys. With more free content regularly being released, those with a PC capable of running Guild Wars 2 won’t get bored for a long time. (Price: $50 on Amazon; Score: 90; ESRB Rating: Teen; Developer: ArenaNet; Available on PC) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
It’s easy to overlook games released early in the year, but some, like Mass Effect 3, are worth remembering, especially considering the price drop. The Mass Effect series, action-packed role playing games which pit human soldier Commander Shepard against a galaxy full of enemies, are memorable for the interesting (if convoluted) storyline and the highly useful teammates Shepard must collect to aid him before the final battle to defend Earth. Difficult decisions must be made, and the outcomes can be gut-wrenching. Unlike most soldiers, Shepard and his gun-toting squad can draw upon nigh-magical powers. The ability to mentally lift a tough enemy and slam him to the ground adds diversity to shootouts. Though Shepard’s final fate may not appeal to all, this is an epic tale told well. (Price: $22 on Amazon; Score: 93; ESRB Rating: Mature; Developer: Bioware; Available on PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360) MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide
It’s difficult to pick a “Game of the Year,” but “Enemy Unknown” successfully blends turn-based strategy and combat. Winning here requires more than an itchy trigger finger. Players control the Extraterrestrial Combat (XCOM) headquarters that is used to develop super soldiers, research new weapons, interview alien captives, select missions, build new facilities and more. The strategic depth may drown inexperienced players, as will the turn-based combat during missions that requires patience. For those who enjoy a challenge, there’s nothing that surpasses this retooling of the 1994 cult classic. (Price: $60 on Amazon; Score: 94; ESRB Rating: Mature; Developer: Firaxis; Available on PC, PS3, Xbox 360)MORE: 2012 Holiday Guide