Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
(Rated Mature; PC, PS3, Wii U, 360)
Now that the Mayan calendar’s nearing its end, years can just be counted by the annual Call of Duty release. Surprisingly, being this far into the franchise’s life, Black Ops 2 manages to employ and execute more than its usual handful of blockbuster holy $#!% set pieces. The story — taking place during the Cold War, modern day, and year 2025 — provides a more mature narrative and consequential gameplay, finally growing up with its fans.Of course, multiplayer is still the franchise’s calling card, and rightfully so. The experience-driven upgrade system remains commander-in-chief in the industry. Noteworthy additions include multi-team matches, allowing more than the standard two teams, more robust class creation and a streamlined “Pick 10” formula to better manage your weapons and gear online. Add on the cooperative “survive the zombies” mode, and Black Ops 2 is some serious firepower this Santa season.
(Rated Everyone; Every platform)
Football. Soccer. Same dif’ — especially when it’s as good as this. Fluidity is to FIFA 13 as prolonged goal celebrations are to Italian soccer announcers. From a distance it might as well be a real game. It’s that lifelike. The controls are easy to learn, yet offer immense depth for purists to flourish in their finesse football fantasies. The dribbling mechanic is tight and realistic, and the players are rewardingly intelligent and strategic, with the zigzag swagger of Ronaldinho. Career modes enable an in-depth managerial perspective of a team through an entire season, while online variants quickly connect players to other diehards across the globe. Unfortunately, those Brazilians even dominate in virtual football. I thought being good at something that isn’t real was America’s thing. C’mon. Soccer’s universal appeal and simple rules translate superbly to FIFA’s latest annual update. Just please pick a team besides Barcelona. Be original.
Pokémon Black and White 2
(Rated Everyone; Nintendo DS, 3DS)
Remember back in the late ’90s when every kid ran around all jacked up on sugar with a pocketful of trading cards, on a mission to “catch ’em all?” It’s probably best those dizzying days are done, but the Pokémon are still kickin’ around. Yep, still. The two versions — Black 2 and White 2 — are highly reminiscent of their Gameboy ancestors. The art style and gameplay are welcomed with a “good ol’ days” familiarity, recalling the simplicity of the two-dimensional graphics with a fresh, updated engine. Catching creatures and taking them to battle remains the name of the game, but it’s the cornucopia of content — including 300 catchable monsters — that staves off any boredom. For anyone who used the Pokémon to help remember the alphabet, it’s a piece of nostalgia worth its return to innocent youth.
Assassin’s Creed III
(Rated Mature; PC, PS3, Wii U, 360)
For those history buffs and full-blooded patriots out there, the American frontier and colonial Northeast are open to exploration and adventure. With a wealth of recognizable names, locations and historical events painting the backdrop, Assassin’s Creed III effectively uses the magnificent and violent birth of the United States to tell a poignant story of freedom and belonging. With an open world and the ability to climb almost any structure (including trees for the first time), navigating the 18th century landscape yields constant variety with unparalleled verticality. Being one of the few uber-popular titles that doesn’t rely solely on combat, AC3’s beautifully detailed and vast environments are characters in themselves, affecting the approach to objectives whilst encouraging stealth and strategy. Lengthy, rich and driven by interesting historical fiction, AC3 gloriously delivers.
Just Dance 4
(Rated Everyone; Kinect, PS3, Wii, Wii U)
Think you really got the moves like Jagger? Wait, what does that even mean? Hopefully it’s dance-related. Featuring 50 songs spanning seven decades (26 from the past four years), alternate dance routines, multiplayer battles and a posse of group-dance options, it’s a party on a disc. Zumba enthusiasts and moonwalking hipsters are already celebrating via flashmob. Grooving to music and mimicking the on-screen choreography unlocks more tracks and progresses players through the calorie-burning game. It’s a great alternative to mashing buttons and a cleverly disguised workout. Even after every track’s been danced to the players’ weight in sweat, downloadable songs can be purchased and added for only a few bucks, including PSY’s omnipresent and baffling “Gangnam Style.” And just when you thought the world was Gangnam-ed out...
App Store Gift Card
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to throw a smartphone without hitting someone else who owns a smartphone. They’re more common in America than college degrees. And with zippy processors and ever-growing screens, it’d be a crime not to take advantage of their gaming capabilities. The big three species of smartphones — Android, Windows and iOS — all offer more than enough cheap, quality games (the strong majority of which don’t exceed $5) in their digital marketplaces. The Apple App Store alone contains more than 100,000 games. Dang. Strategy staples like Plants vs. Zombies, Scrabble-like word games or something as accessible as the new, forcefully addictive Angry Birds Star Wars populate just a corner of these booming App Stores. Variety and single-digit prices make it easy for smartphone owners to stockpile a spectrum of mobile amusements for next to nothing.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted
(Rated Everyone; Android, iOS, PC, PS3, Vita, 360, Wii U)
For NASCAR fans and speed-junkies alike, nothing quite matches the adrenaline thrill of high-speed races and boulevard chases. Stoplights and traffic jams on Spokane’s muffin tin roads are lame, but flashing past the po-po at more than 200 mph should get the pistons firing. Speed limit? What speed limit? Most Wanted supplies drivers with a sprawling urban playground to burn the rubber. More than 100 miles of asphalt, dirt trails, underground tunnels and questionable car-accessible terrain lay victim to those behind the wheel. The steering is very forgiving, allowing anyone to maneuver the streets with ease while maintaining the fun arcade speed the game was built around. Automobile aficionados will rejoice too, with a garage of 41 licensed, modify-ready cars available. Aside from not including the Batmobile or Mystery Machine, it’s the perfect racing game.
Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes
(Rated Everyone; Nintendo DS, 3DS, PC, PS3, Vita, Wii)
This summer saw the assemblage of Marvel’s Avengers on the big screen. DC Super Heroes pieces together the other side of the coin — the Justice League — in another charming plastic brick outing for the living room. After Bruce Wayne wins Gotham’s “Man of the Year” award, a jealous Lex Luthor allies with the Joker to destroy Batman and claim the prize. Donning the rubber and cowl of the Dark Knight, and the embarrassingly flamboyant costume of Robin, players masquerade through a sandbox Gotham City with convenient help from the Justice League to defeat some of DC’s well-known villains. LEGO games replace the intensity and gore of other titles with a likability and humor that transcend age and “coolness.” There’s no convoluted story trying desperately to convey half-baked archetypal themes, no GAME OVER punishments and it never takes itself too seriously, making it the epitome of interactive family entertainment and perfect for children.
(Rated Mature; 360)
Master Chief is back from the dead. After producer Bungie called it quits with the insanely popular franchise, a different studio audaciously resurrected Halo. And they succeeded. Big time. Halo 4 combines and refines the gameplay mechanics of the past iterations to shape a familiar but more engaging world. Weapons and enemies look like they belong, but everything still feels new. While shooting hordes of aliens consumes the action, the story unorthodoxly advances on an intimate level, ditching cheesy, obnoxious cutscenes for quality dialogue and voice acting. Everything’s recognizable yet refreshing. Like Call of Duty, the Halo franchise thrives online. It’s a return to what series fans have become accustomed to, but that’s exactly the delight. Vehicular warfare intertwined with frantic ground combat has never been better.
(Rated Everyone; PS Vita)
Play, create and share. That’s LittleBigPlanet’s mantra. LBP’s intuitive platforming gameplay blooms from the Playstation Vita’s array of controls, capitalizing on the front and back touch screens for necessary tactile precision. Creation tools initially seem complicated, but benefit immensely from the dynamic control scheme capable of constructing beautifully intricate spaces to share online. The sheer amount of replayability derived from the unlimited user-created level combinations means there’s always a new puzzle to solve or a new level to traverse. Like the Apple App Store, entire levels and games can be downloaded and saved directly to the Vita as permanent add-ons. But guess what? They’re all free.