Holiday Gift Guide: Video Game Edition

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I've mostly outsourced this list to the Official Asymmetrical Information Spouse, who plays more video games than your humble correspondent; the only new game I've bought this year is Civ 5 (reviewed at bottom).

Red Dead Redemption

If you ever wanted to ride off into a perfect digital sunset, this is your chance. You don't need to love Westerns to love Rockstar's beautifully rendered, genuinely gripping outlaw epic, which offers one of the most gorgeous and fully realized worlds ever found in a game. The world alone makes the game worth purchase. But if you come for the terrain, you might find yourself staying for the story -- a tale of revenge and, yes, redemption that riffs on classic Western motifs with surprising success.

Fallout: New Vegas

Fallout 3 gave players a fully explorable (if not always geographically accurate) post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C. New Vegas offers a similarly irradiated twist on New Vegas. Like its predecessor, New Vegas is a game for obsessive collectors and stats-management -- there are tens of thousands of items scattered throughout the game, each of which affects the players capabilities in unique ways. It's not, however, a game for casual players; a single playthrough can easily take 50 hours or more, and truly dedicated players will want to give it a second go in order to play all the missions.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

Ever wish the Cold War never ended? Now you can fight it all over again. By hour three of the game you'll have attempted a hit on Castro, infiltrated a Soviety launch site, and taken orders from JFK in a secret Pentagon situation room. There's not much real history here, but the action is intense, and if you get bored, you can always load up zombie mode and kill undead while playing as Richard Nixon.

Bioshock 2

Bioshock 2 isn't as much of a revelation as its deftly plotted predecessor, but it's still a solidly crafted shooter with clever philosophical undertones. As with the first game, what sets this apart from similar first-person frag fests is its underwater Art Deco world, which this time around has been overrun by socialist religious fanatics.

Mass Effect 2

The first Mass Effect was a weirdly compelling blend of fussy role-playing game and intergalactic soap opera, complete with a big cast of nicely drawn sci-fi archetypes. The giant-sized sequel -- the Xbox version comes on two discs -- is heavier on story and lighter on RPG mechanics, which have been significantly streamlined. So players will spend less time managing menus and more time guiding their characters through hours of complex dialogue trees. The end result is sometimes less a game than a maze-like exercise in narrative cut and paste; it's the video game version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Heavy Rain

Far more than Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain is not really a game. Instead, it's a crime story that the player moves forward by interacting with the digital environment. Its devotion to representing the mundane means it's not always as exciting as you might hope: Playing through missions that included such thrilling tasks as making dinner, playing with a kid at a park, and burping a baby, I half expected to come across a mission that consisted of nothing but housework. But the pace picks up eventually, and no matter what, it remains an intriguing and innovative exercise in interactive storytelling.

Darksiders

For reasons that still aren't clear to me, just about everyone, from the critics to the fanboys, seems to love the braindead hack-and-slash antics of the God of War series. But I after about four hours of the third entry's dumb-lunk cut scenes (they make the Masters of the Universe cartoons look positively Shakespearean) and arbitrarily limited perspective, I gave up. A far better entry in the same genre is Darksiders, which also dabbles in low-rent comic-bookish storytelling, but makes up for it with a series of clever, Legend of Zelda-like puzzles -- and has the common decency to let you look where ever the hell you want to look.

Civilization 5

I've been playing Civilization since Civ 2, so as you can imagine, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Civ 5 to come out for Mac. I've played through a couple of times, and so far, it's okay -- but it's not as great as I was expecting. Part of this is simply the pains of playing a new game on a laptop, which tends to bog down -- you can't play a really huge map unless you've got a really fast computer. But part of it is the loss of elements that had come to define my game play, like the use of religion, technology trading, and the ability to stack military units.

There are new elements to learn, like the addition of City-States, which are not competing to win, and add a complicated new process of alliance-building. The biggest change, however, is probably the addition of "social policies". Culture production, already very important in Civ 4, now allows you to earn points towards adopting social policies which give your civilization various bonuses. The social policy tree is so large that no civilization can every activate them all, and this does add to the richness of game play.

But for all that, play somehow feels more mechanical than it did with Civ 4. I spend most of my time not focusing on my cities, but watching for my points to bring me to the next technology or social policy. Don't get me wrong, I've stayed up until 4 in the morning playing this thing -- but something in me rebels at how nakedly my evolutionary buttons are being pushed.

That said, if you're a Civilization fan, you're probably going to buy it anyway, just like I did. Its graphics are really stunning, the short games are better balanced against the long games than they were in previous iterations, and well, it's Civ 5. I don't regret buying it, exactly; for all my complaints, I'm still playing it. But I haven't uninstalled Civ 4, either.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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