Holiday Gift Guide: Video Games

(Yes, the guides are coming fast and furious--I've had a bunch of half-finished ones sitting around all week while I worked on my column.)

Due to the merging of disparate households, each with their own electronic equipment, the McSudermans are replete with surplus electronics equipment.  We now own all three major video game consoles, giving us a good overview of the market.  So here are the top games we've played this year:

XBox/Playstation (with input from the house expert)

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Judging by its phenomenal sales, if you're a console gamer, you probably own this already. But if not, and you've ever enjoyed a first-person shooter, it's definitely worth a shot: MW2 offers an early taste of what next-gen gaming will have to offer, and it's as intense and intricately detailed a virtual combat experience as any console's ever provided.

Borderlands, an RPG/shooter hybrid, is a perfect game for gun-nuts, sci-fi nerds, and obsessive stats geeks; with a zany post-apocalyptic landscape packed with unique guns -- more than 200,000, according to the game's developers -- it's the only first-person shooter I can think of where bad guys bleed numbers when shot.

Assassin's Creed II  For this sequel, Motreal's UBI Soft has revamped the gameplay, fixing numerous many of the original's problems -- in particular, the repetitive mission structure that many saw as a fatal flaw. But as before, the game's strength isn't in its missions, but in the freedom afforded by the player's ability to explore its open world -- a vast and surprisingly detailed recreation of Renaissance-era Italy. It's compelling enough that I can just sit there and watch Peter play it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum  One reviewer called this a "Batman simulator," and that's just about right. Most licensed games are shoddy attempts to cash in on the name recognition of the source material; Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, manages to match gameplay with character, providing players with a nearly perfect balance of stealth, action, and detective work.

Dragon Age: Origins  Bioware's latest squad-based RPG is only for the most dedicated questers -- a single play through can take as long as 60 hours. But for those with a few days to kill, Dragon Age is an enthralling, legitimately epic fantasy experience.

Nintendo Wii

The new Super Mario Brothers  I believe that one reviewer called this a "divorce simulator", and if you're planning to play with your spouse, that's a good phrase to keep in mind.  The new Super Mario is cooperative, rather than competitive--you clear levels and collect lives as a group.  This sounds wimpy, but it turns out that it is very, very hard to clear levels as a group.  The game's soundtrack is a wife saying through gritted teeth, "Honey, would you please stop KILLING ME by running ahead?"  On the other hand, it's a great communication workshop, since the only way to have a successful multiplayer game is to coordinate in advance and constantly communicate your plans.  This sounds a little tedious, but it's still compelling enough to trap us on the couch.  Also probably cheaper than marriage counseling.

Mario Kart  One of the most popular Wii games, and with good reason.  It's as fun on multiplayer as it is on single, and it's easy to learn, so that you--or your friends who've never played it before--can get into it immediately.  But while it's easy to learn, it's hard to master, meaning that you'll happily spend years of your life trying to beat the five-year-old next door.

Guitar Hero III Legends of Rock and Guitar Hero World Tour  I love Guitar Hero.  I know that Rock Band has many loyal fans, but I find the Guitar Hero interface vastly more pleasing and easy to master.  For those who aren't familiar with the game, you simulate guitar playing by pressing brightly colored buttons in time with music.  This doesn't sound fun enough to suck up hours of your life and give you permanent calluses on your hand, but it is.  The World Tour version comes with other instruments, including a karaoke mike, which makes it terrific for a party.  But when I have an hour to kill by myself, I'm loyal to the older version, which is (ahem) slightly easier, and a lot of fun.

Wii Fit:  It will probably tell you you're fat and make fun of your poor balance.  But while the cardio workout is so-so, the balance exercises are great, and in my case, much needed.  Many of them, like skiing, are actually fun.  Plus having a balance board allows you to use it with other games like Wii Sports Resort, which is on my wishlist this Christmas.