Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Video Game Edition

Yes, it's that time of year again: gift guide season!  The kitchen guide is in the hopper, but husband Peter did his homework faster than I did, so you're getting this year's video game guide first.

Modern Warfare 3  Yes, it's absurdly over the top, and yes, the story, which I think has something to do with a Russian terrorist's war on Europe and America, makes less sense than a Rick Perry debate response. But if you're a fan of the Michael Bay Theory of the World -- explosions now, more explosions later -- this is the game for you. Like MW2, the game fetishizes military firepower; you can think of it as a virtual commercial for defense spending. Also like MW2, the game makes expert use of digitally mocked-up real-world locations -- there are massive setpiece shootouts on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and the streets of Paris. Indeed, its only real curiosity about the world comes down to a single question: Wouldn't this place make an awesome location for an action scene? Fortunately, the answer is always yes.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim  Every copy of this game ought to come with a warning label: Casual Gamers Beware. To truly enjoy Skyrim, you need to play it like it's your job. Bethesda Softworks' massive, open-world role-playing fantasy game can easily chew through 100-plus hours of your life on a single playthrough, and it's best attacked in workday-length chunks of eight or nine hours at a time. True, it's not as funny as Bethesda's darkly zany sci-fi epic Fallout 3, but it's quite a bit less buggy, substantially better looking, and, if you can believe it, offers a world that's even more detailed and expansive. Also, you get to fight dragons, which appear randomly throughout the map. It's work, sure, but of the most fun kind.

Portal 2 As with the original Portal, the single-player mode -- which puts players through a series of portal-based shooter puzzles while being harassed by a power-mad robot -- offers one of the year's best, funniest, and most enjoyably challenging individual campaigns. But it's the two-player mode, which requires players to combine their puzzle-solving prowess, and their portals, to get through a series of intricately designed traps, in which the game really shines. It's perfect for longtime FPS nuts to play with newbies, because it's a game that rewards structured cooperative problem-solving abilities rather than twitchy reaction times.

[Megan adds: Peter and I spent quite a bit of time playing this together.  After I got over the girl tendency to end up in the corner, staring in the ceiling, it was a hell of a lot of fun.  I'm a PC gamer, while Peter plays mostly console games, so we don't actually get to spend a lot of time playing together. There aren't many games that are really fun for hard-core gamers to play with the Xbox/Playstation newbies in their life, so if that describes your relationship, I highly recommend buying this one.]

Batman: Arkham City Do you like giant open-world fighting games along the lines of Assassin's Creed? Do you like Batman? Yes? And yes? Well then, that's settled. Buy this game, which offers top-notch examples of both.

Crysis 2  A perfectly good sci-fi shooter made great by its genuinely breathtaking graphics. The emphasis on tactical options -- players can mark and track cover, special items, pathways, and enemies prior to entering a firefight -- ensures that the game remains strategically interesting throughout. But the gameplay takes second place to the stunning visuals, which are rendered with such beauty that it's easy to get distracted in the middle of a carefully planned assault.

L.A. Noire This fabulously moody game about 1940's detectives isn't a total success, but it's easily the year's most interesting big-budget video game experiment. In particular, the revolutionary performance capture system that drives the game's many witness interrogations offers what may be the most intriguing new game mechanic of this console generation: subjective judgment of another character. Asked to determine whether or not a witness is lying, there are no tricks, no combo-moves to memorize, no numbers-driven game-world systems to master. Instead, you watch the character's face, eyes, and body language, and then rely on something that strictly rule-bound games almost never employ: intuition. The challenge is equal parts frustrating and fascinating, but certainly worth a few hours of your time.

[Megan notes:  I spent a few hours watching Peter played this while I played Civ IV.  It was so good, I nearly brought the Xbox on vacation so that I could get a chance to play.]

Resistance 3 Sure, it's basically a remake of Half-Life 2, complete with a Ravenholm sequence and an interdimensional alien-lair ending. But since Half-Life 2 is one of the best games ever made, that's not much of a complaint. Resistance 3 offers both a perfectly competent clone as well as reminder of why HL2 was so great.

Gears of War 3 Big guns, big biceps, big aliens, big explosions, big dudes; in the Gears of War series, bigger is always better. The cadre of gruff space-Marine types who make up the primary cast all appear to have been chiseled from redwoods, with coal-mine voices and personalities cast in the mold of particularly gloomy professional wrestlers. I don't know whether or not to give the game credit for its underwhelming attempts at characterization, which are as lumbering and unwieldy as everything else in the game, but I'm not even sure it matters. The point is to blow through ammo and aliens like there's no tomorrow -- which, if the aliens win, there won't be.

Rage Remember Doom and Quake? If you're a gamer, of course you do; they're foundational gamer texts, and two of the primary reasons that first-person shooters are so popular today. Rage is the latest original property from id Software, the creator of those landmark games, and it offers a contemporary variant on the same features that made the old classics work: a grimy, post-apocalyptic world heavily splotched in brown and grey; a seemingly endless supply of generic baddies to fill with bullet;, and a fully-stocked weapons rack worth of guns and explosive devices with which to do it. Nothing original here -- the only real change is the open-world setting and the addition of vehicles, which makes the game resemble a stats-free Borderlands -- but it's a fine, and surprisingly addictive, way to keep twitchy controller trigger fingers busy for a day or two.

. . . and onto the question I'm sure many of you are asking: should I buy a Kinect for my gamer?

The Kinect looks fun. And someday it may be. But the technology is finicky, and you need a fairly big room to make it work. More importantly, there aren't enough solid games to make it worth buying right now.