Holiday gift guide: The best video games for any gamer

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is getting all the hype, but is it the best game available for the holidays? Not by a long shot.

Activision

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is getting all the hype, but is it the best game available for the holidays? Not by a long shot.

For all the complaints of a slow year in video games, the field is looking awfully crowded as we coast into Black Friday.

Problem is, with double-digit unemployment wreaking havoc on home budgets across the country, the chances of more than one or two games ending up as gifts this holiday season are slim to none, despite rosy electronics forecasts. Here are my impressions of the best of 2009.

Big adventures

The biggest titles of the year have only recently hit the shelves, with Assassin's Creed II (360, PS3) coming out just more than a week ago. Strapping into the Animus is great and all, but I much preferred the PS3-exclusive Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which improved on the original in every way, including giving Nathan Drake nominally more realistic hair — because that's important.

Speaking of PS3 exclusives, Ratchet & Clank: A Crack In Time ends the Future trilogy with plenty of action, a sense of humor and lots of guns. It doesn't stand a chance against the resurgence of a certain Italian plumber, though, with the Nov. 15 release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. While it's the first in the series with 4-person multiplayer, it's still plenty derivative and proof that the formula is tired. It'll be a gold seller regardless.

The best game of the year is easily Batman: Arkham Asylum. This is quite possibly the best licensed comics title ever created, letting you guide the Dark Knight through a hellish evening with one of Gotham's best locales and its most memorable characters. The Scarecrow stages alone are worth the dough.

Multiplayer

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (360, PS3) is getting all the accolades (and cash) for its shoot-and-scoot action, but the single-player campaign is short and largely nonsensical. The first Modern Warfare had a much more cohesive narrative, but the team battles are even better this go-'round.

Speaking of which, if you're into shooting things more than storyline, then Borderlands is your kinda RPG. While the new Dragon Age: Origins (360, PS3) is a massive RPG full of elves and dwarves and assorted beasties, Borderlands (360, PS3) fills a Fallout 3-style quest with mutants, bandits, literally millions of weapons, a simplified class system and a rock-solid multiplayer setup.

And while I still think it should have been broken into downloadable tidbits, Left 4 Dead 2 (360) is better than its predecessor in every conceivable way — except for asking players to shell out that much cash to blast zombies. Plus, the additions aren't as incremental as Halo 3: ODST (360), which started life as an expansion pack but apparently warranted full retail price, despite only containing a six-hour campaign and three new multiplayer maps.

Two Wii-exclusive rail shooters, Dead Space: Extraction and Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, don't really fit the mold of multiplayer games, but they both allow two players to participate. Plus, for Wii owners, they are pretty much the only ways to experience those titles' unique universes.

And if online (or living room) music battles are your thing, there are a half-dozen new rhythm games out that expand on the Rock Band and Guitar Hero lines. While Beatles: Rock Band (360, PS3, Wii) was the big score this year, my personal fave is the new DJ Hero (360, PS3, PS2, Wii), which allows you to put down the guitar and master the turntable and crossfader. Playing as Grandmaster Flash or DJ Jazzy Jeff beats out strumming along to yet another No Doubt song.

Handhelds and more

The PSP had a slow year, but there were a few good titles. Resistance: Retribution followed the Chimera invasion from a different point of view (a good thing, considering what happened to Nathan Hale in Resistance 2). Little Big Planet made its debut on the handheld, sans four-player co-op, but otherwise not worse for wear. Its cute factor is matched only by Patapon 2, a download-only title (in North America, anyway) that keeps the tiny eyeball monsters searching for Earthend.

Nintendo's DS, meanwhile, shares the decent Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars with the PSP, but it relies on exclusive titles, just like the Wii. Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is a platformer with a turn-based combat system, which may frustrate little ones (and is a bit on the dull side for anyone else). The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, which hits stores Dec. 7, was an entertaining touch-screen adventure when I tried it at a Nintendo media tour a couple weeks ago. As far as puzzlers go, Scribblenauts is one of the best of the year, pushing players to come up with words to create solutions to the game's obstacles.

'Oldies' but goodies

February's Halo Wars (360) deserves a look from Master Chief acolytes and RTS fans alike. February also saw Killzone 2 (PS3), perhaps the best shooter on any console to date. March brought us Resident Evil 5, yet another sequel in the zombie saga that will satisfy the hardcore fans but is otherwise a bit shallow. May's Punch-Out!! (Wii) brings Little Mac back from 1984, with some new contenders looking to bash him; And July's Street Fighter IV returns us to the world warriors in fine fashion, although fighter fans may want to consider the recently released Tekken 6 first.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Holiday gift guide: The best video games for any gamer 11/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 6:06pm]

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