Unless you've been living under a media-free rock for the last six months, you're well aware that this holiday season has been all about motion gaming.
Buying video games as gifts for the holidays is hard.
Not as hard as, say, making a perfect Baked Alaska or resurrecting the James Bond movie franchise, but it's still hard.
For starters, it can be overwhelming. You walk into your average big-box store and your senses are assaulted by trash-can size bins of discounted titles (Seriously, are any of them good? Or even released sometime in the last three years?). Then there are the gigantic screens and demo stations hawking big-budget games that sure look fun to play. And of course, the racks upon racks of games in colorful DVD cases of black, green and purple.
If you don't know what you're doing -- and unless you spend a fair amount of time with a controller glued to your paw, you probably don't -- you're likely to end up spun around like a 10-cent top. You're also likely to end up slipping a copy of Splatterhouse or Sonic Riders under the holiday tree, and nobody, especially the recipient of your gift, wants to see that. It's the kind of misstep that can crush your gift-giving credibility for the rest of this decade -- and maybe even longer.
But it's okay. We're here to help, to offer you a few interesting suggestions that go beyond the painfully violent and painfully obvious, the seasonal mega-hits like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. So hey, let's get the party started. First, we'll tackle the issue of whether you ought to be investing in the next wave of motion gaming, and then we'll get to some conventional and unusual picks for each of the major platforms.
Get Kinected, or just Move?
Unless you've been living under a media-free rock for the last six months, you're well aware that this holiday season has been all about motion gaming -- or, more accurately, about Sony and Microsoft looking to score a chunk of all those Wiimote-waving casual gamers who are still bopping ninjas at Wii Sports Resort.
Both the PlayStation Move and the Xbox 360 Kinect already face an issue that's been plaguing the Wii for years -- a preponderance of mediocre to crappy game titles that simply tack on motion control to try to move product. And both of these system add-ons have decided advantages and drawbacks.
We'll start with the PlayStation Move, which consists of an add-on camera and a controller with a colorful glowing ball at the end of it. Yes, it looks like something that might have escaped from the set of Tron: Legacy. But the thing is, it's actually measurably more responsive than the Wiimote, in part because the thing spends so much time calibrating and recalibrating its position in relation to the camera. Patience, grasshopper. Patience.
The Move comes with Sports Champions, a Wii sports-ish title that works a lot better with multiple players than it does solo -- meaning, of course, you'd better be prepared to shell out for an extra Move wand. But the Move earns its strongest stripes on, of all things, shooter games, where the controller works surprisingly well as a substitute firearm. That means The Shoot, (Sony, rated Teen) a clever game that turns your PS3 into a cartoon shooting gallery, and Capcom's Time Crisis/RazingStorm (rated Mature), a pair of Move-enabled light-gun-style games in a single package, are currently the Move's best bets.
Microsoft's Kinect camera peripheral eliminates the controller altogether, leading to the admittedly awesome feeling of seeing your on-screen avatar perfectly mimic your worst-ever moves in Dance Central (rated Everyone), one of a small handful of must-have games for the Xbox 360's newest toy.
Another game that's worth investing in is Kinect Sports (Microsoft, rated Everyone). The soccer and volleyball games offer as much bang as the rafting and obstacle-course minigames in the Kinect's pack-in game, Kinect Adventures. And both also take ridiculous snapshots of you while you're jumping around like Pee Wee Herman after a 12-pack of Red Bull. And, hey, isn't embarrassment a key part of every holiday celebration?
Reports you've seen of Kinect's somewhat wonky motion detection are, unfortunately, true, particularly when it comes to a simple function like moving the cursor to select a game option or pause the action. It's nowhere near bad enough to avoid recommending the experience. Just be prepared to waggle your arms a lot.
Now, let's get to the systems.
Straight up: ModNation Racers (Sony, rated Everyone)
Sony's DIY racer didn't score the same kind of attention and accolade as its better-known older brother, LittleBigPlanet, but man, did it ever offer the same level of free user-generated content. Since its release in the front part of this year, users have thrown together more than 10,000 tracks for the rest of us to download and leave skid marks on -- now that's what you call value for your dollar (assuming your PS3's hard drive is large enough to handle it, that is). The presentation's cartoony, which may not be a great for the more serious gamers on your list. But if your gamer's even remotely the creative type, MNR is a must-have.
Curveball: Majin and the Forbidden Kingdom (Namco Bandai, rated Teen)
The boyish hero of this fantasy adventure is about as interesting and dynamic as Kevin Federline on a bad day. The ways in which said hero can command the teddy-bear-esque Majin, a gigantic and childlike beast with shrubs growing out of his upper shoulders, are fascinating and fun. The pair team up to save a colorful fantasy world that's been infected by an inky Darkness. Whether you're instructing your big pal to drop a wall on some unsuspecting enemies, catapult you to high places or stun monsters with a monstrous howl, the puzzle solving elements here always rise above the level of your standard hack and slash.
Straight up: DJ Hero 2 (Activision, rated Teen)
2010 was the year the music-game genre finally drove its thumping bass line straight into the ground. Despite the presence of several quality titles (Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, to name just two), sales for these games plummeted faster than Mel Gibson's approval ratings -- Warriors of Rock struggled mightily just to break the 100,000 copies-sold barrier. Nearly lost in this dysphonic crash was a sequel that topped its predecessor by way more than a factor of two. Featuring the best soundtrack to ever grace a music game, DJ Hero 2 also pumped up the volume on the freestyle, forcing players to go all Deadmau5 on the scratches and cross-fades in order to earn their club-king stripes. Seriously, don't be put off by the idea of controlling a game with a turntable -- or even two, if you opt for the pricier party pack -- it's both easier and more enjoyable than you could have imagined.
Curveball: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Namco-Bandai, rated Teen)
Oddly enough, gameplay isn't what makes this action-platformer about a pair of refugees on the run from a race of robotic slavers one of the year's more memorable titles. In fact, the jumping and combat are arguably the title's weakest link, as there's never more than one way through any of the jumping and cover-stealth puzzles the game throws your way. No, what seals the deal for this beauty is the interplay between its two perfectly realized lead characters: Trip, a fierce and resourceful woman who can create mirages of herself to distract enemies, and Monkey, a brutish and acrobatic loner voiced by the incomparable Andy Serkis. The subtle and honest way their relationship builds from distrust -- she's rigged a collar around his neck that'll explode if she comes to harm -- into friendship and genuine human affection is a wonder to behold. Sometimes, apparently, it ain't about the action.
Straight Up: Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (Nintendo, rated Teen)
In gaming, the term "on rails" is usually a deadly pejorative used to describe a game that gives you only a single option for getting from point A to point B. (Think of a hallway filled with doors...that are all locked.) Sin and Punishment: Star Successor throws so many shootable targets at you that you hardly notice you're riding a rail -- and every time you're about to, an awesome boss battle erupts or the screen shifts into side-scrolling mode. Toss in some echoes of classic arcade game Space Harrier, and you've got a button masher you won't put down lightly.
Curveball: NBA Jam (EA, rated Everyone)
EA ended up taking a basketball upside the head when it had to spike NBA Elite 11, its professional NBA sim, before the game's scheduled release in November. That's okay, because the company still managed to release one of this year's most entertaining sports games, an updated take on the classic two-on-two NBA Jam. Far more so than NHL 3 on 3 or Madden Arcade, EA's most recent stabs at an arcade/circus vibe, NBA Jam feels like a complete experience, featuring challenges, multiple gameplay modes, and hilarious unlockables like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Simply going through the game's tutorial grants you the best unlock of all -- a Big Head mode that emphasizes all the players' goofy expression. And believe me, shoving Kobe Bryant face-first onto the hardwood just never gets old
The game's also available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but it's infinitely more entertaining to flail the Wiimote when you're looking to make Kevin Durant unleash a helicopter-tomahawk dunk in LeBron's grill. Take that, King.
Straight up: God of War: Ghost of Sparta (Sony, rated Mature)
I've always wondered why Kratos, the ghost-skinned hero of Sony's mega-successful God of War series, doesn't carry the same kind of warning label that Viagra and Cialis do: If murderous rage lasts for more than four hours, see your doctor immediately. With Ghost of Sparta, the fifth God of War game and the second to hit the PSP, Kratos is now on about hour 30, but the good news is that Mr. Flame Tattoo doesn't lose a step on trip two to the small screen. As he sinks Atlantis (so that's why Poseidon hates him so much in God of War 3!) and searches for the lost brother who somehow never gets mentioned in any of the subsequent God of War games, all the things that make the series great are on display: kick-ass combat combos, jaw-dropping environments and an extended tour of the annals of Greek mythology (why, hel-lo, Scylla!) The PSP may end up beating the Nintendo DS as the next platform to get replaced by a newer and more feature-rich model. When it finally does, Ghost of Sparta is going to top the list of games that showed us the best of what the PSP could do.
Curveball: Knights in the Nightmare (Atlus, rated Teen)
One of my all-time favorite oddball games gets ported to the PSP, complete with a graphical remake and a third character to play through. Explaining the quirky game play in Knights could fill up its own gift guide; for starters, try thinking of it as bullet hell meets RPG. You use the PSP's analog nub to control a will-o'-the-wisp that's actually the spirit of a dead king. Dodging enemy fire that floats across the screen like an accidentally ignited box of Fourth of July fireworks, you use the wisp to re-animate the ghosts of dead knights, who then try to land hits on bizarre monsters and earn points to use magical weapons. Did I mention that you pick the monsters you'll face in each level by playing a minigame that combines slot-machine mechanics with tic-tac-toe? Yes, it's probably one of the most bizarre and difficult to master games you'll ever play -- but the beautiful graphics and haunting storyline make it all worthwhile.
Straight Up: Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (EA, rated Everyone 10+)
Picking worthwhile titles for Nintendo's DS is harder than you'd expect this year -- that's what happens, apparently, when everyone turns their development resources to putting together the best game for next year's forthcoming 3DS. Given that it stars an OCD detective in a stovepipe hat and a know-it-all sidekick tricked out like Little Lord Fauntleroy, you might think that the third U.S. entry in the Professor Layton series would be a) too weird for words and b) strictly for kids. But hold off on the "I Knew It!" for a moment, if you please. The brain-teasing puzzles here mesh quite nicely with a storyline about time-travel and multiple versions of one's self, making this a winner for kids and adults alike.
Curveball: Warioware DIY (Nintendo, rated E)
The DS's answer to LittleBigPlanet challenged all of us to come up with the stupidest, silliest quick-reaction microgames we could and then design them...and wow, did we rise to the challenge. Penguins jumping around for fish, blasting cockroaches with laser beams...all available as free content. And here we thought Nintendo didn't appreciate downloadable content.
We're perilously close to the arrival of gaming's annual Dead Zone, the three weeks or so at the end of every year when finding worthwhile new release is more difficult than finding one of those "quantities limited" holiday specials at your local big box. Before that happens, we can strap on our neon jumpsuits, break out our light cycles and see if Tron: Evolution is better than your average movie tie-in game.