Fire is the new black. At least it is in videogames, as flamethrowers are suddenly appearing remarkably often. Over the years, they've popped up sporadically, as in old Metal Gear Solid 3 and Army Men, in which you set plastic soldiers on fire to melt them - funny yet oddly touching.
This winter, though, has been positively flame-tacular. You can use flamethrowers to blaze aliens (Gears of War 2) and Nazis (Call of Duty: World At War), and in Afro Samurai, you karate punch and kick a bad guy to death before he flames you to the core.
Now in the new Killzone 2, you simply pick flamethrowers off the battleground, then whoosh - other people's skin, be gone!
The difference between today's flamethrowers and those of yesteryear is that fire is more realistic in the high-definition art palettes of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Now, when you set someone on fire, they swat and scream at the fire fruitlessly, then crumple to their knees in a pile of skeletal ash soot.
As any serious gamer will tell you, most shooting games live or die on whether the weapons are a) intuitively usable and b) effective. In all of this winter's flamethrowing shooters, the weapons are both.
Flamethrowers are so helpful, I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's Balloon Rule: Good movies rarely contain a hot-air balloon. My Flamethrower Rule: Videogames armed with flamethrowers never seem to suck. These two rules sound at odds, but remember, hot air balloons require flames to be contained.
I could give you the plot rundown and other basics of Killzone 2, but they are unimportant. This is a straight-up, all-day shooter. Essentially, you play as a sci-fi soldier among a team of soldiers invading an Earth-like planet of humanoid citizens who threatened Earth in the first Killzone.
In the offline mission, you progress slowly through spectacularly drawn buildings and outdoor environments, shooting pretty smart aliens (although they think you are the alien) for many hours, as they hide very well behind shields. This is quite fun and challenging.
But it is playing the online multiplayer against other gamers that will keep us Killzoning for months. Online battlefields are complex mazes of metal and concrete buildings. You move incredibly smoothly as you run, walk or turn to shoot someone in the face. And the weapons are brutally cool, even the pistol.
As you may have noticed, Killzone 2 is a sequel; most big games are sequels. Also new is the sequel Street Fighter IV, in which there are no flamethrowing weapons, although various characters literally throw fire - magical balls of fire (and ice) from their fingers - at competitors.
The look of Street Fighter IV pretends as if games haven't changed much in 20 years. You play as one of more than a dozen SF fighters. You move left to right, or right to left, in a small space. You punch. You kick. You use special combination moves to knock people out. The end. That's not special.
What you're doing here is battling the computer, a friend in your living room, or a gamer online. This is fun if you're into fighting games, because the controls are very responsive; press a button, and you're immediately punching and kicking. But rest assured the cool bonus item is not a hot air balloon.