November 23, 2012
Stuff to Buy Channel / Bullz-Eye Home
The holiday season is the video game industry's busiest time of year, with publishers saving many of their marquee titles to release on the public like an avalanche of digital goodness. It can actually be quite overwhelming with so many different options to choose from, so we've done our best to put together a collection of what we feel are some of the year's best titles, and ones that the gamer on your shopping list will love.
It’s not often you get to go home again; not truly. Most of the time it’s never the same, and what was once home is now just a place. However, in the case of “Halo 4,” we’re given the rare chance to re-visit the jubilation that comes when nostalgia meets expectations. Not since “Halo: Combat Evolved” has a game in this franchise provided such a punch-to-the-gut feeling of excellence, and on the shoulders of some incredible production values, new developer 343 Industries has done more than given the franchise a shot in the arm – they’ve given gamers everywhere one of the best games of the year that’s loaded with incredible single player set pieces and a multiplayer mode that feels both true to the franchise, and accounts for the innovations of other games since. It’s a rare occurrence when the fourth title in a major series can both feel fresh and make you remember why you fell in love with the series in the first place, but “Halo 4” delivers that feeling. It provides hours of entertainment and no Xbox 360 gamer should be without it.
It seems that the “Max Payne” series is just terminally cursed to underwhelm in the sales department, as the much hyped third game of the franchise didn’t bomb, but didn’t exactly threaten sales records either. The good news is that it might mean the gamer on your gift list didn’t get the chance to play it, making the holidays the perfect time to give them the opportunity. “Max Payne 3” excels at the run-and-gun gameplay the series is known for, but it also provides a fantastic revenge plot as well as some original storytelling methods courtesy of highly stylized cutscenes. What I really love about the game is the replayability, which is not only provided by the new multiplayer mode, but also comes from the desire to play the single player mode over and over again, as the scenes rarely go the same way twice. It’s a real gift to get a game so tightly structured and consistently well designed, and “Max Payne 3” is that. It’s a short ride, but completely unforgettable.
Telltale Games has been knocking on the door of greatness for a while now. Their adventure games have been a great source of amusement, but it was hard to say that any of them have lived up to their full potential. That all changed with “The Walking Dead”, which is an episodic adventure based more off the original comic than the AMC show, as they wisely shunned the traditional zombie shoot ‘em up in favor of a game that was more about creating a life in the zombie apocalypse than about taking them. While there is a little action to be had in methodical spurts, the real joy in the game comes through the choices you make which occur in every dialogue and scene, and have serious ramifications for both the individual episode you’re playing, and the series as a whole. “The Walking Dead” is loaded with memorable characters and moments, and makes you face some very difficult and well implemented decisions. While the usual zombie gamer will get a kick out of it, it’s the fact that nearly everyone will be able to enjoy and play it in different ways that makes it such a great gift.
Bioware’s modern masterpiece is a culmination of everything they’ve done before, and has given us one of the most complete trilogies of all time. And now, thanks to the recent trilogy package, you can have the entire series for one incredible price. It’s worth hundreds of hours of gameplay, where you will explore the deepest regions of the universe building up a crew of intergalactic badasses in a plot that allows you to both save the entirety of all that is known, and sleep with exotic alien women. Essentially, then, it’s the “Star Trek” game you’ve always wanted with you in the role of Captain Kirk. “Mass Effect 3” may catch a lot of hate for its ending to the series, but viewing the whole experience in one bundle puts into perspective how little that matters. If you’ve somehow avoided playing these games until now, then this may be the best title you’ll get this year.
Even though the tag isn’t as deadly as it once was, it’s easy to overlook “Sleeping Dogs” as a “Grand Theft Auto” clone. You’re only hurting yourself if you do, though, because “Sleeping Dogs” is one of those games that takes everything the Rockstar did right and improves on the things it got wrong, all while mixing it into an original Hong Kong setting that invokes all of those repressed John Woo movie desires you’ve been harboring. Along the way, you’ll cross seemingly every seedy syndicate member in Asia thanks to the game’s intense story, and thankfully, you’ll get to engage with most of them in either a stellar gunfight, maniacal car chase or bone crushing close-combat battle. It’s a fully loaded journey. You may buy “Sleeping Dogs” for that person who can’t wait for “GTA: V” to come out, but don’t be surprised if they end up playing it well afterwards.
The best soccer game around just got better, and although it’s still not as good as the real thing, “FIFA Soccer 13” is one step closer thanks to new features like First Touch Control and Complete Dribbling, which help replicate the realism of the actual game. The relatively new EA Sports Football Club Match Day also funnels news and events into the commentary, while player form rises and dips based on how well their real-world counterparts are performing. It’s not just the gameplay that’s improved, but the overall experience as well, with even more to do than previous installments. Play a quick game with your friend, or compete in online seasons where you can win promotion within the league divisions and pick up silverware along the way. And though it’s not exactly practical, Career Mode now allows you to manage a club and national team at the same time, provided your board of directors doesn’t notice a slip in performance. There’s so much to keep you busy that it’s hard to imagine finding time for it all, but that’s not going to stop even the average soccer fan from trying anyway.
“XCOM” is a game that dares you to play it. From the moment you step into its world, you’re thrust into an adventure that makes you devote a serious amount of time to characters that you may have to decide the fates of in an instant for the greater good, against an enemy force that is only interested in efficiently killing you in a diverse and horrific number of ways. And it’s incredible. It’s part combat strategy game and part base-building title, and all mind-blowing. It’s a strange feeling playing “XCOM” as not even the most well thought-out moves pay off, and there are no definitively right decisions. Countries will abandon your cause, and your characters will die left and right, but along the way you will grow smarter because of it. “XCOM” offers a well balanced mix of intense firefights and global policy. It’s as much a strategy game as an action title, and if you have someone on your gift list interested in kicking interstellar ass with their brain and brawn, then this is the title they need.
When you think of RPGs, usually the aspects that spring to mind are plot, characters and mind numbing gameplay. It’s a shame, but even the most accomplished RPGs are usually lacking in that always important fun department. Which is why a game like “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” really sticks out. It’s a title with an action first mentality where every battle is as dependent on the quality of your gear as it is the player’s quick reaction and wits, as you navigate the flawless flowing combat system. Battles feel like truly epic encounters and not just staged events you barely play a part in, or a repetitive series of clicks, and in the end they still manage to enhance the well-written story and incredible characters and environments you get to roam. “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” came out earlier in the year and unfortunately most of the press about it ever since has been about the high profile closure of its development team. That’s too bad, because it’s one of the most original and underrated games this year, and it could have been the start of something great. As it is, it’s still a 50+ hour epic with few recent equals.
It’s a little surprising that it’s taken this long for Sony to produce a brawler-style fighting game to rival Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros.” series, because it’s exactly the kind of party game that the PlayStation 3 needed. Featuring 20 characters from a variety of first and third party franchises – including Kratos (“God of War”), Sackboy (“LittleBigPlanet”), Sweet Tooth (“Twisted Metal”), Big Daddy (“BioShock”), Nathan Drake ("Uncharted") and other fan favorites – “PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale” is even more fun than Nintendo’s rendition, and not nearly as difficult to master. Though gameplay is limited to a single-player story mode and multiplayer brawls either locally or online, the game still has a ton of replay value thanks to all the different unlockables (like costumes, backgrounds, etc.) and PlayStation trophies to collect. And to help sweeten the deal, Sony has also included a free downloadable version of the game for the PS Vita with every PS3 copy, making it one of the best deals of the season.
Most kart racing games follow a pretty similar formula, so it’s nice to see Sony change things up a bit with “LittleBigPlanet Karting,” a unique twist on the genre that combines all the usual trappings (power-ups, drifting, boosts, etc.) with the deep customizability of the “LittleBigPlanet” series. In keeping with its “Play, Create, Share” motto, players have the ability to customize just about everything within the game, including their Sackboy, karts, tracks, and even the rules to races. And just like previous “LittleBigPlanet” games, you can also create your own tracks and share them online through the PlayStation Network with the rest of the “LBP” community, or download other user-created content that can be used in multiplayer races with your friends. The possibilities are pretty much endless, but none of that would matter if the racing portion wasn’t so enjoyable. Although it probably won’t dethrone the “Mario Kart” franchise any time soon, “LittleBigPlanet Karting” is perfect for anyone who wants something with a little more substance than the average kart racer.
Hockey fans may be suffering from a lack of puck time due to the NHL lockout, but that doesn’t mean that they still can’t enjoy the fast-paced, hard-hitting action of their favorite sport with the latest installment of EA’s popular hockey franchise. Featuring game-changing upgrades like the new physics-driven True Performance Skating and an innovative AI system called Hockey I.Q. that results in more realistic decision-making on the ice, “NHL 13” is the closest thing to capturing the authenticity, creativity and strategy of the NHL. Even the greenest hockey fan can pick up and play “NHL 13” and have a good time thanks to its quick learning curve and simplistic controls, but for those that want a more complete experience, the Be a GM Mode now allows you to play with and against friends in your own 30-team league. And for really diehard fans, the NHL Moments Live feature lets players rewrite or relive history as you replay some of the most thrilling moments of the past year… and the current one if it ever gets going. It won’t replace the real thing, but it’ll help ease the pain of what’s shaping up to be a lost season.
It’s been a hell of a year for downloadable games, and if you’re looking for stocking stuffer-priced gifts, here’s the best available:
Journey: Sure to win a host of game of the year awards, “Journey” is a great experience and one of the most artistically impressive games ever made. Undoubtedly the best downloadable game available for the PS3.
Mark of the Ninja: The greatest stealth game ever? Don’t laugh until you’ve tried it, because it’s comfortably in the running, and also provides the best ninja game in years.
Trials Evolution: Liked “Excitebike”? “Trials Evolution” is like that but with a demonic challenge factor and some of the best levels in any game. It’s one of the most rewarding titles on the market.
Fez: “Fez” completely reinvents the 2D platformer with its innovative rotating stages and challenging puzzles. It’s like a well thought-out playground for your intelligence.
Deadlight: Just when you think you’ve had your fill of zombie games, a title like “Deadlight” brings it back into your life. It’s the perfect mix of old school action with modern artistic looks.