This year is different from the past couple in that there aren't any big gaming systems being released just before the holiday season. Instead, gamers' lists are filled with the games themselves. Here are a few of the choicest titles.
Most home-console games cost between $50 and $90, while games for portable units are between $20 and $40. Remember to check the ESRB rating, which gives the appropriate age range for the game.
Thanks to next-gen gaming and perpetual connectivity, there's a host of games that you can download directly to your game console.
Everyday Shooter (published by Sony; for PC, PS3; rated everyone), created by Toronto indie developer Jonathan Mak, is a beautiful and compelling shooter game. Think Asteroids on LSD with a kicking guitar soundtrack.
Battlestar Galactica (Sierra; PC, Xbox 360; everyone 10+) is based on the more recent television series, and gives players the chance to fly a variety of Colonial fighters–including the classic Viper–in combat against the Cylons. It's an arcade-style game, so it's not tricky to play, but it is fun.
Plug in and play
The Eye of Judgment (Sony; PS3; teen) mixes a card-based strategy game similar to Magic: The Gathering with on-screen virtual combat reminiscent of Battle Chess. A camera interprets the cards you and your opponents play, and translates the interactions between the cards into animated conflicts.
Battle of the bands takes on new meaning with the release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Activision; PC, PS2, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360; teen) and Rock Band (EA; PS2, PS3, Xbox 360; teen). Guitar Hero III–the latest edition of the game that lets you be, well, a guitar hero–includes a wealth of music from a diverse list of artists, including the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, the Sex Pistols, and the Killers. Rock Band ups the ante in the music-game genre by allowing players to take on the guitar, bass guitar, drums, or vocals. You can create an entire band with your friends and embark on a virtual world tour, covering songs by the likes of the Pixies, the Police, Black Sabbath, and David Bowie.
Platforming and puzzling
The funny lombax and his robot sidekick are back in Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (Sony; PS3; everyone 10+). It's a freewheeling platformer in which you navigate various alien worlds, making use of wild and crazy weapons such as the Shock Ravager (an electric whip) and the Negotiator (a rocket launcher).
In Crash of the Titans (Sierra; DS, GBA, PS2, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360; everyone 10+), the hoverboarding Crash Bandicoot can take control of absurd, massive monsters by first beating them up and then climbing onto their shoulders. You can then use them to fight other absurd, massive monsters. Developed in Vancouver by Radical Entertainment, it's a fun and funny game.
Looney Tunes Acme Arsenal (Warner Bros.; PS2, Wii, Xbox 360; everyone 10+) lets you and a friend play as various cartoon characters, such as Bugs, Daffy, Taz, and Marvin the Martian. Your objective is to take out robot adversaries that have been sent back in time to eradicate your ancestors.
Beautiful Katamari (Namco Bandai; Xbox 360; everyone) is the latest incarnation of the wild and wacky game in which you create accretion balls by rolling up objects in different environments. Turn Grandma loose with this one and see what happens.
Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo; Wii; everyone) sends the lovable plumber into space. His mission hasn't changed; he's still trying to rescue the buxom Princess Peach from the dastardly Bowser, only this time he'll be visiting galaxies to collect the power stars he needs to operate his ship. The environments are playful with such physical principles as gravity, which lends a topsy-turvy feel to the game.
Not everything has to be about hockey and football, you know. Skate (EA; PS3, Xbox 360; teen) is a reinvention of skateboarding video games that comes from a group of Vancouver video-game developers who decided that the best control scheme for a skateboarding game was to use the two thumbsticks: the left controls your virtual skater's body, and the right controls your feet on the board.
Sega Rally Revo (Sega; PC, PS3, PSP, Xbox 360; everyone) lets you get behind the wheel of rally cars, tearing up tracks in settings like mountain passes, jungle valleys, and beachfront property. It's a forgiving kind of racing game, which means more fun and fewer restarts.
The games in EA Playground (EA; DS, Wii; everyone) are variations on the ones kids play after school. The excellent and expressive characters get into all sorts of fun, from tether?ball to kicks (a mashup of soccer and volleyball) to paper racers (think paper airplanes). These games are fun for the entire family.
Gaming on the fly
Hot Pixel (Atari; PSP; teen) is a super-stylized collection of mini games–each lasting only a few seconds–that are simple to play once you've figured them out. It's perfect for when you've only got a few moments and you need some distraction.
You'll spend more time with Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (Square Enix; PSP; teen), which brings the popular role-playing game from 1998 to the PSP. Along with the chance for some nostalgic play, the game boasts reworked graphics and dialogue, and while figuring out how the role-playing system works, you'll find yourself caught up in the story once again.
In the weird Dead Head Fred (D3; PSP; mature), you're an investigator who ends up beheaded but reanimated, and with the ability to switch heads at will, you have to make sure that justice is served. The story, characters, and professional voice work make this one hilarious.
Tales of Adventure
There are a few good picks for would-be adventurers this year. Tomb Raider: Anniversary (Eidos; PC, PS2, PSP, Wii, Xbox 360; teen) takes the story from the 1996 debut of Lara Croft and updates it using the graphics and game engine from last year's Legend. In this one, Croft is searching for the Scion of Atlantis, and you'll be solving environmental puzzles and platforming your way to the ancient artifacts.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Sony; PS3; teen) puts you in the role of Nathan Drake, descendant of English explorer Sir Francis Drake. You'll battle past pirates and treasure hunters as you search for El Dorado, the legendary South American city of gold. This game boasts both platforming and shoot-'em-up sequences with an admittedly macho sensibility.
Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure (Capcom; Wii; everyone) makes clever use of the Wii Remote as you help Zack find all the body parts of the pirate Barbaros. It's a game that's more about problem-solving than fighting enemies, and it's wonderfully engaging.
It's a great year for science-fiction fans. Halo 3 (Microsoft; Xbox 360; mature) is the final chapter in the tale of how the heroic Master Chief saves humanity, and adds adrenaline-fuelled multiplayer action unlike anything you've ever witnessed.
The Orange Box (Valve; PS3, Xbox 360; teen and mature) is actually five games in one, including the three that–so far–make up Half-Life 2. You are Gordon Freeman, and you're fighting the oppression of an extradimensional alien race that has taken over Earth and imprisoned and enslaved humanity. Also on the disc are Team Fortress 2 and Portal, the latter possibly the best of all.
BlackSite: Area 51 (Midway; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; teen) is set in and around the town of Rachel, Nevada, and the nearby top-secret military base that conspiracy theorists insist contains evidence of alien life forms. In this story, the aliens have broken loose and you have to contain them.
Mass Effect (BioWare; Xbox 360; mature) is the wide-ranging role-playing game in which you create your own version of Commander Shepard and go about trying to save the galaxy from an invading machine race. It features a taut story filled with political intrigue, and feels like playing a movie.
Oh, the horror
The survival-horror franchise that helped birth a genre, Silent Hill, comes to handheld for the first time with Silent Hill Origins (Konami; PSP; mature). This one acts as a prequel to all the other games. You play as a trucker who, travelling past a town during a rainstorm, narrowly misses hitting a young girl. You pursue her at your peril.
Master of horror Clive Barker returns to the realm of video games with Clive Barker's Jericho (Codemasters; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; mature). Here, you control a team of paranormal military specialists investigating the sudden appearance of an ancient walled city in the African desert. You'll find yourself travelling through various historical eras as you battle an ancient evil.
Bioshock (2K; PC, Xbox 360; mature) is a beautiful and creepy first-person shooter that puts you in an art-deco city deep under the sea, fighting for survival against its genetically modified–and insane–inhabitants.
In Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron (LucasArts; PSP; teen), you play as Commander Col Serra, part of Renegade Squadron, a team assembled by Han Solo. Serra is relating the exploits of the squadron for a researcher, and as he tells the story, you play through the events. This means you get to take part in some of the memorable battles that are part of the Star Wars mythology.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (Activision; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; teen) puts you in the middle of the battle between humans and the Strogg, aliens who have invaded Earth for its raw materials. Quake Wars is a team-based shooter, so you'll be coordinating your efforts with the rest of your squad, while taking out as many of the enemy as you can.
SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike (Sony; PSP; teen) was created in Vancouver by Slant Six Games, and rather than run and gun your way to mission success, you'll need to be tactical about how you proceed. You'll direct a SEAL team not by controlling individual soldiers, but by issuing commands that the team then executes. It's close combat from a whole new strategic perspective.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision; DS, PC, PS3, Xbox 360; mature) sees the popular first-person shooter leaving the Second World War behind in favour of a contemporary setting, story line, and weaponry. What hasn't changed is the rush you'll feel while in the midst of all-out warfare.
If wielding a blade is more your style, look no further than Conan (THQ; PS3, Xbox 360; mature), which puts you in the role of the barbarian warrior created by novelist Robert E. Howard. It's a brutal and bloody affair, as you'd expect.
Fury (Gamecock; PC; teen) gives you hundreds of ways to create a character and get involved in some raging player-versus-player combat using swords and sorcery. Make no mistake–this is not for the faint of heart. Serious warriors only need apply.
Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War (Koei; PS3, Xbox 360; teen) puts players on the battlefield where the English and the French are fighting over France. In this medieval setting, you take on the role of a mercenary, fighting for either side and often alternating between the two.
Taking out the bad guys
Someone's got to clean up the streets. In Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; mature), it's your job to do this on the streets of the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. Your master sends you on assignments to Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre, and you have complete freedom to explore these ancient cities, re-created in a virtual environment.
Stranglehold (Midway; PC, PS3, Xbox 360; mature) gives you the chance to take on the persona of Inspector Tequila, the hard-boiled Hong Kong cop created by director John Woo and embodied by actor Chow Yun-Fat. You'll never need to reload your guns in this game, and in true Tequila fashion, you'll move in slow motion when a target is in your sights.