Here are my top picks for holiday gaming. These all make great gifts, even if you’re buying for yourself. If you’re buying for a child, remember to at least consider the ESRB rating. Not all games are made for kids.
War is hell
Combat on a massive scale makes for impressive visuals.
Battlefield 1 (rated mature)
Set during the events of the First World War, this game (above) is surprisingly thoughtful and, believe it or not, subtle. Yes, it’s got the tight shooter mechanics you expect, as well as the destructible environments and vehicle-based action, but it also tells very intimate stories that makes it difficult to keep your distance.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (rated mature)
With Infinite Warfare, the Call of Duty series moves far into the future. While franchise fan purists might bristle at the notion of battling in outer space, it’s by leaving the confines of Earth that Infinite Warfare gets some room to stretch a bit and try something different.
Titanfall 2 (rated mature)
One of the best of the year, Titanfall 2 has some of the best controls in a shooter game. And in this sequel, players get a story that is worth playing through. It’s a buddy movie as a game, pairing up an ambitious and talented military grunt with a massive suit of mechanized armour that happens to be programmed with sophisticated AI.
It’s dark out there.
Dead Rising 4 (rated mature)
This game deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the movie Die Hard. The events of the game are set during the winter holiday season, and with Dead Rising 4, Christmas provides plenty of ammunition for the humour darts that are flying throughout the game. Frank West, a photojournalist, finds himself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Made right here in Vancouver by Capcom Vancouver.
Gears of War 4 (rated mature)
This shooter, from Vancouver studio The Coalition, is set back on the planet Sera, and is a return to the darker, more horrific tone of the first Gears game. With sharp dialogue, impressive set-pieces, and solid combat action, Gears 4 is both a nod to the roots of the franchise as well as a perfect introduction to a new group of characters, enemies, and stories.
Play how you want
If you prefer to be sneaky, you can do that. But you can come out guns blazing, too.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (rated mature)
This futuristic role-playing game puts players in the role of covert agent Adam Jensen, who is augmented with state-of-the-art weapons and abilities. In uncovering a worldwide conspiracy, players can choose from three different approaches to any problem: combat, wile, or stealth.
Dishonored 2 (rated mature)
Choice abounds in this game, starting with whether you want to play as deposed empress Emily, or her father, Corvo. Each has different supernatural powers at their disposal to discover the machinations behind Emily’s usurpation. Players will also have to decide whether to dispose of enemies permanently or temporarily, and those decisions affect the game’s world.
Open worlds to explore
There are stories in these games, available for you to step into whenever you want. Or, you know, don’t.
Final Fantasy XV (rated teen)
The Final Fantasy franchise has epitomized Japanese role-playing games, but this latest edition is anachronistic in many ways, not the least of which is the massive world of Eos that the players explore, either on Chocobos, ostrich-like birds which are features of the franchise, or a convertible car called the “Regalia”.
Watch Dogs 2 (rated mature)
Roam around the San Francisco Bay area in this contemporary tale about the surveillance state and the hacker activists who want to get the power back to the people. Players become Marcus Holloway, and can complete dozens of story and side missions using a computer and an arsenal of electronic gadgets.
Fun for everyone
These aren’t just games for kids.
Dragonball Xenoverse 2 (rated teen)
The collector’s edition of this fighting role-playing game, based on the anime franchise, comes with a collector’s 13-inch figure of the protagonist, Son Goku, in his superheroic form. It also includes an official soundtrack for the game, and a comic. The game itself has players trying to fix the universe’s timeline by battling through missions.
The Last Guardian (rated teen)
In development for ten years, this sublime adventure tells of the relationship that develops between a young boy and a giant, cat-like creature named Trico. Players solve the environmental puzzles by working out ways to communicate with Trico and encouraging the creature to help out.
Lego Dimensions (rated everyone 10+)
This toys-to-life game has quickly become the favourite in our house, largely because of the way characters from any franchise can come together in any game world to roam around and have fun. The most recent add-ons to the series include new story packs from Ghostbusters and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and add-ons from Adventure Time and Harry Potter.
Pokemon: Moon, Sun (rated everyone)
The mobile game Pokemon Go generated a lot of buzz, but the real action for gamers this holiday is with the new games for Nintendo’s 2DS and 3DS handhelds. Available in two editions, the games are largely the same but have slightly different rosters of “pocket monsters” that can be collected. They are also being sold together as a package for those who really have to “get them all”.
Skylanders Imaginators (rated everyone 10+)
The Skylanders games have always been fun for kids, but never more so than with Imaginators, which for the first time gives players the chance to create their own Skylanders characters. Kids are spending hours just coming up with new, fun configurations even before they get to the actual game.
Super Mario Run (rated everyone)
It’s the only mobile title on this list, but the first appearance of Nintendo’s brand of platforming game on a smartphone is deserving. Don’t balk at the cost, $15, because you’ll get plenty of enjoyment for that price.
Virtual reality games
There are only a few dozen virtual reality games available for the various headsets at this point. Here are the best.
Batman: Arkham VR (PSVR for now) turns you into the cowled detective and has you investigating crime scenes and zipping around the Batcave.
Battlezone VR (PSVR for now) is a VR version of the tank simulator that is more engrossing than you’d expect.
Eve: Valkyrie (HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR) puts you in a dogfight in outer space.
Farpoint (PSVR) is a first-person shooter set on an alien planet. Players discover what happened to a scouting team while trying to survive attacks from all angles.
Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One: X-Wing VR (PSVR) is also a dogfight in outer space, but with players piloting x-wing fighters. You can’t get any closer to actually being in your own Star Wars story.
Collections and remasters
Great choices for great series of games that the player on your list may not have yet. In alphabetical order.
Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection (rated mature) collects the three games that featured the Italian assassin: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Each of the games comes with all the downloadable content and with remastered visuals.
BioShock: The Collection (rated mature) pulls together remastered version of the three games in that franchise, BioShock (2007), BioShock 2 (2010), and BioShock Infinite (2013). The first two games take place in the underwater city of Rapture and the third in the cloud city of Columbia, both failed utopias.
Batman: Return to Arkham (rated mature) gives players the chance to become the Dark Knight in two games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, that were developed by Rocksteady Studios.
Destiny: The Collection (rated teen) includes the entire Destiny experience thus far, including expansions The Dark Below, The House of Wolves, The Taken King, and Rise of Iron. It amounts to hundreds of hours of action.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (rated mature) brings a graphical upgrade to the fantasy role-playing game. It also includes all the downloadable content released for the game after it debuted in 2011.
Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration (rated mature) collects the 2015 game and post-release add-ons. For those who have a PlayStation VR, the chapter “Blood Ties,” which has Lara Croft exploring her family's mansion and uncovering secrets, is also playable in VR.