Want to make the gamer in your life very happy? Pick up one of these popular titles and put a bow on it. We chose ten new games from a number of different genres and for a variety of gaming consoles, including the new Nintendo Wii U; there's something for every gamer on this list!
Here's our hands-on take on these ten titles, along with their ESRB ratings.
Assassin's Creed III
ESRB Rating: Mature
Available for Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, PC (reviewed on PlayStation 3)
The newest title in the Assassin's Creed historical action-adventure franchise delivers all the stealth kills and rooftop jumping that fans of the series expect. While the game moves back and forth between a few characters and time periods, it is set mainly in the era of the American Revolution. You take on the role of Connor, a Native American who is trying to avenge the death of his mother, and use some of his unique abilities as you play, such as hunting and traveling through forests by climbing trees and jumping from branch to branch.
Pros: Fans of the Assassin's Creed games or stealth action play will enjoy this title.
Cons: My only gripe about this game is that there is an extended prologue; it takes a long time to really get into the action.
Assassin's Creed III: Liberation
ESRB Rating: Mature
Available for Sony PlayStation Vita
Liberation takes place during the same time period as Assassin's Creed III, but this game centers on Aveline, the first female protagonist in the series. While much of the game play is similar, Liberation takes advantage of the Vita's touchscreen and rear touchpad for more play options. And Aveline can change her outfit among slave, lady, and assassin attire to gain different advantages. For example, when I (playing as Aveline!) wore the "lady" attire, I was able to charm a guard and lure him away from a building that I needed to sneak into.
Pros: This game is tailor-made for someone who enjoys Assassin's Creed and also loves hand-held gaming. You can link Liberation to Assassin's Creed III for some in game bonuses.
Cons: Like Assassin's Creed III, there is a lot of dialogue, and it takes some time for the action to really pick up.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
ESRB Rating: Mature
Available for: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC (reviewed on PlayStation 3)
What would the holiday season be without a new entry in the first-person-shooter Call of Duty franchise? In Black Ops II, the story bounces around among several characters and time periods, both past and future. Each mission has challenges and a leader board, so if you don't care about the storyline, there's still lots to do. And in Campaign mode, you can now customize your characters weapons before each mission, similar to multiplayer mode.
But let's face it: We play Call of Duty to blow up bad guys and talk trash to our friends. There are a ton of weapon and ability combinations you can choose for your multiplayer character. And Combat Training is a welcome addition for newbies: Here you can team up with other players against computer controlled "bots" to learn how multiplayer gaming works before going up against the elite players online.
Pros: The main villain, Raul Menendez, is a fantastic character and arguably the bright spot in the plot of the game.
Cons: There's a lot to learn before you're skilled at this game. Even with Combat Training, newcomers may have a frustrating time at first.
Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Available for: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U (reviewed on Wii U)
Epic Mickey 2 returns our mouse hero to Wasteland, where he has to use his paintbrush to save the day. In this sequel, a second player can get in on the action by controlling Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Using Mickey's paint or thinner, you create pathways and eliminate obstacles that let you pass through levels. And Oswald has a remote control that can be used to zap enemies; he can also fly, using his ears as a propeller.
Everything about this game is a delight for Disney fans. You'll have a hard time playing it without feeling nostalgic.
Pros: The game is visually impressive, with lots of Disney references. Cooperative play is a welcome addition to the game play.
Cons: The game-play is simplistic, and goals can be repetitive at times. This probably won't bother younger kids much, but older gamers might get bored.
ESRB Rating: Mature
Available for Xbox 360
Halo 4 picks up four years after Halo 3's story ends. Master Chief's virtual assistant, Cortana, wakes him up because of a threat detected on the ship. You're soon introduced to new enemies and challenged to save Cortana from being "erased."
The real draw of Halo has always been the multiplayer gaming experience, and Halo 4 continues to deliver. You earn experience based on your performance in online games, and you can use that experience to unlock armor customizations and better weapons for your Spartan soldier, the character you play as in multiplayer mode.
New customizations are welcome and will keep you playing for hours trying to reach the next upgrade. Also new are Spartan Ops missions, which gives you additional missions to play through either on your own or cooperatively.
Pros: The multiplayer modes are fun and addictive. Fans of first-person shooters, sci-fi action games, and the original Halo trilogy will love Halo 4!
Cons: Newcomers to the Halo franchise could be confused at first when it comes to the game's back story.
Marvel Avengers: Battle for Earth
ESRB rating: Teen
Available for: Xbox 360 (with Kinect), Wii U (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Battle for Earth is a motion-controlled fighting game featuring characters from the Marvel universe. Heroes and villains alike get in on the action as you play through a story inspired by Marvel's Secret Invasion storyline from the comic books (not The Avengers movie).
Each character has his or her own moves; for the Kinect version, you execute them by performing movements that are indicated on screen. In the Wii U version, you use the Wii controller and Nunchuk to control the action. You can also use the Wii U's GamePad screen to control a character, which requires a lot less movement on your part. You can dodge enemy attacks by leaning from side or interrupt them by jumping.
Pros: There's a good variety of characters from the Marvel universe to choose from. You'll feel like you've taken on the role of your favorite Marvel characters. Comic book fans and fans of motion controlled games should pick this one up.
Cons: The storyline felt a bit thin, especially when compared to the series it's based on. Traditional gamers may be put off by the motion and gesture controls.
New Super Mario Bros. U
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Available for: Wii U
Mario is finally in high definition, in a full 2D platforming adventure. The game can be played with one to five players. Four players can be on screen at a time while one person is using the GamePad to create platforms to help the others. It's an interesting concept and I found it to be helpful in some areas, though having someone create a staircase for me to reach the top of the flag pole at the end of the level did kind of feel like cheating.
All in all, this feels like the classic Mario games we all know and love. Outside of Story mode are several challenges; for example, you try to beat your best time in a particular level, or complete a stage without touching the ground.
Pros: On Nintendo's new console, we get a terrific Mario game that's also a throwback to classic titles. This game is really for just about everyone. Longtime fans of the series and younger gamers will love it.
Cons: Multiplayer tends to be a little chaotic with four people on screen. You'll tend to spend more time getting in one another's way than getting anything accomplished.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star
Available for: Nintendo 3DS
In a switch from the last entry in the Paper Mario RPG (role-playing game) series, Sticker Star returns to more traditional game play, but many of the role-playing elements have been eliminated. And there's no group of characters that need to be leveled up throughout the game; instead, it is focused only on Mario.
You're tasked with tracking down pieces of the magical Sticker Star, which Bowser shatters early in the game. Combat is turn-based and requires carefully timed button presses to maximize the effect of your attacks. You can use stickers you've collected to boost Mario's combat abilities, but each sticker can be used only once. Some stickers are also used to help solve puzzles to progress through the game.
Pros: This title is great fun for fans of the Paper Mario series and Mario fans who enjoy role-playing games.
Cons: While the game has the overall Mario vibe to it in terms of setting and characters, fans of the traditional games may not enjoy this more story-driven and generally slower game.
PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale
ESRB Rating: Teen
Available for: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
At first glance, All-Stars seems like a rip-off of Super Smash Bros, Nintendo's popular fighting-game series. It's possible that All-Stars was inspired by Smash Brothers, but it has done enough to set itself apart. The PS3 and Vita versions of the game are virtually identical.
All-Stars ties together characters and stages inspired by popular PlayStation titles in a four-person fighting game. Characters range from the cool and realistic Nathan Drake to the bizarre Fat Princess. This level of variation is a smart idea, because you'll want to spend time getting to know these characters' abilities.
The battle stages also play a role in the battle; some stages have background characters or obstacles that can inflict damage to the players. If you prefer a more traditional fight, though, you can turn these effects off. While the game does have a single-player mode that gives you a story for each character, the game really shines in multiplayer mode. This is the type of game that I would have loved to play with my brothers when we were kids. Or maybe this weekend.
Pros: Multiplayer mode is a lot of fun, particularly if you're playing on the same console. If you buy the game for the PS3, you can download it for free on the Vita. Fans of fighting games or Super Smash Bros. will appreciate All-Stars.
Cons: The single-player stories are on the shallow side.
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Available for: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Skylanders Giants is the sequel to last year's smash hit, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. Like last year's game, you can place real, physical toys on the included "Portal of Power," and they appear on screen for you to play with. The story and game play center around new Skylanders characters—the giants.
Both the toys and the in-game giants are larger than the normal characters. They also have special abilities, such as breaking boulders to clear a path for smaller characters. There are other new characters, including special "light core" figures that light up when placed on the Portal of Power. You'll spend plenty of time powering up your Skylanders to eliminate enemies and solve puzzles. The 3DS version differs from other versions of the game because it has platforming elements. Levels are more linear and involve jumping from ledge to ledge similar to a Mario game.
Pros: All of the original Skylanders figures work with the new game. Anyone who liked the original Skylanders or enjoys collecting toys or action figures will love Skylanders Giants.
Cons: There are a lot of new figures to buy; even the original characters have been redesigned and branded as Series 2. Series 2 characters get new abilities and can attain higher levels in the game, which is great for the game itself but not so great for your wallet. Each regular figure costs $10, light core figures are $12 and giants are $15. Considering there are so many of them available this could really add up quickly if you or your kids are Skylander fans.
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