Video Games: The 12 Best Holiday Bets

In this list of the 12 video games of Christmas, we show you the good, the rad, and the (slightly) ugly.

Nothing Says 'Holidays' Like Giant Killing Sprees on Game Consoles!

Here come the holidays like a full-on three ring circus, which means it's time to rinse out the turkey fryers and slather the cookie sheets with Crisco.

It's also time to start thinking about which games you will be gifting others with or will be playing yourself in the wee small hours.

You've got plenty of choices this year. An embarrassment of riches, really. Into MMOs? You've got at least four ports of entry. Role-playing games? You'd need months just to finish half of what's new and on shelves right now. Action games? That rocked-and-shaken cup overfloweth. Strategy games? Not as plentiful this season, but the ones available are bright spots.

Our list recognizes some of the best of 2008, but whatever you do, don't call it comprehensive. Bumper years have a way of making pick lists seem wanting, so instead of aiming for something exhaustive, we've tried to pull in something for everyone, casual or hard-core, funny or serious, young or old.

Matt Peckham writes PC World's Game On blog.

First Up: Fable 2

Fable 2

The Scoop: Fable II. Genre: Action/Role-Playing; by: Lionhead; from: Microsoft; for: Xbox 360; rating: Mature.

Info: A fantasy funhouse in which you can sleep with the locals, sire kids, dance the barynya, train a pet pooch, wager real estate, liberate slaves, and assassinate ne'er-do-wells. Play nice and you'll glow like Alanis Morissette in the movie Dogma (play naughty and you'll sport a diabolic visage like Tim Curry in the movie Legend).

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Here's the deal with Fable II (PCW Score: 100%). It's got you in mind, but also your spouse, your over-17 kids, and your buddies down the block. If your dog could play video games, he'd play this. You think I'm exaggerating? No. I bought my brother a copy. Now his wife is hooked. Her birthday was a couple Wednesdays ago. Her present? The official strategy guide.

If I had to slap a tag on Fable II, it'd be "devotional," as in devoted to ensuring you have everything you need to solve puzzles that include blind dates, human sacrifices, and--I kid you not--a calypso-style cross-dressing cannibal. It's a game that's literally tripping over itself to make sure you're having a good time, always with a droll sense of humor, carefully counterbalanced by a strange and wonderful world that's deeply dark and beautiful.

Next: Fallout 3

Fallout 3

The Scoop: Fallout 3. Genre: Role-Playing; by: Bethesda; from: Bethesda Softworks; for: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; rating: Mature.

Info: Belatedly third in this popular role-playing series, Fallout 3 lets you opt to track your missing father through the post-apocalyptic ruin of Washington, D.C.--or ignore the plot and wander off on your own, clashing with tech scavengers and mutant horrors in a world that's Mad Max by way of the classic civil defense film "Duck and Cover".

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If I'm ever caught at the non-instantly-lethal end of a nuclear blast, I'll know just what to do while I'm waiting for all my body parts to slowly fall off now that I've played this game. And it's definitely a game where body parts fall off, or get shot off, or simply explode like large pieces of fruit pulverized by Gallagher's Sledge-O-Matic.

Yes, Fallout 3 (PCW Score: 90%) is violent, but you don't have to be. That's part of its charm. If you'd rather play it like a card-carrying peacenik…well, all right, you'll have to grapple with at least some of its bloody mayhem. The point is, many of the choices you're offered don't mandate the business end of a firearm. What's more, they have broad, game-changing consequences, whether you're disarming a nuke or detonating it in some ramshackle town, investigating an android gone rogue, or sleuthing boxes of Sugar Bombs ("The cereal with Explosive Great Taste!") from the wreckage to sell to Peter-Pan-esque communes of kids sheltering in caverns.

Next: LittleBigPlanet


The Scoop: LittleBigPlanet. Genre: Action/Platformer; by: Media Molecule; from: Sony; for: PlayStation 3; rating: Everyone.

Info: Imagine a world strewn with bits of felt and slivers of wood, scraps of metal and pieces of sponge, and where all those materials can interact, physically speaking, the way they would in real life. Toss in a couple of button-cute knitted doll-creatures bounding and catapulting through beautifully rendered toylike worlds, and you get LittleBigPlanet, Sony's breakout action-platformer.

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Can cuteness alone sell a game? Probably. LittleBigPlanet isn't quite the masterpiece of effortless leap-climb-grab-swing control it was never actually touted to be, but it's still a blast of ain't-seen-that-before to a genre that hasn't gotten much attention since the 3D graphics craze turned gamers' brains to mush.

What's more, it's not just a Mario-style jumping game with a clever physics wrinkle, but a creative design studio in a box for any kid (or adult) with a little patience and a couple spoonfuls of can-do. Want to edit any level or object you just bopped through? Fiddle with the tactile attributes of string to glue and winches to pistons? Create custom stickers by snapping pictures with the PlayStation Eye, then slap them on in-game objects? Share all that with others online?

Know someone with a PlayStation 3 and kids? Here's your gift idea.

Next: Guitar Hero: World Tour

Guitar Hero: World Tour

The Scoop: Guitar Hero World Tour. Genre: music/rhythm; by: Neversoft (PS3, Xbox 360), Vicarious Visions (Wii), Budcat Creations (PS2); from: Activision; for: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii; rating: Teen.

Info: Music/rhythm rocker Guitar Hero catches up with Rock Band's band-in-a-box angle, adding a few wrinkles of its own, like the world's first wireless, velocity-sensitive, six-piece drum set.

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The $190 "band kit" version sounds pricey, but comes with a couple armfuls of plastic toys. The new drum set has four pads plus a pair of cymbals, the slightly larger guitar gets a new pad you can slap-strum, the whole thing ships with a substantial 86 master-recording track list, and absolutely nobody dies in this game. It's a total makeover for the Guitar Hero series that launched a thousand armchair shedders.

In case you've yet to rock out with a plastic piece and you're wondering what's up with this "music video game" thing, a word about Guitar Hero. Think back to when you were a kid and shameless, ready to bop and disco while your favorite song boogied in the background, plucking invisible strings on ethereal air guitars or upending empty ice cream buckets to slap along with the beat.

Now, imagine three or four buckets pinioned to a stand and that air guitar reified in plastic homage to the great guitarist Les Paul with a few colorful buttons poking out of the neck to trigger notes as they pop up on a TV screen, and you're in the concert hall vicinity of what this whole faux rocker craze is about.

Next: Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2

The Scoop: Gears of War 2. Genre: Tactical Third-Person shooter; by: Epic Games; from: Microsoft; for: Xbox 360; rating: Mature.

Info: Just when you thought it was safe to recline in the wreckage, here come more of the original game's mottled and muscle-headed aliens, except now they're pulling entire cities apart from deep beneath the planet, and it's up to your leatherneck posse to stop them.

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The thing you did at the end of the first Gears? Null and void at the start of Gears of War 2 (PCW Score: 90%), which makes about as much sense as the narrator when she says of the game's alien hordes, "to endure is to prosper" (not really--enduring is suffering through a rough spell and not going poof entirely). But now we're officially overanalyzing Gears 2, which is like asking Dr. Phil for serious medical advice.

Otherwise it's part two of humanity's apocalyptic war with a subterranean species known as the Locust Horde, a steel-ribbed, gun-rocked melodrama about guys with arms like tree trunks and shoulders up to their eyeballs who affectionately bump rifles in lieu of chests.

The stuff that's changed: Bigger areas, more objects to hunker behind, smarter enemy opponents, a couple new multiplayer modes (including a clever capture-the-flag variant where the flag's a live body) and a less frenetically paced story, so you can actually soak in the stunning scenery. If you want the year's finest (and only-est) tactical third-person shooter, this is it.

Next: Mirror's Edge

Mirror's Edge

The Scoop: Mirror's Edge. Genre: Action/Adventure; by: EA Digital Illusions CE; from: Electronic Arts; for: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; rating: Teen.

Info: You're an acrobatic dissident in a sinister squeaky-clean dystopia, couriering packages along rooftops between pockets of resistance.

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Let's talk parkour, a physical discipline that involves moving through environments as swiftly and efficiently as possible using only your body's innate abilities. Visualize concrete barriers and steel pylons and interposing stairways flanked by metal railings and brick walls. Now imagine it's not just a collection of mundane objects, but an obstacle course, something to be traversed in the straightest, fastest vector possible. Distance viewed not "as the crow flies," but as James O'Barr's The Crow would navigate it.

Elevate that a few dozen stories to the level of dizzying skyscraper rooftops snarled with steaming tubes and chain-link fences and metal air ducts, then seal it in a hyper-clean, gaze-searing glare, and voilà, EA's Mirror's Edge (PCW Score: 90%)

Imagine a first-person shooter where you don't have to shoot anything. Slide under obstacles, tumble off building tops, dash along walls and shimmy along ledges--the goal is to move as nimbly and gorgeously as possible instead of the same-ol' shooting and scooting. To paraphrase senior producer Owen O'Brien, Mirror's Edge is about putting the "person" back in "first-person."

Next: Lord of the Rings: Mines of Moria

Lord of the Rings: Mines of Moria

The Scoop: Lord of the Rings Online: Mines of Moria. Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing; by: Turbine; from: Turbine, Inc.; for: Windows; rating: Teen.

Info: The genre's second most popular MMO gets two new character classes, a bump in levels from 50 to 60, and six new books, bringing the story up to the caboose-end of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring.

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World of Warcraft may have the clicks, but Lord of the Rings Online can claim one of the most popular pieces of fantasy fiction in history. That, and it has something the other guys don't: a progressive story. Quests like "you must kill eight buzzing flies of fetidness to honor your tribe" have you snoozing through character levels? Consider LotRO and its expansion, Mines of Moria, which extends the game's story and packs in what Turbine calls "the greatest dungeon adventure you have ever seen and played."

You know Moria, the abandoned city of the dwarves, from the LOTR films, right? Home to the demon-on-fire-thing (or as Ian McKellan, the actor who plays Gandalf in the movies pronounces it, "ballllllll-rog")? The "memorable scenes" moment where McKellan stamps his staff on the bridge of Khazad-dum and howls "You shall not pass!"? That Moria, bracketed by Eregion and Lothlorien, augmented by two new classes, a creature AI that thinks about environments tactically, and, as noted, a level cap lift from 50 to 60.

LotRO's dirty little secret? It's a sterling fantasy MMO that remains remarkably faithful to its source material, which is apparently what you get when you keep said material's official licensor close to hand.

Next: World of Goo

World of Goo

The Scoop: World of Goo. Genre: Puzzle; by: 2D Boy; from: 2D Boy; for: Linux, Mac OS X, Wii, Windows; rating: Everyone.

Info: Two guys (really, just two guys) cobbled together a game in which you build bridges, towers, and all sorts of wild lattice-like contraptions to shuttle bubbling balls of goo from one side of a level to another.

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Sometimes the best things come in messy, mucky packages. World of Goo is such a game, divided into five chapters with levels that strut pulsing, bobbing graphics and music that's Beetlejuice meets Last of the Mohicans. You start each level with a wobbly structural nub teeming with tiny balls of goo and an exit-point pipe at the other side that you have to build over (or up, or down) to. Pluck dangling goo balls and reposition them to fashion joint extensions that gradually take the form of wobbly Tinker Toy trellises. Repeat until you've reached the pipe at the other end, which sucks up whatever goo bits are left over.

As you advance, the game throws new ideas at you: Windmills that threaten your trellises, daring escapes from gurgling stomachs, sleeping goos that have to be woken, enormous goos you have to fit into tiny pipes, explosive and reusable goos, even some goos that are stickier than others.

What's it all about? Building as efficiently as possible. The less goo used for struts, the more goo balls the pipe can hoover up. The more goo in the pipe, the taller your "World of Goo Corporation" tower grows, a tower that if you're playing competitively, is visible to anyone else playing the game.

Next: Call of Duty--World at War

Call of Duty--World at War

The Scoop: Call of Duty: World at War. Genre: First-Person Shooter; by: Treyarch (PS3, Wii, Windows, Xbox 360), n-Space (Nintendo DS), Rebellion (PS2); from: Activision; for: Nintendo DS, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Wii, Windows, Xbox 360; rating: Mature.

Info: Another World War II first-person shooter, except this one travels east and even further east to offer players a taste of the war's less frequently covered Pacific and Eastern Europe theaters.

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The Call of Duty games are reputedly like the Star Trek movies: even-numbered ones watchable, odd-numbered ones less so. Call of Duty: World at War (technically Call of Duty 5) takes a flamethrower to that theory, then hands the flamethrower off to you. Chip away at environments or set 'em on fire, fire bullets through cloth or thin-enough wood, wince as blinding white flares turn jungles into tangles of writhing shadows. It's all relentlessly action-thronged, a gonzo Michael Bay version of war that's less first-person shooter than first-person roller coaster.

Another perk: You're not playing anywhere near Normandy, possibly the most overworked patch of turf in military history. No angular hedgerows, no quaint French cottages, no chest-thumping speeches laid over inspirational horns. Just war, gritty and messy, as you're plonked down in Pacific and Eastern Europe theaters having a go at the Japanese and Germans in scrums like the pyrrhic U.S./Japanese Battle of Peleliu or the grueling Soviet/German march from Seelow toward the final bloody showdown in Berlin.

Next: WarHammer Online: Age of Reckoning

WarHammer Online: Age of Reckoning

The Scoop: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing; by: Mythic Entertainment; from: Electronic Arts; for: Windows; rating: Teen.

Info: "War is everywhere," warns this game, including on your computer, as Games Workshop's famous dark fantasy universe invades the MMO market and pits hundreds of thousands of players against each other in campaign-scale battles.

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Warhammer Online is all about something called "realm versus realm," a feature that Mythic cut its teeth pulling together and polishing in the Dark Age of Camelot. The idea's pretty simple. Dwarves battle orcs and goblins, human elites throw down with chaos-infected tribes, and high elves duke it out with dark elves. You pick which team to play for. Invading enemy lands and sacking cities impacts on the broader war, and can tip the balance in your realm's favor. It's a dark fantasy world wrapped in its source material's digitally grim "waagh-ness," with cannons, catapults, ballistas, rams, trebuchets, and Nurlge (the game's chaotic god of despair) only knows how much boiling oil.

Since the Lord of the Rings Online guys won't give subscriber numbers, it's tough to say who's second fiddle to Blizzard's gorilla-size World of Warcraft, but EA claims Warhammer Online's base was already a quarter of a million strong back in mid-October. Good news for anyone worried that Blizzard has the MMO market in an inverted facelock camel clutch with intent to sustain indefinitely.

Next: The Witcher

The Witcher

The Scoop: The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. Genre: Role-Playing; by: CD Projekt; from: Atari; for: Windows; rating: Mature.

Info: A dark, grimy, occasionally explicit romp through a medieval fantasy world gets a second lease on life courtesy of an enhanced edition with expanded dialogue, reduced load times, and two new adventures.

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Ladies' man Geralt of Rivia gets around, and so does Atari's The Witcher, a sprawling, blackly ironic, ethically complex action role-playing game based on a series of fantasy books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski about this professional monster slayer and "witcher" (from the Polish neologism "wiedzmin," originally translated by Sapkowski as "hexer," which sounds arguably less weird than turning a noun into an adjective and back to a noun again). Witchers are humans who have elected to undergo trials that alter their bodies genetically. If they survive these trials, they're endowed with superhuman abilities but rendered reproductively sterile.

Nothing is quite as it seems in this patched-to-perfection version of Polish developer CD Projekt's inspired translation of Sapkowski's beautifully turbulent, morally fluid universe. Friends can be backstabbing cult members. Guards as well as thugs might be sinister sexual predators. Witches craft suicide solutions and voodoo dolls that compel siblings to commit fratricide. Barmaids and plenty besides will sleep with you for booze, money, gifts, or occasionally just for fun. Pious religious types turn out to be repugnant misogynists. Power-crazed mages become insane, slobbering oracles. And for all the wonderfully revisionist fantasy alghouls and echinops and graveirs and bloedzuigers you'll get to fight, the most disturbing creatures aren't the ones with three heads or ten tentacles, but other humans, like you.

Next: Sins of a Solar Empire

Sins of a Solar Empire

The Scoop: Sins of a Solar Empire. Genre: Real-Time Strategy; by: Ironclad; from: Stardock; for: Windows; rating: Teen.

Info: Skipper jumbo fleets of "capital" ships and their fighters as one of three interstellar factions in the world's first real-time "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate" strategy game.

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Make a real-time strategy game too complex, and you might as well juggle hankies in a hurricane. Sins of a Solar Empire, which calls itself an "RT4X" game--real-time "eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate," the latter a form of hyper-complex turn-based gaming--sounds even harder on paper. Explore and conquer planets in a vast 3D galaxy bustling with planets, asteroids, comets, and stars. Build elaborate fleets out of tactically manipulable ships with unique, upgradable attributes. Sail those fleets around spinning planets circled by gravity pools, guarding against hostile incursions by rival factions or pirates. Do that on half-a-dozen planets simultaneously, thanks to a brilliantly intuitive interface, in real time.

In Sins, capital ships bristling with lasers and their fighter-squad retinues glide majestically through space, more or less the way they do in an episode of Battlestar Galactica. No silly stuff or cartoon physics. When battles occur, they take minutes--not seconds--to resolve, as reinforcements pulse in and windows of respite open for shields to recharge. Ships the size of the starship Enterprise never skim around like water bugs or pull off barrel rolls like cosmic Red Barons.

Note: For another recent slide show on games, see Matt Peckham and Darren Gladstone's "The 15 Coolest Games of Fall 2008."

Besides Matt's PC World's Game On blog, Darren Gladstone's weekly Casual Friday blog frequently covers games.

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