15 Best Holiday Video Game Buys of 2009
Wouldn't it be nice if Santa brought a game system that played everything exactly as it was meant to be played, out of the box? No need to choose between Mario, Master Chief, and Nathan Drake? One platform, indivisible, with free online access and social networking plugins for all?
Well he won't--but the elves at PC World are ready to help you sort through the deluge of games, gadgets, and gizmos festooning store shelves and online digital repositories. What's the best investment in 2009--Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, or Sony's PlayStation? The Nintendo DSi or the Sony PlayStation Portable? And what about Microsoft Windows 7 with 8GB of RAM, a quad-core CPU, and 3D video cards double-stacked and running visual circles around the console crowd?
Decisions, decisions. Let's take a look at 15 of the year's best, with pros and cons identified to make your choices a little easier.
Of Related Interest:
Best Out-of-the-Box Value: Sony's PlayStation 3
Value may be in the eye of the beholder, but what you get for $300 from Sony's slimline PS3 (PCW Rating: 4.5 out of 5) is pretty impressive. Blu-ray video, integrated Wi-Fi, a 120GB user-swappable 2.5-inch SATA hard drive, free online multiplayer--no competing product comes close in out-of-the-box features.
Sony's online PlayStation Network isn't as fully developed as Microsoft's Xbox Live, but it's catching up quickly with social networking add-ins, trophies, video on demand, and ongoing improvements to functions like voice and text chat. If you're worried about the system's longevity after years of slumping popularity, relax: With sales finally on the upswing, Sony has never been a safer bet.
Pros: Best-priced out-of-the-box package, feature for feature; most svelte-looking console; quiet as a mouse.
Cons: Feature-overloaded user interface may confuse nonenthusiasts; no cross-game voice chat; SixAxis motion-control feature is underutilized; backward-compatibility is limited to PS1.
Online Play Pro: Microsoft's Xbox 360
Microsoft didn't change the Xbox 360's physical profile in 2009. The console was already reasonably trim, and the newest models seem to have nipped in the bud the nasty "red ring of death" overheating issue. The high-end model has gone mainstream, putting a 120GB hard drive into a $300 package to go toe-to-toe with Sony's 120GB PlayStation 3. Best of all, Xbox Live delivers a smooth, well-rounded online experience, whether you're participating in multiplayer matches, watching movies with friends online, or looking for social networking integration with services like Facebook and Twitter.
The 360's Achilles' heel is its out-of-whack peripheral pricing. Microsoft charges an unseemly $100 for its proprietary USB Wi-Fi adapter, and a criminal $150 for its stand-alone 120GB hard drive (if you're upgrading from the entry-level $200 Xbox 360 Arcade). Bear those extra charges in mind if you're looking to build up from entry level, and consider shopping around for discounted used peripherals instead.
Pros: Can install games to hard drive (mitigates noise from the DVD drive); native Facebook and Twitter integration; sterling online services and cross-game player interaction.
Cons: Unjustifiably expensive peripherals; noisy DVD drive; maximum 120GB hard drive (can only use Microsoft-branded hard drives); online multiplayer plus additional Gold tier Xbox Live features cost $50 a year.
Family-Friendliest System: Nintendo's Wii
With its motion-sensing aesthetic and calorie-crunching vibe, the three-year-old, $200 Wii (PCW Rating: 4 out of 5 stars) remains one of the coolest things to grace the hobby. The system appeared to stumble in 2009; but slowing sales or no, it's the only system that will let you, your spouse, your five- and six-year-olds, their grandparents, and the neighbors across the street all have a merry time with a couple of wireless remotes and some cleared-away living room space.
Pros: Snappy learning curves in most games; tiny footprint; whisper-quiet; integrated wireless; access to a massive online back-catalog of inexpensive Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64 games; Nintendo's first-party franchises (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and so on).
Cons: Lots of poorly wrought games from opportunistic "low fruit" publishers; system's standard-definition visuals don't scale well on high-definition LCD TVs; few truly groundbreaking games.
Sexiest Overpriced Handheld: Sony's PSP
Sony's PSP Go (PCW Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars) weighs in at $250--highway robbery for what amounts to a sexier version of a regular PSP minus the disc drive. On the plus side, you get a slick slide-out button-pad and 16GB of internal memory. You'll need every bit of that internal memory, though, and you'll probably have to tap the SD Card slot, since the only way to play games on the Go is to download them from Sony. That's because Sony aimed the Go squarely at gamers who have never owned a PSP; anyone with a stack of UMDs (the discs that contain regular PSP games) can neither play them on nor transfer them over to the Go.
The Go fits comfortably in a shirt pocket. Sony moved its single left-hand thumbstick farther toward the center to reduce finger fatigue. I hated fiddling with UMDs, and I have no fondness for the regular PSP's disc drive. But the regular PSP costs $80 less than the Go, and the price premium adds insult to the injury of UMD-library obsolescence.
That's why I recommend the regular PSP (aka PSP-3000), not the Go, if you're interested in Sony's powerhouse portable. If you already own a PSP, sit tight: Sony's next iteration is rumored to arrive sometime in 2010.
Pros: Compact and light; powerful PS2-caliber visuals; lengthier, more traditionally wrought games than Nintendo's DS/DSi offers; visuals are less compromised on games converted ("ported") from other systems.
Cons: Unjustifiably overpriced; library of downloadable PSP games lacks major titles; no UMD drive means no way to play older PSP games that you've already purchased; smaller screen makes text in certain emulated PS1 games hard to read.
Compact, Clever, Camera-Ready: Nintendo's DSi
Nintendo's DSi (PCW Rating: 3 out of 5 stars) may not be a giant step beyond the DS, but its two-way camera (one facing you, the other facing outward) is notably bolder than Sony's recent PSP nip-and-tuck. More than just a cheap digital camera for kids, the DSi packs a new user interface with several sophisticated and strangely compulsive photo and sound manipulation utilities that should grab your attention before you've even snapped in a game.
While the system is a bit expensive at $170 (versus $130 for the slightly older but still available DS Lite), the twin cameras and enhanced core apps justify the hike if you're buying for someone who is likely to fiddle endlessly with them (the younger the recipient, the better).
Pros: Slightly larger and brighter screens than the older DS Lite's; dual-cameras invite you to snap pics of yourself and others; SD Card slot supports expanded storage and downloadable games; clever audiovisual apps for younger players; fully compatible with entire DS library of games.
Cons: Costs $40 more than DS Lite; volume control changed from old analog slider to digital buttons; loses DS Lite's Game Boy cartridge compatibility slot (meaning the DSi plays DS games only).
Almost Heaven: Microsoft Windows 7
Windows 7 may be a coat of glossy digital lacquer slapped over years of hard-won fixes devised for and applied to Windows Vista's convoluted code-base, but it's hard to deny the new operating system's design elegance and functional efficacy. Windows 7 is surprisingly fast (in several cases, faster than Windows XP), reasonably priced (if you're upgrading), and sensibly forward-looking with regard to device support; and it rivals Apple's Snow Leopard for ease of use and visual gratification.
The only problem with Windows 7 is the industry's ambivalence toward PC gaming. When Windows 7 launched, the usual enthusiast sites trotted out a handful of game-related benchmarks, but the games industry itself essentially snored through the OS's release. Microsoft's own Games for Windows initiative, meanwhile, is now on life support.
With renewed publisher interest and a serious, concerted marketing push, the platform could roar in 2010; but its current trajectory isn't promising.
Pros: Faster and prettier than Vista; streamlined app taskbar; smarter security system that leaves users alone; new touch-based input features; friendlier approach to media-hub device management.
Cons: Dwindling publisher support; innovative games increasingly relegated to a handful of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), sleeper hits, and one-hit indie wonders; gross Xbox 360 favoritism.
Smartest Stealth Game: Assassin's Creed 2
Assassin's Creed 2 (Ubisoft, PS3, Xbox 360, $60) reaffirms that the industry's take on open-world exploration needn't begin and end with a slavish imitation of the approach used in Grand Theft Auto. It corrects everything that was wrong with the original Assassin's Creed (mostly the repetitive assassination missions), and then it frees you to explore miles of gorgeous, easy-to-climb Italian Renaissance architecture.
What would an assassin's life be without towering buildings to use as props? Imagine Spider-Man web-swinging through a cornfield, or Batman stuck in the Sahara. Fortunately the problem never arises in this perfectly architected sequel.
Pros: Beat-'em-ups, treasure hunts, parcel posts, hay dives, poster grabs, herald bribing, villa refurbishing, and fine-art acquisition--those are just a sampling of the activities you'll indulge in over the course of this game.
Cons: Still a trifle repetitive if you demand a surprise around every corner; a few non-sequitur matching puzzles.
Role-Playing Game of the Year: Demon's Souls
Demon's Souls (Atlus, PS3, $60) arrives in the guise of a hack-and-slash about a guy who storms through gloomily lit milieus gashing, skewering, and occasionally fricasseeing demons that, when dispatched relinquish their souls. Stockpiling those souls--bluish orbs of light that whoosh toward you like iron fillings to an electromagnet--improves your ability to gash, skewer, and fricassee bad guys with whom you are not yet acquainted.
Rabid opponents, neck-snapping traps, cleverly devised ambushes, and imposing obstacles snarl your progress and slow what might otherwise amount to a casual jaunt through a handful of smallish gothic castles, dank twilit prison towers, and flame-lit ramshackle undercities.
The keys to winning? Hoarding wisely...and dying gracefully.
Pros: Gloriously difficult; gaming on tenterhooks; dread-inspiring atmospherics; brilliant massively-single-player online invasion mode.
Cons: I'm not kidding about the difficulty thing.
Adventure Story Nonpareil: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
The camera can be cruel in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog, PS3, $60). It lingers over the lips of frost-riddled escarpments, oscillates perversely below your vertigo-unbalanced frame, and wordlessly taunts you like a sadistic documentarian. It knows the best angles to roil your gut and make you flinch; and though it never lets you down--it's always precisely where you need it to be--don't expect a lot of handholding as you dangle from cadmium pipes, ancient Tibetan statuary, and rime-glazed rocks.
If you dislike golden-era adventure fare, you'll scoff at Uncharted 2's pulp narrative. But then you probably also loathe movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kim, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, The Thief of Baghdad, and Gunga Din.
For the rest of us, it doesn't get better than the gonzo leaping, clambering, over-the-shoulder shooting, and occasionally ad-libbed smart-alecking in Uncharted 2. It's what the Tomb Raider games should have been, coupled with the picaresque élan of an H. Rider Haggard yarn.
Pros: Best action-adventure flick you've ever played; expansive multiplayer modes with distinctive experience-point-based ability system.
Cons: Too easy on 'hard' difficulty setting; players must complete the game once (on 'hard') to unlock the more satisfying 'crushing' difficulty setting.
Best Diablo Riff in Years: Torchlight
Dear Mom, I'm sorry I haven't written, but I've been busy in Torchlight (Runic, Windows, $15). An Ember Scholar accosted me while I was making my way home, and the next thing I knew I was prowling for a piece of Deathlace Ember stashed in the Necropolis--the undercity of the dead.
Now I'm nine or ten levels down and I've run out of town portal scrolls, but my pet wolf does a great job of killing giant spiders and spooky, robed rats. Oh, and he carries all the loot I pluck off corpses, too.
Well, gotta run. I'm having the time of my life speeding booty between ancient crepuscular oubliettes and the town topside, where I'll soon retire, rich and esteemed.
Pros: Clever pet-inventory system with option to sell inventory in town remotely; gorgeous exotic milieus; unbelievably cheap at just $15.
Cons: None, unless you hate single-player games...or Diablo.
Something Old, Something: New Super Mario Bros. Wii
For all that it rehashes, refries, and rebakes, New Super Mario Bros. Wii encourages responses ranging from infatuation to full-on adoration. In an era of games trafficking in terrorist murder sprees and zombie hack-fests, the new Mario is ebullient, colorific, and innocently groovy.
What's changed this time around? Not much, but if that sounds like a dig, you're assuming anything had to. There's something about this kind of Mario game, played side-to-side again after a decade of 3D mania, that's simply indefatigable.
Garnishing this version is four-player cooperative play, which ratchets up the game's difficulty by enabling one person to get too far ahead and inadvertently waste stragglers. You have to use careful and patient teamwork when you play this game with family and friends.
Pros: Play with up to four others in cooperative mode; old-school side-scrolling Mario appeals to a broad range of players.
Cons: None whatsoever.
Old-School Role-Playing Redux: Dragon Age Origins
Dragon Age Origins (Xbox 360, PS3, $60; Windows, $50) is the sequel that Baldur's Gate 2 wonks have been pining after for years, a melodramatically (and sometimes badly) written fantasy yarn cribbed from some weird Franken-hybrid of stylistically antipodal writers Ed Greenwood and George R. R. Martin. It's definitely a BioWare game, right down to the basso "you must gather your party before venturing forth" if you try to skip out of an area disjointedly.
Dragon Age's morality system is a step up from standard-issue white hat/black hat gaming dualism. Will you help the starving prisoner in camp? Against the guard's wishes? What if he's a deserter? What if he's also a thief? Choose carefully, because your decisions tend to ripple in unanticipated ways throughout the rest of the game.
On the downside, enemies tend to be tactically dimwitted and easily duped if you employ the old "approach-and-back-away" combat trick. Taking out a handful of enemies in plain view of their comrades fails to elicit a reaction, and much of the game consequently amounts to poking "anthills" of bad guys and bleeding off drones until you've emptied the nest.
Pros: Fine use of Final Fantasy XII's gambit-based tactical combat system, so you can automate allied combat behavior in exquisite detail; better-than-usual story; interface is superior in every way on a PC.
Cons: A year or two late (CD Projekt's The Witcher is two years old...and better); crash-buggy for 64-bit Windows users; clueless enemy artificial intelligence even at highest difficulty setting; interface tends to be convoluted and messy on 360 and PS3.
Best Retro-Rhythm Game: The Beatles Rock Band
It's The Beatles (yeah, yeah, yeah), and who doesn't want to jam with Paul, John, George, and Ringo? The Beatles Rock Band (Harmonix, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, $60) is the closest you'll get to Fab Fourdom until we're all sticking metal prongs in our heads.
Is the music/rhythm game genre petering out? Definitely, but The Beatles Rock Band may be its apotheosis.
Pros: 45 tracks plucked from across the Beatles' ouevre; evocative career mode highlights the band's evolving musical journey; three-way harmonization support if you're willing to employ three USB microphones.
Cons: A bit simplistic for hardcore Guitar Hero and Rock Band show-offs; somewhat revisionist if you're a Beatles history purist; songs tend to be short; custom add-in instruments are overpriced (but unnecessary).
Most Realistic Racer: Forza Motorsport 3
Racing games rarely catch my eye, but Forza Motorsport 3 (Turn 10, Xbox 360, $60) delivers such exceptional performance that it's impossible to ignore. In fact, Gran Turismo 5 could live up to everything long promised when it arrives next year and it would still have to stretch to match Turn 10's magnum opus.
Supplementing the visual muscularity of Forza 3's advanced physics-faithful racing engine, is the game's adaptive presentation: It automatically adjusts to your playing style and driving abilities, all while accommodating a rocketship's worth of variable tweaking (if you're up to popping the hood and fiddling with the innards).
Pros: 400 customizable cars from 50 or so manufacturers; more than 100 international race tracks; vehicles possess high physics fidelity; in-car driving view; rollovers that display details of each vehicle's undercarriage.
Cons: Players can't tune vehicles during online multiplayer matches.
Pocket-Size Spelunker: The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks
After sailing here, there, and everywhere in The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, you get to commandeer a train in The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, DSi/DS, $35) while doing the usual "save the world from darkness" bit. The underlying gameplay remains reliably Zelda-esque--scour dungeons for chests containing keys that lead to fights with end-level critters--but Spirit Tracks adds a twist: Take control of Princess of Zelda (in the guise of a "phantom" soldier) and direct her through puzzle-salted mazes.
The train-play itself seems underdeveloped, but the novelty of maneuvering two characters through increasingly challenging venues will keep you playing.
Pros: Single-player team play (control two characters to solve increasingly sophisticated puzzles); new antics that younger players will like, such as a spirit flute and an item that lets you project miniature cyclones to stymie enemies and solve spatially complex puzzles.
Cons: Relatively short for a Zelda title.