'Twas the Night Before a Cataclysm
It was the year PC gaming got its groove back--with a lot of help from a company founded by a bunch of UCLA grads back in February 1991. So if 2010's lineup looks a bit like a love letter to Blizzard, the outpouring of affection is entirely deserved. What other game maker can say that its subscriber base for a single online game continues to grow by the millions six years after release, or can lay claim to the most popular e-sport in the world?
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World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
The Scoop: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
For: Windows, OS X
The 800-pound gorilla, StarCraft II, shipped this summer. Now meet its 1600-pound sibling. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm couldn't get much bigger, what with Blizzard letting a dragon-god loose to wreck the world. For $40 you can now level from 80 up to 85, explore a bunch of new areas, and try your luck as either a goblin or a werewolf. Better still, if you're already a subscriber and don't care about any of that yet, you get access to all the new quests and revamped areas anyway. So kiss your Azeroth goodbye, and your offline social life, too.
SteelSeries World of Warcraft: Cataclysm MMO Mouse
The Scoop: SteelSeries World of Warcraft Cataclysm MMO Mouse
For: Windows, OS X
The original SteelSeries World of Warcraft mouse came out a few years ago to widespread accolades. This new special-to-Cataclysm version offers an ergonomically altered housing and Cataclysm-specific art, improves the grip areas, streamlines button placement, and includes onboard memory in case you want to store a profile and pop it out anywhere you go. It'll set you back $100--but as serious players know, a well-designed macro-mapped mouse is the difference between getting the drop on another player and just swaying in place, stunned, while getting the PvP pounded out of you.
Digital Combat Simulator A-10C Warthog
The Scoop: Digital Combat Simulator A-10C Warthog
By: Digital Combat Simulator
DCS outpaces its flight-sim rivals in avionic authenticity by at least a parsec or two. Remember DCS's Black Shark attack helicopter simulation? A-10C Warthog represents the company's second foray into digital flight replication, a photorealistic recreation of the military's modern A-10C close-air-support plane based on data shared through developer Eagle Dynamics' military contract to craft a top-end military simulation of the plane. If you want the most authentic flight sim on the market, and a contender for game of the year, put this $60 steal of a deal at the top of your holiday shopping list.
Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog
The Scoop: Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog
With great flight simulations come exacting control requirements. Rising to the challenge and then punching through the ceiling of the elevator, Thrustmaster's HOTAS (hands-on-throttle-and-stick) Warthog may be the closest you'll get to the actual A-10C Warthog's primary control system. With dual replica throttles and replica control panel, a replica joystick with insanely precise 3D magnetic sensors that supports 65,536 by 65,536 positional values, and a meaty solid-metal 3-kilogram base, the thing hardly seems overpriced at $500.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
The Scoop: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
For: Windows, OS X
Anyone inclined to ding StarCraft II for allegedly holding back the real-time strategy genre missed the point (and most of the game). StarCraft II can be the simplest or the most complex real-time strategy game you'll ever play, which is why it drives contrarians mad. Vastly more than just a fresh coat of paint, StarCraft II has so many shifting strategic and tactical layers that only a superbly dedicated player will ever experience, much less master, all of it.
Razer StarCraft II Gaming Peripherals
The Scoop: Razer StarCraft II Gaming Peripherals; By: Razer; For: Windows, OS X
Razer has assembled some of the best hardware controls ever seen for a single PC game--and as good as it looks, it's actually twice as functional. We gave the $80 Razer Spectre five out of five stars as a solo controller for its actuation shifter and color-coded actions-per-minute tracking; then there's the $120 Marauder Keyboard with its enhanced-actuation keys and on-the-fly macros, and the incredibly comfortable, high-fidelity $120 Banshee Headset, both of which fold neatly into Razer's slick, sophisticated central control application.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
The Scoop: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood
For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Instead of Assassin's Creed III, we got Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood--not quite a sequel but much more than a mission pack. It's also an intrepid rethink of Ubisoft's action-stealth franchise. As before, you'll be climbing practically everything in sight--in this case, the buildings of gorgeous Renaissance Rome--but this time you'll have to recruit and train assassins, infiltrate and burn down fortified towers, and ultimately rebuild the whole city, one shop at a time. As if that weren't enough, a clever new multiplayer angle lets you round-robin assassinate fellow players (you're stalking and stalked simultaneously), using up to 12 unique abilities.
Sid Meier's Civilization V
The Scoop: Sid Meier's Civilization V
For: Windows, OS X
Turn-based strategy superstar Civilization V stumbled out of the gate in September with a pile of bugs and dubious AI. The design team has since issued five patches, eliminating most of the bugs, fixing the thorniest design quirks, and improving the AI by leaps and bounds. Even after the updates, the game is a patch or two away from perfection, but it promises to become Firaxis's finest hour. And in its fifth iteration, Civilization remains the most gripping history-minded strategy game on the planet.
Gran Turismo 5
The Scoop: Gran Turismo 5
By: Polyphony Digital
For: PlayStation 3
If dry-as-a-bone racing games turn you off, skip this one, but if you're looking for the most comprehensive armchair auto simulation that $60 can buy, Gran Turismo 5 has you covered. The first in its series to include weather effects, a detailed external as well as mechanical damage model, stereoscopic 3D support, a course creator, 20 unique race locations, over 70 tracks, and upward of 1000 cars, GT5 may not be the most personable auto sim--that honor goes to Forza 3--but it remains the most exquisitely encyclopedic.
Logitech G27 Racing Wheel
The Scoop: Logitech G27 Racing Wheel
For: Windows, PlayStation 3
Who wants to control a racing sim with a couple of twitchy thumbtacks on a gamepad? Logitech's $300 hand-stitched leather G27 Racing Wheel may end up deferring to Thrustmaster's T500RS (which reportedly will sell for $500) when the latter lands sometime next year--but if you can't wait, the G27 covers all the bases, including dual-motor force feedback; a six-speed shifter; rpm and shifter indicator LEDs; steel gas, brake, and clutch pedals; 16 programmable buttons; carpet grippers; 900-degree wheel rotation; and the option to plug the wheel into a full-size driver seat.
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