The best gifts come from the heart. Barring that, buy some games and hit the bars.
Like it or not, Christmas is happening yet again. I know you’ve yet to sit through fraught Thanksgiving dinners, but I’m here to remind you in advance and offer you a primer for planning your consumerist immolation.
This list is just games. Hardware, accessories, and miscellany are coming up throughout the day.
Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.
The pagan holiday the church co-opted for Christmas to sell pagans on Christianity was one of turpitude. Frightful stuff, really. Thankfully, videogames let you live out the id harmlessly with playable avatars and worlds designed with little interaction outside the base. Some games more than others.
Grand Theft Auto V (PS3, Xbox 360)
Grand Theft Auto is synonymous with wanton violence and depravity and V doesn’t disappoint there. It’s a cynical, nihilistic and technically faithful recreation of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Being from San Francisco, I spent early time with the game floored at how distinctly it looked like California, from the geography to the fire hydrant colors and road signs. Then I stripped to my undies, stole a bicycle, and crashed into body builders on Venice Beach. Once, I chased a guy on foot for five minutes because he had a dumb scarf. Just like real life.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3, Xbox 360)
This game is subtitled Revengeance, for Pete’s sake. Why wasn’t this name already used by dozens of 80’s action movies? This Metal Gear eschews sneaking in favor of ripping the gooey electric spines out of robots while you dance about with a sprightliness Michelle Kwan could only dream of. And it’s all set to some transcendental butt rock.
Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine (PC, Xbox 360)
What better fantasy than that of the cat burglar? You go into Monaco, ideally with three friends in tow, planning to be the sneakiest of sneaks, pinching every coin. But does that ever happen? Mona-NO. Each level devolves into a heightened frenzy accompanied by ragtime piano and shouting in French. Sometimes it’s more fun when a plan doesn’t come together.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)
Arbitrary ascension to power sans qualifications? A town littered with animals, cats and dogs living in proximity? Extortionist realtors? Lawless island getaways with separate monetary systems for money laundering? A dog secretary? New Leaf is pure anarchy, letting you hunt wildlife, build and destroy civic monuments, and push jerks into holes.
Someone think about the children!
I gave Tearaway a 10/10 and I am not a children, so clearly this list doesn’t preclude those ossified by the harsh reality of age. These delightful, age appropriate choices are great for both kids and your inner youth. Gross. Of course, other games on this list, like Ni no Kuni, are plenty child appropriate as well.
Tearaway (PlayStation Vita)
Tearaway is among the most creative games to come out this year and it makes you a part of that, as you snap photos and cut designs — hats, snowflakes, whatever — out of construction paper. Media Molecule delivered a gem that’s high on charm and originality, backed up by robust gameplay as you wind down a surprisingly interesting tale.
Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)
If you needed any extra incentive to pick up Super Mario 3D World after learning it had a catsuit and kitty Goombas, we clearly have different ideas on what makes a good game. That’s feline; I won’t get catty. Maybe Chris Carter’s purrfect score swayed you. Or Dale’s picture of the Xbox One in a rubbish bin while Super Mario 3D World is on his TV. 3D World is the cat’s pajamas.
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
If you didn’t know, 2013 is the Year of Luigi. The punishment for your ignorance is having to clear five spooky mansions of ghosts. It’s a great punishment. People gave me looks when I spent much of the year calling Dark Moon my Game of the Year, but it’s absolutely delightful. As Luigi shakes in fear or hums along to the soundtrack, he proves himself the superior Mario brother.
Rayman Legends (Wii U, PlayStation Vita, PS3, Xbox 360)
Rayman Legends seems to have joined Puppeteer as wonderful, colorful games released but a few months ago yet already forgotten. Maybe the delay for multiplatformity hurt the game. Still, for my money, Rayman Origins and its sequel, Rayman Legends, are the standard bearers for contemporary 2D platforming. Doesn’t get much better than this gorgeous, great-music-filled, precision platforming, even with touch control additions.
Cool games for cool people
These games are so aloof you could use them in the shower to get clean. Bang them against a jukebox and you’d get a free play without a coin. “What are you playing?” your attractive neighbor will ask. “Oh, just The Last of Us, no big deal,” you say modestly. Kissing on the mouth ensues
The Last of Us (PS3)
It felt like I was the last of us to finally get to Naughty Dog’s opus, but I’m glad I caught up. As far as massively budgeted affairs go, it is among the most deserving of its praise. The gameplay works, typically feeling appropriately stressful and haphazard without ever feeling too “fun.” The writing deserves praise for its pithiness. As a whole, The Last of Us gets points for being appropriately subdued and subtle in its presentation of an indifferent world and its loathsome inhabitants.
Jumping out windows to idiosynctratic jazz while dressed like Humphrey Bogart and living to tell the tale because of your Bullfrog Hypertrousers. That is Gunpoint, a stealth and puzzle blend of noir and self-aware, amusing neo-noir. You’ll look cooler jumping out of windows than Leon S. Kennedy.
The Wolf Among Us (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Vita)
Telltale’s follow up to last year’s critical darling, The Walking Dead, is off to a good start. As with Gunpoint, the noir inspirations give the story-heavy adventure game a coolness lock. It’s a gritty fairytale pastiche. Not wholly original, but not a bad thing, either. The style has done well for Tarantino.
Artsy games for artsy people
Are games art? Is this even a game? If you ask dumb questions like these, these games will probably annoy the heck out of you. If you’re a more reasonable human being that wants to experience neat things, try these interesting games on for size.
Kentucky Route Zero (PC)
I recommend Kentucky Route Zero as I wait impatiently for the third episode, going on a year since the first episode’s debut, and without having played the second yet. This moody, mysterious, bluegrass delight is just that good, though. I think it’s better than the The Walking Dead. It’s one part ghost story, one part journey of self exploration, one part having a cool dog.
Like the two days of rain that just swept San Francisco, Sony Japan’s Rain seems to have came and went. The bleak and beautiful title puts you into the transparent shoes of a young boy who has faded into invisibility in a mysterious city. You can enjoy the metaphor, the light puzzle gameplay, or just get lost in its dreamy soundtrack.
Papers, Please (PC, Mac)
Papers, Please describes itself as, “A Dystopian Document Thriller,” if you need a reason for it to be on this list. It’s also garnered a lot of deserved praise for just how affecting a tale it is, putting you in the shoes of an immigration inspector of a country in tenuous peace. You decide who crosses the border and who is arrested and detained. Screw up, and your ass is on the line. Think about that when you stare into the face of a starving child without proper paperwork.
Well, I’m really into roleplay…
It’s my favorite fetish. Hah! Get it? Because “role playing games,” but also kinky role play. Like in the bedroom. It’s hard looking back amidst Persona 5 hype, but this year has some good role-playing options, almost enough to hold a candle to Persona 4: Golden, which enraptured me last year.
Pokemon X & Y (3DS)
After burning out quickly on Pokemon Diamond and giving the series a rest, its 3DS iteration was a warm experience, almost a decade removed from the series. Chock full of weird new pocket monsters, endearing 3D models that look 2D, and distractions like clothes shopping and PR video shooting (mine is the best), X and Y are a lot of fun.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3)
Ni no Kuni is in some ways a modernized Baby’s First JRPG. It hits every note genre fans expect it to, ditching things like random battles and the need for excessive grinding. Still, through sheer sincerity and other facets of originality (art design, music, world building), it’s worth playing for fans and newcomers alike. At its best, it’s like playing a Studio Ghibli film. At its worst, it’s like playing a lovely JRPG.
XCOM: Enemy Within (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
The XCOM expansion is sitting nearer to a budget price and marks the most robust way to play the game, adding in micro and macro wrinkles to the already wonderful strategy experience. Plus, additional voice packs let troops speak in their native languages, which doesn’t change too much, but is really cool and helps serve the personal stories you write with your pawns.
Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
This decadent strategy game not only saved the series from being shelved, but kicked off an absolutely wonderful year for 3DS owners. Gorgeous flourishes, from legitimately good use of 3D to unrivaled 2D art, help the sprite-based strategy game keep from feeling dated. Still, all that addictive strategy goodness is in tow.
So, you bought a next gen console?
Well look at you, Mrs. Moneybags. Too bad it has no games! At least it has games coming. You could always gift someone money so they can save it for use when the good games (like The Witness!) actually do come out, but you feel like that takes the fun out of gift giving. Even though that’s what your recipient would prefer. Christmas really is a selfish holiday.
Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4)
You have to show off the horsepower of the new system, right? Good on Killzone for finally being able to stand alone as a launch game, right? A lot less to derisively compare it to now.
The best launch game on either new system is an indie shooter that is actually free with a PlayStation Plus subscription so you probably won’t be buying it anyway. But play it. It’s a blast.
Forza 5 (Xbox One)
Forza 5 might feel a little barren compared to its predecessors, but it’s gorgeous (again, for showing off your new console) and the racing is top notch, thanks in part to Drivatar supplanting racing AI.
Zoo Tycoon (Xbox One, Xbox 360)
First-person animals. You know you want it.
Stay tuned for the rest of our 2013 Holiday Gift Guides and feel free to verbally berate me in the comments for not including any one of the innumerable games that didn’t end up on the list!