Each year it seems that there are more and more fantastic video games worth giving as holiday presents to friends, family, and loved ones. 2012 goes above and beyond that with more top titles than ever before. This is a holiday season that brings us a new generation of assassins, vault hunters, speeding cars, a pair of plumbers, traumatized soldiers, and battling console mascots. How can anyone possibly hope to separate the good from the better from the best (as usual, we won't waste our time on the terrible)? Leave it to me to suggest a variety of titles suitable for gift-giving that will delight anyone on your list. In order for a game to make the list, it must be something that I thoroughly enjoyed or have definite intentions of buying for myself as well as be available in a wrapping-friendly physical format. It's a more personalized perspective that I hope you find useful as you make your list and check it twice. Before you head out to the mall or over to Amazon.com, take a look at what I'm recommending this time around.
Assassin's Creed III (PS3 / X360 / Wii U / PC)
Leaving the Renaissance period of the other recent games in the series behind, this fifth major entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise (despite the "III" in the title) shifts settings to the American Revolutionary period in which a young Native American boy is drawn into the eternal conflict between the power-mad Templars and the shadowy Assassins. As the Assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton, players participate in the such key historical events in American history as the Boston Tea Party, the first battles at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress, and so much more. While a bit rough around the edges at times (and future patches propose to fix many of the oddities), Assassin's Creed III is a must for fans of the series and anyone looking to lose himself or herself in a rich period of history and intrigue.
Borderlands 2 (PS3 / X360 / PC)
Return to the world of Pandora in search of loot in this sequel that takes the best aspects of the original first-person shooter smash Borderlands and punches them up to extreme heights. Take control of four new characters either solo or with friends for co-op play to explore the planet, empty its treasure chests, slaughter those who get in your way, and seek out nemesis Handsome Jack on the way to fortune and glory. With plenty of missions to keep vault hunters happily busy and more humor and in-jokes than you can shake a bullymong at (although please don't try to shake the bullymongs), Borderlands 2 will keep players busy for a very long time. For more on Borderlands 2, be sure to listen to Episode 87 of the Power Button podcast.
Crosswords Plus (3DS)
I didn't expect to find myself recommending a crossword puzzle game, but here we are. Crosswords Plus has surprised me with its hundreds of crossword puzzles of varying difficulty (some can be solved in under a minute, while others will last more than an hour) and sizes (small, medium, large, and the eye-goggling giant) in addition to dozens increasingly difficult word searches and ongoing anagram challenges. A word of the day feature expands your vocabularly while new puzzles that arrive via both StreetPass and SpotPass keep the challenges coming, too. Using the touchscreen to write in answers one letter at a time is surprisingly accurate and easy to control. This is the perfect title to flex some mental muscles when stomping on Goombas starts to grow tiresome (if that is the kind of problem that you have to solve). I've endorsed a crossword puzzle game. I guess I'm now officially old.
Kirby's Dream Collection (Wii)
Nintendo chose to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Game Boy classic Kirby's Dream Land with this compilation of beloved Kirby games. Packed on a single disc at a budget price, players can (re)enjoy Kirby's Dream Land, Kirby's Dream Land 2, Kirby's Dream Land 3, Kirby Super Star, and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards as well as a new collection of challenge rooms that call upon all of Kirby's special abilities in addition to a Kirby timeline of releases and historical events. The game even includes a soundtrack CD of Kirby's greatest musical hits and a commemorative art/history book detailing everyone's favorite pink puffball. Solid Wii games have been hard to find this year, but if this compilation marks the end of Nintendo's first-party Wii efforts, then it's a solid way to wrap things up.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted (PS3 / X360 / PC / Vita)
This spiritual sequel to the racing masterpiece Burnout Paradise brings the high speed racing excitement to the open world city of Fairhaven where players must take down the ten most wanted speedsters in town for a crack at becoming the master of the road. Beat records, blow by speed cameras, smash through billboards, crash through road barricades, and much more in the best arcade racer of the year. Compete against friends' records using the returning Autolog feature from previous Electronic Arts racing titles and see who really is the most wanted.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 (3DS)
There's gold in them thar game! Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach and Mario's quest to rescue her is just the pretext to this side-scrolling platformer sequel's real goal, and that goal is gold. Mario (and Luigi in two-player co-op mode) focus on picking up those familiar shiny coins this time around as the game keeps a running tab of the total number of coins collected throughout the Mushroom Kingdom. Can you rack up one million of them? Beyond the traditional Mario game lies the new Coin Rush mode in which players must race through three randomly selected levels at top speed while grabbing as many coins as possible before time runs out in what quickly becomes a fun addiction. Encountering other players via StreetPass presents new goals to beat, too. There are even extra downloadable Coin Rush levels to buy from the 3DS eShop as part of Nintendo's first foray into paid DLC. It all feels familiar, sure, but who's complaining when familiar is so much fun?
New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U)
Nintendo boasts two traditional Super Mario games on its two flagship consoles this year, and this launch title for the newly release Wii U console brings Mario and friends into high definition for the first time in a new adventure modeled after 1991's beloved Super Mario World. Team up with up to four friends to explore the Mushroom Kingdom with four players taking on the familiar roles of Mario, Luigi, the blue Toad, and the yellow Toad while Player 5 rides shotgun on Boost Mode in which the Wii U GamePad's screen is used to place assistance platforms on the main television screen's action. Looking for something more difficult? Take on Challenge Mode and put your Mario skills to the test in a variety of increasingly strict tests that require top jumping and running talents. Again, it's familiar material, but I can't not recommend it. Fun is fun no matter how often we see it.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
When Bowser disrupts the annual Sticker Fest and causes the Sticker Comet to explode, it's up to Mario to set things right in this latest RPG adventure for everyone's favorite flattened plumber to set things right. Stickers are the gimmick this time around as Mario's traditional moves and puzzle-solving capabilities are tied to his sticker collection. Missing a "jump" sticker? Mario's feet remain squarely on the ground. Inventory management becomes a critical skill in this adventure, so be sure to plan ahead! Add in fun characters, a few whimsical settings, and plenty of the kind of humor that we've all come to expect from the Paper Mario series and I think you'll find Sticker Star fun for everyone on your shopping list who can't get enough of Nintendo's traditional style and flair.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale (PS3 / Vita)
Nintendo wasn't the first developer to bring famous video game characters together for a brawl, but the company's Smash Bros. does deserve the credit for practically defining the modern day mascot fighting game. Now Sony is looking to one-up the formula with its own take on the genre. Join famous fighters such as Sweet Tooth, Sly Cooper, Sackboy, Parappa the Rappa, Kratos, Nathan Drake, Ratchet, and so many more in a series of skirmishes soaked in online multiplayer and a healthy dose of fan service. The bout to knock the other guy out certainly isn't a new development, but it is fun. Best of all for those who own both a PlayStation 3 and a Vita, buying the PS3 version offers up a free copy of the Vita version as part of Sony's cross-play initiative. Two for one is difficult to resist.
PlayStation Collections (PS3)
As the era of the PlayStation 3 starts to wind down in favor of the next home console from Sony, the publisher has bundled many of its popular titles into budget-priced compilations. Just this year alone we've seen the release of the Jak and Daxter Collection featuring the first three Jak titles from the PlayStation 2, God of War Saga which combines all five of Kratos's greatest adventures into a single high definition package, the inFamous games packed into the inFamous Collection, and the first three Ratchet games into Ratchet and Clank Collection. That's a lot of game for very little money Even a few other publishers are getting in on the act such as Ubisoft with the best of Assassin's Creed and Capcom with just about the complete Street Fighter! Anyone getting into the world of the PS3 for the first time should definitely stock up on some of the best that the console has to offer, while PS3 veterans should consider filling in the gaps in one's collection.
Spec Ops: The Line (PS3 / X360 / PC)
How often do you play a video game that rides into glory based on its story ahead of traditional metrics such as graphics and gameplay? In Spec Ops, players are sent into the sandy hellscape of a ruined Dubai in search of a lost army battalion and answers regarding how so much went wrong so quickly. Descend into madness as the line between good and evil blurs and sanity takes a holiday in this third-person military shooter where there are no real heroes nor easy answers. For more on Spec Ops, check out my guest appearances on Episode 139 and Episode 143 of the Evilcast podcast.