Each year it seems that there are more and more fantastic video games worth giving as holiday presents to friends, family, and loved ones. 2013 goes above and beyond that with more top titles than ever before across a variety of famous franchises and enjoyable genres. This is a holiday season that brings us another new generation of assassins, plumbers in cat suits, superheroes slugging each other over matters of honor, ducks on pogo sticks, and a trio of bank robbers out to retire in comfort and style. 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 year.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PS3 / PS4 / X360 / X1 / Wii U / PC)
Moving beyond the saga of Desmond Miles that has occupied the Assassin's Creed series up through last year's sequel, this latest installment shifts the narrative to video game developer Abstergo Entertainment and its latest project: an interactive Animus adventure starring pirate Edward Kenway set in the sixteenth century Caribbean islands. Players take on the role of Kenway to build fleets, explore cities such as Havana & Nassau, and take on the mysteries surrounding the area. Oh, yes; there are also plenty of enemies to kill in the true assassin style. With plenty to do and a multiplayer mode for those who enjoy that sort of thing, Black Flag brings the fire back to Assassin's Creed. Pick it up on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One for the best experience.
Batman: Arkham Origins (PS3 / X360 / Wii U / PC)
Let's be upfront about this: this year's Batman installment has some technical issues. Most have been patched by this point, but it can still be a little rough around the edges. That said, it's worth exploring for the superb story (better than Arkham Asylum, but still a step below Arkham City) and plenty of side quests and after-game content. Set on Christmas Eve, villain Black Mask challenges nine assassins including Deathstroke, Copperhead, and Deadshot to kill Batman in exchange for a fifty million dollar reward. Batman must investigate the threat against him while solving the greater mystery that has emerged: who is the new player in town who calls himself The Joker? Online multiplayer and challenge rooms are included, too (well, the Wii U version has the challenge rooms, but omits the multiplayer; Wii U owners aren't missing much). Fans of the previous Arkham games will take to this new prequel, although be warned that there's surely a Game Of The Year edition on the way sometime next year which will include all of the paid downloadable content. Find this edition on sale and it's a wonderful choice. Don't pay full retail. For more on Batman: Arkham Origins, listen to Episode 111 of the Power Button podcast.
BioShock Infinite (PS3 / X360 / PC)
How does a development studio follow up a work of gaming art like the original BioShock? Moving away from the underwater city of Rapture, this sequel casts players as private investigator Booker DeWitt who has journeyed to the flying city of Columbia in search of a missing girl. Booker's travels will take him beyond expectations in this first-person shooter. Rescuing the girl is just the start; a racist, vicious self-proclaimed prophet by the name of Comstock rules Columbia with a religious iron fist and he's not about to let Booker escape with his prize. A surprising world of twists and turns awaits in one of this year's most thought-provoking experiences. I dare not spoil the story by saying much more. You need to see this one for yourself and play it through to the end. For more on BioShock Infinite, don't miss Episode 98 of Power Button.
Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)
When Nintendo and Retro Studios revived Donkey Kong Country for the Wii in 2011, fans loved the overall experience but still had some criticism to offer. The game's motion controls felt forced and some of the later levels offered absolutely brutal levels of difficulty. What's a developer to do? In bringing the game to the Nintendo 3DS, the team reworked a few elements to improve the experience. A new easier mode offering a larger life meter and assistance items sits alongside the original Wii difficulty level so that players can take on as much of a challenge as desired. There's even a new 3DS-exclusive bonus world worth of levels waiting for experienced players who can push their skills to the limit. Shoehorned motion controls have been replaced by good old fashioned buttons. Best of all, the new 3D effects really bring the characters and their world to life. This is the definitive version of Donkey Kong Country Returns and is not to be missed.
DuckTales: Remastered (PS3 / X360 / Wii U / PC)
Fans of Capcom's late 1980s and early 1990s work have long requested that games such as DuckTales and Darkwing Duck for the Nintendo Entertainment System appear on retro download services such as the Virtual Console, but instead the company went one better and actually remade 1989's DuckTales for modern hardware. Working with the animation gurus at WayForward, Capcom has brought Scrooge McDuck and his clan back with full voicework from the cartoon's original cast. Alan Young reprises the role of Uncle Scrooge and you can expect to hear the familiar voices of Launchpad McQuack, Magica De Spell, and more of your favorite characters. Vivid visuals and fun new additions to the classic game make DuckTales: Remastered the choice for the NES-era fan on your list. For much more on DuckTales: Remastered, listen to Episode 103 of Power Button.
Grand Theft Auto V (PS3 / X360)
Rockstar's crime narratives need no introduction by now, but I have to tell you that this latest installment in the series goes above and beyond all that came before it. Focusing on three protagonists, players must balance the needs of a trio of very different characters as they come together to pull of heists. There's explosions, high speed pursuits, helicopter getaways, undersea exploration, aliens, a cannibal cult, and more than enough mysteries to keep players engaged for quite a while. Paired with the game is the free Grand Theft Auto Online which brings the multiplayer experience to the vast world of Los Santos and Blaine County. This is not something to miss. It's much too easy to burn away the hours driving through the countryside in the name of satisfying curiosity. Fun, too!
Injustice: Gods Among Us — Ultimate Edition (PS3 / PS4 / X360 / Vita / PC)
Capcom has brought vivid life to Marvel's stable of heroes and villains over the years in the fighting game circle, but now it's DC's time to shine with Netherrealm Studios at the helm in the best brawler starring famous comic characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and many more. From the studio behind Mortal Kombat comes an engaging story focusing on what happens when The Joker gives Superman one very bad day and how far the planet's heroes will go to stop the resulting chaos. Add in the usual battle ladder modes you'd expect from a fighting game, a wide variety of character-based missions, local and online multiplayer, and a detailed statistics tracking system for the complete experience. And speaking of complete, insist on the Ultimate Edition which includes over sixty dollars worth of downloadable expansions such as new characters like Batgirl, Martian Manhunter, and Zod as well as extra missions and dozens of fan-favorite alternate costumes based on memorable stories like Red Son, Flashpoint, Arkham City, The Killing Joke, and others. Injustice is my pick for the best fighting game of the year (particularly the PS4 version which features sharper visuals and the magic that is PS4/Vita Remote Play). Don't pass this one over if you enjoy the genre.
The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
If you're a fan of The Legend of Zelda franchise, then you have certainly played The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Available for the Super NES and then re-released over the years for the Game Boy Advance and Wii Virtual Console, Link's famous adventure through the Light and Dark Worlds is, pardon the pun, legendary. Now Nintendo has returned to Link to the Past's setting for a proper sequel after all these years with A Link Between Worlds. Don't expect a retread though. New dungeons provide fresh challenges along with a new item rental system that replaces the traditional Zelda formula with a bold, different direction. Expect plenty of action and puzzles as Link journeys between Hyrule and a new realm, Lorule (get it?), with the aid of his new ability to become a 2D sketch that can creep along walls and through cracks. It's a different kind of Zelda that encourages the series to grow in an unexpected direction.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii U)
If you prefer your Zelda experiences on the big screen instead a handheld, then consider this high definition remake of the 2003 Nintendo GameCube classic, The Wind Waker. Join Link as he sails the seas in search of adventure, pirates, the Triforce, and his little sister. Featuring fluid animation and fun character moments, Wind Waker has been reworked to fit the needs of the Wii U. Off-TV play is available, of course, and some of the original game's rough spots have been smoothed over to remove frustration and time-killing elements that padded out the game the first time around. There's lots to do and plenty to love for first-timers and ocean veterans alike; magical moments such as bringing up sunken treasure, pulling aside to check out a lonely outpost in the middle of nowhere, and carrying a pig overhead just because it's fun to do so have never looked so fluid.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (3DS)
It's always a special occasion when the Mario brothers step outside of their usual genres and into a role playing game, and this fourth installment of the Mario & Luigi series sees the duo visit Pi'illo Island where — as you can probably tell by the pun — sleep reigns. Princess Peach is kidnapped in short order, of course, and although Bowser is lurking around, he's not the primary villain this time. Mario will have to slip in and out of the dream world to combat the new menace with Luigi's sleepy help in the form of specialized dream-based attacks such as, for instance, a giant ball made up of Luigis, katamari-style, that rolls over and crushes enemies. A long quest with plenty of unique style and lots of the humor players have come to expect from the franchise make the time fly by. Make sure to play it with the 3D effect turned on. There's some gorgeous eye candy here.
Nintendo Wii U
I don't often list the same item twice over different years, but it's worth taking a second look at the Wii U this holiday. The system's library has started to grow with worthwhile games in the past year and Nintendo has cut the price of the system. Better yet, the company is finally offering bundles with games that you likely want to play: one set includes New Super Mario Bros. U and the New Super Luigi U expansion while the other features The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and a downloadable copy of the Hyrule Historia chronicle. With big titles like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Mario Kart 8, and more on the way for next year and recommended games like Super Mario 3D World out there now, perhaps the time has finally come for the Wii U to have a place in your home entertainment center. I know I'm ready to pick one up now.
Ratchet & Clank: Into The Nexus (PS3)
While a major Ratchet sequel is surely in the works for the PlayStation 4, Sony and Insomniac Games are giving the lombax and robot one final outing on the PlayStation 3 with this epilogue to the Ratchet and Clank Future trilogy that has spanned the PS3's life across Tools of Destruction, Quest for Booty, and A Crack in Time. While somewhat on the short side compared to previous Ratchet games (and sporting a lower price tag to compensate), Into The Nexus wraps up the Future storyline, tying up remaining loose ends and giving fans more of the franchise's traditional action that has gone missing in the past few Ratchet releases that focused on other genres and elements (no multiplayer mode here!). Speaking of 2008's pirate-themed Quest for Booty, a free downloadable copy of it is included with Into the Nexus. A rare two-fer!
Saints Row IV (PS3 / X360 / PC)
Grand Theft Auto V steals the show this year when it comes to crime-based free-roaming open world mayhem, but don't overlook the supposedly last ride of the Third Street Saints as we know them. Now that the boss is President of the United States (as seen in Saints Row: The Third), you'd think that everything would be smooth sailing for the gang. Always ready to ruin a good time, the evil alien conqueror Zinyak invades Earth, abducts the Saints, and turns them loose in a virtual reconstruction of Steelport where the laws of physics are up for debate. Gain amazing superpowers such as enhanced speed, throwable energy bolts, power stomps, and others to run amok in the simulation to defeat Zinyak once and for all. This is a game where dubstep is a weapon and characters sing along to Paula Abdul music as a bonding exercise. Packed with humor, parodies, and outright bizarre elements, Saints Row IV is a wild ride mixed with a memorable soundtrack. If Los Santos has lost its appeal, consider Steelport.
Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time (PS3 / Vita)
While Sony PlayStation 2 heroes Ratchet and Clank went on to PlayStation 3 superstardom, fellow platformer stars Sly Cooper, Bentley, and Murray sat on the sidelines for years following their final PS2 outing as developer Sucker Punch moved on to the Infamous series. Thanks to Sanzaru Games (who also handled 2010's The Sly Collection compilation), the raccoon raider and his team have returned in a new sequel that stays faithful to the previous trilogy while adding new tricks and plenty of engaging moments. When Sly and the gang end up lost in time, unusual alliances are forged with some of Sly's notorious ancestors as the group works to get back to the future. Each PS3 copy comes with a free download of the identical Vita version, and cross-save capabilities allow players to seamlessly switch platforms and continue their progress. The Vita can even act as a second screen to the PS3 version to help reveal hidden items. It's a shame that Sly was overshadowed by other titles earlier this year. This game deserved a better reception, but it's not too late to see what you missed. Listen to Episode 96 of Power Button for more on Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.
Sony PlayStation 4
Both Sony and Microsoft have new consoles to offer this holiday season, but if I had to choose only one to own (and I have), it's the PlayStation 4. While most of the worthwhile launch titles are third-party games available on multiple platforms, I'm comfortable with the future of the system and the exclusive games due out next year. Additional features will be added via system update as time goes on (the PS4 doesn't handle MP3 playback right now, for instance), and while buying a new console at launch is always a mixed proposition, I've had enough fun with my PS4 so far to justify recommending it. Pick up the console and the PS4 versions of games included on this list and I don't believe you'll be disappointed. The real challenge is finding a PS4 at retail price. Don't overpay for a console no matter which one you choose. For more on the PlayStation 4, check out Episode 114 of Power Button.
Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)
After a slow start, Nintendo has finally released the Super Mario game that fans have wanted all along. Based on 2011's Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS, World transplants a similar style to the Wii U combined with traits from classic Mario titles like Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario World. Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach are all playable this time around and all retain their trademark abilities (Mario is the average character, Luigi is tops when it comes to jumping, Toad runs faster, and Peach floats), but there are some new tricks to learn. For example, the cat suit power-up transforms the heroes into adorable felines capable of climbing vertical surfaces, pouncing at enemies, and meowing. Up to four players can join in at once in the spirit of New Super Mario Bros. U, too. For Wii U owners, this is truly the game of the season if not the year.