Holiday Guide 2008: The game room

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The holidays have always been a time for toys. Back in the day, it was board games, baby dolls, and Rubik’s cubes. Then came Nintendo, Dance Dance Revolution, and The Sims. And now? The world of gaming is exploding, with something for everyone — from sci-fi-loving kids to sports-fanatic adults. Here are a few of our favorite new releases, which are sure to please everyone on your list (except maybe Grandpa):

Spore

Maxis (EA Sports); PC/Mac

"Playing God" just took on a whole new meaning. From Maxis, the people who brought you The Sims, comes the genre-defying Spore, a game designed for people who are tired of creating boring ol’ humans. In its captivating metaverse, gamers create a unicellular organism which must evolve into a social, cognizant creature. Explore the game’s expansive, interstellar landscape while developing a whole new species that can live and thrive in a brave new world. If that isn’t enough, it features ambient soundscapes by avant-garde composer and producer Brian Eno.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2009

Konami; PS3, Xbox 360, PSP, PS2, Wii, PC

The Pro Evolution Soccer series, also known as Winning Eleven, has long been the "Beautiful Games" best-kept gaming secret. While enjoying rampant global popularity, stateside it has long been the Don Swayze to Electronic Arts’ FIFA series’ Patrick Swayze. Its underwhelming sales in the United States are due to EA’s publicity machine and its name recognition. But PES 2009‘s staggering fluidity, graphics, and realism leaves FIFA‘s in the dust. While it features the international and club matches we expect, this year’s version exclusively features UEFA Champion’s League mode, which allows you to navigate through soccer’s preeminent club competition that decides the best team in Europe. A majestic sport demands a majestic game, and Pro Evolution Soccer ’09 best captures the nuances and gravity of the world’s most beloved sport.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Blizzard Entertainment; PC/ Mac OS X

If you can control an insatiable appetite for the destruction of your social life during the 42 days between its release and St. Nick’s World Tour, No. 1 on your shopping list should be the latest installment of the soul-sucking, hypnotic genius of Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft. While its global fans’ limitless dedication risks the ire of parents, teachers, and psychologists (read: party poopers), who confuse persistence and attention to detail with addictive behaviors, Blizzard has simply achieved every video game maker’s wet dream. It’s crafted a game intriguing and enjoyable enough that both hardcore and weekend warriors want to get in on the action.

Shaun White Snowboarding

Ubisoft; PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS, PSP, PS2, PC

Not since Tony Hawk has an athlete been able to seamlessly transition from extreme sports star to bona fide sports hero and A-list celebrity like Shaun "the Flying Tomato" White has. He’s appeared on countless magazines and talk shows, and is now pulling his own "Tony Hawk" by fronting a big-budget, mainstream video game franchise. While time will tell if Shaun White Snowboarding will be as successful as the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, but early returns have been overwhelmingly positive. The game features four mountain settings — Alaska, the Alps, Japan, and Park City, Utah — with seemingly endless runs and backcountry trails to get lost on. The game flows well, and there are countless opportunities to do hair-raising tricks and twists. White wanted the game to capture the freedom that made him fall in love with snowboarding, and Ubisoft has captured that perfectly, constantly pushing the user to discover the road less traveled without the possibility of death by hypothermia.

Rock Band 2

Harmonix/ Pi Studios; PS3, Xbox 360 (PS2/Wii releasing December 2008)

I’ll be honest with you. There is nothing, but nothing, that can kill a night out quite like Rock Band. Speaking from experience, it usually strikes around 11 p.m., when you and your friends are, theoretically, having your last drinks and preparing to brave the San Francisco nightlife. You may have high hopes for the evening. Maybe you’ll find a cool new bar, meet some new people, or even engage in a hazy dalliance that hopefully leaves you disease- and child-free in the morning. Then, disaster strikes. Someone asks, "Hey, who wants to play a little Rock Band before we go out?" Three hours later, you are wasted, singing "Wanted Dead or Alive" at the top of your lungs, and surrounded by the same four mates you started the night with. Good-bye cool bar, new friends, and Ms. or Mr. Right (Now). The latest version promises even more lost evenings and new opportunities to show off that falsetto, with almost 100 songs from nearly every genre, including classic rock standards (Fleetwood Mac, the Who), a double helping of ’90s grunge (Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains), and ’80s metal jams (Ratt, Bon Jovi).

Mirror’s Edge

Electronic Arts; PS3, Xbox 360

First-person adventure games are the Auto-Tune (T-Pain Effect) of video games, with seemingly every major video game manufacturer using this über-realistic, up-close perspective. That said, Mirror’s Edge looks likely to revolutionize first-person shooters with its unparalleled gameplay. Players control Faith, the game’s tragic hero, on her quest to save her sister from a web of deceit woven by a corrupt communist government. The game’s gorgeous, illuminated metropolitan setting demonstrates its elite graphics, but the real attraction lies in Faith’s ambitious journey. While fighting is involved, the user must navigate the expansive urban labyrinth and find ways to infiltrate the totalitarian regime. Though it boasts more action (read: combat) than most RPG’s, Mirror’s Edge is not a game for the unreceptive, lazy gamer who simply wants to blow shit up. But if you like using your brain as well as your bullets, you will rejoice in its complex storyline, nuance, and overall gameplay.

NBA Live ’09

Electronic Arts; Xbox 360, Wii, PS3, PS2, PSP

Without the mighty Baron Davis, how are the hapless Warriors going to make the playoffs? Easy. Pick up a copy of EA’s new installment of the NBA Live juggernaut, make a few shrewd trades such as swapping Al Harrington and C.J. Watson for Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams (that’s fair, right?), start up your season, and voilà! The Warriors go 73-9, break the Bulls all-time record, cruise into the playoffs, and crush the overmatched Boston Celtics to bring the Bay Area their first title since 1975. Meanwhile, the villainous Utah Jazz are sent tumbling to an abysmal 5-77 mark (guess who’s still bitter about the ’07 playoffs?). Along the way, enjoy graphics clear enough to make out Kenyon Martin’s impressive array of neck tats, high-flying dunks more exciting than a moped ride with Monta Ellis, and gameplay so realistic that while playing as the Knicks, you’ll be too lazy to get back on defense. *

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