Merry mayhem

Pub date November 19, 2009

Though gamers will have plenty to choose from, 2009’s holiday shopping season is defined in part by the titles that won’t make it to store shelves in time. Starcraft II (Blizzard/Activision), Bioshock 2 (2K Games), and Mass Effect 2(Bioware/EA) have all been pushed into 2010, and the list of notable upcoming games reads more like a "best of the rest."

Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft)

Xbox360, PS3, PC

The first Assassin’s Creed took place in a Crusade-torn Holy Land, giving players control of a medieval master killer who used subterfuge and his considerable gymnastic talents to surprise and dispatch a number of deserving 12th-century tyrants. The sequel shifts the setting to Renaissance Italy, and would-be assassins will have full run of Venice, Rome, and Florence when they take command of Ezio, a wronged nobleman seeking acrobatic revenge. The series’ core mechanic — unfettered parkour-style urban exploration — will return, along with lovingly recreated environments and an expanded arsenal of weapons. Those who complained about the original’s repetitive structure have been placated, as the game promises a new, diversified mission system, and Ezio’s methods of assassination will be similarly varied, thanks in part to the participation of a young Leonardo da Vinci, who uses his engineering genius to help the historical hitman pwn noobs with scientific alacrity. (Now available)

Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve/EA)

Xbox360, PC

Valve touched off an Internet firestorm when it announced this title. The company has a long history of providing robust post-release support for its games, and fans of the original were outraged that they would have to pony up for a sequel so soon after the first Left 4 Dead hit shelves in November 2008. Though the embers of the debate still smolder, most of the naysayers have been swayed by the obvious attention paid to the forthcoming product, which features new characters, a new game mode, a creepy Southern-fried setting, and a wealth of new additions to the zombie-slaughter toolbox. The "AI Director" — a groundbreaking piece of technology that coordinates the actions of the shambling, brains-starved hordes — has also been completely overhauled. (Now available)

The Saboteur (Pandemic/EA)

Xbox360, PS3, PC

Even if you only have a passing affinity for video games, you’ve probably killed a Nazi or two at some point. World War II is notoriously well-worn territory, a fact that makes Pandemic’s unique approach all the more interesting. You play as Sean Devlin, an Irish ex-pat living in Paris during the German occupation. Initially neutral, Devlin’s loyalties are thrown in with the Free French when some of his friends are murdered, and he embarks on a mission of resistance and, well, sabotage. The game’s most interesting feature is its use of color: at the outset, neighborhoods living under the yoke of the jackboot are depicted in black-and-white, blossoming into full color the more your character’s actions harry the Third Reich. If Red Faction: Guerrilla (Volition/THQ) meets Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar) meets Medal of Honor (Various/EA) is a description of your dream game, consider the jackpot hit. (Dec. 8)