- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Higher resolution, smarter computing chips, faster processing speed and more digital information crammed into the tiniest of places have turned the video game into an all-encompassing form of entertainment.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 38 percent of American homes have a video-game console; the average gamer has been playing for 13 years; and 26 percent of players are older than 50. That makes buying a game sound like a great choice for gift givers.

Best for Wii

* Animal Crossing: City Folk, from Nintendo, rated E for everyone, $69.99, bundled with Wii Speak. The popular community-based, open-ended game gives younger players a virtual place to call home. Using bulbous-headed, customizable avatars (with a new option to add an already-created Mii face to each) up to four players become part of a leisurely, real-time world where catching fireflies is as important as decorating a house for the holidays. Collect more than 2,000 items, befriend townsfolk, visit a big city, send text messages and use the Wiimote to perform such actions as fishing and chopping. The too-cute simulation is an ever-evolving, all-encompassing experience. City Folk also can invite friends into their town via the Wii’s Wi-Fi connection, buy and sell items in online silent auctions and, more amazing, use the console’s latest peripheral, the Wii Speak (a microphone that sits on top of the television), to initiate group gab sessions about their experiences.

* Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Lightsaber Duels, from LucasArts, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $49.99. Players take control of the most powerful weapon of the Jedi and Sith in this third-person fighting game based on the current Cartoon Network series. Players wield the Wiimote like a light saber, slicing, thrusting and delivering hurt upon opponents in varied duels. With help from the Nunchuk, players can deliver the power of the Force. Characters eventually available for use and battle include Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Asajj Ventress, General Grievous, Count Dooku, Yoda and Kit Fisto. The mandatory two-player versus mode is frenetic and guaranteed to be a sweat-inducing experience for all involved.

Older Jedi who feel a bit silly waving around Wiimotes can embed them in Thrustmaster’s Glow Sabre Duo Pack ($34.99, requiring six AA batteries). The peripherals feature a foot-long saber hilt with roughly 12-inch-long illuminated blades. They take a beating but must be swung pretty hard to get an on-screen reaction. Warning: Keep all antique vases and wandering tykes out of the room.

* Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party, from Ubisoft, rated E10+ for players 10 years old and older, $49.99. A pop-culture smorgasbord riffing on classic television and commercials greets up to eight players as they attack more than 60 minigames in this sequel filled with those lunatics from the Leporidae family. Once again, use the motion-sensing Wiimote and Nunchuk to blast zombies with plungers, match dance moves, drive monster tractors - you get the idea. All of the frenzied action and animated scenes reach crescendos of silliness to make even the sourest of curmudgeons crack a smile. The best addition to the zany action is the use of the Wii Balance Board ($139.99) with minigames. It requires players to use their bottoms for some snowboarding and perform some aerobics to name just two activities.

Best for PlayStation 3

* LittleBigPlanet from Sony Computer Entertainment America, rated E for everyone, $59.99. The diminutive, very customizable Sack Person leads a player into a virtual universe dominated by playing, creating and sharing. Lifelike environments and objects using physics-based textures become a playground to enjoy a ridiculous number of activities, including solving puzzles, collecting bubbles, avoiding Frida’s Skulldozer (trust me) and riding a massive skateboard. The player can chill in his POD, explore the Curator Creator gardens or seven other massive places, or build his own adventure. Bundled with a robust online community encompassing multiplayer action and the ability to access a pal’s newly published levels, LittleBigPlanet is a nearly limitless journey. The fun, cuteness factor and technology give players of nearly any age a wondrous world they can call their own.

* Resistance 2: Collector’s Edition from Sony Computer Entertainment America, rated M for mature, for players 17 and older, $79.99. Sony’s premiere first-person sci-fi shooter epic returns with another round of carnage spread across a virtual 1950s America. The Chimera invasion of Earth continues, and it’s up to the mutant-virus-infused hero Nathan Hale to lead a team to save humanity. Large-scale battles against an assortment of vicious mutated creatures in the solo adventure combine with an eight-player team cooperative mode (with three classes of soldiers) and 60-player online competitive action for an exhausting, never-ending conflict. The collector’s edition includes an exclusive 5.5-inch Chimera Hybrid action figure holding a Bullseye weapon, a 38-page art book highlighting both sides of the conflict, an HVAP Wraith multiplayer weapon code, and a bonus Blu-ray disc with a developer documentary, timeline and digital copy of an issue from the upcoming Wildstorm comic-book series.

* Valkyria Chronicles, from Sega, rated T for teens, $59.99. A beautifully illustrated interactive storybook comes to life as the player controls the heroes and forces of Gallia while they attempt to stop an invasion of their country by the Imperial Alliance. With aJapanese-anime-influenced, watercolor-rich universe as the setting, this strategy-rich role-playing game delivers an engaging tale and epic action. Through turn-based battles and real-time attacks, characters such as Welkin Gunther and Alicia Melchiottlead a variety of soldiers into colorful skirmishes based on chapters from a book. The game mixes 100 customizable characters, 30 types of environments and loads of cut scenes for an animated feast for the eyes in this PlayStation 3 exclusive.

Best for Xbox 360

* Guitar Hero World Tour from Activision and Harmonix, rated T for teens, $189.99. The popular music gaming franchise goes beyond simple ax shredding by including drums and a microphone to give up to four players (the fourth player must supply his own guitar) a truly band-bonding experience. An impressive 86-song set list with legendary tracks such as “The Wind Cries Mary” from Jimi Hendrix, “Pretty Vacant” from the Sex Pistols and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” challenge the players as they match on-screen notes. Features include virtual instrument customization, a touch pad on the guitar to slide into notes, drums with cymbals, and guest appearances by Sting, Billy Corgan and Ozzy Osbourne. The game overtakes the competition with a music creation and sharing system.

* Gears of War 2: Limited Edition, from Microsoft Game Studios, rated M for mature, for players 17 and older, $69.99. The grizzled warriors of humanity, Marcus Fenix and members of the Delta Squad, are back and still in a bloody fight for control of Earth against the frightening Locust Horde. This sequel to last year’s award-winning third-person shooter takes the fight to the enemy as the deadly gears go underground. Yes, the multifunctional Lancer assault rifle is back (gotta love the chain saw) along with new creatures and action that easily is more horrifying, eye-popping and compelling than Halo. The game now also sports a much more wicked multiplayer effort. The limited-edition release includes a steel case, bonus DVD loaded with audio slide shows and a documentary on the game, and an art book that mixes plot points with some amazing visuals. Players also would appreciate BradyGames’ Gears of War 2: Last Stand Edition Strategy Guide ($19.99), which offers complete walk-throughs of every level, a numbered lithograph, multiple pages of art and excerpts from the comic book.

* Fallout 3: Survival Edition, from Bethesda Softworks, rated M for mature, for players 17 and older, $129.99. An inhabitant from a nuclear fallout shelter discovers a frightening, violent new world in this latest sequel to the sci-fi role-playing franchise. The player painstakingly creates his survivor and explores the remnants of the nation’s capital, looking for his father but often fighting for his life against postapocalyptic monstrosities, freaky factions and bounty hunters. Action is spread over multiple video-gaming genres as the haunting cinematic story evolves. For the mature player who must make an avalanche of life-and-death decisions that may sway his moral compass, Fallout 3 is a sometimes overwhelming, always time-devouring and, ultimately, very satisfying experience. The survival edition is also quite an impressive gift and includes, in addition to the game, a Vault Boy bobble head, a Vault-Tec metal lunchbox, a life-size replica of the Pip-Boy 3000 (a wrist-mounted, electronic assistant that has been transformed into a digital clock with stand), art book and “making-of” DVD. Add Prima’s hardcover Fallout 3 Collector’s Edition ($34.99) to the package, and players new to the genre will be eternally grateful.

Best for home computer

* Spore, from Electronic Arts, rated E10+ for ages 10 and older, $39.99. For a mere 40 bucks, megalomaniacs get to play God as they help a species evolve through five stages, ranging from a single cell to a working civilization to exploring the universe. The players control every aspect of the new life form, including minutia down to DNA collection, selection of mating calls and survival battles. Resource management includes buying tools, customizing vehicles, building structures and colonizing planets. All of a player’s successes and failures are contained in the massive Sporepedia, which can be broadcast to an online community. The creatures are cute as a button, and the animation is Pixar quality. A Creepy and Cute Parts Pack ($19.95) is available to further embellish life forms.

* World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Collector’s Edition, from Blizzard Entertainment, rated T for teens, $69.99. The megapopular, massive multiplayer online role-playing game gets a frozen expansion pack that takes players into the foreboding continent of Northrend. A player creates an avatar (the Hero Class now features a powerful Death Knight), joins factions, takes on quests, fights monsters and can explore legendary places such as the Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord and Crystalsong Forest. The impressive collector’s edition is contained in an ancient-looking blue tome and includes a behind-the-scenes DVD, soundtrack CD (with 21 tracks), 200-plus-page art book, mouse pad, a pair of World of Warcraft trading-card game starter packs with exclusive cards, and a pet dragon to take into the virtual world.

New citizens to the lands also will need the original game, the Burning Cross expansion pack and an online account. (The first 30 days are free, then it is $14.99 a month. Bulk time discounts are available.) I suggest the World of Warcraft Battle Chest ($39.99) containing both pieces of software and strategy guides.

* Women’s Murder Club: Death in Scarlet from Oberon Media, rated T for teens, $29.99. Based on author James Patterson’s popular mystery book series, this seek-and-find game should grab the attention of the older, uninitiated female gamer looking for a puzzling experience. The player takes on the roles of familiar heroines — detective Lindsay Boxer, medical examiner Claire Washburn and reporter Cindy Thomas — to solve a homicide in San Francisco through a nine-chapter interactive story. This “I Spy” for adults is supplemented with word, slider, maze and jigsaw conundrums along with clue management. An excellent visual mix of storybook style illustrations and sequential-art imagery complement the investigative action. The package includes a novella prequel of the game’s story line titled “Fallen Flowers” and a taste of Mr. Patterson’s next Women’s Murder Club effort, “8th Confession.”