I actually debated adding SS4: Arcade to this list instead of my personal favorite fighting game of 2011, Mortal Kombat. But that's me, and right now I'm thinking of you and that person you're looking to get a game for. And sure, Super Street Fighter 4 Arcade is effectively a tweak of the 2010 release with new characters and balancing, but for sheer accessibility and joy of getting your old-school brawler on, this is the game. It's a richer, deeper, and in some ways more technical game than MK, with a low barrier to entry but a whole lot of room for a dedicated player to develop. And I'm not just talking about those bums who auto-select Ken at every occasion.
And it's not just from a mechanical standpoint that Super Street Fight 4 kept us hooked all these months: it's simply a gorgeous game to look at, from the new 3D character models in the classic 2D fighting setup, to the new screen-filling Super moves that deliver visually-impressive punches, kicks, throws, fireballs, and all manner of other crazy intense attacks that remain a pleasure to pull off.
Runner-up: Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
Since its release (and in between the half-dozen or so other titles vying for my attention), I've had a chance to put in a few hours with Modern Warfare 3's campaign and multiplayer, and if the person on your list is into shooters, they're definitely going to be playing a lot of MW3 in the coming months thanks to some small but significant tweaks to the way the game plays online.
It's now harder than ever to get yourself to quit one of the many multiplayer modes. I've actually had the most trouble breaking away from Kill Confirmed, a new mode that requires you to collect enemy dog tags after a kill in order for the kill to count towards your team's score. Likewise, the game's pachinko-like alert system for new awards and player progression happens with just the right frequency that you feel like you're always getting a rush of positive reinforcement, even when your team was whipped by 20 kills by the opposition.
In terms of the campaign, after a pretty bombastic start that has the promise of the best big, silly action movie you've never seen, Modern Warfare 3 settles down into the groove of the previous games in the series, with a few interesting opportunities for flanking and a lot of vehicle-based combat. Still, the lack of innovation here is more than made up for by the quality of the multiplayer and Spec Ops modes, making its return from MW2.
Runner-up: Battlefield 3
Game of the Year candidate, right here and one of the most pleasurable time sinks in recent memory. Elder Scrolls V isn't so much an RPG as a getting stuff done simulator. Expect the gamer you hand a copy of Skyrim to to disappear down a hole for the next couple of months, to only think about Skyrim and to only want to talk about Skyrim. The size and expansiveness of the world, the many plot threads to explore, the metric ton of items to loot and sell, and yes, even the renowned glitchiness of Bethesda games means that no two playthroughs will ever really be alike.
And I've mentioned this a couple of times in the last couple of weeks but, you guys... dragons. Also: trolls. The new enemies in the game and updates to existing ones will come out Skyrim players hard and really make them work for that XP, making the ultimate victory all that more rewarding. And the big new innovation--dual-wielding weapons and spells--means that the combat has been varied up in an unprecedented manner for the franchise.
While it might not be the best looking game of the year and the combat might not be the tightest, while the voice acting may be solid more than anything else, it's simply the most immersive single-player experience of the year.
Runner-up: Dark Souls
Then there's deciding that you might possibly never want to see the gamer in your life again.
Okay, here's the honest truth: the MMO world is a huge gamble. Each new venture that tries to take a slice of World of Warcraft's pie is doomed to fail if that's what they're setting out to do. Just consider Star Wars: Galaxies, which will end its five-year run a week before The Old Republic launches. But this is Bioware we're talking about here, and they've proven in the past that they "get" the Star Wars franchise in a way that other developers might not. Between Knights of the Old Republic and their own Mass Effect, the Edmondton and Austin-based developer has shown an affinity over the past few years for creating high-flying, dark and dangerous space opera where you the player gets to feel like the biggest badass in the galaxy.
And they want to bring all of that to an MMO. From everything Bioware has been saying about The Old Republic--which takes place well before the history of Lucas' films--it has the sound of an action-RPG that you can play with your friends, with endless NPC dialog and story paths to keep the prospective gamer hooked for ages.
Of course, Bioware is making an MMO that will be in the same arena as WoW, but by placing it in the Star Wars universe, maybe they'll be able to get some first-time MMO players and longtime WoW faithful to see what they've cooked up this holiday season.
Runner-up: DC Universe Online
I appreciate and respect the Uncharted games more than I love them. There's some pretty good characterization and they're simply some of the best-looking games I've had the opportunity to play. But for whatever reason, I just can't get into Drake the shooting. In fact, the game is best when it's just you, roaming some sunken ruins as Nathan Drake, shimmying around to try to find the key or the switch or the bauble or whatever that will allow you to progress in the level. As soon as you have to unload a clip into a bunch of faceless baddies, it feels at a slight remove from the game I was playing before.
And yet, I'm still going to pick up Uncharted 3 precisely because of the puzzles and the characters and the world created by Naughty Dog. Like Arkham City, this is a game that's all about placing a player in the shoes of an action hero, but this one is more vulnerable and maybe has a better sense of humor about himself--a modern day Indy for the National Treasure set (I mean that in the best way, actually).
Runner-up: Assassin's Creed: Revelations
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