The election is over. The debates are done, the commercials silenced, the voting booths shuttered.
Um, check that — the presidential election is over. In the gaming world, the election very much continues, as the annual holiday onslaught of games competing for your hearts, votes and dollars is heating up to a level that might make even a CNN hologram — and Wolf Blitzer, too — burst into flames.
And the best part? No negative campaigning whatsoever.
The big-party contenders
For the hard-core gaming crowd, the 2008 holiday season looks a lot like a typical summer movie season — a land dominated by hordes of sequels and threequels. Start with Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360, rated M), the newest edition of the shoot-and-take-cover franchise that may yet unseat Halo as the Xbox 360's greatest success. The creepy Locust horde is even tougher this go-round, but it's not the difficulty factor that makes this a must-have for the over-18 set; it's the superdeep co-op and multiplayer modes. It's like getting three games in one — three very gory, action-packed games.
The bus-board advertisements for Fallout 3, (Xbox 360 and PC, rated M) freaked the bejeezus out of Washington, D.C., residents, and with good reason. The resurrection of this classic post-nuclear action role-playing game is deep, scary and the best thing to happen to role-playing since Oblivion, Bethesda's last RPG. You begin at birth in the notorious Vault 101, and the rest is entirely up to you — and the bloodthirsty mutants who'd like to have you for their post-nuclear lunch, that is.
Speaking of role-playing, überdeveloper Peter Molyneux promised us the world with the first version of Fable, his would-be role-playing Xbox classic — and then left half of it in the kitchen. With Fable II (Xbox 360, rated M), he's finally gotten the RPG recipe just right. Not only do the choices your little orphan makes as he or she grows up have an impact on your appearance — nice demon horns! — but this time, they make sense within the game's love-and-sacrifice story line. Plus you get an in-game dog that behaves like an actual dog. Seriously. Try playing a game of fetch.
If your gamer is the sort who prefers original ideas to sequels — even when they're good ones — check out Mirror's Edge (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC; rated T), a first-person action romp that has you doing the Parkour two-step, leaping and grabbing walls, zip lines and ledges hundreds of feet in the air. It's disorienting; it's like being in the opening sequence of a Daniel Craig Bond flick, and it proves you don't always have to shoot guns to have an action blast.
Finally, it's always nice when the best game of last year returns for a victory lap the following year — in this case, we're talking about the debut of BioShock (rated M) on the PlayStation 3. Not only is taking a return trip through the haunted halls of Rapture as fun as it ever was, but there's also a new set of downloadable content, including survival levels that have you fighting through increasingly difficult rooms of Big Daddies. Nice.
Whether they're blue-state or red-state, music lovers can't go wrong with either Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii; rated T) or Guitar Hero: World Tour (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii; rated T). Now that Guitar Hero has finally made the leap to multiplayer and added microphones, bass and drums, it comes down to whether you prefer having easy-to-navigate music menus and challenges in your career mode (Rock Band 2) or a mini-music studio and the chance to play with video-game versions of Sting and Billy Corgan (Guitar Hero: World Tour).
One ballot-stuffing caveat: Accept no musical substitutes. Knockoff games like Rock Revolution are as painful as George Bush singing the national anthem, and Wii Music, while briefly entertaining, lacks both staying power and licensed music.
You'd think there would be nothing left to innovate with a game like Bejeweled, the casual pattern-matching game that's gotten many a gamer through many an airport layover. You'd be wrong. Bejeweled Twist (PC, rated E) spins the concept 360 degrees, making it even more addictive. Now you twist sets of four gems to make matches — and while you don't have to make a match with every move, the new bomb and doom gems make sure your strategy moves quickly. Best of all, Twist finally minimizes the annoying luck factor that often caused your best Bejeweled games to crash to a halt.
The creative electorate, meanwhile, is going to want to pull the lever for Sackboy and LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3, rated E), the cutesy platforming game that lets you collect materials to create world levels of your very own — that is, assuming you're willing to wade through the tutorials to figure out how to do it. The number of worthwhile levels other people have designed is already swelling to swing-state-size proportions, so even if you master the game's mission mode, you'll still have plenty to download and do. Plus, you can dress up your little sack figure as a gorilla or a shark. Who can't vote to support that?
Just like third-party candidates seemed to have little to no impact on the November elections — well, not counting the Minnesota Senate race, anyway — it'd be very easy to overlook some of the lower-budget obscure titles.
So, consider, if you will, Air Traffic Chaos (Nintendo DS, rated E). Yes, a game based on an industry where employees routinely battle depression and burnout doesn't sound like a lock for an entertaining game — and the cartoony cover art doesn't help that impression. But it turns out that guiding planes through bad weather conditions and onto the runways of Japanese airports isn't only challenging, but one of the most unexpectedly fun puzzle games you'll play. In a season in which offerings for the handheld game systems are unusually weak, this is a dark horse to back.
And finally, a horse — er, blob — of a different color. De Blob (Nintendo Wii, rated E) is an entertaining, even political exercise that finds you dunking a blob in paint and rolling it around a monochrome city to create a colorful chaos and strike a blow for individuality. If that's not the essence of the voting process, what is?