If there’s one thing the talking heads on cable news networks do with almost alarming grace, it’s selling the drama, whether it’s the 195th Dem debate or an escaped bear in the shopping mall. Yes, nothing puts a story over quite like a melodramatic narrative. Especially if that narrative incorporates lots of boxing and sporting metaphors, sex and exclamation points. (And CNN’s Kiran Chetry.)
Hey, if it works for Fox and CNBC, it can work for a gamer trying to figure out which of the several hundred video games due out between now and the end of the year are worth your holiday time and dollars. Last year, we were busily debating whether the Wii and the PlayStation 3 would be able to dent the Xbox 360’s next-gen market share (The answer was yes, and no, respectively). This year, we can actually put the focus where it belongs (dramatic pause, cue the swelling soundtrack, exploding graphics and baleful stare): On the Best. Game Season. Ever.
The Big Three: Cage match!
Hollywood saves its heaviest hitters for December, when the Oscar buzz burns brightest. The video-game industry, usually shackled like a victim in a Saw flick to beating the Black Friday deadline, pulled a fast one, unleashing its biggest blasts in August, September and October.
In one corner, you’ve got Bioshock (PC, Xbox 360), Irrational Games’ amazingly immersive shooter set in an underwater utopia gone gruesomely wrong. In another sits gaming’s reigning champ – Master Chief, wielding his copy of Halo 3 Legendary Edition (Xbox 360) and a big-ass gravity hammer. In corner three sits the Hero of Half-Life 2, geeky Gordon Freeman, holding his big Orange Box (PC, Xbox 360), packed with five – five! – different games. While I’m tempted to give Gordo the nod based on the strength of Portal (one of the coolest gameplay tech advances in years), I can’t get past the way Bioshock meshes white-knuckle gameplay with truly great storytelling. Assuming they don’t already have it, you owe it to the gamers in your life to slip a game with horribly mutated beautiful people under their holiday tree. Seriously. It’s a lot more thoughtful than it sounds.
It’s not that every developer has a dog in this season’s fight. Instead, every developer has a cartoon mascot in this season’s fight. Seems like the gang’s all here: You’ve got Sonic (Sonic Rivals, PSP), Spyro the Dragon (The Legend of Spyro: The Eternal Night, PlayStation 2), Crash Bandicoot (Crash of the Titans, Xbox 360, Wii) and Ratchet and Clank (Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, PlayStation 3). Hovering miles above them all? Nintendo’s mustachioed plumber, making like Jerry Seinfeld in a bee suit. With its Disney-esque presentation and easy-to-grasp gameplay, Super Mario Galaxy isn’t just the Wii’s first gotta-have-it game. It’s also the last ’toon standing when the brightly colored dust settles. Don’t mess with Mario.
Believe the hype!
I wasn’t kidding when I dubbed this one of the best gaming seasons ever. Rarely have so many high-profile games lived up to their pre-release hype. If someone ends up gifting you a dog like Carnival Games for the Wii, that person’s just not paying attention. (Feel free to chuck it at the jerk.) From Crysis, a PC shooter with enough graphic prowess to bring even the toughest machine to its knees, to Mass Effect (Xbox 360), the latest sci-fi space opera from the role-playing geniuses at BioWare, and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, the DS masterpiece in which the stylus finally controls everything, there’s quality everywhere you look. Forgive me while I go all Joe Biden for a moment: Where are those weak launch lineup arguments we heard last year, Sen. Clinton?
Monsters of metal!
Meanwhile, the major shredfest between Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock and its upstart challenger, Rock Band, has already hit a fever pitch normally reserved for a Hannah Montana concert. Two things make this contest especially Behind the Music–worthy: Harmonix, the developer of Guitar Hero I and II, jumped ship to create Rock Band. Second, both games have already begun coughing out downloadable tunes the way Ozzy Osbourne coughs up his lungs during set lists, moving music games ever closer to an iTunes world.
Both games are strutting the size and breadth of their decade-spanning set lists like Derek Smalls at a sorority rush party, but I say victory comes down to this: How many gamers will be willing (and able) to shell out nearly 200 bucks for the total Rock Band experience, with guitar controller, drum set and microphone? Electronic Arts is already squawking about supplies of the game being short this holiday season, creating their own Tickle Me Elmo vibe. Meanwhile, a nation of would-be air-Metallica clones weeps ….firstname.lastname@example.org