Winter used to be the worst time of the year to look for great new video games. Not anymore. Here are some of the most promising and most interesting video games slated for release between now and late March 2011.
The standalone downloadable short Dead Rising 2: Case West (Xbox 360 download, Dec 27) pits the heroes of Dead Rising's two console games in one adventure against a sea of zombies.
On the Xbox 360, side-scrolling puzzle game Raskulls and world-building sequel World of Keflings, are both supposed to be downloadable after December 21. Also on the 21st was the release of Eat Them (PS3 download), a cartoonish game that lets you control a monster that can smash cities and eat people, and Echochrome ii, a game about moving a figure across the shadows cast on a wall, played exclusively with the PlayStation 3's Wii-like Move controller.
iPhone and iPad game releases had been intensifying in December, but dates for these games tend not to be announced early. On Dec 21, Square-Enix released its Super Nintendo classic role-playing game Secret of Mana for iPhone/iPod/iPad.
LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3, Jan 18)
What It Is: The sequel to Media Molecule's beloved 2008 original. LittleBigPlanet games look, at first glance, like Sony's 4-player PlayStation answer to Super Mario Bros. side-scrolling games. The charm, though, is that players can access the building blocks of the game, make their own levels and share them online. The sequel allows players to manipulate more of the game's artificial intelligence, enabling the creation not just of side-scrolling levels, but, from what we've seen in the beta, everything from first-person shooters, sports games, you name it.
Should You Play It: LBP2 looks like it will be a classic video game sequel, the kind that adds and refines. Our own session with the levels in the game made by Media Molecule left us with the impression that this sequel will be more fun than the first.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS, Jan 11)
What It Is: This is a new one from the smart people who created the hit Ace Attorney series for the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. In Ghost Trick, you control the spirit of a murder victim who can possess and partially control objects in order to solve mysteries — and at least in the level we previewed — try to save other people from being killed.
Should You Play It: Considering that the the game's creators made being a lawyer fun in their last series, they get the benefit of the doubt here. Plus, the game looks gorgeous.
Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Jan 25)
What It Is: A sequel in one of the only sci-fi horror gaming series around, Dead Space 2 is supposed to present a more action-oriented — but still scary — adventure set on and above the space colony called The Sprawl. The key gameplay seems to still involve brutally shooting the limbs off of menacing, gangly "necromorphs." They've added multiplayer too.
Should You Play It: The first Dead Space was a pleasantly polished game and a downloadable demo released in late December should give players a hint as to whether the creators at Visceral Games were able to match or exceed their high standards.
And There's More: The month is kind to PlayStation 3 owners, letting them catch up on the Mass Effect series with Mass Effect 2 (PS3, Jan 18), the first game in the sci-fi role-playing game series to hit Sony's console, early enough to set the stage for late 2011's release of Mass Effect 3. PS3 owners also get to consider DC Universe Online (PS3, PC, Jan 11), a subscription-based massively multiplayer game set in the world of Superman, Wonder Woman and the Joker, though you only play alongside those comic book icons not as them.
The main Wii attraction is the unusual shadow-based platforming game Lost in Shadow (Wii, Jan 4). The main DS offering for the month is Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (DS, Jan 11) a port of a Japanese cell phone game that involves battling through Jiminy Cricket's digital diaries of his adventures from the first of the Kingdom Hearts Disney-meets-Final Fantasy games.
On the PSP, there's Prinny 2 (Jan 11), in which another batch of one thousand prinnies throw themselves at challenged platforming levels and impossible bosses in a quest to discover who or what is behind the theft of Master Etna's prized panties.
We're still not sure what to make of body-hopping shooter Mindjack (PS3, Xbox 360, Jan 18) but we are confident that the cute ilomilo (Xbox 360 download, Jan 4) is a one-or-two player game about making two cuddly cube-characters meet on floating, rotating platforms.
Marvel Vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds (Xbox 360, PS3, Feb 15)
What It Is: This is a long-awaited fighting game that lets two players enter trios of Marvel and Capcom characters in tag-team combat. There are some 40 characters, from She-Hulk to Chun-Li to M.O.D.O.K. to Okami's Amaterasu, with support for offline and online play as well as an optional simple mode for people who want to see cool moves without learning many combos.
Should You Play It: This is one of the big fighting games of the year and the only major one for the winter, so if you like the style and care about the characters, it's well worth a look.
Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, DS, PC Feb 15)
What It Is: It turns out that two Lego Star Wars games didn't fully plumb the series. The new one mostly covers events of the Clone Wars cartoon, spinning out of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. There are major notable additions to the two-player co-op kid-friendly Lego Star Wars formula: the introduction of large-scale outer-space battles and the even more intriguing implementation of grand land battles full of tanks, walkers and troops. Those land battles play more like a real-time strategy game.
Should You Play It: While Lego games have generally been fun but simple comedic collect-a-thons set across various landscapes of pop fiction, there are signs that the new level design styles for this installment could make The Clone Wars feel fresh. Probably best to wait for reviews to be sure.
BulletStorm (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Feb 22)
What It Is: Ostensibly this is an ultra-violent first-person shooter that adds an energy lasso and a powerful kick to the standard shooter arsenal of loud guns. But the focus on points — scores applied for exploring and chaining together the many different ways of killing bad guys — have us recalling the kind of point-grabbing score runs of the original, spectacular Tony Hawk Pro Skater.
Should You Play It: If you play Halo with campaign scoring turned on or love seeing numbers tally as you claim kills in Call of Duty — and if you are undisturbed by the invention and exclamation of new locker-room curses — then, yes, check out Bulletstorm.
And There's More: It's a shooter-y month. The Wii gets The Conduit 2 (Feb 15), the follow-up in one of the only first-person shooter series on Wii that is made to tick off all the points in the modern first-person checklist. PS3 owners get to consider Killzone 3 (Feb 22), the sequel to one of the most graphically impressive shooters ever made. Impressive as these games may be, they'll be following a new wave of Call of Duty fervor coming from the release of the first Call of Duty: Black Ops map pack, First Strike. (Xbox 360, Feb 1 — other platform(s) at a later date.)
If you like racing, your options are NASCAR (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Feb 15) and Test Drive Unlimited 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Feb 8).
There are role-playing games to choose from, including the re-made Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP, Feb 15) and the re-made Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation (DS, Feb 14).
The delightful Grand-Theft-Auto-crossed-with-a-coloring-book de Blob gets a sequel on more platforms with De Blob 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Feb 22). Mario plays volleyball against Waluigi in Mario Sports Mix (Wii, Feb 7), and single players can control two characters at once in the action game Knights Contract (PS3, Xbox 360, Feb 22).
Ubisoft delivers a PC version of the excellent Assassin's Creed Brotherhood (PC, Feb 22) with hopefully less stringent copy-protection than they offered for the PC version of the last one (who wants a game to shut down because the Internet drops out?)
March (through March 20)
MLB 2011: The Show (PS3, PSP, PS2, March 8)
What It Is: The Show is traditionally one of the best sports games of the year across all forms of competition. This year's edition includes optional 3D and motion control but, more importantly, analog-controlled pitching and hitting as well as co-op play.
Should You Play It: First, you have to care about baseball. If you do, and own a PlayStation platform, you can choose between this and MLB 2K11 (Xbox 360, PC, PS2, PS3, Wii, PSP, DS, March 8).
Dragon Age II (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, March 8)
What It Is: It's a sequel to the original dark-fantasy Dragon Age game released by the BioWare studio a couple of years ago, though it's not clear if this game will be more of a uniter or a divider as it adopts a conversation system similar to that of BioWare's Mass Effect and exhibits a swifter flow to its combat.
Should You Play It: Given BioWare's track record and the fact that the studio isn't outsourcing the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions this time, console gamers have a promising anti-dragon role-playing game here. It's PC gamers whose faith hasn't been universally attained yet, as this sequel excludes the throwback tactical perspective of the earlier PC Dragon Age: Origins while still including narrative depth and complex character progression.
The Sims Medieval (PC)
What It Is: Why, it's a medieval version of the Sims. At last, players can torture their Sims using actual torture devices. Or they can steer wizards, kings and other medieval characters through adventures and experiences of the old days, while expanding a castle. It's not a Fable or Bladur's Gate, though, to be clear.
Should You Play It: For those who have not been hooked by the modern suburban dollhouse of The Sims, this medieval twist is the first reason to consider the series in a long time.
And There's More, though dates begin to get fuzzy for this month: We get a new more sim-oriented (and night-driving-centric) Need for Speed in Shift 2 Unleashed (Xbox 360, PC, PS3, March 8) as well as an M-rated boxing game in Fight Night Champion (Xbox 360, PS3).
The winter's lack of Kinect games continues, while Sony releases its first major Move-only disc game in a while, PlayStation Move Heroes (PS3), a sort of mini-game round-up starring heroes from the Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank and Jak & Daxter series.
The month has several interesting Japan-related games, including the not-made-in-Japan Shogun 2: Total War (PC, March 15) which continues the acclaimed large-scale war simulators from Creative Assembly. Made in Japan is Patapon 3 (PSP), the sequel to a superb series of side-scrolling marching/battling/drumming/monster-killing games. Formerly made in Japan, a b-movie gaming series about killing giant ants gets a U.S. made sequel in Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon (Xbox 360, PS3). Huge in Japan and finally arriving a year later in America is the next installment of Sega's gritty crime saga, Yakuza 4 (PS3, March 15). And somehow the people at Capcom have managed to make what looks like a fully-featured sequel on the Nintendo DS to Okami, its acclaimed painterly PS2/Wii game about a mythical wolf, in the form of Okamiden (DS, March 15).
The month also offers more tennis with Top Spin 4 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) and another competitor to World of Warcraft with the massively multiplayer online game Rift (PC).
One of the most interesting wild cards for the season is Homefront (Xbox 360, PS3, PC), a high-hopes first-person shooter that depends on players' appetites to play a Call of Duty style game set in an upsetting near-future United States that has been invaded by a unified Korea.
(Asterisk! Nintendo's 3DS, potentially the premier release of the winter, is coming out some time in March, but we won't know the date for release — before or after the Vernal Equinox — until, probably, January 19 when Nintendo showcases the machine to reporters in New York City.)
(Asterisk 2! There are often excellent games released for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, DSiWare, Android, iPhone, iPad and Steam downloads, but most do not have their release dates revealed far in advance. Assume there will be wonderful downlodable games released for all of those platforms throughout the winter. We will let you know about them.)