With the holidays rounding the bend and the big shopping season about to kick off, now's a great time to start thinking about what to buy that gamer in your life, be they casual, hardcore or even a once-a-year player.
Here's a quick guide to this year's bumper crop of video games. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive list of everything fun and worth playing this year, because that would bankrupt you. Instead I've laid out a couple of my favorites for each platform as a sort of shopping guide short list.
Super Mario 3D Land: This isn't just one of the best 3DS games of the year, it's one of the overall best games of the year. The return to Mario's perpetual quest to save the princess and seek a little head-stomping revenge, is augmented with some of the best use of 3D in a game to date. This is the reason to buy a 3DS.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars: Released shortly after the 3DS came out, this turn-based strategy title may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those fans of this sort of gaming it is a delight. Created by Julian Gollop, the man behind the X-COM, games, this title is a wonderful throw back to painfully, difficult, meticulous strategy games.
Minecraft: After more than a year in beta, and more than 4 million copies sold, this explore, create, survive computer game is finally available as a completed title. With blocky creations, a push for creativity and endless abilities to craft, explore and build monuments to everything, this is a perfect game for just about any age and temperament.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings: Not for the faint of heart or young of age, The Witcher 2 is a gritty, deep role-playing game based on The Witcher book series by polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Its multiple endings, and threaded storyline is made better by the high-level of difficulty and mature story and cinematics.
The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection: I don't usually suggest collector sets or remasters, but these are two games that every Playstation 3 owner, every gamer, should get around to playing. This high-definition remaster of the Playstation 2 classics, drop gamers once more in the imaginative and touching worlds created by master game designer Fumito Ueda.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: The Uncharted series is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorites in gaming. Each features deft writing and dialog, quirky characters and stunning set pieces, all built up around highly entertaining gameplay. In this latest title, Nathan Drake continues his journey as gaming's Indiana Jones, as he searches for a mysterious artifact in the Rub' al Khali desert.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: This Wii has had a tough year, but its ending with a glorious bang, with the release of one of the best titles of the year on any platform. In this latest Zelda title players guide Link on a journey to save Zelda and discover the origins of the Master Sword along the way. A blending of well-crafted motion controls and colorful settings, make this game sing.
Lost in Shadow: This quirky puzzle game has players taking on the role of a boy's shadow. The use of light and shadow to create both a path and dangers adds a mind-bending twist on traditional platform puzzlers. It's difficulty may keep some away, but some near-end gameplay makes the game worth the effort.
Bastion: This indie game darling is a wonderful ramble through the colorful, fractured world of Caelondia after the "calamity" broke the world into parts. The wonderful art style, music and sound mesh perfectly to create the sort of game that lingers with the player long after they have stopped playing. The button-mashing gameplay is simple, but fun and baked with surprisingly deep weapons and character upgrade systems.
Gears of War 3: Bloody and action-packed, Gears of War 3 is a rewarding conclusion to the Gears of War trilogy that started in 2006. The over-the-top final entry in the series works to pull together all of the loose ends from the two previous games, delivering a satisfying ending for fans of the franchise. The multiplayer adds endless ways to play and replay the game in a variety of new ways.
Batman: Arkham City (PC, PS3, Xbox 360): This return to the world of my favorite comic-book based video game, drops the Dark Knight into a part of Gotham City turned into a walled jail packed with criminals, villains and, of course, one massive plot that threatens the city, if not the world. This second entry into the Batman title pumps up the fluid combat that made Batman: Arkham Asylum so much fun to play and adds a massive city to explore. The game's plot, while intriguing, is bolstered by the ability to break free of the storyline and do whatever you want in the city. The game includes plenty of side missions, puzzles, and challenges to explore completely free of the central story.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, PS3, Xbox 360): Perhaps the most anticipated game of 2011, and certainly one of the highest reviewed, this deep role-playing game delivers an enormous, meticulously-crafted open world within which to adventure, play out a well-written story or create your own adventures.
Portal 2 (Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360): The original Portal's success was delivered as a surprise to reviewers and gamers who went into the game expecting a cleverly designed puzzle game, but completed it with one of the year's best character-driven storylines. This sequel continues along the same route, using the game's teleporting portals to deliver mind-bending puzzles and some of the best writing in games to keep things interesting, and amusing. The game's cooperative play is an excellent addition, that also happens to be a perfect fit for playing with a child.
Rayman Origins ( PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360): I've never been a big fan of Ubisoft's Gallic platformer. I struggled to "get" the eponymous hero of the Rayman games, until Origins. I enjoy everything about Origins' approach to the 2D platforming genre, from the colorful, over-the-top art style to the ability to play it with up to four people. Finally, Super Mario Bros. has a worthy competitor.
Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure (3DS, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360): This button-mashing action gaming is almost like a children's version of Diablo. Players drop into the game as one of 37 different characters, exploring an eclectic mix of cartoonish lands and battle a wide variety of enemies. But there's a major twist. The game comes with plastic action figures that you have to physical place on an included portal to bring into the game. Your character's level, special abilities and items are all stored in the plastic toy. This is the sort of video game you'll love playing with your children, and maybe later sneak back to once they're asleep.
Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.