We’ve unveiled VentureBeat’s picks for the 10 best video games of the holiday season. And this year’s picks really show how much the $20 million U.S. gaming market has changed in the past year. The growing influence of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and mobile gaming experiences such as the iPhone are clear to see. These games have great single-player experiences, but many of them also have excellent social sharing and multiplayer experiences too, a factor that’s becoming increasingly important in this market.
Another trend we’re seeing in games is that the more beautiful they get the more complex and harder to play they are. But users have no time to learn how to do something that is difficult when it should be easy. So what we’re seeing in the market now is a simplifying of the user interface. If you start out simple, you can take your player into intricate game mechanics and sophisticated stories.
You’ll notice that we don’t have any of the games using the Sony Playstation Move or the Microsoft Kinect. Those initial games using the new motion-sensing technology are a lot of fun, but they’re still rough around the edges. We have higher hopes for the second batch of motion-sensing games.
You’ll also notice that we don’t have any Sony PlayStation 3 exclusive games on the list. Sony’s Gran Turismo 5 looks good, but we haven’t had much play time with it. We also hope that Ubisoft will create a broadly appealing game with Michael Jackson The Experience, the first dancing game based on songs by the King of Pop.
As for the new technologies, we’ve included one new iPhone game on our list. Hopefully, there will be more in the years ahead. Here’s our list from last year, just for perspective. We’ve provided our own review scores only on the games we’ve reviewed. Our picks are limited to games released anywhere from September through the end of the year. Please take our poll at the end to vote for your own favorites as well as some that aren’t on our list.
1. Call of Duty: Black Ops (PS 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Mature). Treyarch/Activision Blizzard. Metacritic rating: 88 out of 100. Our rating: 95 out of 100. Last year’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 had a silly story, and so it was no surprise it got beat out by Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on most lists about the best games of the year. This year, Call of Duty Black Ops has a strong movie-like story at its core. The single-player campaign focuses on a brainwashed covert agent and his CIA handler who embark on a series of clandestine missions behind enemy lines to stop a rogue Soviet conspiracy to use nerve gas against America. The agents have access to all sorts of experimental weapons such as Dragon’s Breath, or shotgun ammo that sets its targets on fire, and a crossbow with explosive bolts. They fight in hellish settings from a snowy mountain in Russia to the jungles and cities of Vietnam. The battle in the destroyed city of Hue is very well done. The story unfolds a little at a time, and you eventually get to a revelation at the end, much as you do with a good blockbuster movie. The game lifts plot scenes straight out of movies such as the Bourne Identity, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter. But the plot is still original and the game details are executed really well, which explains why this game sold $650 million worth in its first five days on the market. The multiplayer is also a big reason why this game is so good. You can play it for weeks after you finish the single-player game. If you get multiple kills in a row, you get a Killstreak reward such as a radio-controlled car that explodes upon finding an enemy or an attack helicopter. The big improvement this year is that you can earn a virtual currency after each session and spend it on upgrades. You can also place wagers on your performance in upcoming games; if you win, you earn even more points. The result is a game that keeps you addicted.
2. Halo: Reach (Xbox 360. Mature). Bungie/Microsoft. Metacritic rating: 91 out of 100. Our rating: 95 out of 100. Bungie’s swan song for the Halo franchise didn’t let us down. The latest game in the series that began nearly a decade ago lived up to its promise. This prequel takes us back to the beginning of the Covenant war against humanity. It has an overarching sense of fatalism about it, since you know how the story turns out if you played the earlier games. But you still want to follow the journey that is full of individual acts of heroism with the tragedy of a losing war. You play Noble Team, a group of Spartan III super-soldiers who have to defend the planet Reach. The action in this game is first-rate and full of variety. You get to shoot all sorts of weapons, drive different vehicles, take to the air and even into outer space. The combat scenes in zero gravity are a nice addition to the game. And the multiplayer game is first-rate, making the game last a lot longer and thus a bargain in terms of the hours of entertainment you get for its $60 retail price. This series has seen more than 35 million units sold, mainly because it has become a part of the fabric of youth culture. Microsoft will try to pump out more Halo games with its internal studio, 343 Industries. We’ll see if it can keep the quality up as original developer Bungie moves on to a new fictional game universe.
3. Sid Meier’s Civilization V (PC. Everyone 10 plus). Firaxis Games/2K Games label of Take-Two Interactive. Metacritic rating: 90 out of 100. Our rating: 95 out of 100. When new versions of Civilization hit the market, productivity goes down around the world. The games are so addictive that you always want to take just one more turn and then find yourself looking up at the clock in the wee hours of the morning. Civilization V is a lot like playing Risk on your computer, but with many more sophisticated nuances and strategic considerations. It’s a thinker’s game, for those who want to savor each move without the pressure of a ticking clock. You build your civilization and compete against as many as seven other neighboring empires. Those rivals play their cards strategically, sometimes surprising you with their cunning. The game is graphically beautiful and gives you the option of being a micro-manager or running an automated empire. This version made the enemies more like characters. It fixed flaws in sea travel and introduced a smart new combat system. Perhaps the best thing about this game is that the user interface is simpler than it used to be, even though the range of options and strategies you can pursue is mind-boggling. This is the kind of game that’s going to save the PC as a video game system.
4. Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360, PS 3, Wii. Teen). Harmonix/MTV Games. Metacritic rating: 93 out of 100. Rock Band 3 is the ultimate band simulation game. The newest iteration in the critically acclaimed series introduces two new instruments — a keyboard and a “pro” guitar. The pro guitar is as close to a real guitar as you are going to get for Rock Band, with 17 frets and 6 strings. And on top of that, Harmonix partnered with Fender to create an actual electric guitar, the Fender Squier Stratocaster, that can be plugged into its game and be played on its own. If that weren’t enough, the newest title boasts another 83 new songs and a more immersive career mode that makes it easier to jump in and jump out of the game as you please. The music game industry has been hurting pretty badly as of late, and Rock Band 3 could very well be the genre’s swan song. We’re not quite sure where it is supposed to go from here. But if this is how it ends, it ends with a spectacular bang.
5. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood (Xbox 360, PS 3, PC. Mature). Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft. Metacritic rating: 90 out of 100. Ubisoft has put more than 500 game designers on its Assassin’s Creed franchise, which has sold more than 19 million units, so that it can pump out a big game just about every year. This game, the third in the series, comes out just a year after Assassin’s Creed II. You play the same character, the assassin Ezio, in the same setting of the Italian Renaissance as the last time. You have to operate in stealth to take out targets who are wandering around in a meticulously reconstructed gigantic city of Rome. Ezio has to rebuild the order of the Assassins in order to take on their ancient enemy, the Templars and retrieve an artifact that is now in the possession of the notorious Borgia family. Now you can also employ some of the war machines that were dreamed up but never actually used by Leonardo da Vinci. Those weapons include projectile weapons and crude tanks. The part of the game that shines is multiplayer, where you have to be subtle as an assassin. You get an assignment to kill someone and have to take that person out before somebody else takes you out. But the problem is that everybody looks like a potential target. You have to figure out which one is your target based on their behavior. If you kill an innocent look-alike, you lose points and expose yourself to other assassins.
6. Disney Epic Mickey (Wii. Everyone). Junction Point/Disney Interactive Studios. Releases Nov. 30. No ratings yet. Warren Spector has dreamed for a long time about making a game based on Mickey Mouse. In 2006, he pitched Disney on the idea of making Mickey Mouse into a true video game hero. While Mickey rules in cartoons and movies, he has never been much of a blockbuster in games. With Disney Epic Mickey, Spector’s team put together more than 80 years of Mickey Mouse archives to come up with darker themes and forgotten characters (like Oswald). Mickey has to make his way through a place known as the Wasteland, using his magical powers of paint (to create something) or thinner (to erase) to solve puzzles and get around obstacles. The game lets players make choices about the path to pursue, with real consequences. We’re looking forward to playing this more. But from what we’ve seen, the game strikes a balance of providing fun for kids and enough scary stuff for adults. It’s a big risk for Disney to make the game only for the Wii, but it turns out that Nintendo doesn’t have much lined up this fall to compete against it, and the Wii is sorely in need of a big hit right now. With as much as 26 hours of game play, Mickey Mouse just may come to the rescue.
7. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (PC, Mac, Teen) Blizzard Entertainment/Activision Blizzard. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the next expansion pack in Blizzard’s titanic online role-playing game. Deathwing, an ancient dragon god, has been unleashed upon the game’s world of Azeroth and destroyed most of it. And it’s quite a beautiful Armageddon at that. Blizzard has always had top-notch stylistic direction with its games, and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is no exception. Blizzard is trying a new strategy with this one by remaking its entire old world. That means there’s brand new content for new players as well as veterans. The newest game features loads of highly scripted events that basically play out like an interactive movie. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun — some of them are quite challenging. World of Warcraft already has 12 million players, and its subscription base is still growing. The game is the last stand of the subscription revenue model for games, and Cataclysm isn’t going to change that. Cataclysm solidifies World of Warcraft as the top online role playing game on the market — and there’s still more to come.
8. Rage HD (iPhone. Mature) id Software/Bethesda Softworks. No review ratings. John Carmack of id Software has been doing a great job creating iPhone apps based on id’s well-known properties. The great thing about Rage HD, where you shoot mutants in a contest dubbed Mutant Bash TV, is that this iPhone game has come out before the main title has been released on the consoles and the PC. It’s the first time that id has led a major new game release with the iPhone. The story focuses on one section of the main Rage game where you have to shoot as many mutants as you can for a twisted TV game show character. It’s actually quite frightening, as the mutants come at you one after another. The game is played on rails, where you cannot control the movement of the 3D view as your character moves through the ruins of a building. You have full control over where you are aiming, however, by tilting the screen. When you line up your cross hairs on a mutant, you tap the screen to fire. You have to do the same to pick up health, ammo, or cash. Like any shooting game, it’s about shooting as many of the mutants as you can before they get you. As it has done with previous games, id deserves kudos for making a shooting game on the iPhone, despite the challenge of doing that with the touch-oriented user interface. You can fire with a pistol, shotgun, or machine gun at the start. It’s a violent and bloody game, but it’s also a lot of fun for someone looking for cool graphics on a smartphone. In fact, you won’t see 3D graphics on an iPhone that look any better than this. It’s no surprise that this game has shot to the No. 1 position on the iPhone. For just $1.99, Rage HD offers a lot of entertainment and pushes a lot of boundaries for the rest of the mobile game developers to follow.
9. Need for Speed Hot Pursuit (Xbox 360, PS 3, PC, Wii. Everyone 10 plus). Criterion/Electronic Arts. Metacritic rating: 89 out of 100. You can play as a cop or a car racer. As a cop, you have to hunt and stop illegal car racers along the California coastal region of Seacrest County. To stop the cars, you’re authorized to do just about anything, including wrecking them, running them off cliffs, setting up useless barricades, and of course drive at insane speeds through forest roads. As the illegal racer, you have to evade capture. You can lay down spike strips that blow the chaser’s wheels, turn into a shortcut, and jam the cops’ radar. In online play, the Autolog system will record your exploits and let your friends know whenever you beat their high scores. The slow-motion car crashes are a signature of Criterion, the makers of the Burnout racing game series. There isn’t much to it beyond that. Just simple racing fun.
10. Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii. Everyone). Nintendo. Metacritic 89 out of 100. It’s nice of Nintendo to show up with a couple of good games for the holidays. Kirby’s Epic Yarn won kudos for its originality. But we’ve included Donkey Kong Country Returns on this list because it’s just plain fun. You play Nintendo’s aging mascot, Donkey Kong, in a side-scrolling adventure that might seem like something out of the 1990s. But with the Wii controller, you can now shake your Wii-mote control and act like you’re a gorilla pounding on drums or stones. That small addition to the game play makes this title feel like it’s a fresh platform game, not one that you’ve seen many times before. By just pounding with the Wii controller, you get a lot of satisfaction smashing things. There’s a lot of cute stuff in this game, like Diddy Kong sitting on your back and helping you fly over gaps.
That’s our list. Now don’t just stand there. Start playing! And vote in the poll below.