Duck and cover. The last two years have proved that the $20 billion US video game industry is not as recession-proof as many people had thought. Sales of hardware like the video game consoles Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 dropped 26 percent this October compared to last. Sales of games are expected to be down 8 percent this year. And gamers aren't expected to shell out much more in 2011.
The industry also is under both legal and technological pressure. The increasing violence of titles rated M for Mature propelled games into the halls of the US Supreme Court this year, where a First Amendment battle broke out over a California law restricting the sale of violent games to minors. Meanwhile, the seemingly innocuous casual games on Facebook and smart phones have shifted the industry's center of gravity away from old blockbusters. Today, upstart FarmVille-maker Zynga of San Francisco is worth more than longtime industry leviathan Electronic Arts of Redwood City.
Since a single, A-list game can take two years and $100 million to make, publishers are playing it safe this season, relying on popular brands such as Halo, Call of Duty, and Gran Turismo to carry them through, while aping successful new trends like the motion control of Nintendo's Wii. But there's still much fun to be had in front of a screen this holiday season. And some seriously stellar titles are lined up for 2011.
For: Xbox 360
MSRP: $149.99 on its own. (Requires Xbox 360). Bundles starting at $299.00
Nintendo's Wii got so many people off the couch and flailing about, that Microsoft and Sony flattered the device with two imitations that define this holiday gaming season. With more than one million units sold, Microsoft's Kinect looks like it will triumph over Sony's Move, and propel the Xbox 360 console to the number one sales spot this year. Kinect uses a $100 camera array that can decipher human gesture and translate it into video game motion. It launches with an array of sports-centered games — and not much else. But the sheer promise of cheap, consumer-grade gesture recognition tech has inspired hackers to work on Minority Report-style user interfaces, and Star Trek-like voice controls. Engage.
DJ Hero 2
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii
Rating: T for Teen. MSRP: $59.99 for game (requires DJ Hero controller.); $99.99 bundled with controller; $149.99 bundled with two turntables, microphone.
The rhythm game brands Guitar Hero and Rock Band have transformed the once-svelte games aisle at the toy store into a lumpy, Costco-looking rack of huge controller boxes. The only thing the latest Rock Band is missing is a roadie to carry all the plastic equipment. As such, the saturation and decline of the genre has been widely forecast, but will likely never arrive. Last to the party, but definitely not least, came DJ Hero, a surprisingly thrilling abstraction of the art of mixing and scratching. Players press buttons in time with music, scratch a turntable, and manipulate a fader to keep the mix going and rock the crowd. Earn points to unlock more mixes. With everyone from Grandmaster Flash to DJ Shadow, DJ Hero more than proved its bona fides. The sequel adds another turntable, a microphone, and more than eighty mixes from A-Track, Diplo, Tiesto and more.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii
Rating: MA15+ for Mature, Adults 15 and Up. MSRP: $59.99
Another year, another first-person shooter. This hyper-violent genre can't get any more predictable — aim down your sights and fire — yet demand for the latest iteration has proven insatiable. Rushing into the breach is the satisfyingly addictive sequel Call of Duty: Black Ops. Released November 9, it made $360 million in its first day, more than the entire first week of Avatar or Twilight. Developer Treyarch tells a more cohesive, yet equally explosive single-player story than its predecessor Modern Warfare 2. Online multiplayer retains a crack-like addictiveness, with some cool Cold War tweaks.
Gran Turismo 5
For: Playstation 3
Rating: E for Everyone. MSRP: $59.99
Gearheads have marked November 24 as the day the engines start. It's been five years — a lifetime in gaming — since Sony came out with a new addition to its iconic racing simulator Gran Turismo. Known for its fetishized, near-autistic devotion to physical realism in vehicle looks and handling, this Playstation 3 exclusive promises the highest-definition racing experience ever available, and more than 1,000 cars. For the first time, the worshiped vehicles will be able to take damage, and the unprecedented sixteen-player online racing assures there will be tons of it.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
For: PC, Mac
Rating: T for Teen. MSRP: $59.99
Build, command, and destroy armies in this military science-fiction sequel that stands among the top personal computer releases of 2010. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty has a humans-versus-aliens-versus-aliens plot, but that's secondary to the basic idea of real-time strategy: build units, and send waves of them to crush your opponent. The original StarCraft wasn't broken, so Blizzard didn't have to fix anything. Instead, it added better multiplayer mode, graphics, and cut scenes.
Sid Meier's Civilization V
Rating: E10+, Everyone 10 and Up. MSRP: $49.99
Talk about a risk. Another iconic PC franchise gets a sequel this year, but this is no mere re-skinning. Historical, turn-based strategy game Civilization turns players into leaders, taking a small tribe from the dawn of time to the future colonization of Alpha Centauri. It's a sacrosanct piece of intellectual property, yet hacker-turned-lead-designer Jon Shafer has drastically changed unit movement and combat, and streamlined the user interface. Die-hards love or hate it, while neophytes can pick Civ up, maybe for the first time.
Red Dead Redemption
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Rating: M for Mature. MSRP: $59.99
Open-world games allow players the freedom to do anything they want in a non-linear fashion. They've become a hit genre since the Grand Theft Auto franchise elevated them to an art. So leave it to Grand Theft Auto makers Rockstar to boldly redefine the sandbox with epic western Red Dead Redemption. The massive frontier game has players riding, shooting, hunting, gambling, and doling out savage justice as John Marston, a former bandit gone straight. With a haunting soundtrack by Friends of Dean Martinez member Bill Elm and ex-member Woody Jackson, Red Dead promises the best fourteen-hour Western you'll never see in theaters.
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Rating: E10+ for Everyone 10 and Up. MSRP: $59.99
Ice hockey must be the most intuitive sport to port to video game, given its inherent speed, suspense, and brutality. No surprise then that gamemaker EA Canada issued forth a red-hot slapshot with the release of NHL 11 this year. Marking the twentieth year of the franchise, NHL 11 proved especially strong thanks to a new, physics-based collision engine, the ability to break sticks, and a revamped face-off and passing. Now each hit is highlight-reel material. And, just like the old days, players can drop their gloves and pound on one another like it's Fight Night. The penalty? Just five minutes in the sin bin. Worth it.