Xbox 360: 12 Games of Christmas
Play these with mince wine.
It is now dark when we walk home and birds are either dropping out of trees in frozen lumps or going somewhere much nicer for their holidays. And, as always happens, the shops are hoisting their Christmas decorations up and getting us all worried about buying presents because we never know what they want is it socks or aftershave. So, we thought we would join in.
Our mission is to sort through this enormous pile of Xbox 360 games that have been released between late August and December and tell you what is the most worthy or promising match for your money. It is not as easy as it sounds, either, as this has been - without doubt - the strongest line-up of games on the console since launch. Except that time we stacked our DS ones on top.
Unfortunately, there will be those that do not make final cut, too. We also have to push Live Arcade releases to one side, despite very strong contenders like Puzzle Quest and love-it-or-hate-it Space Giraffe. But not Battlestar Galactica (frak no). What remains, then, is a list of games that will make you as happy as having a belly full of mince pies and mulled wine - something to beat away the winter blues.
Assassin's Creed promised the world with its concept of an environment where you could climb anywhere and bound around rooftops mercilessly carrying out assassinations. It also introduced us to new and more believable crowd behaviour where you interact realistically by nudging or shoving idlers from your path. The gorgeous graphics obviously helped, too, as did having the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time team behind it.
Now, just weeks from release, the promise looks like it might be coming true. Those who have seen it are all giddy with excitement, heaping praise on its simple and stylish combat system and balletic manoeuvring. We've yet to see all its tricks, but the fact it has us hungry for more after so long in the limelight is hopefully a testament to its quality. It does make us wonder what that twist will be, too. Maybe Altair's a hamster.
Bonus fact: Assassin's Creed takes place during the Third Crusade, but also takes a few liberties with the truth. For example, you can't swan dive off a building into hay and live.
Millions of pounds may buy you tip-top production values and a good game, but the creative drive and writing talent of Ken Levine proved to be a treasure with few equals, and also gave us one of the best narrative twists in gaming history.
It was his vision that brought this dark and disturbing game to life countless fathoms under the sea, where you are forced to do the bidding of desperate strangers as you explore the leaking dream of Rapture, ever at risk from the blades of its deranged former inhabitants, driven wild by the chemicals their society was so proud of. The same chemicals you will need to survive. The result is spellbinding and captivating, evolving your perception of what a first-person shooter can offer.
Water developer: Fort Frolic is one of the besterest bits of BioShock, but then you'd probably expect that given that it was designed by the person who did Thief: Deadly Shadows' much lauded Cradle level.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty 2 used cinematic set-pieces where artillery spat mud in your eyes and filled your ears with deafening explosions and rolling out the barrel [is this right? -Ed]. Crucially Infinity Ward showed us that we were not bored with World War II, simply how it was portrayed. Now its attention is on the present day and on recreating a world as seen through distant news bulletins, cleverly employing a limited palette of colours and fluid animations to transport you there as convincingly as modern gaming hardware has managed.
The developer has shown us inside its compelling multiplayer mode, and driven us purposefully around the campaign, once again proving that perhaps we are not as bored of the modern battlefield as we had first thought. Although Tom still prefers watering plants and making hippos scissor.
Guns don't kill people: But Hank Keirsey, one of Activision's military advisors, probably did, and has given his input to Call of Duty 2 as well as this one.
Microsoft is not a name synonymous with Japanese role-playing games, and has already reinforced this once in 2007 as big white hope Blue Dragon flopped to the ground under the weight of its own regressiveness. But where it wilted, Eternal Sonata flourished, as it whisked us off to the unusual and inventive dream world of composer Frederic Chopin as he drifted off for one final adventure moments before he died of tuberculosis.
Where Blue Dragon was laborious and steeped in familiar and traditional gameplay, Eternal Sonata was fresh, bright and unique; a sumptuously realised cartoon dream world punctuated with an extravagant score and unique combat system that is worth escaping to time and time again.
Requiem: Chopin died in Paris in the early hours of 17th October. Eternal Sonata was released here on 19th October. They couldn't make that synch up?
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
The instant joy of picking up a replica guitar and playing along to your favourite rock songs is like being given a very fancy remote-controlled car as a child. Journeys home suddenly become anxious torture, and peeling yourself away to eat, sleep and do waste-disposal duties seems a pointless frustration. Not very rawk, either. Guitar Hero and its perfect blend of rhythm-action earned itself our 2005 Game of the Year award because of it, and very rightly so. (Actually, let's not get into that again.)
But this year is a bit different. Original developer Harmonix hopped in the back of EA and MTV's tour bus to go and make Rock Band, so Activision called on Tony Hawk creator Neversoft to make the third game in the series. We are offered more than ever before and online battles for the first time, and already know there is a juicy track listing on its way. And this year Activision has something to prove. It still has the winning recipe, and will make damn sure its new chef brings out the best cake it has ever baked.
Tra la la: Eurogamer designer Martin Taylor was in an actual proper actual band for ages. upcdowncleftcrightcabc+start are bloody good, too, even if they did reject my idea of calling their first album "Sonic Adventure".
Living up to expectations is an incredible challenge, but like Michael Johnson setting a world record in golden spikes, so too did Bungie deliver. They even gave us an oddly sized hat.
The dramatic finale to the most iconic series on Xbox was always going to be a massive event for Microsoft, and it threw every marketing strategy at us it could muster. But underneath the hyperbole and flattery was the reason it was so well regarded to begin with: well thought out fun.
It is a first-person shooter that you can play with or against your friends while you enjoy a lavish, delightfully overstated storyline. It has enormous production values, lets you drive around in lots of vehicles, and has been tested and revised umpteen times so that the finished version is polished, crisp and fluid. Fun is the reason Halo 3 was awarded top marks by us.
Finish the sentence: There aren't actually any angels in Halo. Or are there? I can't remember.