We test drive the year's best video games
Our choice of the year's best video game titles, by Pavan Shamdasani
The figures speak for themselves: November 2012 saw the 12th consecutive month of decline for the video game industry, with sales down 11 per cent from the previous year.
Some say it's just a waiting game, with casual players holding out for the next generation in video game consoles. Others feel the console market is dead, dragged down by the ubiquitous nature of smartphones and their many free-to-play apps. But while it's true that smart gaming has its place and new consoles will soon emerge, the video game market is still strong. The industry made more than US$2.5 billion in that month, with the latest Call of Duty leading the pack as the fastest-ever game to reach US$1 billion in just 15 days.
Major analysts say it has just been a slow year for gaming, with 2013 predicted to kick things up a notch with major releases: Grand Theft Auto, God of War, Metal Gear, Dead Space, Splinter Cell and Bioshock, among others.
But you don't even have to wait that long - Christmas is just around the corner, and if Call of Duty's record-breaking sales are anything to go by, this last month of the year should give the industry a considerable boost. Start stuffing those stockings, because here we present the best games released for this holiday season.
The lack of a franchise is normally looked down upon in the gaming world, but Dishonored has a proven track record through its developers, with trend-setters Half-Life, Bioshock and Fallout under their belt. A first-person stealthy supernatural adventure, Dishonored blends many of their best characteristics: you take on the role of a super-powered assassin and each level sees you sent to kill your target by any means necessary, whether it's summoning swarms of rats to sneakily fool the guards, or using your Jedi-like powers to slaughter everyone in the room.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
XCOM Enemy Unknown
Critics of the present fast-paced gaming trend finally got their long wished-for dream in XCOM Enemy Unknown. A remake of a cult PC favourite, the game transforms its earlier turn-based strategy adventure into, well, another turn-based game - the difference being, that what once was gruelling and laborious, is now riveting and addictive. All the hallmarks of a great modern game are here: gorgeous graphics, strong characters and clever AI, but with the added novelty of a different type of gameplay that makes you fight to stay one step ahead of the evil aliens.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Last year, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure presented itself as one of the biggest surprises of the season - a game fit for all ages using a Pokemon-like style of toy collecting within the context of an involving role-playing adventure. There were criticisms, but just a year later, they've been answered in the sequel Skylanders Giants: a wider world, a whole new set of characters, and the option of being able to use the previous game's much-coveted collectibles.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac, Wii U, Wii, 3DS
Assassin's Creed 3
Assassin's Creed started off as simply another stealth game, but a couple of entries in, it's become one of the most anticipated games in the market. The third entry resets things to 1770s colonial America, during the time of the revolutionary war. Once again, you play a sneaky assassin - but to satisfy the gaming world's predilection for faster thrills, a sense of a priority is at hand here. Which is to say, no more twiddling thumbs, waiting to kill - now it's all about parkour timing and axes in the head.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
Games dedicated to just racing seem almost passé in these modern times, where every genre blends into one - but Need for Speed isn't just a racing game anymore. Criterion, the developer behind the destruction derby-like Burnout games, transformed the last entry into adrenaline-fuelled carnage. Most Wanted expands things, throwing you into a sandbox adventure that enhances the social media aspects - from challenging races to destroying billboards, everything is tracked for the ultimate sense of competition.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Vita, Android, iOS
One exclusively for the Xbox fans, the long-in-the-making Halo 4 has finally arrived. The game picks up moments after the last entry's end, with Master Chief floating in space in a wrecked frigate - but gone are the standard first-person shooter dynamics, with the developers delivering a game more in tune with adventure and exploration. But fear not: shooting aspects are still intact through the multiplayer setting.
Platform: Xbox 360
Ninja Gaiden III: Razor's Edge
The initial Ninja Gaiden III for the PS3 and Xbox met with awful reviews in March, leaving few gamers excited for the Wii U update. But Team Ninja surprised everyone with a stripped-down redo, making Razor's Edge the first great game for the new console. By removing the story's overcomplicated controls and keeping the brutal, bloody swordfights firmly intact, the game is a guilty pleasure of brainless fun, where ninjas facing off against cyborg-zombie dinosaurs are just another common occurrence in feudal Japan.
Platform: Wii U
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
As everyone expected, the latest entry in the Call of Duty series saw endless superlatives thrown at it, breaking billion-dollar sales in the process. But the biggest question to non-obsessive fans was: is it any different than previous first-person shooters? Black Ops II brings in a wider audience through a new sci-fi setting. Gamers face two conflicts, the first during the 1970s cold war, the second during "the second cold war" of 2025. Science-based future firepower is implemented, as is the ever-popular zombie mode, so there's a fine balance between realism and ridiculousness.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
It's been years since we last saw Agent 47 sneaking across our gaming screens, with Hitman's revolutionary stealth dynamics ripped off in every series from Grand Theft Auto to Splinter Cell. His long-awaited return in Absolution sees the series stretching into a Jason Bourne-like fast and furious assassin romp. Entire city blocks are at your disposal, a sense of real-world intrigue is infused through true-to-life artificial intelligence, and numerous new features allow a greater sense of those all-important stealth kills.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC, OnLive
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale
The PlayStation Vita might not have set the gaming world alight earlier this year, ignored in a world dominated by multitasking smart devices, but the appeal of handheld games is still there. A case in point: Battle Royale, the kind of button-mashing insanity that's ideal for a small system. A crossover fighting game, it features characters from such franchises as Uncharted. It'll give you that classic sore-thumb addiction, craving for a quick one while stuck in an office meeting.
Platforms: PS Vita, PS3
Sine Mora didn't storm the sales charts when it was first released for the Xbox 360 in March, but the port to Sony's PS Vita should change that. Thoroughly Japanese in its bizarre story and amazing 3-D environments, the game sends you into a deep and fully realised world of intrigue and deception, only to have you blow the living hell out of it once you take control. The retro side-scrolling game is ideal for Sony's handheld device.
Platforms: PS Vita, PS3, PSN
Pundits say that this is the make-or-break generation - that the next wave of consoles will decide the fate of the video game industry. A new one has just come out, and more are expected over the next couple of years. Here are the truths and the rumours.
Nintendo is always the first on the scene, and while the Wii U hasn't revolutionised with its hardware, it certainly is hoping to change the way people play games. The console is the same, but the addition of a "gamepad" - a controller with a second-screen attached - will allow not only greater interaction, but also more camaraderie between players. Sales have been fairly strong - more than 400,000 in its first week in the US - but to rival its more advanced consoles, it needs staying power. Only time will tell.
The release of a slim, laptop-sized PS3 in October was what many were waiting for - the sign that Sony was finally milking the PS3 before gearing up for the next generation. Nothing will be announced until next year's E3, but rumours say the name Omni has been thrown around ("four" is also bad luck in Japanese), as well as a head-mounted display to track the gamer's movements. However, they're also predicting no backwards compatibility and a protected feature that will destroy the second-hand market, so don't expect perfection.
While even the "720" name isn't confirmed ("Infinity" is a possibility), rumours are still swirling about Microsoft's latest entry into the console world. The predictions include a touchscreen controller and SSD cartridge system to replace discs, as well as DVR features. But again, preventive measures for second-hand games seem likely - and with a company such as Microsoft, expect more annoyances than benefits.