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Video game holiday gift buying guide 2017

By MICHAEL S. DARNELL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 23, 2017

Congratulations! You officially survived Thanksgiving. It couldn’t have been easy, what with the dry turkey, lumpy gravy and family drama. You deserve a reward. Why not pick yourself up something nice?

How about a fresh “Mario” game? Not your speed? Then try this vintage-style “Torment: Tides of Numenera.” If neither of those are of interest, you’re in luck. 2017 featured more quality games than any one reasonable person could play.

Luckily for you, we are not reasonable people.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the best games from across the most popular genres released this year. Take a look and keep this article in mind next time you’re at the store looking for a gift for that special someone. Even if that someone is you.

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Games for all ages

“Super Mario Odyssey”

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Mario games always at least tickled the nostalgia centers of the brain. Who among us doesn’t have at least one fond memory of our favorite Goomba-stomping plumber? But for a while there, Nintendo seemed content to coast on the memories of better games.

“Super Mario Odyssey” feels like an apology letter for that and a statement of a bold, fresh new direction for the venerated franchise. Every element of “Odyssey” is a resounding success, from its perfect controls to its wonderfully-realized new hat-tossing mechanic.

Simply put, this is the easiest recommendation on this list for the gamer in your life – assuming they haven’t already bought it. “Odyssey” will appeal to kids, with its colorful, charming visuals to the hardcore speedrunners with the hidden Power Moons and secret challenges found on every level.

 

“Splatoon 2”

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Competitive games tend to fall on the more violent side of things. First-person shooter, multiplayer online battle arena games, fighters – these games are inherently violent. Finding the right game to bridge the gap between kiddie games and “oh my, that sure is a lot of blood”-type experiences can be hard.

Enter “Splatoon,” the paint-based, guileless arena “shooter” that your youngest gamers can play without being treated to subject matter way above their ability to handle. And fear not, there is plenty of competitiveness in the game to appeal to older players as well.

“Splatoon 2” works incredibly well on the handheld Switch, and it’s a game that parents and kids can play together without either side becoming bored or overwhelmed. There are better competitive games out there, but none offer the type of universally fun experience of “Splatoon 2.”

 

“Hey! Pikmin”

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Another Nintendo product, this time on their DS platforms, “Hey! Pikmin” isn’t as universally appealing as some of the other games on this list. This one is firmly aimed at a younger or more casual crowd.

Guiding your tiny, adorable army of Pikmin around the two-dimensional planes of “Hey! Pikmin” is fun, but it’s a really simple affair, unlikely to appeal to anybody looking for a challenge.

But people looking for a game to just sit back and relax with will find lots to love here. The adorably infectious music, the laid-back vibe nurtured by lack of hard fail states and the bright, cheery visuals make this an ideal game for those types of gamers.

 

“Block’Hood”

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Not every kid wants to be a superhero when they grow up. Some want to be mechanics, or scientists, or construction workers. This year, take a look at “Block’Hood” for the budding engineering types in your family.

Think of “Block’Hood” as an entry point into the city-building genre made popular by “SimCity.” It’s a quiet, slow-paced builder that rewards patience and creativity. The type of gamer that might be bored with killing things in various ways might find “Block’Hood” to be more engaging. It’s also an easy game to get hooked on, as there always seems to be a better way to set up your own personal utopia.

I didn’t expect much when coming into “Block’Hood,” but I’m glad I gave it a fair shake. It ended up being a memorable experience in a year full of remarkable titles.

 

“Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2”

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The Lego games have become about as popular among younger players as Harry Potter, Batman and hating math, all rolled into one. Adding Marvel, with its plethora of fan-favorite superheroes, to the mix was almost unfair of Traveller's Tales.

But what does fair have to do with absolutely dominating an entire subgenre of games? Even non-Lego fans can have a blast with “Marvel Super Heroes 2” thanks to its pick-up-and-playability. The inclusion of niche characters like Miguel O’Hara and Cosmo the Spacedog are fun Easter eggs for comic nerds.

And as is the case with all the Lego games, they’re best played with a partner. The all-ages gameplay and non-offensive violence (defeated characters explode into Lego bricks, for instance) make this an absolute slam dunk when trying to find something to entertain a diverse group of players during a holiday gathering.

 

Action/Adventure

“Horizon Zero Dawn”

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“Horizon” is a game that set lofty expectations from the moment it officially debuted at E3 2015. It subsequently surpassed them all upon its release early this year. This groundbreaking, breathtakingly gorgeous action/adventure/role-playing game mashup brought a wholly unique world to life and gave us one of the year’s best protagonists in neo-tribal leader Aloy.

Hunting down robotic dinosaurs in the 31st century with a bow and arrow is fantastic on its own, but add to that a deeply human story, engaging progression system and a world that was fun to explore and you have one of the best games of 2017.

The best part about gifting “Horizon” to somebody is that it’s almost as fun to watch as it is to play, thanks to some truly stunning visuals and top-notch voice action. Guerrilla Games also just released a meaty expansion in “The Frozen Wilds” that adds hours of extra content to the main adventure.

 

“Absolver”

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When it comes to hand-to-hand combat in action titles, few games are more complex than “mash A to beat somebody’s face in.” This title from indie developer Sloclap and publisher Devolver Digital saw that problem and crafted a game in order to solve it.

“Absolver” is a semi-open world brawler that features a combo system that isn’t too far removed from fighting games like “Mortal Kombat.” Moves can be swapped out at will and combined with other moves to create a fighter that is customized to your playstyle. After that, you’re free to explore around a unique and beautiful crafted world that packed with a mix between neo-futuristic European tribal themes and Chinese cultural tropes as seen through the lens of kung-fu flicks. “Absolver” has plenty going for it, from the combat to exploration, but its biggest draw is its wonderfully imaginative world.

 

“Cuphead”

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And the award for the most visually stunning game of 2017 goes to “Cuphead,” the long-anticipated side-scroller from Studio MDHR. That award – well-earned with its pitch-perfect aping of 1930s cartoon stylings – will sit on “Cuphead’s” trophy shelf alongside “most challenging” and “most utterly engrossing.”

The game is simple stupendous. While seemingly a niche title, “Cuphead” spoke to gamers from all corners of the Earth. Speedrunners delighted in breaking each other’s records on Twitch, casual gamers loved its charming visuals and fans of solid gameplay spent hours trying to better their personal bests.

It’s rare that a 2-D sidescroller gets as much attention as “Cuphead” did, but it was well-deserved. At $20 it’s also a nice, cheap gift to give for the workplace Secret Santa or to the gaming acquaintance/casual friend.

 

“Prey”

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As the year has progressed, much of the attention “Prey” received upon release has vanished. That’s a shame, as it’s one of the best action titles – and a worthy spiritual successor to the legendary System Shock series – of the year.

“Prey” is more than a wall-to-wall action title. It’s more of a story-driven game like “Bio-Shock” or “Half-Life,” though it doesn’t quite hit the peaks those games did.

Still, the engrossing story, creepy visuals and stellar gunplay help make “Prey” extremely enjoyable. It helps that the space-walking segments remain one of the memorable gaming moments of 2017. “Prey” might not make a ton of top 10 lists, but it’s a fine experience that shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

“The Evil Within 2”

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I love horror games. Many people do. Sadly, scary games are few and far between. Shooters, platformers, RPGs, sports titles – gaming storefronts are packed with these titles. This year, though, there were two major horror games of note: “Resident Evil 7” and “The Evil Within 2.”

As a huge fan of the first game, I was stoked to try “Evil 2.” It surpassed my every expectation. The key element of this series is how it generates scares through unpredictability. Things like doors opening to new dimensions rather than the room you thought you were entering bring a real sense of unexpectedness. It was really refreshing to play a scary game that used that as its key mechanic for instilling fear, rather than a series of increasingly predictable jump scares.

If there is a horror aficionado among your circle of friends and family, this is a good gift choice.

 

Shooters

“Call of Duty: WWII”

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The “Call of Duty” franchise recovers from its recent skid with a return to its roots in World War II. After dabbling in Black Ops and science fiction, Activision has brought back the quintessential bad guys – Nazis – and the results are very satisfying.

Although the single-player campaign will feel very familiar to anyone who’s watched a few World War II movies, action is well choreographic, the characters and settings are wonderfully rendered and the gameplay is thoroughly entertaining. However, the main draw of any “COD” release is the multiplayer mode and this is exceptional. 

You’ll find the traditional favorites, including variants of death match and capture-the-flag.  But what’s even better is the latest addition to the “COD” armor, a mode simply called “War.”  This mode pits two teams in a struggle over a sequence of objectives. It’s similar to the “Battlefield” franchise’s Rush mode, but featuring only infantry combat.

The game also delivers the return of “Nazi Zombies,” the franchise’s popular co-op survival mode. Once again, Nazi experiments have gotten out of hand and it’s your job to put an end to the seething masses of undead. Like the overall franchise, this return to roots is well executed and a blast.

 

 “Destiny 2”

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The Guardians face a new and deadlier foe in the return of Activision’s merger of sci-fi epic, multiplayer shooter and role-playing game. A vicious new leader of the militaristic Cabal shows up in Earth’s last remaining city to decimate the Guardians and sap their special powers. It your job to regain your city and your might – with the help of your co-op partners and scores of online helpers.

Activision’s intention for the “Destiny” franchise is to offer a solid game that can expand and develop over the course of two or three years. The initial game fulfilled that plan pretty well. However, over those three years, it also gathered quite a bit of detritus that bogged down the experience.  In the transition to “Destiny 2,” developers were intent on keeping the action moving by cutting the clutter and focusing on fighting and fun.

The campaign mode is well developed, co-operative challenges are intense and multiplayer battles are exciting. What’s best is that you can expect a new dose of excitement with every new update – I you don’t mind dropping a few extra bucks.

 

“Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus”

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It’s sort of funny that most gamers probably only heard of “Wolfenstein II” thanks to the mass amounts of free press a simple Tweet generated. The controversy of tying in a popular political slogan with killing science-fiction Nazis was, from a marketing standpoint, a stroke of genius.

That being said, the game was so much more than its controversial sales pitch. It was also a rock-solid FPS, with great level design and fast-pasted action that recreated the run-and-gun feel of shooters of years past.

The story was pure, unfiltered sci-fi schlock – and I mean that in an endearing way. Every moment, from the opening act that has you killing Nazis from a wheelchair, to the over-the-top finale was fantastic fun. The game isn’t the deepest FPS on the market but it’s basically the only fast-paced, purely single-player FPS of any worth in 2017.

 

Online shootouts

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A rundown of shooters probably wouldn’t be complete without mentioning “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds” – a.k.a. PUBG – and “Fortnite.” These shooters have exploded into multiplayer favorites over the last few months.

Despite a plethora of differences in presentation, they share the same basic premise: You parachute onto an island and shoot everyone in sight. There’s no respawning so once you’re down, you’re out.

These indy games aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are exciting – for a while. They’re ideal for filling the gaps between the releases of weightier titles.

 

Fighting

“Injustice 2”

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Even if the basic premise of playing as an evil Superman to beat the self-righteousness out of mopey ol’ Batman isn’t your cup of tea, there is plenty to love about “Injustice 2.”

The endless series of challenges that are free to enter and update every few days. The extremely high-level of fighter visual customization. The guilds that reward you for playing the game. The solid netcode that was among the best I encountered in an online fighter this year.

But yes, the biggest draw is the enormous amount of fanservice, starting with the story mode that crafts a better DC storyline than anything the DC Extended Universe has put on screen and ending with the huge cast of sometimes niche characters.

“Injustice 2” was the best fighter of the year and as such it’s an easy recommendation for anybody looking for something to play with friends and family over the holiday season.

 

“Tekken 7”

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The long-running “Tekken” series finally came to PCs and personally, I couldn’t be happier. “Tekken” is one of the more niche fighters in the mainstream space, but it’s one that remains just as fun in 2017 as it was in 1994. More, even.

“Tekken” introduced fighter customization some time ago, but Bandai Namco cranked that up to absurd levels in with their most recent iteration. Adding new hats to long-running series has become a trend throughout gaming, but here, where fighters include a panda bear and a dude with a meter-high flattop, the absurdity works.

“Tekken” also remains an easy to play fighter, with a small but fierce competitive scene. This is a great gift choice as it’s fun to play at nearly every skill level and it never takes the extensive times to get good at it that the “Street Fighters” of the world demand. It’s just good, clean fun from the get go.

 

“Arms”

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If you’re giving or getting the gift of a Nintendo Switch, there are certainly better games to play than “Arms.” But if you want a semi-competitive fighter on the fledgling system, there really isn’t any other choice.

Good thing “Arms” is a solid game. The core premise of throwing down with wacky characters who have inexplicably stretchy arms is a fun one. And as the Wii established, flailing about with motion controls becomes infinitely more fun when done with a group of friends about. “Arms” gives players that option again and being able to chuck virtual punches at family members may be a good release valve this holiday season. 

 

“Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite”

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“Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite” was the biggest gaming disappointment of 2017. Its cast of characters was anemic and overly copy/pasted from “MvC:3” and its visual style was unpleasant, to say the least. However, the core gameplay – the fighting fluidity and new Infinity Stone mechanic was still enjoyable.

And that’s all you need for a game to be a successful, local party game.

The game isn’t going to appeal to the megafan of the “MvC” series. But it will appeal to casual fans who watched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and are delighted to play around with Rocket and Groot while waiting for the Christmas feast to begin. Stripped of all expectations, the game can still provide a lot of fun. Just don’t except a worthy successor to the “MvC:3”

 

Roleplaying

“The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”

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Okay, so “Zelda,” depending on who you ask, is either an adventure title or the prototypical video game role-playing experience.  What is less contentious is the game’s impressive run of titles, from the original 8-bit legend to this year’s “Breath of the Wild.”

“Breath,” the Nintendo Switch system-seller, broke the series’ mold in many ways. It added a deeper story, that touches on sacrifice and duty without getting overly sappy. It also opened up the game’s world, mixing the best part of open-world RPG design with the best elements of the “Zelda” formula.

What that resulted in is a game that – no matter which genre you personally place it in – is an exciting, fun experience that simply shouldn’t be missed. If you’re getting that special gamer in your life a Switch this holiday season, this is one of two games on the system that most everybody can enjoy.

 

“Torment: Tides of Numenera”

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Text-heavy, thoughtful RPGs haven’t exactly lit up the sales charts in recent years – if they ever really did to begin with. But there have always been games aimed at players more interested in clever writing and exploring strange worlds than finding a sweet new sword. And in 2017, there wasn’t any more cleverly written game than “Torment.” 

This spiritual sequel to “Planescape: Torment,” one of the best-written RPG of all time, features an incredible cast of characters, truly strange and exotic worlds and a story that leaves you wanting more, but never disappoints.

It has some real RPG chops behind the writing, as well, allowing players to avoid combat in nearly every situation with the right build and situations that play out in ways few players would truly expect. Easily one of the best games of the year and a slam-dunk for the RPG fan in your life.

 

“Divinity: Original Sin II”

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While “Torment” brought into 2017 the traditional isometric RPG formula and improved upon it, “Original Sin: II” redefined it for a whole new generation of gamers. “Original Sin II” is the rare sequel that takes everything about the original game – here an interesting, non-Tolkien inspired fantasy world, exciting combat and challenge galore – and improved upon it in every way.

The cast in “Original Sin II” are far more than the cardboard cutouts of the previous game, with fascinating backstories and characterizations. The combat still allows for interesting combinations of attacks like setting fire to noxious gases to cause explosions and expands on it with a new focus on physical skills. The world is much more alive, with heroes, villains and normal people around every corner.

There is so much more to say about what is, personally my favorite RPG of the year, but for that you’d have to read our review. For now, know that any RPG fan who hasn’t gotten their hands on this would be happy to open it on Christmas morning.

 

“South Park: The Fractured But Whole”

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Not every RPG has to be doom-and-gloom, save-the-world type stuff. There is, as “South Park’s” two entries into the genre has shown, plenty of room for toilet humor and evil sixth-graders.

Obviously, the main focus of “Fractured” is the humor. As the new kid in town, you’ll join forces with Stan, Kyle, Cartman and the rest of the cast as they run through what feels like a lost episode of the long-running show. The jokes are very much in-line with what “South Park” has been about for more than two decades, so don’t expect any real deviation from that formula.

What you may not expect is beneath all the fart jokes lies a solid game that combines a semi-open world RPG with the tactical combat of a strategy game. Skills are as interchangeable as the game’s plethora of costumes, leading to an impressive level of customization. The game is still largely for hardcore South Park fans, but there is a game enough in “Fractured” to satisfy RPG fans outside of that audience.

 

“Nier: Automata”

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“Nier” is easily the most niche title on this list. This means you really have to know the person you’re shopping for in order for this make a decent Christmas gift. Do you know a gamer that is really into anime? Or maybe one that has complained about the lack of originality in today’s video games? Well, “Nier” is the game that might be for those folks.

This third-person, open-world action RPG from Platinum Games crams so much into the game that it’s impossible in just a few paragraphs to explain it all. It features sentient robots, themes of humanity, swordplay, laser guns and fighter jets – just to name a few of the game’s crazy elements. It’s definitely not for everybody, but for fans tired of Dungeons & Dragons reheats and Tolkien ripoffs “Nier” was like mana from the heavens.

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