VIDEO GAME systems are generating remarkable sales this holiday season. Microsoft's Xbox 360 is leading the pack (a million units sold just over the Black Friday weekend), while Sony and Nintendo also report higher than expected figures. Clearly driving the boom? A terrific bunch of new software titles for hard-core gamers and casuals alike.
BLOWS UP REAL GOOD: Fresh first-person shooters are proving especially hot, selling staggering numbers (8 million to 10 million) in little more than a month.
For extra-efficient destruction of buildings and inhabitants, the cinematically stylized "Battlefield 3" (EA, multi-platforms) is hard to beat. In opening rounds, you stand up for democracy along the Iran/Iraq border, before moving on to terrorist danger zones in Paris and the sewers and subways of New York.
Biggest seller of the FPS bunch is "Call of Duty MW3" (Activision, multi-platform). So it's the most desirable title for multiplayer online combat and also most likely to be in your favorite gamer's arsenal already. (Snoop around before buying!)
"Gears of War 3" (Epic Games, exclusive to Xbox 360) is also a kick, offering equally brutal action in a surreal, postapocalyptic way.
SHOW YOUR SAVVY: Looking for the absolute best reviewed action-adventure game of the season? That would be "Batman: Arkham City" (Warner Bros. Interactive for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3), wherein you, Dark Knight, take on Gotham City criminals lurking in the city's prison zone, including The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill), Cat Woman, The Riddler, Mr. Freeze, The Penguin and more. Cooler still, the gang flies through the screen in 3-D on a PS3 with connected 3-D TV and glasses. Only complaint about this title? You gotta fight solo, chump.
THE GUITAR GAME REBORN: The thrill of mastering plastic-buttoned guitars in "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" wore thin, so both franchises were retired. Now comes "Rocksmith" (Ubisoft), a music game that teaches you to play a real guitar from scratch or improves your skill level. And for not much more than one of those fake games ($199 for PS3 or Xbox 360), it includes a shockingly nice, full-size Epiphone solid-body Les Paul Jr. electric guitar that this reviewer wouldn't be ashamed to take onstage and plug into a big amp.
For gaming purposes, the guitar comes bundled with a special 11-foot connector cable that plugs directly into a PS3 or Xbox 360, plus software both instructional and fun.
The program operates a lot like "Guitar Hero" or "Rock Band," but now you're hammering on real strings with a real pick, on 50 songs ranging from the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" to Titus Andronicus' "A More Perfect Union."
Already own an electric guitar or want a more serious ax? Get the "Rocksmith" game and adapter cable for $79.99.
IT'S A VIDEO GAME . . . IT'S A TOY . . . Stop! You're both right. The innovative "Skylanders Spyro's Adventure" (Activision, multi-platform, $59.99-$69.99) plays out on a console and TV screen but with the addition of smart chip-endowed action figures (three come with the starter set) that you place on a "Portal of Power" to jump into the screen game. Magical dragon Spyro is the star. Additional characters $7.99 each, $19.99 for three.
Many "virtual pet" games reside on Nintendo DS portable systems. So Activision and partner Sega Toys have moved to the next level with "Wappy Dog," a game that works with a robotic plastic dog toy. As its owner communicates through DS-loaded software, Wappy makes noises, moves a bit and shows different moods. Fun for preschoolers.
DANCE FEVER: While high-impact dance mat games are with us still, they ain't revolutionary no more. Game systems that work with motion-activated controllers (Wii, PS3 with Move) and sonar/light sensors (Xbox 360 with Kinect) are inviting lots more folks onto the floor to shake their groove thing.
The two-participant-friendly "Dance Central 2" (Harmonix) and "Just Dance 3" (Ubisoft) await the Kinect-ed. "The Black Eyed Peas Experience" (Ubisoft) gets it started with both Kinect and Wii systems, as does "Zumba Fitness 2" (Majesco) and "Country Dance 2" (Game Mill), the latter cranking it up (and counting the calories) with tunes by Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum.
Sony's PS3 response is "Everybody Dance," scored with every buddy from Billy Idol to Outkast. And if your dancers would rather move and groove with Dora, Diego and the Backyardigans, let 'em go "Wii" with "Nickelodeon Dance" (2K Play).
IT'S ALIVE! The Nintendo 3DS system, that is. Repricing the glasses-free, 3-D-screened porta-system ($249.99 to $169.99) roused curiosity. So did adding Netflix streaming and free, downloadable 3-D TV shows. Now software's caught up to the hardware. Nintendo leads the way with polished, punching-through-the screen fun-for-alls such as "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time," "Super Mario 3D Land," "Star Fox 64 3D" and "Tetris Axis." Also showcasing the spatially-enhanced gameplay are "Lego Star Wars III" (LucasArts) and a big bunch from Ubisoft, including the stylus-wiggled "dance" game "Michael Jackson The Experience 3D" and the cartoon adventures of "Rayman 3D."
VACATION GETAWAYS: Can't afford a family jaunt to a faraway fun spot? "Kinect Disneyland Adventure" (Microsoft Studios) is the next best thing for Xbox 360 owners. Deploy body, voice and pixie dust to explore 18 park attractions, meet all the Disney characters and go on quests!