At least in the US, the Xbox 360 is the console of choice. It has some of the best games, it’s the most well designed, and even developers still like it more after the horrifying software requirements in building PS3 games. Most Xbox 360 owners are very happy with their consoles, including us, because not only is the Xbox 360 still an excellent console seven years later, it also has one of the best software and online ecosystems to date.

You may also be wondering if it’s safe to buy an Xbox 360 this year. The next Xbox may release in 2013, or even 2014, which only gives 1-2 years for the console left. If you don’t own an Xbox 360 yet and have no plans on jumping over to another console or to PC gaming, then check out the Value Bundle below. It’s not only a great deal, it includes two games that you’ll absolutely love. The Xbox 360 has a wealth of excellent games, and many of those came out this year! Just read below for the absolute best of what 2012 had to offer.

Console Bundles

Xbox 360 250GB Holiday Value Bundle

When it comes to the Xbox 360 this year, in it’s 7th year of service, for most potential buyers there’s only one real question: do you want the absolute best deal, or do you want the biggest, baddest console available? For the former, which most holiday shoppers this year will undoubtedly want, it’s the 250GB Holiday Value Bundle, a $250 Xbox 360 with two exceptional games (Forza Motorsport 4 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) and a large 250GB hard drive. Built-in Wi-Fi, an included controller, and the slimmer console are all excellent reasons to either buy new or upgrade from an original Xbox 360, but the price is what really sets it apart. $250 for the console, a month of free Xbox Live, and two games that will take at least two months to complete combined are enough to whet anyone’s gaming appetite.

Halo 4 Limited Edition Bundle

Halo fans can rejoice, as for the 3rd time in a row another Xbox 360 is out as a special, limited edition console sold with the game. This bundle is actually pretty cool, with some really spectacular artwork, two of the newer Xbox 360 controllers (with better-defined D-pads) completely painted over, a 320GB hard drive, and of course Halo 4 itself. The only sad part is that the bundle doesn’t come with the limited edition Halo 4 game, which includes a number of extras; you’d think that putting down at least $400 for this bundle would include the very best version of Halo 4 itself, but chances are that anyone buying this bundle already has Halo 4, so perhaps that isn’t a major concern.

Hardware & Services

Astro Gaming A50 7.1 Wireless Headset

I love these headphones. You’ll get a good 6-hours of hardcore gaming before the A50 Wireless headset requires another 40min recharge to get you back in the game. The set comes with its own display stand which is perfect for showing off new gift given while it sucks much needed batt-life.  The attached mic is outstanding and provides clear voice transmission. You can even flip the little sucker for quick muting. All the controls you need are embedded in the headphones, easy to reach and work damn well. True to Astro form, you can play with the game audio-to-voice chat volume ratio, dialing one up or down in exchange for the other. It’s handy when chatting with a group, where game music and ambient sounds are less important.

The Astro Gaming A50 is not for financially faint of heart. The quality in style, comfort and performance command an equally lofty price tag. For the worthy loved one give the gift of wireless gaming power with Astro Gaming A50 7.1 Wireless headset.

Turtle Beach Earforce XP400

If you want more simplicity from your gaming headset on the Xbox 360, specifically with less wires and less hassle, and perhaps even more functionality, the Turtle Beach Earforce XP 400 is your best bet. The reason is simple: it’s a smaller but equally powerful gaming headset to the A50 that includes a wireless dongle for your 360 controller and Bluetooth connectivity for phones so you can switch between gaming and calls instantly.

I’ve used the X400 for a few months and it doesn’t have quite the same quality or feel as the A50, but it’s still a great headset. For someone like myself who games in the office, the option to instantly switch between the 360 and my phone for a call is the sort of convenience a gift should have. I don’t have to stop playing, especially when testing multiplayer games that I can’t just pause, to take a phone call. Of course, a reasonable price, high-quality components, and excellent sound reproduction are reason enough to recommend the XP400.

Xbox Live Gold Family Pack

If, like me, you live in a single household with multiple Xbox Live users, everyone owning individual accounts is just plain stupid. It seems logical enough, but Microsoft allows for up to four people to share a family plan — just like for smartphones — that shares a single account for just $100 annually. That’s less than double the traditional price of Xbox Live and a better deal if there are only two accounts in your household.

And what’s the downside? The only one is that users who share an account share a payment plan, so you have to trust the persons attached (if they are enabled to make purchases). But if you have finally decided to take the plunge with your own family, with some college roommates, or with your girl/boyfriend, its easy to sign up for and set up. The fact that it saves anywhere from $20-$140 a year (not including discounts on family games) doesn’t make this a great holiday buy. It makes it a no-brainer.

Games

Halo 4

I’ve already written how Halo 4 isn’t the game it should’ve been, but if you don’t already own it, it still is one of the best games to own on the Xbox 360, if only because of some really fun multiplayer.  Master Chief’s latest venture is lackluster and the story leaves plenty to be desired, but it’s by far not the worst that the franchise as seen. In fact, it reaches a pretty decent balance, with a reasonable single-player campaign, a unique and ever-updating list of cooperative “Spartan Ops” weekly challenges, and a regularly changing list of multiplayer matchmaking games.

The important thing to know is that combat has seriously improved in Halo 4; not quite to the peak it reached in Halo 2, but enough to make it fun for a long time coming. It’s one of a few titles I’ll be playing over the holidays regularly. I recommend you do the same.

Dance Central 3

While the tracklist and gameplay isn’t quite what it was in the original, Dance Central 3 does exactly for dancing games as Guitar Hero and Rock Band did for music games: it upgrades the gameplay, style, and offers a whole new selection of tracks while allowing players to play the same songs from yesteryear. Dance Central 3 introduces a few new play styles that area great for group-play and parties, though aren’t a total turn-on for individual or just two players. Then again, it is a Harmonix title; the more people you play with, the more fun it is.

Forza Horizon

As much as EA’s Need for Speed franchise makes racing fun, it isn’t exactly a realistic racer. In fact, that much is to be expected. But Forza Horizon takes a different approach to arcade racing. It’s a massive game with hundreds of races all surrounding the Horizon event. Everything you do counts, from overtaking competing vehicles to heavy drifts in a muscle car. Players start from the bottom and work their way up in what is, like all Forza games before Horizon, an almost RPG-like racing game.

Driving feels heavier and more solid, not light and ridiculously fast like most arcade racers, and the physics are more realistic too. Horizon is a great game for the racer who doesn’t want a fantastical driving game, but who isn’t necessarily looking for a perfectly accurate sim racer.

Dust: An Elysian Tail

The XBLA exclusive is a simple combat-based adventure game that offers over a dozen hours of gameplay, a spectacular 2D environment, and a tale of redemption that is strangely poetic…in a very philosophical, ‘I almost don’t get it’ sort of way. It follows the story of Dust, a confused…creature who searches for his past and redemption, led along the way by a talking sword and a cute/whiny wombat-like creature. But the story itself isn’t waht makes Dust worth getting over the holidays; the replay value and tons of collectables are.

It may take about 12 hours to complete the story, but completionists will spend at least 20 collecting everything in the game, and you can double that if if they plan on playing through on the harder difficulties as well. There is so much stuff hidden away in this game that, for the right person, you can keep them playing for a long, long while. And having fun along the way.

Non-Exclusive Titles

Dishonored

Dishonored is a generous blend of first-person stealth gameplay that utilizes an incredibly potent grouping of fast-paced action and thought-provoking strategy. Like Splinter Cell or other stealth-based titles, Dishonored can be played ruthlessly or completely in the shadows. Players choose how to accomplish missions and their actions will determine the events that unfold in the game in the noire steampunk universe.

Gameplay is dastardly fun and very provocative. It’s a mad dash of Assassin’s Creed combined with Skyrim, in a sense creating a very RPG feel to what is in fact a first-person shooter. And thanks to just how deep gameplay can get, the number of available tools enables players to get extremely creative with combat maneuvers and completing missions…or you can do it very topically. The choice is yours, but if you missed this game, now’s the best time to pick up a copy.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

Many will claim that the latest Call of Duty title is just another rehash of last year’s best-selling game, but such statements couldn’t be farther from the truth. Black Ops 2 continues the story from the original Black Ops, which took place during the Vietnam War, but combines the somewhat old-school combat with futuristic warfare in the year 2025 with Alex Mason’s son, David Mason, and his own team trying to stop a global catastrophe from taking place. The brilliant writing is something rarely seen in gaming today, and is reminiscent of Modern Warfare 1′s heart-wrenching plot, but without any over-the-top tricks.

In fact, Black Ops 2 can easily be considered a masterpiece of single-player gaming. It is one of the first FPS titles to offer in-game choice on a realistic scale. Players can actually fail at specific missions, which will impact the game’s story, meaning the following cutscenes and future levels. The choices are few in number, but they’re all critical to the story. Short at just six hours, choice doubles the replay value of the single player campaign.

Of course, the bread and butter of any Call of Duty title is multiplayer, which returns with several major changes like an all-new loadout system that offers more and better customization in a balanced way. Level design is generally good to great, and online multiplayer is very fun. And like all Treyarch COD titles, Zombies returns with three new maps and more on the way for a return to the hectic squad-based survivor gametype.

Max Payne 3

 

Rockstar’s original runaway hit returned this year with a final game to the decade-old noire franchise that invented bullet time. Like all Max Payne titles, Max Payne 3 is a brilliant tale of the dark underworld that one man travels through for salvation. The use of graphical technology and keen storytelling weave together to form one of the best stories of this console generation combined with fun gameplay that we haven’t seen since Max had hair.

While multiplayer is fun, the real meat is in the single-player campaign, which is jam packed with not only an incredible story, memorable characters and scenes, and some really excellent acting, but a ton of collectables and secrets that will keep anyone in trance for hours on end.

Mass Effect 3

I had my problems with Mass Effect 3, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a good game.  It’s a great trilogy, in fact, and for anyone who hasn’t played through to the end, you are surely missing out, even if the close is lackluster. The space-opera RPG does a fine job of putting Commander Shepard through enough hoops to satisfy any player’s desire for space-faring exploration, and the multiplayer is extremely fun though limited. We absolutely recommend that you play through Mass Effect 3, though if you’ve stayed away because you don’t want to ruin the game because of the atrocious ending, fret not: you can always stop once you reach the end and leave it as a mystery.

That is, until someone spoils it for you. That might prove better than actually watching it though, so it’s not such a bad thing.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted

I loved Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. It was an absolutely brilliant game, one that Criterion Games undoubtedly had a lot of trouble both emulating and besting. One they actually couldn’t best, in fact, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play Most Wanted, their latest Need for Speed title. It’s an open-world arcade racer that features fast cars, lot’s of crashes and intense racing, and some of the best driving you can find in any game anywhere.

With an improved graphics engine and a laundry list of incredible cars, Most Wanted is a well-organized racer that has a massive world for online play as well as a huge solo experience, even if the two don’t perfectly coincide. It’s the same great racing on a bigger scale, though the action isn’t quite as intense or quite as good as Hot Pursuit, which was really a masterpiece of racing. The two are so similar though that I recommend them both: Hot Pursuit for solo play and Most Wanted for online play. It’s a win-win scenario.

Borderlands 2

The quintessential FPS-RPG this year, Borderlands 2 ups the ante from the original by adding a host of new characters, an incredibly funny new story, a practically infinite number of new weapons and collectables, some of the wittiest dialog ever, and the same excellent four-player cooperative play you know and love. It does so with a vastly  improved graphics engine, the same world of Pandora, and an even madder world then you left it just two years ago. Only this time players will have a lot more content in the coming months, with new expansion packs planned in regular intervals and daily updates for earning more current in-game items direct from developer Gearbox. It’s the perfect never-ending story.

The Walking Dead

What do you get when you take one of today’s hottest TV shows and make it into a choice-based arcade game that involves zombies? You get one of the most emotionally challenging games of the year. The Walking Dead takes place in the same world as the hit AMC show but is the story of a different cast of characters, where players work through five individual episodes (that make up season 1) to survive. Every choice made impacts the future of the game, and these choices aren’t like the ones in Mass Effect 3: they actually matter. Most decisions end with either someone dying gruesomely or something very bad happening. Then again, most choices are between bad and worse, and players have to decide which is which.

Few games make players feel and care about characters as well as The Walking Dead. The game itself isn’t particularly challenging, but it can be emotionally draining and it certainly is unique. The full season tells the story of one group surviving after the zombie apocalypse; your choices will make things better and/or worse. It just depends for who, because every choice matters.

Hitman: Absolution

After a serious hiatus, the Hitman franchise returns and does so gracefully. Not only is it supremely well balanced, the single-player only game has one of the smartest multiplayer features ever thought of: ”Contract mode”, where players, using actual game levels, assign up to three very specific hits on in-game characters for anyone in the world to complete. The whole system is so gracefully done that anyone with the skill to pull off the hit themselves can share it with the world.

Of course, that only adds to the seriously improved gameplay, which is more accessible than ever in the franchise’s history and is also harder than ever before. Creativity, good judgment, fast thinking, and twitch skill is all rewarded across multiple playthroughs of this 3rd-person action title. Sure, it looks a little weird, but Absolution is what people will think of when Agent 47 is brought up in conversation thanks to excellent balance and in-game dynamics. It’s a proper mixture of its parts, and for a game with so many moving parts like Hitman, that’s an astounding feat on it’s own. The fact that it’s also equally frustrating and fun makes it all the better.

Darksiders 2

Darksiders was considered an underachieving title, but I wrote that it was great because of some of the best storytelling ever seen in a videogame. Darksiders 2 balances the two with a dumbed-down plot but vastly-improved gameplay that loses the repetitive nature of the original and feels much more like God of War than a button-mashing Zelda. Aside from the abrupt ending, Darksiders 2 is a fun tale that continues and ends the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and while the story isn’t nearly as graceful or as potent as the original, it’s still ahead of what most games today can muster. The 10-15 hours of campaign are a decent play.

Assassin’s Creed 3

After playing Assassin’s Creed 3 for the first five minutes, I was hooked. The previous games in the franchise were all decent, good games that had some very serious flaws but the gameplay was fresh and unique enough to still be an enjoyable experience. But AC3 is a step above its predecessors in storytelling, so much so that the exceptionalism that made the first game such a pleasure to play returns in the form of American history, plenty of characters we actually know from history (speaking as an American), and some of the best game writing this year makes Assassin’s Creed 3 a must have.

Resident Evil 6

When I spoke with the directors of Resident Evil 6 back at Gamescom, they said that it was the culmination of all of the Resident Evil titles before it, with an ensemble cast and three separate cooperative campaigns to play through. And they weren’t kidding. Each campaign follows one of the three main protagonists: Chris Redfield, Leon Kennedy, and Jake Muller (Wesker’s son) all follow separate paths along the same journey to stop the latest plague of zombies and the more powerful J’avo, gun-wielding and intelligent enemies that at a moment’s notice transform into nightmarish creatures.

The beauty of this trifecta approach is that each gameplay style is slightly different. Chris is hard and fast, with big guns, lots of bullets, and a ton speed and muscle. Leon’s is much slower, with generally just a pistol and your wits. And Jake is a mix of both, with a tinge of unique gameplay elements because of his abilities (which we won’t spoil). All of the stories are interwoven, so players will get a shot at sharing a mission with another character at least once in the game, and for cooperative play (either on-console or online) that means some levels have up to four player coop. It’s a fun mess, though the story is lacking. The PC version is still in the works too, but isn’t expected for some time.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings Enhanced Edition

A mostly unknown developer shocked the gaming world when it released the first footage of The Witcher 2, at first a PC only title that released in 2011 and brought with it some of the most spectacular graphics you could find anywhere. Even Crysis, known for it’s incredible CryEngine 3, paled in comparison in many ways, and so did plenty of extremely powerful PCs. Even mine, running two GTX 580′s in SLI couldn’t hold 30 frames per second with The Witcher 2.

Now available on all consoles (and for PC buyers upgraded to the Enhanced Edition for free), The Witcher 2 is available to all players in a simple, albeit somewhat quirky RPG adventure following Geralt, one of the few Witchers in the world who hunts monsters, and his quest to maintain order in an old-fashioned world filled with the undead, kings and queens, medieval wars, magic, and a handful of undressed women. Let’s just say that as much as you’ll enjoy The Witcher 2, this one isn’t for the kiddies.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.