No worries; you've come to the right place. Take a few deep breaths; sit back, relax and read on. We'll take good care of you.
First, some rules of thumb: Games based on TV shows or movies generally suck. Developers tend to slap a Hollywood veneer over some worn-out or shallow game-play mechanics, and then market it to unsuspecting fans. Even if you're totally excited that they've finally released a Remains of the Day title, check some video-game Web sites to get a sense for what it's all about first. Some old standbys include gamespot.com and ign.com. Scan the recent reviews for other ideas, ignoring the overly earnest comments of zit-faced fanboys.
If you haven't bought a console system, which are seemingly what everyone wants these days, then be aware that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have many different models, with the main difference among them being hard-drive space.
Prices for the Xbox 360 range from $279.99 (with no hard drive) to $449.99 (with a 120-gigabyte hard drive), while the PS3 comes in $399 and $499 models, with 40GB and 80GB hard drives, respectively.
The Wii, the simplest of the bunch, costs $249.99.
Let's start with Xbox 360-exclusive games.
We saw some guy practically wet himself when he got Halo 3 (Microsoft, Rated: M) at Best Buy, so it didn't come as a surprise to learn that it's the fastest-selling video game ever. It's a beautiful, atmospheric shooter, no doubt about it; $59.99.
Virtua Fighter 5 Online (Sega, Rated: T) is also available for the PS3, but the Xbox 360 version alone has online-play capability. If your giftee is a fighting-game fan, then you really can't go wrong with the latest installment in this long-running series; $59.99.
Now, let's move on to the Wii.
At the time this was written, Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo, Rated: E) had yet to be released. It was scheduled to hit stores on Nov. 12, so Mario fans everywhere will undoubtedly soon be glassy-eyed and listless after overdosing on their favorite plumber; $49.99.
We played the little-noticed NiGHTS Into Dreams on the dying Sega Saturn back in the day. It was fast-paced like Sonic the Hedgehog, only airborne and incredibly surreal. Sega will release another installment in the series on Dec. 18 with NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams (Rated: E); $49.99.
And, now, the PS3.
The Ratchet and Clank series is known for its snarky sense of humor and great platforming action. Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (Sony, Rated: E10+) has sharp graphics, although some have complained it's a little on the easy side; $59.99.
Guitar Hero III (Activision, Rated: T) will have you jamming on its unique guitar controller until New Year's Eve. This one's also available on other systems and your home computer, but we're partial to the PS3 version, because the series was born on its predecessor console; $99.99.
Many hot titles are being released on multiple platforms. Prices will often vary depending on which version you're buying, with console and computer versions costing more, and handheld versions costing less. But, of course, don't expect the handheld versions to be exact copies of their console equivalents; they just don't have the power!
Manhunt 2 (Rockstar Games, Rated: M) has been rejected twice by the ratings board in the United Kingdom, so it has the appeal of forbidden fruit. This is definitely not a game Focus on the Family wants you to buy. You assume the role of an escaped mental-hospital patient who goes on a killing spree, using all manner of found objects to separate people's internal organs from their bodies.
The Simpsons Game (Electronic Arts, Rated: T) is one of those rare titles that has all of the charm and wit of the TV show-cum-movie, making up for some pretty standard game play. The graphics are also really cool.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision, Rated: M) moves the warfare action from World War II to the contemporary battlefield. The series is known for its realism and strategic elements.
The Madden NFL series has been chugging along for-ev-er. Madden NFL 08 (EA Sports, Rated: E), when played on the high-powered consoles, features incredibly realistic animation, including mid-air collisions. One can almost see the blood spurting from multiple gaping wounds now. This title is even available for handhelds, PCs and Macs.
Here's a quick look at some handheld games:
The latest Zelda adventure, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo, Rated: E), utilizes the Wind Waker graphic style that was panned as overly cutesy by many fans of the series when that title was released for the GameCube many moons ago. This time, however, there's a lot to love, including an innovative way of controlling the action on the Nintendo DS. One of our co-workers is so enthralled by the game that he's covered his computer desktop at work with Zelda icons; $34.99.
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (Konami, Rated: T) is a revamped version of Rondo of Blood, which never saw an English-language release. This enhanced PSP version has three-dimensional graphics and a new score. A surefire winner for vampire lovers; $29.99.
Thinking men generally turn to the PC for deep-strategy games, although that may be changing, because an installment in the Civilization series is being ported to the Xbox 360 sometime next year.
On the topic of PC games: Europa Universalis III (Paradox Interactive, Rated: E) and a download-only expansion pack called Napoleon's Ambition (Rated: E; $19.99) aren't the prettiest of games, but they make up for it with ingenious, highly complicated gameplay. You take control of any country that existed between the 15th and early-19th centuries, and then war, trade and colonize your way to fame and fortune. If the gamer on your gift list gets a little twinkle in his or her eye at the thought of global domination, then this may be the title to buy. But it's probably too involved for those with short attention spans. Check amazon.com and other online retailers, because you won't be able to find EU III in stores; $19.99.
Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword (Firaxis, Rated: E10+) is the latest expansion pack for Civ IV, adding tons of new content, new leaders and civs, and new ways of undermining your opponents. You'll need the original Civ IV installed for this one to work, so maybe you could stuff stockings with those two games and the other expansion pack, Civilization IV: Warlords; $29.99.
Crysis (EA Games, Rated: M), which is due for release on Nov. 16, is a highly anticipated first-person shooter in which you try to save the planet from an alien invasion. Unoriginal storyline aside, this game promises to have lush visuals and pulse-pounding action; $49.99.