DJs, Mario, and Assassins 

Like movies, many of the best games are usually released around the same time: right now.

The long drought of summer is over. It's raining video games.

Truly great video games are starting to appear for this holiday season. A few are out already, and some more are due to come before November is over. Here's the lowdown on some of the ones worthy of attention come gift-giving time:

For: PC, Sony PS3, and Microsoft Xbox 360
Rating: Mature. MSRP: PC, $49.99; consoles, $59.99

Borderlands is taking the video game world by storm, and with good reason. Take the best elements of first-person shooters and role-playing games and mash 'em together on an alien planet, and you have what we're already willing to call the best game of the year. In Borderlands, you and up to three friends travel a desert wasteland on another planet shooting alien monsters and getting shot at by redneck punk bandits. It's as if Starship Troopers landed in the middle of The Road Warrior. But unlike in a straight shooter, in this game you earn experience points and purchase devastating abilities for your character. There are four classes to play, tons of missions, and millions of guns. Literally. The weapons in this game are procedurally generated, which is a fancy way of saying that instead of putting guns in the game, the designers put in a formula for guns and the game invents guns on the fly. So there really are millions of weapons. It's truly amazing, and of course wonderfully violent and absolutely not for kids whatsoever. (2K Games)

DJ Hero
For: Sony PS2, Sony PS3, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Xbox 360
Rating: Teen. MSRP: PS2, $99.99; others, $119.99

The music game genre hasn't quite run its course yet. There's still a lot of room for innovation. Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been great, but those games have mostly been about rock music so far. How do you get house, hip-hop, and techno into such a game? Well, you make a game about the wheels of steel. DJ Hero features a turntable controller with buttons and a crossfade slider. You have to scratch the turntable and slide the slider along with some fantastic music. The music in this game isn't just songs, but true mixes of two songs going at once. The soundtrack is astounding, with some amazing mixes such as "Feel Good Inc." by Gorillaz vs. "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye; or "Poison" by Bell Biv DeVoe vs. "Word Up!" by Cameo. Nuts! How about Beastie Boys vs. Blondie, or Eric B. & Rakim vs. M.I.A.? If that sounds wild, it is. Speaking of wheels of steel, Grandmaster Flash is on hand to explain how to play in a tutorial, and plenty of other famous faces and songs make appearances. Beginner mode is very easy, and expert mode is brutally hard. One downside — this game isn't cheap. The special controller is very nice but does come with a substantial price tag. (Activision)

New Super Mario Bros. Wii
For: Nintendo Wii
Rating: Everyone. MSRP: $49.99

If there are two constants, they are the sunrise and Mario. New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS was enough of a hit that Nintendo decided to make a Wii version. But it's not the same game. In this version, you play all-new levels with up to four players at the same time. Four players running around on the screen at once throwing shells and stomping things is pure, delightful chaos. Players compete for coins and powerups, but the fun really comes in with all the ways the four heroes can accidentally — or intentionally — get one another killed. Players can even help one another get through levels by jumping off each other. Or if your friends are in your way, just pick them up and throw them somewhere. There are lots of elements here from the best of the 2-D Mario games, including an overworld reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 3, one of my longtime favorites.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
For: PC, Sony PS3, and Microsoft Xbox 360
Rating: Mature. MSRP: $59.99

Call of Duty is ubiquitous. Probably everyone will play this game — everyone in the entire universe. Modern Warfare 2 is a smorgasbord of modern combat ops missions. From chasing terrorists through a Brazilian ghetto to fighting the next war against Russians in the streets of a Virginia suburb, this game definitely has variety. Obviously you'll shoot guns and throw grenades, but you'll get to operate a Predator drone while under fire, fight on a snowmobile, and do all sorts of other fun things before it's over. And of course, there's co-op. Try one player shooting from an airplane with night vision to protect the other on the ground as an army of enemies moves in. Deathmatch against other human opponents will also be a huge part of this game for many people.

Assassin's Creed II
For: PC, Sony PS3, and Microsoft Xbox 360 Rating: Mature. MSRP: PC, $49.99; consoles, $59.99

The first Assassin's Creed wowed us two years ago, and this one is even better. In this series of games, you play a stealthy assassin who has to find his way through historic cities to kill his quarry. While the previous game focused on the Crusades, the new game is set in medieval Italy, starting in Florence and stretching to Venice and other parts of the country. That's cool, because this is a setting that hasn't been done to death. Part of the fun of Assassin's Creed comes in its crowd intelligence. Act suspicious and people will point at you or yell for guards. Blend in and you won't be noticed. The new game has more features, such as hiring people to help you distract guards so you can get to the important work of killing your target, and investing money in an area to build up and improve it. Missions are more varied this time around, too. (Activision)

For: Sony PS3, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft Xbox 360
Rating: Various. MSRP: $5 and up

Downloadable content is still huge for all three of the major consoles — perhaps even more so than last year. Downloadable games are attractive because they're normally much less expensive, and they're available with instant gratification. The variety is incredible, from South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play to Grand Theft Auto 4: The Ballad of Gay Tony to Magic: the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers. Vintage titles abound as well. Also, many games have downloadable expansions. How do you buy a downloadable game for someone else's console? Well, you could wait for him or her to leave home, break in and download it yourself, but there's a better answer: gift cards. Prepaid points cards are available for all the major systems. (Various publishers)


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