Every year around the holidays I need to escape. Maybe it's the relentless Christmas marketing. Maybe it's the way the cold wind makes my face sting. Maybe it's the long nights. But every year I find something that I need to get away from.
And so I open a videogame. I find a quiet corner and pull a DS out of my pocket. Or I sneak downstairs on a sleepless night and turn on the PlayStation. Within minutes, I've abandoned this artificially heated, oversold and crowded holiday season, and taken up residence in another world.Videogames create imaginary worlds - worlds so real that we can walk through them. We can race around them firing weapons and driving cars. We can fly above them, or stay on the virtual ground examining every detail. And this season, no game creates as magical and detailed a world as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Rated Mature; PS3, 360, Windows PC).
It's not the size of Skyrim's world that makes it feel so big - although I'm sure it would take me hours to walk from one end of it to another. What makes Skyrim so vast is that players can do almost anything they want within that world. Of course swinging swords and casting spells - one with each hand - is expected in a fantasy role-playing game. But players can also break into strangers' homes and steal their wine collections. Want to live life as a werewolf? No problem.
Unlike other role-playing games, Skyrim allows players to find their own way through the game's tangled web of stories. And each player's character becomes unique. They gain their skills and statistics based on how they actually play the game, instead of being assigned points and an identity.
But for players looking for a little more guidance, there's no more familiar character in videogaming adventures than Link, the star of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Rated Everyone 10+; Wii). Finally, after decades of classic games to his credit, the story of how Link was captured by the Zelda franchise is told, allowing players insight into the inner life of one of videogaming's icons.
Another icon finds himself in a world that could only exist in videogames. Batman: Arkham City (Rated Teen; PS3, 360, PC) drops the dark knight into a city-sized Arkham Asylum, which essentially means that classic villains like Penguin, The Riddler and Joker are loose on the streets. And of course the prison setting gives them hundreds of nameless thugs to use as backups. The variety keeps Arkham City moving from large battles to small skirmishes, from the big story to tiny sub-plots.
Adventure doesn't only happen in sprawling, epic worlds. Sometimes the greatest challenges can be found in simple, straightforward landscapes. Super Mario 3D Land (Rated Everyone; Nintendo 3DS) proves that a few building blocks can create a world just as challenging as any detailed kingdom or decaying metropolis.
Super Mario 3D Land was designed to show off Nintendo's handheld 3D gaming system, the 3DS, and while it can still be played with the machine's 3D setting turned off, players would be missing out on some of Nintendo's most ingenious innovations. Many of the jumping puzzles that Mario has mastered through the years are entirely different experiences when played in 3D. As he bounces off a springy mushroom, or falls through a shower of coins, Mario in 3D feels as fresh and frantic as the first time he ran across TV screens.
For players who don't want to explore any new (or at least new-ish) landscapes, this holiday season also offers some familiar settings and storylines. Perhaps the most classic of all the shooters is Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Rated Mature, Xbox 360). This remastered version of the 2001 classic game allows players to experience the classic Halo game that launched the franchise (and thousands of deathmatch careers).
Perhaps the newest contender to Halo's shooter throne is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Rated Mature; PS3, 360, PC). There's nothing too glitzy about this shooter, which makes it perfect for multiplayer shootouts. While games like Halo offer players dazzling arrays of weapons and battlegrounds with which to distinguish themselves, the more mundane Modern Warfare 3 puts everyone on pretty much the same level: Boots on the ground, gun in the hand.
From there, Modern Warfare 3 plays out like any war - that is to say, it gets brutal, ugly and frenzied pretty fast. The simple, clean gameplay of Modern Warfare 3 allows players to stalk each other with a minimum of fuss. It's classic multiplayer, and it doesn't get much smoother than this.
And what about players looking for adventure with the latest gadgets and special effects? Aside from the superb use of 3D in Super Mario 3D Land, and the tight motion-sensitive swordplay in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, there are still some innovations to be found outside of a dance/karaoke game.
The underdeveloped Kinect shows some programming finesse in Kinect Sports: Season Two (Rated Everyone; Xbox 360 Kinect). These aren't long, complex sports games like Madden. These are quick sports-style games based around actions like swinging a golf club or throwing darts. For families who want to goof around with their Kinect, or players who want to engage friends in a casual competition, Season Two has everything necessary. And videogame enthusiasts will be happy to notice how the Kinect has been made more accurate, tracking subtle movements and changes of speed. Motion-sensitive gameplay may still be in development, but Kinect Sports: Season Two takes it further than any other game this season.
But the game with the most movement this season may be Mario Kart 7 (Rated Everyone; Nintendo 3DS). Designed for the 3DS, Mario Kart 7 makes every bomb and obstacle on the racetrack appear with solid realism, not just flat pixelation. A simple racetrack doesn't seem like a particularly big, or even interesting world in which to play. But once that racetrack is full of Mario and the other Nintendo stars, their oddball racing carts, and the bombs, turtle shells and banana peels that they throw at each other, the landscape becomes much more interesting and unpredictable. And like the best videogame worlds, it's waiting and available to be visited whenever it's time to escape.