A video game store can be daunting if you don't know what you're looking for. It's not easy to tell the winners from the losers, and sales clerks typically make the same salary whether they sell you a gem or a stinker. ("Farming Simulator," anyone?)
So when you head to the mall, take this list. These are some of the best games of 2013, and any gamer on your holiday shopping list will be thrilled to see one of them under the tree.
Two important things to keep in mind:
- Know what kind of game console the gift recipient owns. Maybe Santa's delivering a PlayStation 4? Make sure the game you buy says "PS4" on the box. Sony's PlayStation 4 won't play PlayStation 3 games, and if you stick an Xbox or Wii disc into it, you're just asking for trouble. Likewise, the new Xbox One from Microsoft won't play games for the older Xbox 360 console. However, last year's Wii U from Nintendo can play games made for its predecessor, the Wii.
- Games that have an "M" rating (for Mature) are not appropriate for kids. They are violent, probably include some rough language and may flash some bare skin every now and then. Games labeled "E" (Everyone) and "E10+" (Everyone 10 and older) are fun for the whole family - even the grown-ups.
- "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" (Ubisoft, for the PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99): Jack Sparrow's got nothing on Edward Kenway, the swashbuckling hero of this pirate romp. There are treasures buried everywhere in this version of the 18th century New World, but the real prize is the rousing ship-to-ship combat across a churning Caribbean.
- "Need for Speed: Rivals" (Electronic Arts, for the PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, $59.99): The latest edition of EA's street-racing franchise is packed with enough high-octane challenges to satisfy the most demanding speed freak. But the chases really get chaotic once the police get involved. And because even the cops drive Ferraris, they're thrilling no matter which side of the law you're on.
- "Grand Theft Auto V" (Rockstar, for the PS3, Xbox 360, $59.99): A gangbanger, a former bank robber and a psychopath cross paths in the new chapter of the blockbuster crime series. It's vicious, profane and thoroughly entertaining, as the three hoodlums bounce from one ridiculous situation to another in a stylized, ultraviolent nightmare version of Los Angeles.
- "The Last of Us" (Sony, for the PS3, $59.99): Twenty years after an infection decimated American society, a jaded survivor and a teenage girl set out on a cross-country journey. Their battles against mutants and other humans are nerve-racking, but the most memorable element of "The Last of Us" is the growing affection between its protagonists.
- "BioShock Infinite" (2K Games, for the PS3, Xbox 360, PC, $39.99): A detective explores a city floating high above the clouds in this dark satire of American "exceptionalism," the idea that the United States is inherently superior to other countries. Months after its release, players are still arguing over the meaning of its time-bending, brain-twisting plot - and marveling over its gorgeous setting and unforgettable monsters.
- "Skylanders Swap Force" (Activision, for the PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, $74.99): The Skylanders franchise, which combines collectible figurines with video games, is satisfying on both fronts. The toys are durable and attractive, while the games are clever and packed with a wide variety of activity. Bonus: A kid who already owns "Swap Force" will be just as thrilled to receive some new characters, which cost $10 to $15 each.
- "Rayman Legends" (Ubisoft, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC, $59.99): This utterly beguiling cartoon adventure from France takes Rayman - an armless, legless creature who can nonetheless punch and kick with the best of them - across a hallucinatory landscape filled with tricks and traps. It has more than 100 levels to explore. Each one feels fresh and inventive.
- "Super Mario 3D World" (Nintendo, for the Wii U, $59.99): The beloved plumber and his pals Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad explore a sprawling environment jammed with running and jumping challenges. The major upgrade, a cat suit that lets characters crawl up walls, is essential to finding all the secret goodies hidden in the world's nooks and crannies.
- "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds" (Nintendo, for the Nintendo 3DS, $39.99): Link, the hero of the long-running "Zelda" series, can now flatten himself down to two dimensions. Sounds useless, but it opens up a whole range of clever spatial puzzles and elevates the 3D capabilities of Nintendo's handheld beyond mere gimmickry.
- "Tearaway" (Sony, for the PlayStation Vita, $39.99): The new game from the studio behind "LittleBigPlanet" takes full advantage of the hand-held Vita. You can help characters by drawing objects on the front screen. You can tap on the back of the Vita to poke holes in the papercraft settings. You can use the Vita's camera to put your own face in the sun. It's the best game yet for Sony's portable device.