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The race is still on for the best games of the year

Master Blasters

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The presidential contest is over, but the election year continues in the gaming world. All the 2008 candidates are now on store shelves, ready to compete for your hearts and dollars in a race heated enough to make even a CNN hologram of Wolf Blitzer burst into flames.

And the best part? No negative campaigning whatsoever.

Now that's a platform we can really get behind.

The Big Party Contenders

For the hardcore crowd, the 2008 holiday season looks a lot like a typical summer movie season — a land dominated by hordes of sequels and threequels. Start with Gears of War 2, (Xbox 360, Rated M) the newest edition of the shoot-and-take-cover franchise that may yet unseat Halo as the Xbox 360's greatest success. The creepy Locust hordes are even tougher this go-round, but it's not the difficulty factor that makes this a must-have for the over-18 set; it's the super-deep co-op and multiplayer modes. It's like getting three games in one. Three very gory, action-packed games.

The busboard advertisements for Fallout 3, (Bethesda, Xbox 360, PC, Rated M) freaked the bejesus out of Washington, D.C., residents, and with good reason. The resurrection of this classic post-nuclear action-role-playing game is deep, scary, and the best thing to happen to role-playing since Oblivion, Bethesda's last RPG.

In F3, you begin at birth in the notorious Vault 101, and the rest is entirely up to you — and the bloodthirsty mutants who'd like to have you for their postnuclear lunch, that is.

Speaking of role-playing, über-developer Peter Molyneux promised us the world with the first version of Fable, his would-be role-playing classic for the Xbox — and then managed to leave half of it in the kitchen.

With Fable 2 (Microsoft, Xbox 360, Rated M), he's finally gotten the role-playing recipe just right. Not only do your choices have an impact on your appearance — nice demon horns, dude! — but this time, they actually make sense within the game's love-and-sacrifice storyline. Plus you get an in-game dog that behaves like an actual dog. Seriously. Try playing a game of fetch.

If your gamer's the rare sort who prefers original ideas to sequels — even when they're good ones — flip the switch for Mirror's Edge (Electronic Arts, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC, Rated M), a first-person action romp with a hottie Eurasian heroine that has you making like the opening sequence in a Bond film, doing the Parkour two-step, leaping and grabbing ledges hundreds of feet in the air. It's disorienting, it's fast-paced, and it proves you don't always have to shoot guns to have an action blast.

The holidays are supposed to be about getting together with loved ones, right? What better way to celebrate than with blasting endless hordes of bloodthirsty undead? (Yep, I thought so.) Valve's Left 4 Dead (Electronic Arts, Xbox 360, Rated M) is a full-on thrill ride of multiplayer adrenaline from the guys who invented multiplayer, with a simple formula (basic weapons, unlimited pistol ammo) that rewards working together.

Just don't try to play it solo. Nobody likes to be alone for the holidays.

Finally, it's always nice when the best game of last year returns for a victory lap the following year — in this case, we're talking about the debut of Bioshock (2K Boston, Rated M) on the PlayStation 3. Not only is taking a return trip through the haunted halls of Rapture as fun as it ever was, but there's also a new set of downloadable content, including survival levels that have you fighting through increasingly difficult rooms of Big Daddies. Nice.

Swing Voters

Whether they're blue state or red state, music lovers can't go wrong with either Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Rated T) or Guitar Hero World Tour (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Rated T). Now that Guitar Hero has finally made the leap to multiplayer and added microphones, bass, and drums, it comes down to whether you prefer having easy-to-navigate music menus or your very own mini-music studio and the chance to play with videogame versions of Sting and Billy Corgan (Guitar Hero World Tour).

One ballot-stuffing caveat: Accept no musical substitutes. Knockoff games like Rock Revolution are as painful as George Bush singing the national anthem, and Wii Music lacks both staying power and licensed music.

You'd think there'd be nothing left to innovate with a game like Bejeweled, the casual pattern-matching game that's gotten many a gamer through many an airport layover. You'd be wrong. Bejeweled Twist (Popcap, PC, Rated E) spins the concept 360 degrees, making it even more addictive.

Now you twist sets of four gems to make matches, and while you don't have to make a match with every move, the new bomb and doom gems make sure your strategy moves quickly. Best of all, Twist finally minimizes the annoying luck factor often causing your Bejeweled games to crash to a halt.

The creative electorate, meanwhile, are going to want to pull the lever for Sackboy and LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3, Rated E), the super-cutesy platforming game that lets you collect materials to create worlds and levels of your very own — that is, assuming you're willing to wade through the tutorials to figure out how to do it.

The number of worthwhile levels other people have designed is already swelling to swing state-sized proportions, so even if you master the game's mission mode, you'll still have plenty to download and do.

Plus, you can dress up your little sack figure as a gorilla, a shark, or a Chimera from Resistance 2. Who can't vote to support that?

Third Party Challengers

Just as third-party candidates had no impact on the November elections, it'd be very easy to overlook some of the lower-budget, obscure titles.

So, consider, if you will, Air Traffic Chaos (Majesco, Nintendo DS, Rated E). Yes, a game based on an industry in which employees routinely battle depression doesn't sound entertaining. But guiding planes through bad weather conditions isn't only challenging, but one of the most unexpectedly fun puzzle games you'll play. This is the dark horse of the season.

And finally, a horse — er, blob — of an entirely different color. De Blob (THQ, Nintendo Wii, Rated T), an entertaining, even political, exercise that finds you dunking a blob in paint and rolling it around a monochrome city to create both colorful chaos and strike a blow for individuality.

If that's not the essence of the voting process, what is?

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