2009 Holiday Video Game Buyer’s Guide

by By Brian Alexander, Road Test Editor
The typical holiday season sees the release of a racing title or two, but for 2009 the motorsports genre is firing on all cylinders (no, really) with everything from off-road arcade racing to full-on simulations represented in this year’s Q4 lineup. Maybe game developers were bribed by a domestic auto industry in desperate need of some uplifting PR? Doubtful, but if that’s the case you can take respite in the fact that, at the very least, your tax dollars were well spent. We realize there are a lot of other great gifts out there for your beloved petrolhead, but nothing beats finding a bit of digitally replicated motorsport buried within some questionably tacky wrapping paper. With so much to choose from, we’ve compiled this guide to help you sift through the multitude of titles currently available on store shelves (or, if you prefer to not leave the house, in the games section of Amazon).

Note: titles are ranked based purely on their associated Metacritic score.

Bonus: Gran Turismo 5 Demo

Gran Turismo 5 Demo
Platform: PlayStation 3
Current Metacritic score: N/A

Unfortunately, Gran Turismo 5 will not be joining the fray this holiday season, but is slated for an early spring release in Japan, so plan on seeing the full retail release before the summer. Desperately depressing news, we know, but Sony is throwing us a consolation prize of sorts in the form of a very free demo. Good news considering that two years ago we were forced to shell out cash for what was essentially a big demo in the form of GT5: Prologue. Rumor has it the physics have since been tweaked and damage modeling will be included in the final release. GT has always been a “when it’s done” style franchise, so expect the final product to be very, very polished. Download the demo December 17.

Need for Speed: Nitro

NFS: Nitro
Platform: Wii, Nintendo DS
Current Metacritic score: 68

More arcadey than Shift, Need For Speed: Nitro is based around the Wii’s motion controller, and, well, just about every other control method available. Visual customization of vehicles is the game’s centerpiece, and those with artistic minds can let loose with custom paints and graphics on their cars. You’ll recognize all the vehicles in the game as they’re close enough to their real world counterparts, though each has been put through an almost Disney-esque filter (void of any infectious sing-alongs) that lends to the game a unique art style that’s all to itself. As the name hopefully implies, Nitro boost is at the center of the racing experience, bringing with it a sense of excessive speed the series has always been known for.

F1 2009

Platform: Sony PSP, Wii
Current Metacritic score: 70

Never a huge success in North America, Formula One titles sell like crazy overseas, where open-wheel racing draws as much attention as Champions League Football… er, soccer. Still, there’s a PSP release out this year that is attempting to draw NASCAR-centric Americans into F1 racing, with players competing in anything from quick pick-up-and-play single races to the full season championship. Interestingly enough, the title marks British Ace Lewis Hamilton’s first appearance in a video game, as well as more obvious changes for the 2009 F1 season, such as the KERS boost system and the Singapore night race. Wireless multiplayer is, of course, available.

Gran Turismo

Platform: Sony PSP
Current Metacritic score: 74

Surprised to see Sony’s console selling, decade-and-a-half long racing franchise toward the bottom of the list? Us too. After all, previous iterations printed huge crates of cash for the Japanese conglomerate, making the game’s creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, a borderline celebrity within gaming and tuner cultures alike. But the game has changed its flavor a bit with the portable version, omitting a career mode to the disappointment of many a fanboy, replacing it with quick races and driving missions. Any car nerd will appreciate the 800-plus car count that will take the better part of the next decade to collect, and the game looks almost as pretty as it did on PS2 just a few years ago.

Motorstorm: Arctic Edge

Platform: Sony PSP
Current Metacritic score: 79

Sony’s off-road racer that lets you compete in a variety of vehicles from trucks to dirtbikes to – well basically anything with wheels or tank tracks – gets downsized for the PSP portable this year, but little was lost in the translation. This time the action moves away from more tropical locales to, well, the exact opposite – the Arctic Circle. Players will race up and down mountains in everything from snowmobiles to snowplows, finding shortcuts, dodging falling ice, jumping off cliffs and, of course, smashing the living hell out of every other machine on track. There’s even a photo mode so you can snap screenshots of the pretty textures… or some of the flame-filled carnage you’ve created.

MX vs. ATV Reflex

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Current Metacritic score: 81

If motocross is more your thing than rally or circuit racing, MX vs. ATV Reflex is probably looking pretty tempting right about now. Long at the top of the MX/ATV heap, with past titles including ATV Off-road Fury and MX vs. ATV Unleashed, developer Rainbow Studios has brought a new and impressive feature to the table with their newest offering – terrain deformation. Instead of just kicking up dirt, bikes, ATVs and buggies actually dig into the terrain and displace dirt and mud, leaving in their path ruts that change the topography with each lap. Couple this with a sort of Tony Hawk combo-style trick system and you’ve got a title that will keep MX fans happy well into the new year.

Need for Speed: Shift

Platform:  PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Current Metacritic score: 84

After a few less-than-mediocre forays into street racing over the past few years, Need for Speed is almost literally shifting gears (stop me, please). Considering how trying to beat Gran Turismo and Forza at their own game is about as smart as buying a house for no money down, EA is bringing a new style of sim racing to the table. Focused purely on competition motorsports, NFS: Shift mixes a whole lot of simulation racing elements with a toned-down physics engine that makes the racing more widely accessible. Mix this with the fantastic sensation of speed the NFS franchise is known for, not to mention engine sounds that are second-to-none, and you’ve got a new simu-racer that’s unique enough to survive in an otherwise crowded market.

Dirt 2

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Current Metacritic score: 87

Following a long line of rally games that date back to the Colin McRae series on PlayStation (you know, the original one that was gray), Dirt 2 is an off-road racer that focuses on splashing more mud-shaped polygons around than any human being could possibly desire. Toeing the line between arcade racer and simulation, Dirt 2 spans some of the sloppiest, prettiest terrain on Earth, putting you in the driver’s seat of everything from rally sedans to Baja trucks. Rally purists may come away a bit disappointed by the lack of point-to-point rally racing, but the globe-traipsing career mode does bring with it plenty of variety. Plus, voiceover work from real-life pros like Travis Pastrana and Ken Block provide a fantastic surprise for North American rally fanatics.

Forza Motorsport 3

Platform: Xbox 360
Current Metacritic score: 92

Building on two successful outings on Xbox and Xbox 360, developer Turn 10 is staying true to the Forza series’ roots of enticing road racing and heavy vehicle customization. Accessibility was a key objective within the game’s design philosophy, and the title has proven equally entertaining to amateurs and seasoned analog-stick-and-A-button racers alike thanks to physics settings that can be tweaked to create more intuitive handling. Over 400 cars are featured, with full damage modeling that turns any missteps into an unraveling series of ultra-pretty mechanical carnage. Single player features a lengthy six-season-long career while multiplayer lets to you go toe-to-toe with your friends (and foes) online. Just make sure to keep your excuse Rolodex on hand like the real racers do.

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