Video games may seem expensive when compared with other entertainment media, like DVDs or CDs. But when you do the math, video games are some of the most cost-effective gifts you can give.
Take a $60 game like "Fallout 3." I've played it for about 80 hours, which works out to 75 cents per hour. Your typical DVD purchase costs about $10 an hour, so what's the real bargain?
There are two things to remember if you're new to buying video games. First, find out what kind of console the recipient owns (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii are the big three) and make sure your gift is in that format. Second, pay attention to ratings: The M-rated games listed here are far too intense for younger players.
"Fallout 3" (Bethesda Softworks, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; rated M for mature)
The finest game released this year, "Fallout 3" turns the grimmest of scenarios — Washington, D.C., 200 years after a nuclear war — into an invigorating role-playing adventure. You can spend dozens of hours roaming the vividly realized Capitol Wasteland, fighting mutants and helping the last remnants of civilization survive. It's disturbing, funny, violent and ultimately hopeful, and it's a can't-miss delight for adult gamers. ($60)
"Rock Band 2" (MTV Games, for the Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2; rated T for teen)
It's the best party game of the year, and one that uncoordinated parents can enjoy with their more nimble-fingered offspring. "Rock Band 2" builds nicely on the series' addictive Tour mode, in which you can form a band and conquer the world, one club at a time. MTV now has hundreds of "Rock Band"-compatible tunes online, so you never run out of fresh music to play. ($50-$60, game only; guitar, drums and microphone cost extra.)
"LittleBigPlanet" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3; rated E for everyone)
This innovative gem is, for starters, an old-school 2-D platform game, a la Super Mario Bros. The levels are gorgeous and cleverly designed, and the hero, Sackboy, is one of the most endearing characters since, well, Mario. The game itself is just an introduction, though, to a tool set that lets you build your own levels and upload them for other PS3 owners to play. It's a great gift for any kid who dreams of a career as a game designer. ($60)
"Gears of War 2" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360; rated M) and "Resistance 2" (Sony, for the PlayStation 3; rated M)
For pedal-to-the-metal action, either of these man-vs.-alien shooters is a winner. Both focus on a gritty human warrior fighting off a seemingly unstoppable alien invasion; both revel in the kind of visceral mayhem that made best-sellers out of their predecessors. Pure adrenaline, especially in their beefy multiplayer modes. ($60 each)
"Mirror's Edge" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; rated T)
Here's a refreshing change: An action game in which you're actually discouraged from using weapons. The heroine is Faith, an acrobatic courier who spends most of the game running along the high-rise rooftops of a futuristic city. "Mirror's Edge" is tough — it takes a while to get the hang of timing jumps so you don't plummet to the sidewalk — but it looks like no other game on the market. ($60)
"Animal Crossing: City Folk" (Nintendo, for the Wii; rated E)
The latest "Animal Crossing" chapter is ideal for Wii owners who like their games on the mellow side. It's all about making friends with your neighbors, who are, frankly, a bunch of animals; lots of the fun comes from their hilarious, unpredictable banter. While most of the "action" consists of collecting stuff and doing favors for your new friends, "AC" is one of the Wii's most addictive treats. ($50)