Call of Duty: Black Ops II…

Black Ops 2With the Call of Duty franchise, Black Ops has traditionally featured stronger campaigns than Modern Warfare, but has received flak for weaker multiplayer options. Black Ops II continues to deliver engaging storytelling—with a great villain with whom we empathize, but still hate—but the welcome surprise is a robust multiplayer experience. The campaign weaves gamers between the late-1980s and 2025 and stands as a prime example of developers pushing the limits of current-gen console hardware to deliver excellent graphics—though at this point it must feel like wringing blood from a stone. There are also optional real-time-strategy/first-person-shooter mashup missions that are incredibly fun and alter the story. Taking a few cues from Modern Warfare and running with them, the multiplayer features league play, various new game modes, unlockable emblem and gamer-card customizations, and—most important—some amazing maps. Almost every map exceeds expectations, but “Hijacked” is poised to become a longtime favorite. The perfect mix of close quarters and mid- and long-range combat options make it a crowd pleaser with great versatility. Watch out, Modern Warfare, Black Ops just grabbed a flak jacket and has you in its sights.

Red…

Red Taylor SwiftIn the six years since her debut album, Taylor Swift has come across as a country Cinderella with the wrath of a Southern belle and the humor of a liberal-arts geek. Over time, we’ve seen some of the honeysuckle twang drip away, but Swift continues to honor both the glass slipper and the Sharpie’d Converse sides of her personality. Red begins with “State of Grace,” a perfect stadium-show opener that pumps you up but doesn’t leave you exhausted for what’s to come. Heading down home, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” seems born from the creative saviors that are moonlight, a half-empty bottle, and raindrops on the window. While “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” acts as the album’s big breakup song, it fulfills a more critical role—one it shares with “22”—as the unselfconsciously silly song you belt out only among friends who really know you. More important, these songs humanize a wonderful album and serve as reminders that Swift earned the fulfillment of her dream and wasn’t born with a silver guitar in her hands. The album opens with the pop princess and closes with the country girl-next-door’s “Begin Again,” a song about the hope and promise of letting your guard down to love again—a softly inspiring reminder we all need to hear from time to time.

Borderlands 2…

Borderlands2Ignore any skags who insist less is more. More is more, and this sequel to the 2009 surprise hit proves just that. A new group of Vault Hunters is at your command to foil Handsome Jack’s evil plan, but the real appeal—once again—is the unrestrained humor and outrageous guns. Gun manufacturers now feel and look more distinct from each other. Some guns sport increased fire rate and others explode like a grenade upon reload. The RPG elements remain with a few new twists such as Badass Points (global buffs for completing objectives) and character skin and head customizations. The combat is tried and true, but we get to topple more building-size monsters, which gives boss battles an epic oomph. While the overall story is bland—though better than the first—the towns and quests are overflowing with sexist, homicidal and perverted characters, and quests that drive us to kill while murdering our funny bone. Unlike any other game out there, the unapologetic humor and distinct visual style creates an over-the-top adventure that fuels replayability not with filler objectives but with a desire to let loose continually in a world that is as inappropriately crass as we all love to be sometimes.

Havoc and Bright Lights…

Havoc And Bright LightsFor me, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was the right music at the right time—an album that will be forever flawless in my mind. Nothing else has ever matched those first few notes of “All I Really Want.” After seven years of holding out hope for lightning striking twice, Havoc and Bright Lights has found its way into my rotation, and though it’s not lightning, there are some serious sparks. Morissette seems to have found the middle ground between the angst of Jagged Little Pill and the spiritual mundanity of its follow-up, 1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. There’s enough raw discomfort in “Woman Down” (great crescendos!) and “Lens” to balance out the retrospective and almost too-personal “Win and Win” and “Receive.” “Celebrity” is a perfect example of the melting pot that is her style, with its touch of Bollywood sound mixed with almost-screeching vocals and a mellow but poignant discourse that punches home the story of its title. In many ways, it seems that this album would have served as a great bridge between Jagged and Junkie, as it introduces the dominant sound in the latter while appeasing fans with a touch of the former. Regardless, Morissette always creates unique sound filled with honesty, and this album is no exception.

Zombicide…

Before sparkling vampires and their diaries hypnotized us, you couldn’t swing a chainsaw without hitting a zombie in pop culture. For people who miss those days, Zombicide is a collaborative board game that allows one to six players to fight for survival using classic zombie-shredding weapons such as axe, shotgun and Molotov cocktail. The heroes and zombie archetypes—Walker, Runner, Fatty and Abomination—have special skills, and it’s a credit to the game mechanics and detailed miniatures (created by CoolMiniOrNot) that they all feel unique and valuable. As players rack up kills, they gain levels and new skills, but with higher levels come more zombies. At first, a few trickle through the streets but soon dozens block every path. One misstep and the punishment is merciless. Don’t be surprised if each game features an “Oh, crap” moment of realization that no matter what you do, things just got bad. Real bad. Oddly, the rulebook has more than a few typos, but it’s a minor blemish on a game that embodies the horror, hopelessness and guiltless zombie slaughter found in our favorite walking-dead films. With Guillotine Games and the online community already supporting complimentary smartphone apps and a map editor, Zombicide has brought the undead back to life…again.

Botanicula

Video games overflowing with explosives, T ’n’ A, and action get a gamers’ adrenaline pumping and their hands sweating. But the point-and-click adventure Botanicula is more like a vacation on a tropical island. It’s a relaxing and rejuvenating game that reminds us what life—and games—can be like without the sensory bombardment. Set in a breathtaking mystical woodland, players control five forest friends who solve puzzles to help their fellow creatures while outsmarting a growing threat. From the art direction and sound effects to the creature design and puzzles, everything has a sprinkling of natural magic—reminiscent of what you might see in a Hayao Miyazaki film. There is no dialogue here, so exploration is the key. The creatures, situations and music that you encounter along the way are often hilarious, and you find yourself revisiting completed puzzles as you would an old friend. Botanicula is an imaginative, challenging, adorable and accessible game that dares to strip away the violence and excess. In doing so, it becomes a game that not only benefits our mind and soul, but our blood pressure as well.