Cultural grinches may still consider gaming a children's pastime, but the actual average gamer age now hovers around 37 and keeps increasing as the Atari and Nintendo generations get older without getting rid of their consoles.
So now that we've gone over the best games for kids and teens, let's get into the year's best mature-rated games. While many games on the other lists -- like Uncharted 3, Arkham City, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Rayman Origins -- are still a great gift for those of us who can vote, almost nothing on this list should be bought for anyone under the age of 18. These are adult games for adult players and, in many cases, offer up 2011's greatest gaming triumphs.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Skyrim is pretty much the game of year, and that's not just my opinion -- it won that big prize at the Spike Video Game Awards, topped tons of year-end lists and they've shipped ten million copies in its first month. The Elder Scrolls role-playing game series has been a going concern since the mid-90s, but went mainstream in 2006 with the fourth chapter, Oblivion. This sequel has been insanely anticipated ever since and thankfully lives up to the heightened expectations. Skyrim offers up a living, breathing and sprawling virtual world that's the equivalent of 16 sq miles and populated by tens of thousands of people and creatures. While there’s a main storyline involving dragons to complete, it's really about doing what you want, when you want, how you want. The countless side-quests and the RPG franchise's famed nonlinear narrative structure means that no two gamers will ever experience Skyrim the same way. It's a stone-cold classic.
Team Bondi/Rockstar Games
Xbox 360, PS3
Rockstar may be best known as the makers of Grand Theft Auto, but as last year's epic western Red Dead Redemption proved, their narrative ambitions know few bounds. In 2011, they delved into film noire with this instant-classic detective drama. This time you're fighting on the right side of the law, but that only lets you see the corruption that much closer. The late-1940s feel is impeccably recreated, and while there is shooting and fighting and driving, the crux of the gameplay is crime-scene investigation and suspect interrogation. The art direction is astounding, the writing gripping and the period detail so well-realized you can even play in black & white. Then there's the acting -- and I do mean acting, as the game uses cutting-edge motion-capture technology (involving 32 cameras to capture facial expressions) to digitize fantastic performances from the likes of Mad Men's Aaron Staton.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
There may be better games in 2011, but there are no bigger ones than Modern Warfare 3, which trounced records (held, of course, by the previous Call of Duty) by clocking $400 million in its first 24 hours on sale, making it the highest-grossing entertainment launch ever. It hit a billion bucks by day 16. Though Call of Duty began as WWII series, it redefined itself in its Modern Warfare guise by turned the war of terror into an interactive blockbuster. This third iteration is just that -- an iteration. But it continues the series storyline about a third world war between the US and Russia (including an invasion of NYC), brings back fan-favourite characters and maintains Modern Warfare's trademark thrill-ride momentum. That's just the single-player campaign, of course, and shooters live or die on their multiplayer. There are some new tweaks to the gameplay, but mostly MW3 wins in multiplayer because everyone you know is already online playing it.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Xbox 360, PS3
This is one of the prettiest and most surreal games you will likely ever play. The Japanese-made game pulls its inspiration from the Apocrypha, a collection of non-canonical Old Testament scriptures. It tells the tale of Enoch, a human imbued with angelic powers who must stop a bunch of rebel angels in order to stop God from flooding the earth. (Ironically, Enoch's great-grandson is Noah, so even if he stops it the flood, it's only a matter of time). Oh, and if you think Lucifer is the fallen angel, you're wrong -- he's still on God's good side and is, in fact, your guide (albeit a sleazy guide in designer jeans with a cell phone he uses to call the big guy.) Enoch must ascend through seven levels of heaven, and each one is a game designer's dream, with unbridled creativity separating each heavenly plane from the next. For a gamer in search of something unconventional, it's manna from, well, you know where.
Visual Concepts/2K Sports
Xbox 360, PS3
The problem with sports games is that they come out every year and usually offer only minor improvements to justify a new purchase, thus taking advantage of sports fanatics who just must have the most up-to-date rosters. Which is why NBA 2K12 stands out. It features a new NBA's Greatest mode which, for apparently the first time ever, allows gamers to play as the 15 best b-ballers of all-time ever, ranging from Wilt Chamberlain, Dr J and Larry Bird to Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and, of course, Michael Jordan. From period-specific uniforms and arenas to "historically accurate broadcast presentation styles" (including black & white for '60s games), fans can create a fantasy league that mines the NBA's full history. By the time the 2011 lockout is officially history itself on Christmas Day, whomever you buy this for may not even care.
Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012
Though originally a Wii game, Ubisoft's Your Shape exercise game evolved last year to take advantage of the Xbox Kinect's controller-free camera. But it's also the evolution of exercise videos. After all, why watch a tape or a TV show when you can have an interactive personal trainer that can actually see how you're following instruction, tracks your progress, calories burned and other metrics? (OK, sure, you could go to a real gym and work with a real person, but who has the time or money for that?) You can build a workout from over 90 hours of fitness activities, ranging from cardio boxing and yoga to Latin dance and hip-hop. This fitness game good for anyone who wants to exercise but not go to the gym -- and is a particularly great gift for a mom (or dad) who can finally get some personal use out of their kid's blasted Xbox.
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
How appropriate it is to find two war games fighting it out this Christmas season for your hard-earned dollars? Battlefield 3 is the David to Modern Warfare 3's Goliath -- and in the cinematic single-player match-up it does come up a little short, despite its bombastically ridiculous plot traipsing from Tehran to Paris to New York. But that slingshot hits its target in the multiplayer by virtue of Battlefield 3 giving you so much more to play with. Rather than just skulking around a multiplayer map, B3 offers up a true battlefield that allows for 24 players (or 64 on PC) and mixes foot soldiers with tanks and fighter jets and helicopters to offer an unparalleled level of diversity and grandeur. (Oh, and that Frostbit 2 graphics engine makes this the prettiest that war has ever looked.) So if you have an online first-person shooter fan on your list, this will hit the target.
The King of Fighters XIII
SNK Playmore/Atlus Games
PS3, Xbox 360
Despite the Roman numerals at the end, King of Fighters is not nearly as well known a franchise as its fighting compatriots like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. But it has maintained a fervent cult following since 1991 and this thirteenth edition triumphs over the previous one by bringing back fan-favourite characters and adding new fighters, new moves and gorgeous hand-drawn graphics. The surrealist storyline, of course, is as incomprehensibly Japanese as ever (not that people play King of Fighters for plot) and the gameplay mechanics are nearly as complex. The game is rated T for teen, but its retro 2D style is perfect for nostalgic arcade-era adults who recall dumping countless quarters into coin-op machines during the 1990s fighting game craze.
Gears of War 3
Epic Games/ Microsoft Studios
Gears of War 3 conclude its trilogy and brings this generation-defining third-person shooter to a satisfying conclusion. Pretty much every Xbox 360-owner became a fan of this allegorical war story about a society destroyed by its ravenous need for energy. When last we saw the ever-bulky Marcus Fenix and his merry band of COGs, they were destroying the last remaining human settlement on the planet of Sera in a last-ditch gambit to exterminate the insect-like Locust hordes that had emerged from underground in the first game. They didn't succeed, and we start out this time with humanity's survivors floating on the sea in search of new safe haven before all hell breaks loose. Again. The innovation of the original game has faded some, but the duck-and-cover gameplay is as gripping as ever, the set-pieces and bosses are big and badass, and for those who have invested all these hours into this war-torn world, it's time see how they reel the storyline in.
This sequel to Sucker Punch's original (if totally inspired-by) superhero story sees the electrically-powered anti-hero Cole McGrath abandoning Empire City for the post-Katrina New Orleans stand-in New Marais. With the flood waters still around, it's a somewhat dangerous place for an electrical man, especially with the ominous Beast making its way over and an anti-mutant militia eager to take down anyone with superpowers. The story is a collage of X-Men and Watchmen tropes -- discrimination, time-travel, plague, sacrifice -- but Cole's powers are cool, the open-world is wonderfully well-realized and there's a level editor that adds a ton of user-generated content to bulk up the replay value.
Ps3, Xbox 360
Perhaps one of the weirdest games ever made, Catherine is easily the most mature game on this list, even if its lead character is less than mature. This is a game about growing up and about infidelity, which already makes it an anomaly. Our milquetoast protagonist Vincent, who mostly just hangs out at his local bar with his buddies, is getting pressured to marry his long-term girlfriend Katherine. He panics and hooks up with a new girl, Catherine, and suddenly his life is thrown into turmoil. But as much as this framing story focuses on quotidian realism, the game itself gets surreal pretty quick when Vincent starts having horrible nightmares where he’s surrounded by sheep-men and trying to climb these deadly box towers. These puzzle-like sections are the most traditionally game-like it gets, but Catherine really scores points by redefining what a game can be.