Ease into the video game world

Dec. 1, 2010, 3:00 a.m.

Winter break is coming up, and that means plenty of good old-fashioned down time. Sure, you could always catch up with your little sister or shovel the driveway with your old man, but let’s be honest, there’s something we’re looking forward to more than food or family. With no classes to worry about and nasty weather keeping us inside, the holiday season is practically begging to be spent with a controller in your hand.

Gaming is bigger than ever this year, but don’t worry if you think you’re late to the party or you’re not hardcore enough to join in on the fun – there’s a bevy of great distractions out there for even the least gizmo-inclined among us. So in honor of going all the way home just to spend time alone, here are a few games to keep you busy. And the best part? They’re all cheap, and you’ve probably already got a laptop (or a smartphone) that can run them.


Ease into the video game world
Portal (Courtesy of Valve Corporation)

If Halo or Call of Duty is too fast and furious for you – or you’ve never even heard of them – you still owe it to yourself to check out this darling of a game. Like those intense shooters, Portal has you exploring the world from a first-person perspective. But the similarities stop there: instead of blasting aliens or sniping terrorists, the focus is on solving environmental puzzles based on realistic physics and a unique little device that can create, well, portals.

You’re tasked with escaping from a research facility run by an ever-present (and consistently hilarious) artificial intelligence, all while using your “portal gun” in increasingly inventive ways to move from one area to another. By tapping the left mouse button, you can tag a wall with a wormhole of sorts, then tag another surface that acts as an entrance (or exit) to the other portal. It’s as simple (and complicated) as that. Objects, including yourself, pass through the portals with their momentum conserved, meaning you could jump to a portal three stories below you only to have it catapult you sideways out of a wall high above.

The pacing and humor will drive you along without overwhelming you, and the controls remain simple while the puzzles get gradually tougher. Even my dad managed to slog his way through this one with plenty of laughs along the way, and felt pretty good about himself at the end of it all. Portal is a finely tuned piano, but you don’t need any lessons to make beautiful music.

Available for PC and Mac, Xbox 360 and PS3

Plants vs. Zombies

Get ready to do a lot of tapping (or clicking, as the case may be). This quirky little strategy game pits you against wave after wave of undead foes whose only weakness – as we all know – is the leafy power of the plant kingdom. You’ll have to manage your limited solar energy to sow the appropriate seeds in your besieged backyard, which is divided into rows and columns. As the zombie army ambles forward, your plant posse will fire off pea-bullets, blow up under their feet, freeze them in place or sacrifice itself in order to delay the oncoming horde. You’ll have an enormous and varied arsenal of botanical buddies by game’s end, all of which (along with the equally eclectic array of zombies) are oozing with charm.

But be careful as you hold off these tenacious terrors through dark, light and watery environments – you might find yourself blasting away “just one more wave” when the clock strikes midnight at your mom’s lame New Year’s party.

Available for PC and Mac, Xbox 360 and iPhone


If you’re noticing a “P” theme so far, then bear with me. This gem of a puzzler comes from the same folks who made Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled (the appropriately P-named PopCap games), and carries the same polish and charm. What’s more, it’s easily the simplest and most gratifying game on this list. To play, all you need to do is aim, shoot and watch. There’s a marble-cannon at the top of the screen and a unique array of blue and orange “pegs” on the board below. If the marble hits a peg, it disappears after a brief delay. A guide helps to line up your shots and maximize the effect of ricochets, which can be a joy to watch as the music and sound effects ramp up with every peg you hit. Add in a cast of silly animal assistants and their accompanying super powers, and you’ve got a perfect game for a quick hit of fun whenever there’s a moment to spare.

Available for PC and Mac, iPhone, Xbox 360, PS3 and DS

Ease into the video game world
Prince of Persia (2008) (Courtesy of Ubisoft)

Prince of Persia (2008)

You won’t be playing this one on your phone or dinky notebook, but if you’ve got the means, then Ubisoft’s recent revamp of this classic series demands a look from game junkies and newcomers alike. The art in Prince of Persia is evocative of watercolor in motion, and there’s a distinctly blissful Zen in simply moving about the world.

It helps that the action and platforming are simpler than anything else out there, the combat is infrequent and simple and the stakes for failure are low. Thanks to responsive controls and environmental cues, there’s a flow to moving and fighting akin to a rhythm game. Even if you should make a mistake and slip off a ledge, you’ll be quickly rescued by your female companion, Elika. Thanks to her help, in fact, it’s nearly impossible to die in Prince of Persia. Besides always having your back, Elika provides a charismatic and likeable counterpart to the charming-rogue personality of the prince: the banter between them doesn’t slow down the action and adds considerable depth to their increasingly deep relationship, and you can’t help but grow attached to Elika as you work together to bring life back to a cursed and tainted world.

Available for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3

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