Call of Duty, Halo lead Xbox holiday game lineup

It's only August, but video game companies such as Microsoft are already gearing up for the key holiday buying season.

It's only August, but video game companies are already gearing up for the key holiday season. And in video game land, the holiday season really begins in September.

Microsoft was the first to the gate with its annual holiday showcase — this year's event was called X10 — on Wednesday in Toronto. The company showed off a bevy of hands-on demos to journalists for its Xbox 360 console, ranging from titles aimed at the whole family through its new Kinect motion control system to those designed specifically for hard-core online gamers.

Here are some of the games that impressed:

Call of Duty: Black Ops: The Call of Duty series from Activision has, for many gamers, become the first-person shooter by which all others are measured. Activision has divided development of the series between a pair of studios, Infinity Ward and Treyarch, to ensure a steady flow of the games for the holiday season, which is when many publishers' fortunes are made. This year it's Treyarch's turn.

The Santa Monica, Calif.-based studio has thus far cut its teeth creating Call of Duty games set during the Second World War, but this time out the action is set during the Cold War. Game designers are keeping mum on the details but the demo shown at X10 took place in the late 1960s in Vietnam and Laos.

Players go through the game mainly as elite U.S. soldiers who have been chosen to perform "black operations" that are unsanctioned by their government. In the demo, a small group of soldiers escaped a downed helicopter, infiltrated and destroyed a village, then snuck through a series of Viet Cong tunnels.

The game promises more than just sneaking and shooting, though — in the hands-on portion of the demo, I got to fly a helicopter along a river, shooting missiles and machine guns at ground- and air-based opponents. Call of Duty games have always won accolades for their cinematic quality, and this scene was straight out of Apocalypse Now, Platoon and every other great Vietnam movie made.

Judging from trailers for Black Ops, the game obviously shifts to different locations as well; some snow-covered scenes indicate the action at some point moves to Russia. Over all, the Cold War and Vietnam conflict have been relatively underrepresented in video games — unlike the Second World War — so the change of time and place looks like it'll breathe new life into the series.

Call of Duty finds its main appeal through its online multiplayer options, which Activision representatives were unwilling to discuss at X10. Those details will be announced on Sept. 1, they said, with the game's release coming on Nov. 9.

Halo: Reach: Microsoft's game fortunes can largely be attributed to the Halo series, which helped launch its inaugural Xbox console back in 2001. The original Halo: Combat Evolved was a smash hit that redefined the first-person shooter genre, and the series has continued evolving to become one of the most important online multiplayer titles. Indeed, many gamers are in fact split over which is the better online series: Halo or Call of Duty.

Halo: Reach is apparently the last Halo game for Bungie, the Chicago-based studio behind the franchise. A representative from the company said the new game, which launches Sept. 14, is darker than its predecessor as it tells the story of the fall of Reach, a human colony set in the fictional Halo universe. The game itself is a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved and sets up the events of that game.

Judging from the short demo, the single-player campaign looks like more of the same. Players control a Spartan soldier and fight alien Covenant troops, with a variety of weapons and vehicles — such as the trusty Warthog jeep — at their disposal.

Where Reach impresses is with its customization options. Players can tinker with everything from their character's shoulder pads to their gender, and their creations apply across the game, including in the single-player mode. The multiplayer modes can be endlessly customized: enemies can be assigned different intelligent levels, difficulties of battles set and waves of enemy types chosen.

The "Forge" mode, which in previous games let players create their own battlefields, is greatly expanded to the point where almost every detail of the giant world can be modified. It's a tinkerer's dream, and it's easy to envision getting lost in this feature for hours on end.

The Bungie representative said that because this is the company's last Halo game, designers wanted to pull out all the stops and pack it with as many features as they could think of — "and that's not just marketing BS," he said.

Rock Band 3: The Guitar Hero/Rock Band phenomenon, where gamers play different plastic instruments along to popular songs, has been getting a little stale lately with an oversaturation caused by too many releases. The designers at Harmonix, the Cambridge, Mass.-based studio that created Guitar Hero and then moved on to Rock Band, know this and are trying to freshen things up.

Rock Band 3, which is being released in October by Electronic Arts, introduces two new concepts: keyboards and real guitars.

The keyboards seem like a natural addition, given the plethora of rock songs that use them. The video game uses a 24-button keyboard that is, for all intents and purposes, a miniature piano.

Using the keyboard is challenging at first, but it makes the game feel new again because it provides the same feeling as picking up the plastic guitar for the first time. In the beginning it's daunting because you never think you'll get it, but before long you're rocking out (as much as one can rock playing keyboards, that is) and progressing to harder songs and settings.

One of the main criticisms of the whole Guitar Hero/Rock Band wave has been that the games don't really teach people how to play real guitars. Harmonix is attempting to solve that with its pro guitar, which is half-way between being a real axe and the five-button plastic controller the game normally uses. The pro guitar has no strings, but it has 102 buttons set at the real fret positions on the neck of a real guitar.

All the songs in Rock Band 3, as well as every downloadable song for it from here on in, will have two play modes. You can either play with the coloured notes displayed on screen as normal, or you can set the song to display actual fret positions. In other words, if you want to use Rock Band 3 to learn how to play real guitar, you can now do so. 

It's worth noting that Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, Rock Band 3's main nemesis, is being released on Sept. 28. Aside from an improved story mode that requires playing the entire seven-part, twenty-minute 2112 song from the Rush album of the same name, the game appears to be more of the same.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood: The third Assassin's Creed game picks up where the second one left off, in the players are in control of Enzio, the master assassin, and his arrival in Renaissance Rome. The Templar knights he fought against in the second game decide to take revenge against him and destroy his villa. It's an emotional event because players likely spent much of the Assassin's Creed 2 building that property up.

The third game, which launches on Nov. 16,  adds a host of new features, including putting Enzio in charge of underlings who carry out his orders, as well as a more intuitive combat system. Brotherhood is also the first game in the series to feature online multiplayer game, although that wasn't seen at the X10 demo.

The second game improved immensely on the first with the introduction of an economic system that let players earn money, which could then be spent on new weapons and armour, or on improving their villas. The system is intact in the third game, although rather than selfishly spending on themselves, players can also improve sections of Rome that have been impoverished by Templar neglect.

A representative from Ubisoft Montreal, where all the Assassin's Creed games have been designed, said that although Brotherhood is a full-fledged game on its own, it's more of "two-and-a-half" in the series' storyline, with the closing chapter still to come.

Dance Central: Of the 16 titles that are launching with Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect add-on for the Xbox 360, this title from MTV Games and Harmonix will probably be the most popular at parties. The game requires players to stand in front of the television and mimic the dance moves being done on screen, to songs ranging from Lady Gaga's Poker Face to Poison by Bell Biv Devoe.

The dance moves seen at the demo ranged from simple foot shuffling and hand clapping to full-on running mans and break-dancing.

It's not a game that shy people would want to play in front of other people, but after a few drinks, this could be the hit of the party.