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Ten to One

The odds are stacked in your favour that you will find the perfect gift idea in our list of this year’s top video games, graphic novels and books.

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Top Ten Video GamesBy Peter Baillie

Battlefield 2 PC

In 2002, Battlefield 1942 became the paradigm for all action games, with its seemingly limitless detailed environments—whether running, driving or flying about. Set in the present day anda near future, Battlefield 2 has no storyline. Rather, players choose to fight as the European Union, China, a Middle East Coalition or the US, imposing will by filling adversaries with the most lead. If it’s possible to feel legitimate comradery online, this is the venue. Grab a headset and acquire enough experience to become a commander, leading your team into combat as you call the shots. Or, pit yourself against strong AI and take on the ‘bots. Fantastic graphics and audio.

Burnout Revenge Microsoft Xbox

Finally, a game that rewards recklessness! If you have a penchant for destruction and don’t want a criminal record, Burnout Revenge is dynamite. The object of this super-fast, arcade-style racing game is to take out your opponents at any cost. Although purists of the racing genre will cringe at the gravity-defying physics of Burnout Revenge, they will also concede that the graphics are seamless at 200 miles per hour, and the ability to maneuver your exploding carcass of a car in mid-air, causing more mayhem, is unbelievably exhilarating. There are the Basic Race and Elimination modes common to all racing games, but Burnout also includes Road Rage and Crash modes. Use your imagination.

Civilization IV PC

Civilization is the flagship strategy game series and each new offering improves on its predecessor. World domination is at the game’s heart, but it’s the means, rather than the end, that matters. In Civilization IV you choose the time, the place and the culture you want to lead. If Napoleon is your guy, then rule as him and attempt to create some revisionist history. Whether you decide on a straight-ahead, military divide-and-conquer tactic, or a more passive and insidious one such as focusing on culture and religion or research and development, the goal remains the same. Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Spock) narrates, adding an air of legitimacy. Civilization IV is sophisticated, subtle and definitely not suitable for the novice gamer.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Sony PlayStation 2

The latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series outdoes its predecessors in every way. You can expect to get 30 to 40 hours of strong, character-based gang fighting with style to spare, fantastic dialogue and storylines. Spanning three west-coast cities, the maps are expansive and the soundtrack—just like you—is killer. The mission goals are clear and all of your actions demand respect or else you’ll find it tough to recruit new gang members. Oh yeah, don’t forget to go to the gym occasionally to pump some iron and look as threatening as you feel. With its necessary drive-by shootings and violence, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is not for the moral minority.

Guitar Hero Sony PlayStation 2

Guitar Hero is a rhythm-based game like Dance Dance Revolution and Amplitude. The game comes with a half-scale guitar with five buttons on its neck, a whammy bar and “string” to pluck when prompted. The notes scrolling towards you correspond to the five buttons on the neck. Points are awarded for timing and accuracy. It’s a shame that you can’t focus on the visuals for the on-stage antics as you, the Guitar Hero, rock out to such standards as “Ziggy Stardust” or a Sum 41 tune. The learning curve of the game is slow and the guitar controller is a hoot. When you’re really rockin’ out, lift the neck so it’s perpendicular to the ground to get extra points. If you have two “guitars,” you can trade licks in an onstage, heads-up battle.

Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap Game Boy Advance

The bird’s-eye perspective characteristic to all Zelda GBA games is just right for the kind of dungeon scavenging and problem solving required for The Minish Cap. There are six dungeons to explore as well as a complex home base, so your progress is relatively easy to measure. Although somewhat deterministic regarding its storyline, there are enough tangential adventures to keep the die-hard fan amused indefinitely. Add some cool new items such as a Gust Jar that literally sucks in enemies and the Roc’s Cape that allows you to glide after jumping (a la Mario Brothers), and you’ll agree this game works.

Ninja Gaiden Black Microsoft Xbox

Whether you’re a real ninja or not, you’ll agree that Ninja Gaiden Black is the best fighting game for any console. You’d be hard pressed to improve on the frantic action and precision required to succeed. For these reasons, NGB is also arguably the most difficult game to master. The controls are quite complex and the AI is top notch, so prepare to get your ass kicked like a nark at a biker rally. As a bonus, the game contains the original game Gaiden Ninja from last year, and there’s a fantastic mission mode with a typical “village-attacked-and-relic-stolen” storyline. As in chess, the better player will almost certainly win in a heads-up match, so there’s a lot to practice for—if you have any friends left.

Resident Evil 4 Nintendo Gamecube

Resident Evil 4 transcends the horror action genre with its cinematic approach. Considering your number-one kill tactic is a bullet to the brainpan, this game is not for the weak of heart. There are some human (not always zombie) targets, so it takes a little mental rewiring to get comfortable. The game is presented in widescreen format and the cut scenes and action are worthy of a great cinematographer. The extra few inches on either side of the screen are extremely useful in picking up peripherally whoever—or whatever—wants you six feet underground. You’ll rejoice in knowing that wandering about and maiming in Resident Evil 4 is easier than ever. The controls are much more intuitive, which was the great knock on its predecessor.

SOCOM U.S. Navy Seals Fireteam Bravo Sony PlayStation portable

SOCOM is the first legit shooter for a handheld unit. The widescreen really helps, but it’s the approach to the shooter genre that clicks. The controls are 100 percent intuitive and despite a “lock-on” targeting feature, aiming and connecting are anything but a sure thing. In single-player mode, each player commands a team of two, as opposed to a four-man team on the PS2, through what seems like endless environments. In the online mode, players communicate through headsets to share strategies, and fight together with no terrible lag or slide-show effects. Fourteen missions have you engaged in all of the usual military stuff: killing, rescuing, spying and destroying are all well represented in the mission pyramid. Be the gun.

WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 Sony PlayStation 2

Wrestling fans are like the NDP: You have to throw them a bone every once a while to keep them pacified or they’ll take it to the streets. Finally, there’s a wrestling game that mimics the TV production values of the wrestling environment. The entrance, the lights, the glitz, the bizarre matches and the commentary that turn an ordinary fan into a fanatic are all found in one wrestling title. Whether it’s a coffin match, where the winner is declared only after he puts his opponent into a coffin and buries him, or a bra-and-panties match in which two female wrestlers clutch and grab at each other until all that remains on one combatant is a bra and panties, the game is true to its roots as a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Top Ten Graphic NovelsBy Neil Fraser

Ice HavenDaniel Clowes, Pantheon

An experiment in format, Daniel Clowes’ (Ghost World, Eightball) Ice Haven is a collection of short strips done in the styles of familiar comic strips from the 20th century. Each one tells a story about the inhabitants of the town of Ice Haven. Framed by the story of a child’s kidnapping, the larger story takes a back seat to the lives of the seemingly normal folks of this seemingly normal American town.

Project: SuperiorVarious Artists, AdHouse Books

They say that inside every indie comic artist there is a superhero fan-boy waiting to get out. AdHouse’s latest comic anthology gives those inner fan-boys an outlet. Ranging from touching tribute to absurdist parody, today’s hottest alternative superstars, such as Bryan Lee O’Malley, Dean Haspiel, Scott Morse, Tara McPherson and Brian Wood, present their takes on the superhero genre.

Scott Pilgrim Vol. 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Oni Press

With Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley has taken all the fun things about growing up after 1980 and combined them in his series of original graphic novels. There’s videogame action with a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, characters you can’t help but love, and pop culture references galore. Scott Pilgrim Vol. 2 carries on the excitement of the first volume while adding more depth and history to Scott and his gang. O’Malley’s manga-influenced art is sharp and fun, but it’s his hilarious dialogue that makes the books impossible to put down.

Teenagers from Mars Rick Spears and Rob G, Gigantic Graphic Novels

The independent comic series and cult favourite that launched the careers of Rick Spears and Rob G is collected in one volume. Set in the uptight suburban town of Mars, amateur comic artist Macon finds himself fighting for his freedom and his art alongside his punk girlfriend Madison after drunkenly vandalizing the local “Mall-Mart.” If Rambo was a self-aware teen romance and had elements of magical realism, it would be Teenagers from Mars.

The Goon: Fancy Pants Edition Eric Powell, Dark Horse Comics

Eric Powell’s beautifully crafted horror-comedy stories about a thug named Goon get the treatment they deserve in this Fancy Pants hardcover edition. The Goon is not your everyday thug: Not only does he have to worry about collecting for his protection racket, he’s also the first line of defense whenever the latest zombie horde or mad scientist decides to attack his town. When the stories were first printed in The Goon series they seemed to be random standalone tales, but Powell has ordered them chronologically to show that he does have a master plan for the series and its titular character’s ongoing battle against the nameless zombie priest.

The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion Will Eisner, WW Norton and Company

Finished a month before his death earlier this year, comics legend Will Eisner’s heavily researched story about the origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a fitting final work for the man who led the way in showing that comics could have literary and educational value. While the overly didactic dialogue comes off sounding like a “Canadian Heritage Moment” at times, Eisner uses all his skills as a master craftsman to relate how this anti-Semitic work came to be created in the late 19th century as a tool for the Russian Secret Police. He reveals <\n>that although the work was proven fraudulent many times over the past century, it continued <\n>to be reprinted to inspire hatred and violence against Jews.

The Push Man and other stories Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn & Quarterly

First published in Japan nearly 40 years ago, the short stories in The Push Man are Tatsumi’s examinations of the dark, repressed natures of modern man. Disturbing yet very beautiful, these vignettes of late 1960s Japan have more in common with the modern alternative comics of Daniel Clowes or Adrian Tomine (who edited, designed, lettered and provided the introduction to this volume) than those of popular manga.

The Forty Niners Alan Moore and Gene Ha, America’s Best Comics

The long-awaited prequel to Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell), Gene Ha and Zander Cannon’s hit superhero-cop drama Top Ten. From the perspective of new arrival Jetlad (Top Ten’s Captain Traynor), we see the formative years of Neopolis, the city inhabited entirely by super-powered beings. Ha handled the art chores without Cannon’s support for this story, and the results are gorgeously toned and detailed pages.

WE3 Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, DC/Vertigo

Grant Morrison has written some of the most challenging mainstream comics since he hit the scene in the late 1980s with Animal Man. While WE3 is no less challenging, it may be his most sentimental. Quitely’s fine line-art has enhanced many a Morrison script (New X-Men, JLA: Earth 2, ALL-Star Superman). This time he uses his talent to bring life to this tale of a dog, a cat and a rabbit that want to find their way home, and who use all the experimental military hardware that has been implanted in their bodies to do so. Morrison’s WE3 is a story that will give you an adrenaline rush and pull at your heartstrings.

Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World Seth, Drawn & Quarterly

Wimbledon Green takes what should have been a throwaway gag and turns it into a comic-strip mockumentary. It is a credit to Seth’s (Clyde Fans, It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken) skill as a cartoonist that this works so well. Told as a series of short strips of interviews and adventures, Seth creates a cast of unscrupulous eccentric comic collectors all trying to unravel the mystery of the life and disappearance of Wimbledon Green, the greatest cartoonist of them all.

BOOKSBy Stephanie Domet

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer is one of those tricky new writers (he was born in 1977) whose work sometimes appears to be more clever than smart. But in this case, it’s both, plus a whole lot more. While I grudgingly enjoyed his first book, Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is probably the very best book I read this year. Oskar is nine years old, bright and strange and obsessed with solving a mystery he finds in the closet of his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Though it feels a little soon, culturally, for novels about September 11, Safran Foer doesn’t appear to have rushed a single word of this massively intelligent and emotionally keen novel. More of this, please, in the future.

The Disappointment Artist Jonathan Lethem

It’s hard for me to feel that I’ve said enough good stuff about Jonathan Lethem. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you should get on that. No, go, it’s okay, I’ll wait. Perhaps you prefer non-fiction, in which case, do yourself a favour and pick up The Disappointment Artist. It’s Lethem’s first collection of non-fiction and it’s a corker. He is as deft at essay-writing as he is at novel-writing. The essays are, on the surface, about popular culture. Deeper than that, though, they’re about grief and dealing with it, and how an artist becomes an artist. That sounds hopelessly earnest, and these essays aren’t. They’re funny and sweet and challenging and awesome.

A Great Feast of Light John Doyle

People who think television is a waste of time have probably never read John Doyle’s excellent column on the subject in The Globe and Mail. I feel a little sorry for those people, because they’ll probably also never read his memoir of growing up in Ireland at the dawning of the TV age there. Doyle writes with his trademark humour and style, and he illuminates the social and political changes that television helped bring about in his native land. I’ll admit that even as a massive Doyle fan, I was at first skeptical about this book. But Doyle makes a convincing—and entertaining—case for TV as an instrument of social change, in a book that should resonate with pop culture scholars and Eire-o-philes alike.

Map of Glass Jane Urquhart

Laced with fanciful images, like a hotel entirely and literally lost to the sands of time, a glass ballroom floor, three-dimensional maps made of fabric and bits of nature, and a dead man encased in ice floating down a river, Map of Glass is certainly Jane Urquhart’s finest book, and there’s a backlist of good books from which to choose. Though sometimes her main character seems somewhat too incapable of some of the <\n>things she does, Urquhart otherwise builds a convincing world and peoples it with compelling characters.

Miss Elva Stephens Gerard Malone

Stephens Gerard Malone wrote this novel years ago, couldn’t find a publisher for it and tucked it away in a cedar chest in the basement. It finally saw the light of day this year, and a good thing, too. It’s an unsentimental story based loosely on the life of Maud Lewis, that much-fetishized folk artist. Malone turns his flinty eye on the violence and poverty that were ingrained in Lewis’s life, as well as the casual racism of small-town Nova Scotia. It’s an unexpected treatment of a well-worn story, and definitely worth reading for that alone.

Race Against Time Stephen Lewis

It’s not good in the way a novel is good, in that it takes you away from your real life. Race Against Time does that, but it takes you to a place you’d probably rather not go; a place you’re lucky you don’t have to visit, let alone inhabit. Still, it’s a necessary read, and an urgent one. Lewis laboured over this book, keeping his publisher at bay as long as he could in order to make the book—and thus the Massey Lectures it’s based on—as current as possible. The result is an often depressing account of AIDS in Africa and the continent’s state of emergency at the hands of the disease. But Lewis is driven, relentless, intelligent and insightful. And, ultimately, optimistic. His passion and integrity are in every word, and though the subject matter may fill you with despair, you could do much, much worse than to spend a few hours in his company via this book.

The Secret Mulroney Tapes Peter C. Newman

Whatever you might think of Peter C. Newman’s journalistic methods (or understanding of friendship, for that matter), his juicy expose of the man Canadians love to hate (in Mulroney’s own words, even better) is solid entertainment. Relive the arrogance of the Mulroney years at a safe distance, and get worked up about free trade and the GST all over again.

Talk to the Hand Lynne Truss

The author of one of last year’s best books (Eats, Shoots and Leaves, an outraged treatise on this culture’s appalling grammar) delivers an outraged treatise on this culture’s appalling manners. I know it doesn’t sound like much fun, but oh, oh, oh, fun is exactly what it is. Especially if you’re reasonably sure your own manners are unimpeachable. It’s a slender volume, but hey, that just means it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Polite to the very end.

The Wreckage Michael Crummey

The Wreckage is a gorgeous novel set sometimes in a Newfoundland outport, sometimes in the city, and sometimes in a World War Two prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. Michael Crummey writes beautiful sentences of the sort that make other writers wonder why they bother. The book is loosely based on bits of Crummey’s family history, but his wonderful characters, especially the main ones, Mercedes and Wish, make the story even more heartbreaking than real life could ever be. This is Crummey’s second novel; The River Thieves, his first, was good in its own quiet way, but The Wreckage sprawls and brawls and spills over, and demands to be read.

A Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion

Joan Didion had an annus horribilis to rival Queen Elizabeth’s that time. First, a few days before Christmas, her only child, 33-year-old Quintana fell seriously ill, was hospitalized and put into an induced coma. Then, the night before New Year’s Eve, her husband died of a massive heart attack while Didion was preparing supper. Later, their daughter pulled through her illness, only to collapse, ill again, months later. Didion, a tremendously talented writer of fiction and essays, became obsessed with how, in a perfectly ordinary moment, everything changed dramatically and for the worst. This book is her attempt to make sense of the time she spent navigating through her grief—which she does with immense grace.

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