This has been a banner year for the first-person shooter on consoles.
We've seen some brilliant shooters ("BioShock," "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption"), some terrible ones ("Hour of Victory") and plenty more that fell somewhere in between (yes, "Halo 3").
Clearly, game companies have figured out that we like to play with guns. It's led to somewhat of a glut: Was anyone craving three separate installments of Electronic Arts' "Medal of Honor" series this year?
On the other hand, even with all the console shooters out there, I'm still annoyed that EA's "Crysis" was a PC-only release.
Many of this year's shooters have tried to distinguish themselves with gimmicks, like the supernatural weapons in "The Darkness" or the time-twisting abilities of "TimeShift."
But one of the year's best games proves that the genre's meat-and-potatoes — filling hordes of bad guys with bullets — can be tremendously satisfying on its own.
—"Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Over the last four years, "Call of Duty" has become the premier World War II game series. But developer Infinity Ward has apparently realized we're sick of reliving D-Day — so it's goodbye Nazis, hello terrorists.
"COD4" alternates between two squads: a British team pursuing an ultra-nationalist leader in Russia, and an American team fighting terrorists in the Middle East.
Of course, the two stories eventually merge, but there are plenty of surprising — and occasionally disturbing — twists on the way to the inevitable confrontation with the mastermind behind both threats.
"Modern Warfare" requires modern weapons, so you get lots of new toys like night vision goggles, assault rifles and guided missiles. And once you're done with the solo campaign, "COD4" has a robust assortment of multiplayer challenges.
It's a superb package. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
—"Unreal Tournament III" (Midway, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99): The latest "Unreal" title moves the action quite a bit further into a future in which mankind is battling a bunch of nasty aliens.
The story isn't much, but the single-player campaign is essentially just a warm-up for tournament play against online opponents.
The multiplayer competition ranges from your basic capture-the-flag to more complicated warfare, in which your team must capture a series of nodes before attacking the enemy's power core.
You also get a nifty assortment of weapons like the biorifle, which shoots toxic sludge, and the impact hammer, which creates shockwaves.
The armored trucks and tanks from previous "Unreal" games return here, but you also get to drive some truly fearsome alien vehicles.
Particularly awe-inspiring is the Darkwalker, a towering, spider-legged contraption whose laser beams destroy everything in its path.
"UTIII" revels in such destruction, and it's a blast after a hard day in the real world. Three stars.
—"Soldier of Fortune: Payback" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Let's return to the present-day Middle East, where you're a mercenary hired for a simple escort mission.
When the mission goes pear-shaped and your client ends up dead, it's time for revenge against the mysterious group that betrayed you.
The route to revenge, alas, is a series of uninspired missions through lackluster settings.
Each level is extremely linear: You move forward, kill a bunch of people, then repeat until you get to the exit.
And there's nothing fresh among its multiplayer modes — not that many people will be playing this online when they could be fighting it out in "Call of Duty" or "Unreal."
"Payback" has one distinguishing feature: It's much gorier than most of the competition.
But the thrill of seeing severed body parts doesn't make up for careless game design. One star.