In Hitman: Absolution, it’s not as though you’re joining a server and stealthily convincing 31 other players that you’re not standing behind them with a garrote. (Try the Assassin’s Creed series for that.)
Instead, IO Interactive has built a brilliant multiplayer hook into this delightful, single-player title. Other players can create “contracts,” which involve those players' killing NPCs within a given level using a certain combination of disguise and weaponry. Your task? Re-create the killing quickly, efficiently, and for more awarded points than the original creator did. If you're succeed, you'll earn in-game cash and a spot on Hitman's leaderboards. It's a surprisingly engaging asynchronous multiplayer experience in a superb lone-gunman-style game.
One of the best things about PlanetSide 2, a massively multiplayer futuristic war title, is that it’s free to play—as long as you don’t choose to shell out real-life cash to Sony to unlock guns, increase your health, upgrade armor, and so on more quickly. If you take the thrifty route, you'll be able to get your game on and still have money for a halfway decent Yankee Swap gift.
Another of the best things, however, is PlanetSide 2’s frenzied gameplay: three different factions composed of thousands of players vying for dominance over the game’s territories. Shoot on foot, blast from tanks, or hop yourself into a gunship and relive your favorite moments from Top Gun. The possibilities are almost as endless as your creativity.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
Yes, WoW. If you’re still playing this time-sink, you aren’t looking at this slideshow. And if you've already quit playing, you probably won't bother to read this slide, either. But maybe you fall into a third category: people who've been tempted to play but have resisted the urge so far. If that describes you, you may find the new gameplay innovations that Blizzard has tossed into its eight-year-old franchise thoroughly intriguing.
DoTA 2 or League of Legends
Pick your poison: Defense of the Ancients 2 or League of Legends. The nuances and complexities of the two titles differ, but their core mechanics are similar. You choose a hero and get placed on a map, teamed with fellow players to face off against an identically chosen team of other gamers.
The basic goal of each game is to nuke the other side’s base. However, you can’t just Rambo it: At fixed intervals, your base will release little minions—creeps—that form the raw infantry of your assault. Follow them up the map’s lanes, push forward against defense towers and other players, and your coordinated efforts might win the day.
Even better, matches typically last about 30 minutes—which is just brief enough that your temporary absence from the family dinner table may not raise suspicions.
If you love Legos, you’ll love Minecraft. And if you love a game that plays far more realistically than its graphics might have led you to expect, you’ll love Minecraft even more. And if you get a certain thrill from watching the world burn (as Alfred the butler notes that some people do), you’ll love Minecraft to distraction.
Assuming that you’re one of the three people on the continent who haven't heard of Minecraft, here’s the gist of it: You destroy blocks; collect resources; build items, weapons, and habitats; and avoid death. At least, that’s Minecraft’s survival mode in a nutshell. You’ll also find multiplayer servers where you can spend weeks building all sorts of wonderful creations with the help—and occasional hindrance—of others. Are you making a particularly ornate multiplayer magnum opus? Then stick to Creative mode, where you'll enjoy unlimited health and resources.
Torchlight 2 or Diablo III
You get only one choice here, given the strong core similarities between these two big hack-and-slash action RPGs. Though Torchlight 2 is arguably the better game—given Blizzard’s waste of a story, auction-house-fueled economy, and less-than-ideal multiplayer experience—the persistence of Blizzard’s world gives it a depth of texture lacking in Torchlight 2’s simpler peer-to-peer gameplay.
In its favor, Torchlight 2 offers offline LAN gaming right out of the box—a joy in contrast to Diablo III’s Internet connection-mandated gameplay.