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Plugged In

Top Holiday Games: What Parents Need to Know

Plugged In

Gamers love fall: the leaves turn brown, the clocks go back, and stores nationwide fill up with an avalanche of shiny new video games.

True to form, the last few weeks have been packed with a bewildering quantity of top-tier releases that are sure to feature heavily on holiday wish-lists. But what should you know before buying a game as a gift? How can you tell if it's age-appropriate, or might be too much for a younger gamer to handle?

While the Entertainment Software Ratings Board -- or ESRB -- assigns each game a helpful age rating, not all Teen-rated games are created equal. Read on for the lowdown on six of the season's top picks.

Batman: Arkham City (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
ESRB rating: T

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Reviewers love this game for many reasons, but mostly for the way the game genuinely makes you feel like you're the Caped Crusader himself. And being Batman, you're more-or-less one of the good guys; although he certainly does a lot of fighting, he never actually kills anyone, which gives this game a comparatively low body-count. Mild language and a little sexual innuendo contribute to its Teen rating, but if you let the kids watch the latest Batman flick, there's no reason you shouldn't let them play this, too.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii, DS)
ESRB rating: M

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Predictably, military shooter Modern Warfare 3 is pretty violent. Guns, blood, explosions: everything you'd expect from a realistic depiction of armed conflict is present, and so are a few adult lines of dialogue (and the odd drug reference) in the single-player campaign. However, the biggest draw for most players will be the online modes, and here its risk factors are just the same as any other online game: foul-mouthed opponents, possible privacy concerns, and lots of late nights.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventures (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS)
ESRB: E10+

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Easily one of the year's best kids games, Skylanders bears an E10+ stamp, meaning the ratings folks consider it appropriate for the over-10 crowd. We consider that a little incongruous with the game's cutesy characters and Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic, which seem aimed at younger kids. The game itself -- a mixture of arcadey combat and Pokemon-style collecting -- is pretty much non-stop fighting, but it's hardly graphic, and if you can live with that it's worth thinking about for the 6-9s.

Of more concern may be the game's business model: it comes with three action figures you use to play it, and continually encourages you to obtain more...sold separately, at $8 a pop. You may get sick of the nagging.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
ESRB: M

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Massive, detailed, and complex, role-playing game Skyrim takes place in a vaguely Nordic, civil war-torn fantasy world and features an immense variety of story-driven adventures for players to tackle. Combat is sometimes gory, with particularly effective killing moves being depicted in slow-motion -- and yes, the odd head flies about, too. Some quests feature sexual undertones, although there's little explicit content, and alcohol and (fantasy) drug use is fairly commonplace. The previous game in the Elder Scrolls series, 2006 smash Oblivion, was Teen-rated; this year's is a solid M for Mature -- and it means it.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (PS3)
ESRB: T

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Like Batman, Uncharted 3 is Teen-rated, but unlike Batman it actually lets you kill your foes -- and in some fairly bloodthirsty ways. Star Nathan Drake can snap necks and choke out enemies, not to mention shooting them down with a smorgasbord of weapons. It's not especially gory, however, and despite a fairly high level of sexual tension between Drake and his female co-stars, there's little or no content here you wouldn't find in an everyday Hollywood action blockbuster.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
ESRB: E10+

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Nintendo is known for its family-friendly approach to its products, and this year's E10+-rated Skyward Sword isn't going to change that. In content terms, it's actually a step down from the last Wii Zelda game, the darker, Teen-rated Twilight Princess, but if anything critics seem to prefer this year's game, heralding it as among Nintendo's best work. If its mild fantasy-themed violence doesn't put you off -- and in this company, it's mild indeed -- it's a reliable choice for gaming families.

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