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Instant Expert: Hottest Gaming Trends

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Sony's PlayStation Move wand.
Sony's PlayStation Move wand.
Michael Pirrocco for RollingStone

Smash hits like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Just Dance 2 may hog the lion’s share of media attention, but insiders know a dirty little secret about upcoming video game releases. Many aren’t just found outside of your local GameStop. They also have shockingly little in common with the geeky, thumb-waggling time wasters of yore.

“From incredibly deep multiplayer components to motion controls and downloadable content, most developers are no longer just putting out games,” explains Francesca Reyes, editor-in-chief of Official Xbox Magazine. “They’re providing portals into huge franchises… that extend fans’ experience with seeming months of gameplay on end.”

Following is a quick look at today’s most promising new industry developments, and how they’re utterly revolutionizing the way we play.

Digital Distribution – There’s no sense prying yourself off the couch anymore, with bite-sized, budget-priced digital downloads for Xbox Live (Pinball FX2), PlayStation Network (Dead Nation) and WiiWare (Swords & Soldiers) among today’s best values. Services like Steam, Direct2Drive.com, Impulse and GOG.com also let you grab yesterday and today’s favorites and send them straight to your PC for a song, with even handhelds like the iPhone and Nintendo 3DS offering online shopping features.

Free to Play, Online and Social Games – From CityVille to Ravenwood Fair and Bejeweled Blitz, thousands of free social network games for Facebook are racking up millions of fans with their approachability, user-friendliness and instantly gratifying play. Zero-cost online outings ranging from homebrew Web browser titles (see Shockwave.com or Newgrounds.com) to full-fledged virtual worlds such as Free Realms and RuneScape are also exploding in popularity, given thriving communities and an unbeatable price tag.

Motion Controls – Following the success of Nintendo’s Wii, which substitutes physical gestures in place of button presses, new motion control systems aim to let players really get in the game. Sony’s wand-based PlayStation Move delivers pinpoint accuracy when swinging pretend swords or perforating baddies in Killzone 3, while Microsoft’s hands-free Kinect literally makes your body the controller, inviting players to jump, duck and dance as in real-life. Casual, family-friendly outings thus far define them, underscoring these systems’ innate accessibility, but more traditional fare like SOCOM 4: US Navy Seals and Child of Eden hope to soon change that.

Downloadable Content (DLC) – Extensive multiplayer support for titles like Halo: Reach, which offers myriad game types and online matchmaking facilities, is quickly becoming mandatory. So is the ability to download new levels, missions and maps to games such as Red Dead Redemption, letting you eke months of play from a single disc. With over 30,000 digital diversions available on-demand for the iPhone and other iOS devices, smartphone apps such as Tap Tap Revenge 4 and Angry Birds are also among gaming’s hottest tickets.

Retro Remakes – With their built-in following and proven thumb-waggling appeal, numerous childhood favorites such as James Bond: GoldenEye 007 and NBA Jam are all receiving an extreme makeover lately. Between retail (Donkey Kong Country Returns), downloadable (Yar’s Revenge) and serialized episodic options (Sonic the Hedgehog 4), there’s no shortage of ready excuses to relive your wayward adolescence.

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