PLAY: Video game and other tech toy gift suggestions

PLAY: Video game and other tech toy gift suggestions

We all like to play games, whether we admit to it or not. While everyone might not be a video gamer, I think we all still enjoy playing, to some extent, to bring us back to our youth.

See our listing of this year's gift guide.

A quick guide to Network World's favorite gifts

Presented here are our picks for our favorite toys, video games and accessories for the gamer on your holiday gift list.

Note: Products are listed in no particular order or preference. Prices are also rounded-up estimates from either the product's website or Better deals may be offered online during the holiday season.


Sony PS Vita

$250 ($300 for 3G version)

The PS Vita is Sony's latest portable video gaming system, the successor to the PlayStation Portable. But instead of just focusing on video games, the Vita includes features you'd expect on a smartphone or tablet - things a front-facing and rear camera for video chats, and a Wi-Fi or 3G connection for connecting to the Internet. A touchscreen and new user interface lets you easily access new features, such as shopping for additional games/apps through the Sony PlayStation Store, or purchasing additional music, videos and photos (you can also load up your own content to play on the device). Much like the PSP, there's a wide variety of games for the Vita, which this time are stored on an SD memory card instead of the PSP disc-based cartridge.

While you could certainly use the Vita as a stand-alone gaming device quite nicely, you get additional features if you own a PS3 home gaming console. The Cross-Play feature lets you play a game on the PS3, pause/save the game, and then continue playing it on the Vita. Simultaneous Cross-Play lets you play games against others, with one person using the Vita and another person using a PS3 controller, for example. Cross-Play requires specific games (including Hustle Kings, MotorStorm RC, Wipeout HD, Wipeout 2048, Street Fighter X Tekken, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, MLB13: The Show, Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, Fuseball and When Vikings Attack!)

The remote play option is also cool - with the PS3 running, you can switch to remote play and operate the PS3's menu on the Vita's screen (and play games this way, too, if you would rather play a game on a smaller screen instead of the larger TV display, one assumes). This can be a nice option if the TV your PS3 is connected to needs to be used for something else (like, say, your spouse or kids want to watch regular TV).

Sadly, the remote play features can't control the streaming media apps on the PS3 - it would have been nice to watch movies that you've already purchased through the PS3 on the Vita. And content that you purchase via the Vita also doesn't show up in the PS3 menu. In a world where Apple and Amazon have successfully initiated cloud-based entertainment (purchase content and view on multiple devices), the inability to do this via a PS3 and the Vita is much more noticeable.

The final decision on whether to buy a PS Vita lies with your place in the Sony universe of products. If you (or your gift recipient) already owns a PS3, then great - the Vita is a great complement to this Sony ecosystem. If they are a gamer and want to have that same experience while out and about, then it's also worth a look.

But keep in mind that there are lots of other choices out there too - for example, Nintendo's DS gaming platforms for kids, and even the iOS devices (iPhone, iPod touch) for more casual gaming options.

- Keith Shaw

ThinkGeek iCade 8-bitty game controller


The iPad is great for playing games, but sometimes the touchscreen is useless for controlling a character in the old-school arcade method (where you have to have someone move left, right, up down, fire or jump). For games like that (and there are many of them), ThinkGeek has helped develop the 8-bitty, giving users a Bluetooth-enabled handheld controller that looks like the old Nintendo Entertainment System controller. Powered by two AAA batteries, the 8-bitty has a D-pad on the left that lets you move up, left, down and right, and four buttons on the right. There's also two "shoulder" buttons as well.

Once connected to your iPad, you can then play games via this controller - it works with games like Atari's Greatest Hits, Activision Anthology, Midway Arcade, Namco Arcade and others (the full list is here). For most of the games, you can customize the game to react to which button you press.

After I got it up and running, it really felt like I was back in the '80s arcade of my youth. The controller is very responsive - I never felt any lag or latency (although playing Kaboom! in the Activision Anthology game still stinks without a paddle-like controller) or anything that affected my gameplay. The only downside was that the controller acts like a keyboard - if you decide you want a new game and need to type it in the App Store, you need to turn off the controller to activate the iPad's on-screen keyboard.

A minor quibble, though. Overall I was very impressed with the controller - if there's an iPad gamer on your holiday list, they will be even happier with the 8-bitty.

- Keith Shaw

Targus HD3 Gaming Chill Mat


If you spend any time playing computer games (especially MMORPGs) or if you've recently purchased a high-performance gaming laptop, you'll notice that they tend to run hot with long-term use. Depending on the design of the notebook, you might need some additional cooling protection for the device, which is where the HD3 Gaming Chill Mat from Targus comes in.

The device sits under your notebook and connects to an open USB port to power the unit's three fans. If you are using an older notebook, you might need two USB ports, but for most notebooks one port should suffice.

The unit includes an aluminum alloy grill that aims to dissipate heat more efficiently, as well as airflow straighteners to help reduce "air turbulence" - it all sounds very cool, of course. The mat also has non-skid feet to keep the unit (and your notebook) from sliding around.

In my tests with my MacBook Pro (playing Guild Wars 2), I noticed a definite improvement in the amount of heat that the notebook generated during the game. While Targus says the fans are "ultra-quiet", you will definitely notice when the unit is powered on and working.

The gaming mat can fit notebooks up to 18-inches, so that should cover most of the major gaming notebooks as well as regular laptop systems. If you've been finding that your notebook has been running hot, or to protect your gaming notebook purchase, pick up one of these as well.

- Keith Shaw

Plantronics GameCom Commander gaming headset


OK, let's cut to the chase - this is a serious gaming headset for serious gamers. If you're looking for a headset just so you can listen to your tunes, there's lots of other options. If you're gaming more than 20 hours a week, though, you're going to want a headset that adapts to your special gaming needs.

Things like comfortable earpads that don't make your ears ache after a few hours of wearing them. Or a great noise-cancelng microphone that adapts to your head and also lets your teammates hear you just fine. This headset has this, and more.

The closed-ear design wraps around your ears just fine, and provides 7.1 Dolby stereo surround sound thanks to its 40mm drivers. My favorite feature is the unit's QuickDisconnect adapters - these let you switch the headset to fit your computer or mobile device. For example, you can have the headset operate off the USB port, or you can switch it to provide cables for a standard headphone and microphone port. Or you can eliminate the microphone cable and just plug in a headphone cable, if you don't want to use the microphone or if you just want to listen to music on an iPhone/iPod/iPad etc. A ruggedized carrying case completes the package, protecting the headset for gamers that need to leave their house to go play somewhere else.

The GameCom Commander offers customization features, such as a laser-etched, limited edition serial number, and a Velcro strap on the top that you can replace with your own custom patch.

At $300, this is the definite high end for gaming headsets, but it's well worth it if you or your gift recipient is a serious gamer.

- Keith Shaw

GameStop Wireless Game Controller for Android Tablets


Retail video game chain GameStop doesn't want to be the store where you buy new video games, they are now selling tablets and other mobile devices as well.

The Wireless Game Controller for Android Tablets looks a lot like a controller that you'd see for either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 - it's got dual sticks for navigation, a D-pad and four buttons for firing guns or menu options, as well as two trigger buttons and two shoulder buttons.

The controller connects to your Android tablet via Bluetooth, allowing the user to play game apps with better controls than having to use a touch-based interface or other device. The best use for this are for arcade-like games - you don't need one of these for Angry Birds or Words With Friends.

Pairing the device is quite simple, just like you would with a Bluetooth headset. When using the controller in a game, the movement is smooth, and much preferred vs. using a touch-based control system.

Unfortunately, it's unclear which games are compatible with this controller - GameStop says there's a list on its website, but I couldn't track it down. In all likelihood, your luck with this controller will depend a lot on whether the game you want to play it on or not supports the control system.

- Keith Shaw

Black Swann RC Stealth helicopter

$78 (Amazon)

If you're someone who's always wanted a remote control helicopter with a little bit of tech edge, the Black Swann RC Stealth is for you. The reason? Not only can you have it zipping around the office (after a moderate learning curve on the controls), but it has a tiny on-board camera that allows you to record VGA-quality videos.

The included 1GB micro-USB card slides into the back of the helicopter and you turn the camera on and off with a button on the remote control. Don't expect drone-like quality, especially if you're recording while the Black Swann is in flight; motion blur is an issue. But if you can maneuver the helicopter so that it's hovering in one spot, you can record what's below -- potentially useful for stealth in-office espionage missions.

But there's a hitch: The learning curve on the controls can be a bit steep unless you're someone who has really good eye-hand coordination. The controller uses two joysticks -- the left one controls the main rotors and speed while the right joystick controls whether you're flying forward/back or left/right. I found that it's pretty easy to get the Black Swann airborne; the hard part is steering it once it's in the air. My advice: be judicious using the steering joystick; if you move it too fast, the helicopter will respond by zipping into the nearest cabinet or (if you're outside) tree or porch railing. Until you get the hang of it, you'll want to practice flying in a wide-open area, preferably away from furniture or obstacles. And if you're outside, make sure there's no wind blowing. Anything above a gentle breeze makes maneuvering the Black Swann even harder.

On the positive side, the helicopter comes with replacement blades in case you crash, and it comes with its own micro-USB card. And if you're a fan of blinking lights, it has several red and blue LED lights -- and a "searchlight" LED -- that gives it a real stealth appearance during low-light missions. Best of all, it's made of durable plastic. I've crashed the Black Swann numerous times and haven't needed to replace a rotor yet!

- Ken Mingis' Tankbot

$35 to $40

Tankbots are miniature robots, shaped like futuristic little tanks. They can be controlled via a smartphone or tablet (you download a free app), and rampage across your desk (or floor, or any other flat surface). They recharge by plugging directly into a computer's USB port (via a folding appendage on the back that resembles a tail). Apps are available for iOS devices and Android devices.

The Tankbots have three settings - mode 1 is autonomous obstacle avoidance and maze navigation; mode 2 is free roaming rampage (with noise!); and mode 3 lets you control the tank via the iDeskPet universal remote control app. Navigating between modes is accomplished by a single mode button found on the back-top of the tank, and takes some getting used to.

Once accomplished these are pretty fun to play with, and can make for an enjoyable desk companion / work distraction. Controlling via the mobile app allowed me to control the Tankbot and harass my co-workers - what's better than that?

- Dan Hunt


$60 (Xbox, PS3, PC)

First-person action/stealth/RPG game Dishonored was one of 2012's most anticipated gaming titles, and it more or less justifies all the hype. Set in the dystopian steampunk city of Dunwall, the story follows Corvo Attano, the former Lord Protector turned unstoppable assassin, through a convoluted (though not entirely unpredictable) story, driven in part by player choices.

It's an immensely absorbing experience. The setting is madly atmospheric, the level design is consistently excellent, and the combat - while not the most varied - is engagingly fast-paced and gory. While many video games feature systems for player choice and morality, they all too often just present a "good" and "evil" option and let it go at that. Dishonored goes far beyond this, presenting the player with complicated, unsettling ethical dilemmas throughout. More importantly, however, it also allows for wildly different playstyles - missions can be accomplished either through stealth and subtlety or by wading straight into foes with sword and pistol. Either way is great fun.

This is not to say Dishonored is perfect - it feels a little short, the combat can get kind of same-y if you're into the violent approach, and, as the game heads for its climax, Corvo quickly becomes so powerful that it actually detracts from the tension a little. Nevertheless, these are quibbles - Dishonored is a wonderful gameplay experience, presented with oodles of style and panache, and set in a memorable original world. If you haven't played it yet, you absolutely should.

- Jon Gold

Guild Wars 2

$55 (Amazon)

If you haven't played a massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game lately, or if you are brand new to the genre, you can't miss with Guild Wars 2. The game has redefined what it means to have some fun in an MMO, with a very playable and enjoyable experience right from the beginning.

The basics are pretty much the same as in other fantasy MMOs - choose a character, a race and then enter the world and start fighting bad guys. But where other games like World of Warcraft limit your abilities depending on your character's class or race, Guild Wars 2 allows you to experiment with different fighting styles, based on the weapons you use. So, for example, a thief can be a "tank" like a warrior, as long as you can execute the right skills and moves. Everyone can be a healer, which makes group sessions easier to handle than having just one person be assigned to making sure everyone lives.

The "event" system within the game is also stellar - instead of waiting around or asking for people to do larger quests, the game itself institutes group gatherings, where anyone can just go and start participating - the more people that show up to fight, the more difficult the event becomes. You really do feel good playing with others, rather than sitting around waiting for a particular person or class to show up.

There's a lot more to enjoy with the game - see my earlier full review of the game here. The best part of all - once you pay for the game, there are no monthly subscription fees, and the company is doing a great job with offering free content updates as well (we figure that eventually, you'll have to pay for expansion packs).

- Keith Shaw

Lego Lord of the Rings


The game wizards at Travellers Tales have another winner with their latest Lego video game. This time, we visit the world of The Lord of the Rings, based on the three Peter Jackson movies (not the upcoming Hobbit movie, although were pretty sure a sequel will happen after Jackson finishes those three movies).

Having already tackled Batman, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter with Lego-based games, its no surprise how polished the Lord of the Rings game is. While much of the basic gameplay is intact, this game adds the additional element of using the actual voices from the movie (In Lego Batman 2, they used voices, but they were recorded specially for the game.) In this game, when Lego Gandalf says You shall not pass! and Fly, you fools!, its the voice of Ian McKellen from the movie. The addition of the voices from those films make it a lot more realistic than previous Lego versions - while a lot of the Lego humor is still there during some of the scenes, the impact and seriousness from the film is more prevalent in this game. For example, during the climactic scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, the Lego Boromir gets shot with a banana arrow, but he still succumbs to his wounds. While playing this game with my children, I worried more about their questions (after Gandalf falls fighting the Balrog, I had to remind them that Gandalf will be back later in the game) than in previous Lego games.

Fortunately, the gameplay is still very good - in Story mode youre basically re-creating scenes from the movies, along with specific players. In between Story missions, you can walk around Middle Earth and explore different areas and collect items. In fact, in this game, you can perform mini-quests that remind me more of a role-playing game than a Lego game. For example, there are spots where characters will ask you to find something - a person looking for their lost umbrella, or someone else looking for a hat that they left at Weathertop. During free play, you can find those items and then receive a reward for helping locate them. Rewards are either Red Bricks (which give you things like x2 studs, or quest finders, etc.) or plans for special weapons. If you have the plans (also hidden throughout the game), you can then go to a blacksmith and create the items with enough mithril bricks (which replace the regular gold bricks from other Lego games).

Most of the puzzles are easy enough for adults to accomplish, especially if youve played any of the Lego video games before. In some cases things can get pretty confusing, especially if you have a lot of characters on screen at the same time. During the mission where youre fighting the Cave Troll in the Mines of Moria, for example, there are eight different characters you can control (Frodo is out for the count during that one). It took a while before we figured out that you needed either Merry or Pippin to jump onto the top of the troll before Legolas could take it out with an arrow.

The character interactions are quite amusing, especially when it comes to Gimli. In a joke from the film, taller characters can pick up the dwarf and throw him - not just to get across a gap, but also to break bricks with his axe. Likewise, Legolas and his bow, Gandalf with his wizard staff and Samwise with his frying pan add some nice elements apart from characters who just have a sword.

If you love video games, the Lord of the Rings movies and Lego, this game is a nice combination of all three. Youll be playing this one for a while in order to unlock all of the characters and complete the side quest missions - but thats a good thing.

- Keith Shaw

Assassins Creed 3


The latest game in the Assassins Creed series features a new protagonist (farewell, Ezio, we knew you well) and a new location. No longer roaming through Italy, we jump ahead a few hundred years to colonial America - specifically Boston and New York. This time, you get to fight a lot of British soldiers and help the Americans in their revolution.

But before that, you have to go through a pretty lengthy prologue segment, in which you play as the main characters father as he goes from London to the colonies. Its an odd situation that may frustrate you if youve played the other games - you may keep saying to yourself - when do I get the guy with the tomahawk? While the open world nature of the game allows you to stray from the main missions, if you do that early on in the game it may take you a long time before you get to Connor, the guy in all of those TV commercials.

If youve played any of the Assassins Creed games before, the layout will be pretty familiar. As an assassin, you have a number of different weapon options available to you, and you can kill your targets in many different ways. Theres a lot of running and jumping and climbing on buildings and trees as well, and it all looks so fluid on the screen.

For this history nerd, the added bonus of seeing the painstakingly accurate depictions of colonial Boston and New York was a thrill. One of the first things I did after getting off the boat in Boston was to find Fanueil Hall and climb to the top of it to look at Boston Harbor.

But if youre not into sightseeing, theres still enough for you to do - whether thats stay with the main missions or complete the myraid of side missions and other random quests that come your way. Its another solid game from Ubisoft, Im sure well be seeing more of these games in the future.

- Keith Shaw

Halo 4


Im one of those people who has nostalgia for the Halo series. I remember going store to store to buy my first Xbox, not because I was sold on the system but because I wanted to play the game. Every release since then I have waited with bated breath for the clock to strike midnight so I could be one of the first to get my copy. Because of that nostalgia I was apprehensive about Bungie not being part of Halo 4. I have not been disappointed. The new development team from 343 Industries has produced one of the best Halo games I have played so far. Not only are the graphics rich and beautiful, the unfolding story is beautiful as well.

Master Chief is a man who has become so entrenched in his Spartan obligations he has almost lost touch with the world around him. The only thing that seems to keep him normal is Cortana - Master Chiefs AI. The story unfolding between them is emotionally rich. Its explained that Cortana is suffering from something referred to as Rampancy. When AI reach 7 years of service they begin to break down - Cortana has been in service 8 years now. You start to see blips of Cortanas demise though wonky visuals, strange voice errors, and the concern on her very human face. Master Chief will do anything in his power to return her to Earth so he can save her.

Some of the storyline is difficult to consume, I imagine this is especially true for those who are new to the Halo series. At the close of Halo 3 we see a pact between the covenant and humans- however with the opening of Halo 4 the covenant is attacking and its not clear why. There is a new race introduced called the Promethians, though their backstory isnt exactly clear either. Halo 4 makes up for some of that by packing a punch with the familiar grunts, elites, ghosts and needlers. It also introduces many new weapons, reinvents some familiar battle grounds, and even features a mech vehicle. There is nothing like hopping inside a destructive robot and being able to blast and stomp your way through floods of enemies.

Though Im not finished with the campaign (about halfway through) I have found it incredibly enjoyable. Its holding my interest and at many times has found me on the edge of my seat. Multiplayer is just as fast paced as its always been. The new Spartan ops missions will release weekly in tandem with cinematic episodes will reveal more detailed information on the campaigns intricate storyline.

Despite a thick storyline to wade through, Halo 4 is brilliant. If youve never played a game in the Halo series Halo 4 will make you fall in love. If youre like I was, nostalgic and skeptical, fear not. Halo is in good hands at 343 Industries.

- April Ramalho

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

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