Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Gamer’s Edition

Temperatures are slowly creeping towards sub-zero. Radio stations and malls everywhere are switching on the holiday music. Pine trees and other decorations are going up all over the world. And once again millions of people are procrastinating on their holiday shopping.

Lucky for you, gamers are an easy bunch to buy gifts for. Skip the throngs of mad shoppers and harried store clerks and order everything online!

While buying the games themselves may be simple, deciding which ones specifically can be a bit trickier. To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of recently released, universally acclaimed games which almost anyone should be able to find some joy in.

Let’s get started!

PC: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Dragons. A word that evokes images of majestic, fearsome, flying creatures. And in Skyrim you get to stab them in the face.

Skyrim is the fifth installment in the incredibly popular Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls games are all about freedom, and Skyrim proves to be no exception. Once past the relatively brief introductory quest you’re free to roam the province of Skyrim’s roughly 16 square miles of digital land mass. Exploration is encouraged, with dungeons littering the landscape and NPCs just aching to hand out quests. It’s pretty much expected that on your way to finish one quest your journal will fill up with five new ones.

Five years have passed since the release of the last game in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, and it shows. Skyrim is packed with tons of little details that will continue to surprise you. Not to mention it looks gorgeous. With high-end hardware and a bit of tweaking you can capture some pretty amazing looking screenshots, but even on default settings with middling hardware you’ll often catch yourself staring in awe at Skyrim’s beautiful landscapes.

Skyrim is without a doubt one of the best games released this year, and pretty much anyone will be able to find dozens of hours of entertainment within its wintry borders.

Note: While the PC is probably the premiere platform to own Skyrim on, it is also available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. If your giftee’s PC isn’t powerful enough to play Skyrim, or if you aren’t sure, it’s still certainly worth playing on either of the other two platforms.

Alternate suggestions:

Minecraft (again)
Bastion (also available on Xbox 360)
Battlefield 3 (also available on Xbox 360 and PS3)

Xbox 360: Forza Motorsport 4

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Like last year’s Gran Turismo 5, Forza Motorsport 4 attempts to bring the expensive and dangerous sport of car racing into your living room in as realistic a fashion as possible, and for the most part it succeeds.

Similar to its predecessors, most of your time in Forza 4 will be spent in its extensive career mode, traveling the globe, winning races, and building up your impressive stable of cars. Forza 4 boasts an impressive roster of more than 500 fully modeled cars, so you’ll have your hands full trying to collect them all.

If you happen to own the Kinect add-on you’ll see some integration with that as well. Ditch the controller completely and steer with just your hands (I’m guessing it’s just as uncomfortable as it sounds), or use it to augment your existing experience and let it translate your head movements while still using traditional controls.

Forza 4 also features an in-depth paint job editor. Now you can finally own that My Little Pony themed Lamborghini Gallardo you’ve always wanted!

Alternate suggestions:

Batman: Arkham City (also available on PC and PS3)
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition
Saints Row: The Third (also available on PC and PS3)

Playstation 3: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

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Drake’s Deception has you once again stepping into the shoes of Indiana Jon… I mean, Nathan Drake, as he circles the globe searching for some lost treasure or other. Along the way you’ll encounter the usual baddies out to kill you, scale crumbling walls, and generally experience the action and explosions of a standard Michael Bay film. The Uncharted series might be getting a bit formulaic at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.

At its core the Uncharted series is a cover-based third person shooter, but there are some other gameplay elements like hand-to-hand combat and stealth sections that help to break up the monotony of shooting people in the face. While I may a joke about Uncharted’s striking similarities to Indiana Jones, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. Drake’s Deception perfectly captures that wonderful Indiana Jones-y feeling of adventure and intrigue.

Alternate suggestions:

Resistance 3
Dark Souls (also available on Xbox 360)
Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (also available on Xbox 360)

Wii: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

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The Legend of Zelda is one the longest running currently active video game series, and holds a special place in many gamer’s hearts. Skyward Sword manages to shake up the traditional Zelda formula a bit, but many people are calling it the best game in the series since Ocarina of Time.

The biggest departure from previous Legend of Zelda games is how Skyward Sword controls. It requires the Wii MotionPlus controller add-on, and instead of just wildly flailing your arms to swing Link’s sword like you might have done in Twilight Princess, in Skyward Sword your arm movements are mapped directly to Link’s movements on-screen. Enemies in Skyward Sword are designed in such a way that you usually have hit them in a certain manner to do damage.

With its charming art style and top-notch gameplay, Skyward Sword makes an excellent gift for anyone on your list, regardless of their age.

Alternate suggestion:

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Conclusion

There you have it, four games that any gamer would be happy to find under the Christmas tree. If you have any additional suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Image credit: tsmall

Review: Kinect for Xbox 360

Kinect with Kinect Adventures!

Remember when the PlayStation EyeToy came out? How about the Wii with its ground-breaking motion sensing controls? You can throw those gimmicks out the window, Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 is the new way to play!

The Kinect gained huge popularity over the holiday season. Microsoft has finally done motion controls right and has done it simply enough that everyone can join in. The Kinect uses three different sensors in order to see a person’s entire body in 3D: a RGB camera, a microphone running proprietary software and an infrared laser projector. This technology, combined with Microsoft’s advanced gesture, facial and voice recognition, gives the Kinect the upper hand in motion controlled gaming.

I was in Minneapolis last week and had time to head over to the Mall of America. Being a geek, the only stores I cared about visiting were Lego Land (of course), Best Buy Mobile, the Apple store and the Microsoft store (the latter two coincidentally were directly across the hall from each other).

As I walked into the Microsoft store, a crowd of  over 10 people watched as two little boys battled in Kinect Sports Boxing. Everyone was amazed at the ability of the Kinect to track the punches so accurately and without delay! The store was so busy that I wasn’t even able to try the Kinect – every TV was full of people watching or playing.

This is the magical beast.

The Kinect is very simple to set up. Plug the USB cord into any of the USB ports on your Xbox 360. After placing the sensor in a location near your TV (I recommend above the TV), turn on your Xbox 360. You will immediately need to update your console over Xbox Live to enable the Kinect; this only takes a couple of minutes on decent internet speeds. After updating, you will be presented with a long but worthwhile tutorial showing you where to stand, how to use your hands to navigate and how to use the menus.

Now comes the best part: You can stand in front of your TV and control your entire Xbox 360 experience with your body! I swear this was straight out of Star Wars, utilizing what seemed like The Force to throw the navigation panels back and forth across the screen. The accuracy of the sensors is incredible. It is so simple, smooth and fun to wave your hands around and see instant feedback on the screen in front of you.

The Kinect comes bundled with Kinect Adventures, a not-so-great representation of what the Kinect can do. I recommend buying Kinect Sports, otherwise you will be left frustrated and bored with the poor quality of Kinect Adventures. For the sake of learning how the Kinect works, I played Kinect Adventures first and a few of the game types were pretty entertaining. Once I got the hang of using my body to do EVERYTHING, I was eager to try Kinect Sports.

Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports

Kinect Sports is where the Kinect technology really shines. Not only did I sweat up a storm, even after placing a fan in the room, I felt like I was actually playing a real sport! There was no weird controller hindering me and Kinect was able track my movements back and forth, left and right, along with my legs and feet, all accurately.

Currently, the stand-alone Kinect is priced at $149.99 with Kinect Adventures included. You can spend a little over $300 to get a new 4 GB Xbox 360 bundled with Kinect and Kinect Adventures, which is the best deal if you don’t mind the small hard drive.

If you are looking for a way to entertain the whole family this year or just have a great time with a few friends, the Xbox 360 Kinect is the best choice you can make, assuming you know the ways of The Force!

Image courtesy: closari on Flickr

Techerator Holiday Gift Guide: Gamer’s Edition

The holidays are right around the corner, and if you’re anything like me you haven’t even thought about starting to shop for gifts. In the past this situation might have ended with you in tears at the mall, desperately fighting against throngs of soccer moms and biting children, hoping to grab the last of whatever this year’s best seller ends up being in the final days leading to Christmas.

This year, however, with our series of gift guides and the convenience of online shopping, you can buy gifts for everyone on your list in between matches of Call of Duty.

Gamers can be a tricky bunch to buy for. Taste in games varies wildly, and if you’re unlucky you might accidentally buy Kinect Sports for someone who was hoping to play Fallout on Christmas morning. Talk about embarrassing.

Thankfully, some games have near universal appeal, that any gamer would be happy to find in his or her stocking. I’m here to tell you about these games, one for each of the major systems available today.

PC – Minecraft

Do you have someone on your list who likes Legos? Of course you do, everyone likes Legos. It should then follow naturally that everyone likes Minecraft.

Minecraft has been around for a while now, but this past summer it saw an explosion in popularity, and it seemed like every PC gaming website on the planet was giving their take on the indie sensation. All this attention didn’t come without a reason, and Mincraft – though it’s still in the alpha stage of development – manages to live up to the lofty expectations set by its success.

In its current form Minecraft is a pure sandbox style game. There are no goals to accomplish except those set by yourself, and you can do anything you want, whenever and wherever you want. All the geometry in the game (including your character) is based around the simple Lego-style block, which can be combined with other blocks of different types to form new objects. Punch a tree for long enough and a block of wood will fall out. Combine two blocks of wood and you get a stick. Combine that stick with blocks of coal that can be mined, and you end up with a torch that can light your path.

Blocks of material can also be moved around to create structures in the game world. This comes in handy, as you can build yourself a house to protect you from the monsters that come out during the game’s nighttime.

On top of how fun and engaging Minecraft can be, until it’s final release the game can be bought at a discount. That means you can afford to buy yourself a copy as well!

Try building THAT with your Legos.

Xbox 360 – Fable III

Peter Molyneux, the mind behind the Fable series, is a bit of a controversial figure in the world of gaming. He’s the man responsible for some of the greatest games in the history of the PC, including Dungeon Keeper, Theme Park, Magic Carpet, and Black & White. More recently, however, he has a habit of making claims that his games cannot possibly deliver on (see his Wikipedia entry for more information).

Thankfully, Fable III manages to live up to most of the hype and offer an enjoyable gaming experience. If you played Fable II, you should feel right at home as you’ll be slinging the same spells at the same Balverines, working to level up your melee, ranged, and magical arsenals.

On top of the familiar gameplay, your character now also has to deal with the day to day management of a kingdom, with your decisions influencing the direction the game takes. Heavily tax your citizens and let criminals wander freely and the world responds by becoming visibly poorer. Take the opposite strategy and watch as your kingdom flourishes.

Fable III isn’t without its flaws, but is absolutely bursting with charm that makes it impossible to not enjoy, making it an excellent holiday gift for that gamer on your list.

Playstation 3 – Gran Turismo 5

Ok, I lied a little bit earlier. Gran Turismo 5 might not have universal appeal, but to the right person it might be just what they’re hoping for, and it’s definitely going to be a big seller this holiday season. Does the person you’re shopping for make their own motor noises while cruising around town in their purple Dodge Stratus? Get them Gran Turismo 5 and they’ll love you for life.

Any car/driving/racing enthusiast will find plenty to do in Gran Turismo 5. The fifth iteration (obviously) of the critically acclaimed driving simulation series Gran Turismo, GT5 is a game that’s been in the making for six long years. It boasts a roster of over 1000 cars (though some are more detailed than others), and you’ll be doing everything from go-kart racing at 75 MPH, to learning about NASCAR from Jeff Gordon, to, of course, lots of racing in cars you’ll never be able to afford on real world tracks you’ll never visit.

Gran Turismo 5 certainly isn’t perfect, but it still manages to succeed on a level never before seen in a racing simulator. If you want to know what went on during those six years of development, hop into your favorite supercar and take it for a spin around Nürburgring. As you open up the throttle on the track’s long straightaway, taking in the beautiful scenery, the roar of the engine loud in your ears, you’ll know you’re playing something special. Or at least whoever you buy it for will.

Yes, it's that pretty

Wii – Goldeneye

Ah, the memories. Four kids huddled around a tiny TV. Each looking at their quarter of the screen, pretending not to look at anyone else’s. Ripping each other apart with RCP-90s and blowing each other to bits with the dreaded proximity mine. That one kid who always (annoyingly) picked Oddjob. If you played video games in the ’90s, you know exactly what I’m talking about: Goldeneye. The name alone brings back waves of nostalgia.

Unlike Perfect Dark for the Xbox 360, Goldeneye for the Wii isn’t a direct port of the N64 classic. Instead, it’s more of a re-imagining. Throughout the game you’ll see some familiar areas, but there’s plenty of new ground to cover and people to shoot. Additionally, Pierce Brosnan’s visage has been replaced by the most recent actor to play James Bond, Daniel Craig.

Multiplayer can be enjoyed by up to four people on one console, split-screen style, or you can opt to take the more modern approach and play with up to seven other people online. All your favorite classic characters make an appearance (yes, even Oddjob), and even the one-shot-one-kill Golden Gun returns to wreak havoc. Any classic gamer on your list lucky enough to get it will certainly enjoy Goldeneye.

Nintendo DS – Super Scribblenauts

Before its release, the original Scribblenauts was set to be quite possibly the greatest game of all time (I might be exaggerating slightly). It allowed you to think of nearly any object, type it out, and watch it appear before your eyes. Particularly tough enemy got you down? Instantiate a time machine, take it back to the past, and ride back to the present on a freaking dinosaur and eat the problem away. Or just summon Cthulu and watch as one of the Great Old Ones demolishes your opposition. Only your imagination (and the game’s nearly bottomless dictionary) stood in the way of solving all the puzzles the game had to offer.

Unfortunately, infuriating controls and some lame levels marred an otherwise enjoyable experience. This year, Scribblenauts is back, bigger and better than ever.

Super Scribblenauts manages to solve most of the problems of the first game. The annoying touch-based only controls of the previous installment can now be replaced by more precise d-pad controls if you wish, and the level design is much improved. Additionally, adjectives can now be attached to objects you summon. Why wield a simple sword when you can instead brandish a much more intimidating flaming sword? Almost anyone can find joy in playing Super Scribblenauts, making it a perfect gift.

Sony PSP – God of War: Ghost of Sparta

The God of War franchise is known for its stellar gameplay and polished gaming experience, and this excellence carries over to its latest mini form, Ghost of Sparta.

Just like in past incarnations of God of War, you play as the demigod Kratos, and like usual you’re mad as hell.  Thankfully there are legions of mythical creatures just waiting for you to hack and slash them to bits and release some of your anger.

And boy is that hacking and slashing pretty. Somehow God of War‘s developers have managed to cram the graphical quality of a PS2 game into the aging hardware of the PSP. Ghost of Sparta is one of the must-have games for Sony’s portable console, so it’s a safe purchase for that special someone on your list.

And now for a bonus stocking stuffer idea:

Xbox 360/PS3/Wii Online Points Card, or iTunes Gift Card

If you’re having a tough time deciding what to get, take the easy way out and buy the gaming equivalent of a gift card. All three of the major consoles have an online service where plenty of downloadable games are available for purchase, so they’re bound to find something they like.

While iTunes might be most recognized for its music store, there are also plenty of games available. If your giftee owns an iPod Touch or iPhone, an iTunes gift card makes a great gift idea.

That’s it from me. If you have additional suggestions for good gifts for gamers, feel free to leave them in the comments section found below!

Image credit: wlodi

Netflix on PS3 and Wii is Finally Disc-Free!

More than likely you have heard of a little – I mean HUGE – company called Netflix. Yes, the company that runs on ingenuity and has made thousands of movies, TV shows and documentaries available via mail and instant streaming. While they are still mailing out movies and TV shows, it’s nothing compared to the amount of content that is streamed instantly every hour of every day.

Some of the different platforms through which a person can stream instantly include game consoles, streaming players, Blu-ray players, HDTV, DVRs, mobile devices and home theater systems. You can learn more about that here.

Over a year ago, Netflix decided to capitalize on gaming consoles.  Instant streaming was first available on the Xbox 360 via a software upgrade, and the feature was later brought to the Wii and PlayStation 3 by mailing out discs, upon request, that would allow access to Netflix instant streaming. This all changed recently, though, as Netflix has made a native application available to both PS3 and Wii owners.

The PS3 Netflix interface is very user friendly, intuitive and simple. The movie icons are on the right, while the menu is on the left. Finding a movie to watch has never been easier as flipping through titles takes no time at all. You will be able to browse through hundreds of titles within minutes.

You also have the availability to go through five “menus” including Suggestions for You, New Arrivals, Genres, Instant Queue, and Search.  Netflix instant streaming on the PS3 also boasts certain movies and shows available in 1080p HD, 5.1 digital surround sound, and the availability to watch a good portion of films with subtitles.

Below are some steps that you can take to get Netflix instant streaming up and running in no time so you can watch your favorite movies and shows.

To utilize instant streaming via PS3:

“Connect your PS3 system to the internet. Sign-up for or sign-in to your free PlayStation Network account. Go to the PlayStation Network section of the XMB then select “What’s New”. Click on the Netflix icon to download and install the Netflix application.”


To utilize instant streaming via Nintendo Wii:

“Go to your Wii menu, download and install the Netflix application from within the Wii Shop Channel, and follow the on screen instructions to connect your Wii to your Netflix account.”

To utilize instant streaming via Xbox 360:

“If you have these, go to your Xbox menu, download and install the Netflix application from within the Video Marketplace, then go http://www.netflix.com/Activate to activate your device.”

If you are a Netflix subscriber, then you know just how awesome Netflix really is! The fact that you can now instantly stream thousands of movies, TV shows, cartoons,and documentaries through multiple gaming consoles without the hassle of waiting for a disc to come in the mail, keeping up with the disc, and having to take a game out of the console every time you want to watch a movie is another reason why Netflix is slowly putting other movie rental places to shame. I’ve had my Netflix account for over two years and will continue to enjoy it.

Netflix currently offers several plans:

  • $8.99 a month: 1 DVD out at a time+ unlimited instant watching
  • $13.99 a month: 2 DVDs out at a time + unlimited instant watching
  • $16.99 a month: 3 DVDs out at a time + unlimited instant watching
  • $23.99 a month: 4 DVDs out at a time + unlimited instant watching

For more about Netflix or instant streaming, visit the Netflix website.

Review: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition

Why’s the rum gone?

Publisher: LucasArts
Genre: Point and Click Adventure
Release Date: July 15th, 2009
Number of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: E
Platforms: PC and Xbox 360

The Secret of Monkey Island tells the swashbuckling tale of Guybrush Threepwood, a young man on a journey to become a pirate. The game starts with Guybrush arriving on Mêlée Island, somewhere in the Caribbean, and setting out to make a name for himself as a mighty pirate (which he often already claims himself to be). He crosses paths with numerous colorful characters, one of which being the evil ghost pirate LeChuck. Unsurprisingly, LeChuck spends most of his time planning and executing nefarious plans.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is a faithful reincarnation of the original title (released in 1990) with enhanced graphics, music, and sound effects and voice acting not present in first release. Three of the voice actors from the series’ most recent release (The Curse of Monkey Island) reprise their roles as three of the main characters.

monkeyisland_4
Secret of Monkey Island, 1990 version

Other than a few minor adjustments, the game itself plays out almost identically to the original version. The interface has been streamlined, with the verb table and inventory that originally occupied the lower half of the screen being relegated to pop up menus. A hint system has also been added to help make the game less frustrating (more on this later). Fans of the original game will feel right at home, and newcomers shouldn’t have any problems. At the press of a button you can also switch (on the fly) between the updated version of the game and the original version in all its low resolution glory. It’s not exactly necessary, but does serve as a neat trick that lets you see what has been done to update the game.

At its core, The Secret of Monkey Island is a point and click adventure game, along the same vein as most of the LucasArts games released in the late 80s and early 90s. There is no time limit (excepting a few puzzles), so you can relax and play at a leisurely pace. It’s also impossible to die or get yourself stuck in a situation you can’t get out of, so you don’t have to worry about saving yourself into a corner. Most of your time as Guybrush is spent collecting, combining, and using various items to solve puzzles and interacting with the expansive cast of characters. There are a total of nine verbs that allow you to interact with items, other characters, and the environment, giving you a wide range of ways to experiment. If you take the time to explore and try different combinations of interactions you’ll be rewarded with Easter eggs (not literally) and humorous reactions from either Guybrush or other characters.

monkeyisland_3
Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, 2009

The previously mentioned hint system is a welcome addition to the game. If you find yourself stuck or wondering what to do next you can hit the hint button to receive a nudge in the right direction. If you’re still having trouble you can press it again to get an even more direct clue. Press the button a third time and the game explicitly states what you need to do and a large green arrow appears onscreen pointing you to exactly where you need to be. Considering that a few of the puzzles would be near impossible to solve without at least a little outside help, the hint system is a welcome addition. It’s easy to abuse, though, and I recommend at least putting a little effort into solving the puzzle yourself before resorting to the hint button.

The visuals offer a mixed bag. The environments and characters look gorgeous in high definition, but the animations are clunky and awkward looking. It doesn’t detract much from the experience, but it’s worth mentioning.

Pleasant pirate-themed music serves as an excellent backdrop to the game. The music in the classic version was well done, and the update does a great job of retaining the same quality and feel.

monkeyisland_1After playing some of the games released within the past couple of years, the characters and dialogue in The Secret of Monkey Island are a breath of fresh air. At times subtly humorous and occasionally laugh out loud hilarious, conversing with other characters is a blast. From Guybrush himself to the Fettuccini Brothers to the Men of Low Moral Fiber – every single character in the game is expertly voiced and superbly written. Whether you’re hurling insults at other pirates to win sword fights or haggling with Stan the Used Boat Salesman over the price of a vessel, conversations never feel like a chore. In other games I often find myself just clicking through conversation trees just to get what I need and leave. I never even considered doing this in Monkey Island, and would instead extend conversations as long as possible in order to hear most of the dialogue. I cannot praise the writers enough.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition can be found for $9.99 on the PC through Steam or Direct2Drive, or for 800 MS points on the Xbox 360 via the Xbox Live Arcade. The game offers an amazing experience for such a low price, and should not be overlooked by anyone who is even remotely interested.

monkeyisland_2Pros:
Fantastic looking scenery and characters
Classic adventure gameplay
Strong music and voice acting
Value pricing

Cons:
Poor animation
Almost no replay value

Bottom Line:
If you are a fan of adventure games, or even slightly interested, I strongly recommend buying this game. At only $10, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition is a steal.

Final Score (out of 10):

9.4