Gear Guide: 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.

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.

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

Sony PS Vita

$300 ($370 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

US$30

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 customise 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

Dishonored

$70 (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

$99

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. 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

$90

The game wizards at Traveller’s 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 we’re 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, it’s 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!”, it’s 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 you’re 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 you’ve 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 you’re 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. You’ll be playing this one for a while in order to unlock all of the characters and complete the side quest missions - but that’s a good thing.

- Keith Shaw

Halo 4

$79

I’m 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 Chief’s AI. The story unfolding between them is emotionally rich. It’s 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 Cortana’s “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 it’s not clear why. There is a new race introduced called the Promethians, though their backstory isn’t 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 I’m not finished with the campaign (about halfway through) I have found it incredibly enjoyable. It’s holding my interest and at many times has found me on the edge of my seat. Multiplayer is just as fast paced as it’s 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 you’ve never played a game in the Halo series Halo 4 will make you fall in love. If you’re like I was, nostalgic and skeptical, fear not. Halo is in good hands at 343 Industries.

- April Ramalho

Angry Birds Star Wars

Free to $4.19 (depending on platform)

There are a ton of kids apps available (see slideshow, cool apps), but I felt I needed to separate out the latest Angry Birds game from Rovio Mobile.

When my kids first started to get interested in my smartphone (and later tablet), the very first thing they got hooked on was Angry Birds. In fact, they're probably now better at the game than I am.

Both of my older kids also love Star Wars - it's hard to avoid the movies, cartoons and other merchandise associated with the 1977 movie (and all the other ones). Especially since their dad is totally obsessed with it as well.

So it was an easy purchase to get the combined app, where the birds take on the pigs in this epic Rebellion vs. Empire saga.

The gameplay is basically the same - you fling the birds at structures built by the bad piggies in an attempt to destroy the pigs and move onto the next level. Just like the original, different birds have different abilities - although in the Star Wars universe, you can identify them more by their character than just their color.

For example, the red bird is now Luke - starting off you just fling him, but as he learns the Force (later in the early levels), he then has the ability to use a lightsaber to destroy things (you swing the saber with a touch). Obi-Wan can use his Force power to push blocks out of the way - Han Solo (yellow) can fire lasers as he's being flung across the screen.

Rovio has done a great job integrating the Star Wars universe into the game - background scenery is fantastic, the music from the movies are all there, and the structures look like they belong in one of the episodes. Bonus levels feature a birdified R2-D2 or C-3PO, and the "mighty Eagle" has been replaced by a Millennium Falcon (falcon/eagle - get it?)

My only complaint is that gathering the "golden droids" for certain bonus levels are very difficult - especially for kids. It would be nice if Rovio could help out with a difficulty level or even some hints (although we just hit YouTube for a video viewing of how to complete the level when we really get stuck).

If your kids are obsessed with Angry Birds and Star Wars, this app is a no-brainer.

- Keith Shaw

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Keith Shaw

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