Here are a few gift-giving suggestions that tap into the ever-growing pool of controllers, devices and even toys that extend the hands-on fun of handheld devices and entertainment consoles. Each is sure to please the video-gamer in the family.
Skylanders: Swap Force (Activision, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $74.99) — The original franchise — boasting real toys that can virtually transport into video game realms — returns with new figures to collect, reconfigure and conquer new adventures.
You know the drill, plug the castle-tower-shaped Portal of Power into the Wii U, place 2[1/2]-inch-tall characters on the Portal, and they magically appear in the game for one or two players to control (both cooperatively or in competitive battles).
All figures currently owned by players from previous games (more than 100 these days) can jump into the latest Skylanders with new abilities such as flying, digging and teleporting incorporated into the levels of action.
Here’s the twist. Mix and match upper and lower torsos of 16 possible Swap Force figures (with magnetic connections) to concoct new types of heroes with new abilities and access certain areas within the 17-story missions.
By the way, the detailed, plastic statues (the package comes with Blast Zone, Wash Buckler and Ninja Stealth Elf) look pretty cool in a display case with their other pals.
Game worthy of the gadget: Within the Swap Force story, players control a special team of reassembled operatives sent to Cloudbreak Islands (home of a mystical volcano) and must stop KAOS and hose veil minions to protect the Skylands universe.
The third-person, platforming action still beautifully mixes puzzle-solving, collecting items, shooting and miniquests but continues to emphasizes collectibility through the piggy-bank-draining purchases of additional Swap Force ($14.99 each) and core Skylanders ($9.99 each) figures.
Wii U Gamepad and Wii Remote Plus (Nintendo, Gamepad bundled with core Wii U set, $299.99 and Remote Plus, $39.99) — Nintendo’s Wii U boasts two types of controllers that deliver a variety of interactive experiences depending on the game.
First, the wireless GamePad acts as a handheld, motion-sensing companion for Wii U owners with a 6.2-inch-wide, touch-screen along with a pair of analog sticks, direction pad, a quartet of buttons, a front-facing camera, microphone and stereo speakers.
Second, the Remote Plus controller is a motion-sensing marvel about the size of a stick of butter and held by the player to perform complex motions to react to or initiate onscreen actions.
Game worthy of the gadget: Wii Party U (Nintendo, rated Everyone, $49.99) boasts more than 80 new minigames, many built for up to four players to compete and perfect for family game night.
Players either wielding a Wii Remote Plus or the GamePad can choose from the modes TV Party (a board game featuring rolling dice and taking part in mini-game challenges), House Party (dancing, sketching and even a personality quiz) and GamePad Party (two-player action exclusively on the GamePad tablet), often starring a player’s customize Mii avatar.
One of the more hilarious games, Name that Face has a player read clues and take a picture of his expressive mug while other players look at the TV screen and decide what he is trying to emote.
I found GamePad Party to be a nostalgia trip as I challenged my offspring to a round of Tabletop Baseball taking me back to the to the 1980s when I used to play Mattel’s handheld baseball game.
By the way, the Wii Party U pack has a Wii Remote Plus (including 2 AA batteries) and a convenient horizontal stand for the GamePad.
Blackbeard (McFarlane Toys, $14.99) — Todd McFarlane’s band of action-figure-designing scalawags brings to life Edward Teach, better known as the infamous Blackbeard, in a 6-inch-tall replica. Based on his appearance in the popular video game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Ubisoft, rated Mature, $59.99), the highly detailed figure includes a removable black tri-corner hat with feather, across-the-chest holster, four pistols of various sizes and a long sword.
Game worthy of the gadget: The mighty Blackbeard figure is just not a collectible to be admired, but its package contains a piece of paper containing a special code. Use the code to go to a website and obtain another code that unlocks a set of sails for his ship (sails that are dark-stained, tattered and crudely sown together, to be specific) actually used in the Black Flag game. Other action figures from the series also contain codes to unlock extras such as a blue outfit for Haytham Kenway found in his figure’s package.
By the way, the latest Assassin’s Creed is a swashbuckling, third-person masterpiece in which a player controls Edward Kenway (a former British privateer, now pirate and member of the Assassin Order) and his ship the Jackdaw. This island-hopping, free-roaming adventure set in the Caribbean in the late 17th century mixes history and stealthy action.
A50: Battlefield 4 Edition (ASTRO Gaming, $299.99) — This specially designed headset for the latest sequel to the Battlefield gaming franchise uses a custom audio profile created specifically by the DICE development team to aurally appreciate virtual war. The over-the-ears wireless beauty with onboard microphone and orange accents delivers an enveloping audio experience through KleerNet 5.8GHz wireless technology, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and embedded controls for volume and game to voice mixing.
A long-lasting, lithium-ion battery system (rechargeable via USB) keeps the headphones alive, and a wireless transmitter fits snugly within a stand for easy recharging and display when not in use.
Game worthy of the gadget: Of course, take part in an epic theater of war via the popular first-person shooter Battlefield 4 (Electronic Arts, rated Mature, $59.99). A player takes control of Sgt. Daniel “Reck” Recker and finds himself in the middle of a global conflict between Russia and the U.S. fueled by a military coup in China.
Besides a robust and blockbuster action-movie-style solo campaign, the online multiplayer (with up to 24 warriors on the field) is even better, boasting 10 maps, seven match modes, more than 50 vehicles and verging on nearly 100 weapons available.
Moments to appreciate throughout include:
* Painstakingly realistic landscapes (rain and wind effects are breathtaking);
* Destructible environments (concrete barriers flake and blast away while under fire as easily as buildings collapse under a barrage of tank attacks);
* The ability to shoot enemies out of vehicles (like a helicopter), parachute off a building and react to melee combat attacks (fending off a stabbing attack for example);
* A Spectator mode to observe each soldier on the battlefield through various perspectives (first-person, third-person, tabletop and free-cam).
Disney Infinity (Disney Interactive Studios, rated E10+ for players 10 and older, $89.99 for Starter Set) — The famed multimedia powerhouse offers a stable of popular characters from its 90-year history through a virtual universe that combines micro-toy-statue collecting with onscreen action. Yes, with a tip of Mickey’s ears to Activision’s similar Skylanders franchise, this ever-evolving video game hybrid gives children some gorgeous figures to hold or admire including Mr. Incredible, Capt. Jack Sparrow, Jack Skellington and Lightening McQueen, and then have them magical appear in a video game.
Simply plug the hot-plate-shaped base into the Xbox 360, place up to two, 4-inch-tall figures (along with playset pieces and Power Discs) on the base, and the characters port into adventures imagined from such films as “Monsters University,” “Toy Story” and “Frozen.”
Game worthy of the gadget: Packaged in the Starter Set, owners get the Xbox 360 disk that unlocks the worlds of Disney Infinity featuring third-person, platforming, puzzle-solving and combat-style action.
It also allows entrance to the Toy Box mode (a sort of Lego meets Minecraft Magical Kingdom) that becomes a wonderful, open world landscape for children to use all of their unlocked items and characters to essentially construct adventures and mini-games to share within the Infinity universe.
Of course, Disney wants its young fans to continue to build upon the bridge between real and digital role-playing, so parents will need to pull out the credit card to help Junior amass a stable of almost 30 characters through single-figure purchases ($12.99 each); sealed power-disk packs ($4.99 for two discs); Playset Packs ($39); themed-figure three-packs ($29.99) that could include villains such as Randall, Davy Jones, and Syndrome; or the Sidekick pack starring Mike Wozowski, Capt. Barbossa and Mrs. Incredible.
Furby Boom (Hasbro, $64.99, requires 4 AA batteries) — One of the most popular and collectible toys of the late 1990s returns with a high-tech twist to children’s playrooms. Hasbro’s plush, electronic pet still looks like his ancestors, covered in fur with big eyes (now LCD), fluttering ears and beak, standing 6 inches tall, and speaking English as well as in its native language Furbish.
His onboard magic allows an owner to elicit responses from him via touch, motion, voice and music while an enhanced memory feature has Furby remember his pals, who he hangs out with, by name.
Additionally, he can interact with any iOS or Android device via the Furby Boom app. That translates into looking at an iPad to name him (he will learn and speak his new moniker) and monitoring a metered dashboard that covers hunger, cleanliness, health and the unavoidable potty breaks (one of the weirdest uses of an iPad I have ever seen). For example, when he takes a virtual shower (water sprays in the app), he will react to the water temperature and pressure, a very clever surprise for the kiddies.
Game worthy of the gadget: As far as some gaming fun, the free, Furby Boom app first allows an experienced plush pet to lay up to 50 virtual onscreen eggs that hatch into creatures called Furblings. Use the Furblings to further interact with (including cleaning and feeding), or play games such as a soccer goal shoot out against the real Furby, or a match of hide and seek. The app also offers placing the Furblings in a high-rise building with customizable rooms that require spending accumulated Furbucks.
Moto TC Rally (Griffin, $99.99) — This too-clever, rally-racing vehicle takes radio control to a new level by using Bluetooth 4.0 technology combined with a free app installed on later generations of an iPad, iPhone and iPod.
At its simplest, a driver uses his smart device to steer (using the app’s virtual wheel or tilting smart phone), accelerate and brake the plastic pinstriped car measuring 12 inches long.
Impact sensors, ground-effects lighting, rubber tires and independent suspension add to the experience.
Now, the navigation app also displays toggles and meters to hone the vehicle’s performance as owners tweak speed boosts and armor (with the car actually slowing down when adding the weight of the virtual armor).
A built-In 600 mAhr 4.8v NiMH battery powers the racer and recharges via a USB cable hooked up to a computer. The package also includes a lap-counter sensor.
The only caveat: To really appreciate the high-tech possibilities of racing would require two vehicles (a larger expenditure for parents) and lots of open space.
Game worthy of the gadget: Driving the vehicle requires use of a mobile device with the app, but thanks to those impact sensors I mentioned about above, the features transform the vehicle into a live, kart-racing video game. That means collecting points by bumping a competitor to use a power up and temporarily flip his steering wheel, cut down his speed or mess with his controls.
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