Cool gifts for geeks, 2011: Video games and after work distractions

Pow! Zap! Kapow! Our favorite video games and accessories for the season

When we first started doing the Cool Yule Tools holiday gift guides, our "After Hours" section used to cover all of the "entertainment" devices, toys, gadgets and video games. With the explosion of home entertainment, personal entertainment and other consumer electronics, the entire guide is practically an "After Hours" section. Still, here are some of our picks of favorite video games and other "after work" distractions for you or your family:

Watch a slideshow version of some of these products.

Products reviewed in this category:

Batman: Arkham City

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Gamecom X95 wireless headset for Xbox 360, by Plantronics

Once Upon a Monster for Xbox 360 Kinect

Ready, Set, Grover for the Nintendo Wii

Charge Base 3 for Playstation 3, by Nyko

Kinect Zoom for Xbox 360 Kinect, by Nyko

Atari Arcade joystick controller for iPad, by Discovery Bay Games

The reviews

Batman: Arkham City

The sequel to the best Batman video game ever created (Batman: Arkham Asylum) ups the ante in this year's release by giving you more - more areas to explore, more villains to fight, and more puzzles to solve. If you loved playing the original game, you won't be disappointed in this sequel. If you didn't play the original, you can still enjoy a great action/fighting game as you take on the role of Batman. And come on, who wouldn't like being Batman?

The original game had you roaming around the hallways and rooms of Arkham Asylum to take down the Joker and other baddies from the Batman universe, so the sequel needed something bigger, so they give you part of Gotham City. Without revealing any spoilers, the newly elected mayor (the former warden of Arkham who claims credit for Batman's victory) seals off a part of the city and turns it into a prison. All of the prisoners from Blackgate Prison (the 'normal' criminals) and the inmates from Arkham Asylum (the 'super-villains') now reside inside Arkham City. As Batman, you play the game to find out what's going on inside, and to then complete several missions (because, as is the case with video games, something always goes wrong).

Gameplay is relatively open-ended - as Batman you can do pretty much anything you want, even if that means just hanging out on the rooftop to view the city streets. All of the gadgets from the first game are back, and some new ones are included, such as a remote electrical gun that can fire electricity to start generators or garage doors or just to fire at random criminals (the closest thing that Batman will get to shooting a gun). You can run around on street level to get around, or you can utilize your grappling hook and swing around on the tops of buildings, a la Spider-man (in fact, the swinging from building to building reminded me of the really good Spider-man 2 game a few years back). Unlike Spider-man, Batman can glide with his cape, and that's fun as well (especially when you see a criminal on the street, you can then do a glide kick to take him out).

Like the earlier game, fighting is accomplished by repeatedly hitting one button (in the Xbox case, the 'X' button), causing Batman to punch or kick or do other things that only Batman can do. You can chain together moves if your timing is right, causing Batman to fly around from bad guy to bad guy like a pinball. There are a bunch of combo moves you can do if you want, and some are required to fight off some enemies (like the guys who wear armor or carry shields), but for the most part Batman can handle it. You'll definitely need to utilize all of the different moves in the normal or harder modes, but if you play on Easy (the game kind of mocks you for it), you can button-mash your way through most of the game.

Even though the game is open-ended, it does a pretty good job at keeping you aware of the main plot missions, and you'll want to do at least some of the main missions before wandering off on side missions, mainly because of the new gadgets you achieve or other things. Like the first game, there are a ton of "Riddler trophies" to collect, which include different puzzles and locations to figure out. In this game, you also have Riddler missions, in which you need to solve more elaborate puzzles to rescue some emergency workers, so getting through those should satisfy the "detective" part of your Batman personality.

One set of missions I didn't enjoyed revolved around Mr. Zasz, a serial killer who has you running around the city trying to answer a ringing telephone before a timer runs out. I absolutely despise timed missions, so I was in no hurry to get through those. Even if I was Batman.

The voice acting is stellar, providing many of the same voices from the first game, although I still think Harley Quinn sounds like Edith Bunker. The plot, dialogue and writing is all top-notch, giving you a great story in the Batman universe that would make for an excellent comic book graphic novel or even, "gasp", a movie. In the end, you will feel satisfied that you've played a great video game, and there's enough to keep you occupied once you complete the main game (such as the Riddler trophies, challenge levels, etc.).

One thing I forgot to mention - the Catwoman episodes - if you buy the game you can get a code to unlock these missions - and her missions are weaved into the storyline of the Batman parts. Catwoman has her own missions within Arkham City, and those were relatively interesting. It was a nice touch.

I can't wait to see what Rocksteady Studios has for the next episode of the game - Arkham Country, perhaps? Who knows? If you have anyone on your list who is a fan of action video games or Batman (as long as they're old enough, some of the action is a bit violent), this is a must-buy.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $55 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The fifth game in the Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda is the latest RPG mega-time-killer-action-adventure game that will suck away your time as you adventure in the fantasy world chasing down dragons and doing all sorts of other things, like cooking food, tanning leather, chopping wood and reading books. That may sound pretty boring to you, but somehow it works to make an engaging game.

If you played the last version of the game, Oblivion, then a lot of the gameplay will feel familiar to you. Same goes if you played any of the Fallout games, since it's by the same studio and uses a similar game engine. If you've played any RPG games before, you know the drill - choose a character race, make adjustments to their looks (face, nose, hair color, etc.), and away you go. You don't need to worry about what class you're going to be (magic user, warrior, etc.), since your actions in the game end up determining your skills - so if you want to be a magic user, just keep using magic during your battles; ditto for warrior - just keep swinging the sword.

Fighting in the game is a bit more difficult than in Oblivion - for some reason, I remember I could take down enemies with one or two slashes of my sword. In Skyrim, I had to actually engage in fighting more often by blocking and dodging, and I lost battles a lot more here than in Oblivion.

One of the selling points of the game is the open-end nature of the world - you can follow the main path of the game, or you can just wander around and do nothing for a long time. OK, let me rephrase. Doing nothing means just wandering around collecting things on the ground (there are flowers, plants, etc., that can be used to create potions, and you can mine ore for metal for making swords; also, you can hunt down wildlife and collect their pelts for armor, get the idea?). Also, borderline hoarders beware; like previous games, there are a lot of useless items that you can collect and then try to re-sell at merchants, but that also means there's a lot of inventory management (sometimes I wish they'd just take off the weight requirements for characters).

Part of the reason that "doing nothing" is appealing is because the game's visuals are amazing. Around every corner of the game is usually something new to look at, whether it's a mountaintop, river, or forest area. I'm still in the beginnings of the game (I've only had it for about 10 days now), so maybe I'll be bored of the landscape at some point. But right now it's fun to walk around, experiencing the world and seeing things like rain storms, an elk running around, etc.

The main plot? Oh yeah, something about dragons returning to the land, and there's danger, blah blah blah. I'm sure I'll get to the plot at some point, but at the moment I'm trying to track down some more salt piles so I can finish making the cabbage soup, and then I need to find a location where I can smelt the ore that I mined so I can make an iron helmet to increase my smithing level so eventually I can make really cool armor.

But yeah, this game is really good.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $58 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Gamecom X95 wireless headset for Xbox 360, by Plantronics

If you're a hardcore gamer playing a bunch of games with friends (especially shooters), chances are you'll need a headset with a good microphone so you can hear them and they can hear you. If you're a dad who wants to play Xbox games or watch movies without disturbing others, this headset is also just as valuable. The Gamecom X95 connects wirelessly to your Xbox 360, via a USB receiver / base station, which also includes audio cables that you connect to either the Xbox audio cables (via passthrough), or through the TV out connection if you have a newer system that connects to a TV via HDMI (you can also purchase an A/V conversion kit from Microsoft).

Once connected, the headphones provide great sound for your gameplay, watching movies or listening to music through the Xbox 360 - even watching regular TV through the system (my headset was connected to the TV out ports on the TV, so the Xbox doesn't need to be powered to use them this way) is improved. I used these to watch a football game and was amazed at how better the sound was - instead of hearing the background noise, I could hear the analysis much better. Watching British television (Doctor Who), I could actually understand their accents a lot more than through the TV's regular speakers. For speaker gurus, the 40mm speakers in the headset provides the powerful sound quality.

For gamers, another consideration on the headset is comfort - if you play for long periods, eventually you develop "ear fatigue" and your ears begin to ache. Plantronics says the X95 compensates for this by redistributing the pressure on the specially designed earpods, providing better comfort. The microphone boom also swivels up, allowing the user to get a drink or munch on snacks without the sound bothering everyone else on the game.

This is a worthy pair of headphones for any gamer on your list, or for any dad who wants to enjoy better sound from their TV or games without bothering others around them.

Price: $99.99

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Once Upon a Monster for Xbox 360 Kinect

One of the main reasons I bought the Kinect sensor adapter for my Xbox 360 was so I could play more games with my kids, who love playing with the motion-controlled games on the Nintendo Wii. But a lot of the Kinect-based games are still not geared towards younger children for the most part (my daughter, for example, likes dancing games but thinks Dance Central is too hard for her). So I was pretty excited to try out Once Upon a Monster, which uses Sesame Street characters in a game that two kids can play at the same time, or a parent can jump in and help if they get stuck.

In the game, you join Elmo and Cookie Monster in a bunch of different story book "missions" with other monsters (friendly, of course), helping them through different scenarios. Other characters from Sesame Street show up, including Grover and Oscar the Grouch, so if your kids are into Sesame Street they'll love those moments. Gameplay is centered around player's moving their body with the Kinect sensor, whether this means jumping, moving left or right, waving their arms, etc. It's pretty basic stuff, and the game doesn't penalize you if you fail, it just keeps encouraging you to try more (at least until the child gets frustrated and asks Dad for help).

We did have some issues with one part of the game - in the first mission, Elmo needs to ride on the back of one of the monsters and run through a forest while Elmo grabs balloons (or streamers, I forgot which). Because my children are shorter than me, the Kinect sensor kept thinking that they were ducking instead of standing tall, which caused the Elmo character to drop down off the other monster's back. Very annoying - even when I switched characters we could never really complete that part of the mission. Another part of the game has you flapping your arms like you're flying, and after a while the repetitive motion can tire out even an active 5-year-old. Fortunately the game knows this and builds in "rest periods" during the game, but it can still be pretty tiring.

Within the game, of course, are subtle lessons for the kids about helping others and doing teamwork and sharing, but it's not heavy handed or preachy, and of course has the cool Sesame Street sensibility. This is a recommended game for parents who want to play a Kinect game with their kids and not have to worry about doing everything for them. If you don't have kids, this game won't really keep you occupied for a long time, even if you like Cookie Monster or Elmo.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $46 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Ready, Set, Grover for the Wii

Ready, Set, Grover is a bunch of fun! Follow Grover as he leads Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and you through a variety of challenges around Sesame Street. Grover's challenge has four levels and each level has four games. You could also just play the individual games by going through a different menu, but for the first time through, I would suggest going through Grover's Challenge so your child can get the storyline as well. It even comes with its own sleeve for the Wii controller. It looks like Grover (although as you play, his face is sideways). It covers all of the buttons that won't be used to play this game (only one button is used, but it also keeps the "home" button accessible). Plus, it has a textured back for better grip and to make it less likely to fly out of your child's hands.

The various games go over these topics: hygiene, body movement and physical activity, nutrition, colors, and numbers. Of course it does these in fun ways that you'd expect from Sesame Street. What I really like about this is that the games in the first level use very basic movements - jumping, tilting the controller, etc. - while the second level builds on those movements - jumping to "catch something" in a timed way, or tilt the controller and move it forward - and so forth. Plus, there is no possible way to fail in the very first game. Your child controls Elmo as he runs down the sidewalk (no running involved, although I bet your child will run in place like we did without noticing) and jumps over things like cones, blocks, and teddy bears. If your child jumps too early, Elmo just jumps really far. If your child misses the jump, Elmo stops before the obstacle and says "uh oh." No blame, no failure, no worries.

As the games progress, your child can miss catching things or tossing things, but it's still Sesame Street so Grover still says encouraging things. If you mess up too many times in row, the game starts offering verbal and visible pointers. In between every few games, Grover also reminds your child it's time for a water or fruit break, since there is physical activity going on.

There are a few downsides to this game however. First, this is a one player game. The packaging says that a parent can "drop in" to offer help for some of the higher level games. However, the parent can't play side by side, nor can another child. The other thing that drove me a little crazy is Abby Cadabby's inability to follow the instructions. Before your child even plays a game, Grover leads a little warm up session. Abby Cadabby is there as well, but only follows the instructions sometimes. For example, Grover asks you to touch your toes; Abby instead twists to the side. I couldn't figure out why. She does the same thing in Elmo's Dance Party (one of the games) but at least Elmo calls her on it "I don't think you did that move correctly, let's try it again" or "wow, you do that move differently."

Even though parents can't play along, there is a "parents' area." In this area, you can see how many times your child has played each game (it will remember up to 3 profiles). You can also set a time limit by selecting how many games can be played (5, 10, 15, or 20 games).

It's a cute, educational game that still gets kids getting up and moving around. It's exactly what you would expect from Sesame Street. It might not be the best game for you if you have a few kids in the same age group, because they would have to take turns playing. But it's a fun game if one child plays.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $24.81 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Jennifer Finn

Charge Base 3 for Playstation 3, by Nyko

An annoying part of playing video games with wireless controllers is that they tend to run out of battery power right in the middle of a game session, which usually means you have to run to find new batteries, or use a different controller while the other one recharges (in the case of Sony PS3 controllers, which have rechargeable batteries). For the PS3, this usually means I used the wire to not only recharge the batteries, but to also play the games.

The Charge Base 3 can fix this, giving you the ability to recharge up to 2 controllers in a very stylish base station, freeing you up from having to use the wire to connect to the system for a recharge or to play the games. When your gaming session is over, it acts like a very nice docking station for your wireless controllers.

Recharging is done through a snap-on module to the front of the controller (don't worry, it doesn't add much weight or block any ports). The module then attaches magnetically to the vertical base station. The base station is connected to a power outlet, so you can place it anywhere there's power (you don't need it to be near the game console, but you probably will put it there anyway). A light on the unit tells you whether the controllers are charging (orange) or fully charged (green).

Nyko says the charge base will recharge your controllers faster than the USB charging with the wire - I didn't test this feature, I was just happy that I never had to worry about whether the controller I was using had a complete charge or not. If you are playing a lot of PS3 games, this is a nice bonus accessory to have.

Cool Yule rating: 5 stars

Price: $24.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Zoom attachment for Xbox 360 Kinect, by Nyko

Earlier this year I bought the Kinect attachment for my Xbox 360, which provides Wii-like motion control for video games, but without a separate controller/joystick. The Kinect camera and microphone lets "you be the controller", letting you do gestures to do things in video games like exercise, kick a virtual soccer ball, or dance.

The biggest problem with Kinect, though, is that it requires a large amount of space in front of the TV in order for optimal gameplay. The system needs at least 6-8 feet from the TV, and in many living rooms (especially if you live in a smaller apartment) can't accommodate this.

The Zoom attachment from Kinect aims to reduce this length requirement, and it does so by about two feet, letting you play about 4-6 feet away from the TV/game system. It snaps on over the Kinect sensor, and the company includes a setup guide (and you can go to the Nyko Web site to watch a video) that should help when putting everything together.

Using the Zoom didn't make everything 100% perfect, though - when using it the system became a little bit more jumpy on games that require more sensitive movements - your experience will likely differ depending on the game you play. But it did make a Kinect experience that was extremely frustrating (exercise games, for example, that require a lot of floor space) and turn it into an accessory that I could enjoy.

I still have some issues with Kinect (mainly that it can't detect my smaller children as well as it does me), but at least those are eased through the use of the Zoom.

Cool Yule rating: 4 stars

Price: $29.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

Atari Arcade joystick controller for iPad, by Discovery Bay Games

Anyone who grew up in the late '70s or early '80s remembers how thrilled they were when they got their Atari 2600 game system (or the one from Sears) and popped in Combat or Football or Yar's Revenge for an afternoon of blocky video gaming. Now we're playing games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Batman: Arkham City, where the graphics are 100 times better, but at the time the ATARI was where it was at. The Atari Arcade joystick accessory for the iPad helps you relive those moments, by creating your own mini-arcade on the Apple tablet.

The iPad plugs into the Apple universal connector port, and the device has a joystick and four buttons (used for things like select game and reset, remember the original Atari joystick had just the one button). You then need to download the Atari Greatest Hits game collection from the app store - it's a free download but in order to get the 100 games it will cost you $9.99 through in-game purchases.

Once connected, you can use the physical joystick and buttons to play through the classic games on the Atari. You quickly remember how bad some of the graphics were, just like back in the day there are some games that will keep you entertained for a while, and other games that are just big stinkers.

One big complaint from me on this - the joystick is way oversensitive on some of the games, especially the ones that used to require the separate paddle controllers on the original Atari 2600 (such as Circus Atari). There is a sensitivity setting on the app, but it's clearly not as good yet on duplicating the same feel as the original joystick. Hopefully they can fix this with software/app updates. Once you get tired of playing the games from the '70s, maybe you can convince your kids about how awesome some of the games were. My 4-year-old seemed intrigued by the Baseball game but then thought it was too hard, so there's hope that younger kids may like playing these for a while before graduating to current systems. Then again, he's addicted to Angry Birds on the iPad, so even that has better graphics than the Atari games.

Cool Yule rating: 3 stars

Price: $59.99

Reviewed by Keith Shaw

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This story, "Cool gifts for geeks, 2011: Video games and after work distractions" was originally published by Network World.

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