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Gaming transcends all other media. Films, television, comics, books — nothing can give such an interactive, immersive experience as playing a game. Want to be a soldier, fighting against aliens for the sake of humanity’s existence? Feel the urge to take a high-power muscle car for a spin through the city streets? Want to kick back, relax, and let go in a world where you control the elements and shape the setting around you? Gaming allows all of this — and so much more. On your own, with friends, online — there’s no limitations when you pick up that controller, or stand in front of a Kinect sensor, or sit down at your keyboard. To ensure gaming perfection is within reach this holiday season, we’ve lined up 6 titles that are a must for inclusion under any gamer’s tree.
Halo 4 – Halo is synonymous with Xbox. There is no stronger brand recognition than that between Master Chief and Microsoft’s gaming powerhouse. Halo formed a major part of this writer’s gaming youth — Halo LAN parties with friends, playing Halo 2 online, the excitement of waiting for the third iteration to be released. Sadly, I came away from Halo 3 disenchanted with the saga, It felt less like a next-gen Halo for the 360, and more like a HD remake of Halo 2 designed to give more of the same without really pushing the boundaries of what other shooters were already doing on the console. This all changes with Halo 4. 343 Industries have crafted what is arguably one of the strongest entrants in the franchise, eschewing any worries of a non-Bungie-crafted tale and proving that Halo can feel fresh, new and innovative while still retaining what made the original games such endlessly satisfying fun. If you know someone who hasn’t yet picked it up, do them a favor and get them a copy for Christmas. They won’t stop thanking you — at least until Halo 5 comes out. Available exclusively on Xbox 360.
The Walking Dead – I hate zombies. I’ve never understood the fascination, never enjoyed the films, and never liked the games. They’re awful. So, naturally, I’m recommending “The Walking Dead” by Telltale Games, which is based around survivors in the immediate aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. “The Walking Dead” takes a narrative approach, as opposed to the run-and-gun style of most zombie games, favoring a point-and-click, dialogue-driven style that deliberately controls the player as they navigate the game world. Released episodically over the course of this year, all 5 episodes are now available on a single disc, and I urge you to get it, or gift it to a gaming friend, and experience the full game. It follows the efforts of protagonist Lee Everett and his experiences as the zombie outbreak occurs, and by gradually introducing a choice mechanic, the game allows you to shape the story and make it your own. Death is a constant threat, and no character is guaranteed to survive to the end, but it’s a thrilling, involving, immensely satisfying game. Most of the action is between survivors, dealing with internal politics, family struggles and the moral choices that come with a world in which there is no order. Get it, now, for yourself, for friends, for strangers on the street, and experience the bleak reality the characters – and subsequently the player – must face. Available on PS3, Xbox 360, PC and Mac.
Okami HD – Can games be art? It’s a question asked often, usually by those who don’t actually play them, as gamers have known for years that their “playthings” are amongst the most interactive examples of art there are. Roger Ebert famously slammed games for not being art – well, Mr. Ebert, I give you Okami HD. Originally released — and subsequently ignored — on PS2, it was released on Wii, where it drew a slightly more emphatic response. Thankfully, Capcom is trying again with Sony hardware, and the result is one of the most unique, beautiful, emotional games available. Okami plays like a Japanese ink painting come to life, with gorgeous backdrops, stunning visuals and rich character animations. Its story is classic Japanese – rural past, emperors, kings, traditions, mystical forces – and it’s steeped in history and influences that are a joy to behold as you play through. Utilizing the PlayStation Move (though the DualShock can also be used), you play as Amaterasu, the sun goddess come to life as a wolf, and control her Celestial Brush, painting over the landscape to manipulate it. Want to turn night into day? Freeze the frame and draw a circle in the sky. Need to cross a river? Paint a bridge and climb over. Attacking an enemy? Slice the brush across their torso to cut them in half. Gameplay is satisfying, natural, never feels tired and is bolstered by a deep story, bursting with humor and life. Why does it make a great gift? Buy it for yourself, fall in love, and then spread it to your nearest and dearest. It’s gaming nirvana. Available exclusively through the PlayStation Network on PS3.
New Super Mario Bros. U – Ask most people where their gaming memories start, and they’ll likely name a Nintendo system. NES and SNES were the best consoles of their generations, and produced some of the greatest gaming characters and adventures — many of which have endured in some incarnation to this day. The most ubiquitous of these is Mario. The Italian plumber has transcended typical console fanboyism, becoming a mascot for gaming as a whole. He is Nintendo’s greatest marketing tool, and they’ve ushered in the launch of the Wii U with a title that harkens back to the original 2D platformers of the NES and SNES era. Super Mario Bros. U brings HD visuals, fun, addictive gameplay, a new challenge mode to punish those who find the regular story a little too casual, and the usual cast of Mario, Luigi and Toad. It’s initially simple gameplay quickly deepens, and will suck players into Mario’s 2D world, and many hours will be lost exploring every secret area, finding every star, completing every challenge. Grab a copy, grab some friends and invest in some of the best 2D multiplayer action you can have. Available exclusively on Wii U.
GTA: Vice City 10th Anniversary Edition – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In the palm of your hand. Do I really have to sell this any more? One of the greatest games of last generation, Vice City brought the 80’s screaming back into fashion in a flurry of white suits, big hair, neon lights and flashy cars, all tempered by gun fights, drug feuds, and driving around to some of the best music ever put in a game. Featuring hours of content, updated to make the most of the Android and iOS devices it’s available on — higher-res textures, better audio, smoother gameplay — it’s Vice City with a coat of polish and a generous burst of Sissy Spritz. Download it now, turn on Flash FM, and melt into the glitzy, faux-Miami world of GTA: Vice City all over again. Available now on select iOS and Android devices.
EA Sports Active 2 – Know someone that needs to shed the holiday pounds? Consider EA Sports Active 2. Not the most flattering gift/suggestion, but they’ll thank you after a few weeks when they start dropping weight. Combining leg and arm straps to measure vital statistics, it offers a full workout, complete with personal trainer, to punish your body into submission through numerous mini games and activities. Combined with diet plans, the weight will fall off — just make sure to remind the recipient who helped them get that bangin’ bikini bod. Available on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.
Cameras have a tough life. Tasked with ensuring every memory is frozen in time — a child’s first day at school, a beautiful sunset on the beach, the naked torso of the hot guy dancing with you at the club — they must recreate each frame as if we were viewing it in person, regardless of time or setting. Picking the right one for the job can be hard, but it needn’t be. If you have a partner who’s relying solely on their smartphone for image capture, or a friend desperate to take their photography to the next level, then give them something that will do justice to that macro shot of a flower, or the awesome shape that formed in their coffee foam. Beginner to advanced, budget to dedicated, we’ve got you covered, so strike a pose and read on.
Sony Alpha NEX-7 – The NEX-7 is not for beginners. Sony has aimed this, their most expensive compact camera, squarely at advanced photographers, and those whose interests lie beyond Instagram images of their lunch. Its core specs will whet the appetites of any camera geeks – 24.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor, 1080p recording at 60fps, a half-inch 1024×768 OLED electronic viewfinder (the highest resolution in any stills camera), 3-inch LCD display that can be tilted for use at different angles, interchangeable lenses, 0.02 second shutter lag, stereo mics, infra-red remote receiver and three dials for greater control over camera functions. If any of that didn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry, you could still buy the NEX-7 and take the best photos you’ve seen in a compact, but you’d be missing out on so much that this camera is capable of. The NEX-7 is Sony at its best, delivering a camera that could entice many DSLR users down into the compact range, without having to trade image quality for portability. The only downside? This much technology comes at a price – a steep one. The NEX-7 starts at $1249 with an 18-55mm lens.
Samsung Galaxy Camera – Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take the best parts of a smartphone – the screen, processor, apps, sharing functionality – and combine them with a compact camera? Samsung has, and with the Galaxy Camera, they’ve answered a question that few would probably have asked, but many will now want. Taking everything that is great in the Galaxy S3 smartphone – its 1.4GHz quad-core processor, 4.8-inch 720p display and Android 4.1 JellyBean OS – Samsung proceeded to squeeze them into the body of one of its Wi-Fi enabled compacts. The result is something truly unique. A 16.3MP BSI CMOS camera with optical image stabilization, 21x optical zoom, 1080p recording up to 30fps, 120fps video at 768×512, Wi-Fi, HDMI, and GPS. Fairly standard compact camera specs, but it’s in its software that the Galaxy Camera proves its worth. Take a photo, and you can edit it using the built-in Paper Artist app, or load up Instagram and make that pin-sharp photo blurry and grainy – because it’s art – or upload it to Facebook, tweet it, open it in Photoshop mobile, email it, or send it to a friend. Built-in LTE on Verizon and AT&T means you don’t even need to be near Wi-Fi to share your images. Galaxy Camera even has voice control, so you need only shout “Cheese!” and it’ll take a photo (“Smile!” is also acceptable). Finished shooting? Play Angry Birds, check your email, watch a film, share your videos and pictures wirelessly with a TV… you name it, Android enables it. It’s a breathtaking re-imagining of what a camera is capable of from a social and editing standpoint, and it’s more than worth the initially steep asking price. $499 with an AT&T contract, or $549 on Verizon, not including data charges.
Nikon Coolpix L610 – The Coolpix could be mistaken for a typical compact camera — easy to use, small, light, and with the usual pared down features. Except there’s nothing really pared down here. With a 16MP NIKKOR ED lens, CMOS sensor, 14x optical zoom, 2x digital zoom, vibration reduction, motion detection, a 3-inch anti-glare LCD, 1080p recording and ISO 125-1600/3200, Eye-fi support and a macro mode that works as close as half an inch away, it’s a powerful device. It offers 19 specialized scene modes, a smart portrait system, special and filter effects to apply to your images and — perhaps most importantly — it’s powered by standard AA batteries. This is either a good or bad thing, but being able to carry a few spare AA’s as opposed to expensive proprietary batteries is certainly convenient, if a little ’90s. It’s a neat little package, available in black, red or silver for just $149.
Sony Cyber-shot RX100 – One of the slickest compact cameras available, the RX100 is crammed full of tech to get the best out of every image. A sleek, minimalist body that almost borders on mundane conceals a 20.2MP 1-inch Exmor CMOS sensor, Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar lens with control ring, 3.6x optical zoom, RAW image capture, ISO 125-6400, 1080p video at 60fps, P/A/S/M modes, 3-inch LCD, and a whole host of intelligent software features to guide users to creating the best possible image. Beginners can use iAuto mode, which will handle all of the back-end selection to ensure every image looks great, while more advanced users can switch to manual mode and enjoy full control over every aspect of image capture. Prompts will also appear on-screen to help teach aspiring photographers how to use the features available — very handy for those eager to further their creative abilities without needing outside help. The EX100 is one of the best compact digital cameras on the market, though you pay for the bragging rights, as it’s currently retailing at $649.
Fujifilm XF1 – Looking for style without losing substance? Fujifilm’s XF1 has a 2/3-inch 12MP EXR-CMOS sensor, 4x optical zoom, optical image stabilization, a mechanical zoom ring, ISO sensitivity up to a staggering 12800, 3-inch LCD, RAW image capture and Full HD video amongst its numerous features, but it’s the aluminum and synthetic leather design that’ll draw you in and make you weak at the knees. Available in red, tan and black leather, the stunning compact manages to feel both retro and modern at the same time. It’s a beautiful piece of hardware that eschews the black plastic trend of its peers and is all the better for it. Available for $499, it’s perfect for the style-conscious photographer.
GoPro Hero 3 – The GoPro Hero 3 is a tiny, wearable camcorder that shoots 12MP stills, up to 4K resolution video, and has a modular design that allows various accessories to be used. Need a touchscreen? Clip on the LCD Touch BacPac. Need to go diving? Add a waterproof housing. Need longer battery life? Attach a Battery BacPac. It’s a unique approach to wearable cameras, and that the GoPro manages to be so small and light and still produce such great stills and videos is special even without the ability to change and adapt it’s functions through the attachable accessories. An even cooler function is the free GoPro app, available on iOS and Android, which connects to the GoPro via WiFi and enables the smartphone or tablet to be used as a live video remote, displaying whatever the GoPro is currently shooting. Starting at $199.99 for the White Edition (limited to 1080p video and 5MP stills), and rising to $399.99 for the full 12MP/4K Black Edition with WiFi remote.
You might ask why we’re including a gift guide for tablets. Many consumers ignore the choices available to them and walk straight to their nearest iPad retailer. They’re making a smart decision, as Apple’s effort is one of the best money can buy — but it’s no longer the best. Tablets are a gift that can be enjoyed by many — shared at parties, passed around the family, propped up for an impromptu movie night, they cover a lot of scenarios, which makes ease of use, speed, robustness and a sense of style paramount for prospective owners. Not all tablets are created equal, however, and we at Technocrat are here to help you make the best choice this Christmas, be it for a movie-addict, app lover or avid reader.
Apple iPad 4th Generation – The iPad is the easy choice in this category. Apple’s tablet reinvented a sector that, until the iPad, relied on desktop Windows and stylus input, not to mention often staid and business-like hardware. In its fourth iteration, the iPad continues the subdued, simple success of its predecessors, mixing a new processor, improved graphics, 10-hour battery life, 1080p video with image stabilization, dual-band WiFi, LTE and, naturally, the much-lauded Retina Display. Its 2048×1536 resolution and deep color saturation make it one of the best on any mobile device, and a genuine pleasure to navigate. Whether iOS’s limitations are to your taste or not, the iPad is indisputably the go-to tablet for high-quality apps. Price is it’s only major downside, starting at $499 for 16GB, with LTE models starting at $629 for 16GB of storage.
Google Nexus 10 – Made by Samsung for Google, the Nexus 10 has the highest-resolution display of any current tablet, which, at 2560×1600, easily bests the iPad for detail and clarity. Its 16:10 aspect ratio lends itself favorably to watching TV and films on the device, and web sites look incredibly sharp on the pixel-dense display. Powered by Samsung’s brand new A15 CPU, paired with quad-core graphics, the Nexus 10 breezes through tasks with ease. Android lacks the number of tablet-specific apps that iOS boasts, but the Nexus 10 comes with stock Android, and the full benefits of Google’s ecosystem — integrated YouTube, Gmail, Google Now and more. It’s the tablet for those who love streaming Netflix, YouTube, film and TV in HD. Available from Google starting at $399 for a 16GB model.
Barnes and Noble Nook HD+ – Barnes and Noble came out fighting with the Nook HD+. An 8.9-inch, 1920×1280 laminated screen capable of displaying Full HD content, dual-core 1.5GHz processor, 9-hours of battery life, less than half an inch thick, with 16 or 32GB of storage and a microSD card slot to further expand it — it has the specs of a powerful contender. The only downside is the Nook’s closed ecosystem, relying on B&N’s own app store, which is inferior to Google’s own. Its design will also split opinion, but is at least different to the black rectangle norm. These are minor gripes, though, when the 16GB model can be had for just $269, $30 less than Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD 8.9 which boasts similar specs but comes burdened with adverts. Its tough exterior and low price make it a great family tablet, offering apps and stories for kids, and books and films for parents.
Microsoft Surface RT – Microsoft’s Surface is a curious beast. It offers incredible build quality, handsome design and impressive specs — including a gapless 1366×768 HD display, quad-core NVIDIA processor, a built-in kickstand, USB port, mini-HDMI, and the unique Touch and Type Covers, which are incredibly thin covers that double as full QWERTY keyboards. Combined with the kickstand, they transform the Surface from a traditional tablet into a fully-fledged Ultrabook, offering a mix of productivity and procrastination that its peers can’t match. Its Windows RT operating system is the only possible flaw — it’s bright, colourful, feels great to touch, but there’s a steep learning curve for new users. Once past it, though, the Surface is a joy to operate, and is perfect for those looking to ditch their tablet and laptop and carry just one device. Available from Microsoft starting at $499 for the 32GB model, or $599 for the 16GB with a black Touch Cover.
Google Nexus 7 – The best 7-inch tablet money can buy. In fact, scratch that, the Nexus 7 is one of the best tablets you can buy, regardless of size. The ASUS-made slate has great build quality, an attractive design, a bright, 1280×800 HD screen, the same quad-core processor as the high-end Surface, a 12-core GPU, the latest version of Android, and offers far greater portability than larger-screened tablets without sacrificing their performance. The Nook, Kindle and iPad Mini all settle for lesser components to reflect their lower entry point, but the Nexus 7 manages to offer a bargain price without the bargain specs. Its ready-made for reading, browsing the internet on the go, or watching content from Google Play. Starting at $199 for the 16GB model, $249 for 32GB, and $299 for 32GB with HSPA+ mobile data.
Kindle Fire HD – The other 7-inch tablet, and the one that started the race to the bottom on tablet prices, the Kindle Fire has been updated to rival the Nexus 7. With prices matching the Nexus device, users are faced with a difficult choice — the Fire HD is a much more closed experience than the Nexus, running Amazon’s own custom skin atop Android, and using the Amazon App Store, but it also offers access to Amazon’s vast libraries of content. One of the few who can rival — and possibly best — Apple for digital content, the Fire HD links to Amazon’s music, movie, TV, magazine and audiobook stores, allowing seamless streaming and downloading of digital content. The Fire HD is the tablet as a storefront, a window to your digital content, but little else. For those with a Kindle or the original Fire, it’s an excellent upgrade, and starts at $199 for 16GB of storage — though this comes with “special offers,” which are advertisements displayed on the lock screen. These can be removed for $15, which is either evil or brilliant of Amazon, albeit more than a little crass.
Smartphones are becoming increasingly integral to our daily routines — running our schedule, talking to our friends, checking our work messages, catching up on the day’s news, watching the latest viral videos — the work of the modern smartphone is never finished. As gifts, though, they can be truly treacherous. Get it right, and the recipient will love you, fawn over you, and be forced to match your generosity next year. Get it wrong, and you’ll be constantly faced with the reminder that you gave a frustrating, unusable piece of rubbish to your nearest and dearest. To help, we at Technocrat give you our top choices across all 4 major carriers — pick from these, and Christmas Day is sure to be one of techy joy.
HTC Droid DNA – The latest handset in Verizon’s now infamous Droid line-up is the most impressive new smartphone this year. No mean feat, given the caliber of handsets that have launched in 2012. The Droid DNA packs a whole lot of awesome into its slender, unibody frame — quad-core Snapdragon S4 processor, 2GB of RAM, 8MP camera, Beats audio and support for Verizon’s LTE network. Its crowning glory, though, is a 5-inch Super LCD3 screen, which is coated in Gorilla Glass 2 and has a resolution of 1920×1080. This makes the Droid DNA the first smartphone available with Full HD resolution, which translates to a Retina-crushing 440ppi, perfect for those who browse, watch films and ogle their phones for hours on end. The Droid DNA is available for $599 as a standalone purchase, or $199 with a 2-year contract.
Apple iPhone 5 – Apple’s latest iPhone brings with it a new size, new build and new internals, all powering the same old iOS that users have grown to love or loathe. A 4-inch, 1136×540 screen with 326ppi keeps the sixth version of Apple’s mobile OS looking fresh, and is surrounded by the new, anodized aluminum case, which has shrunk to an anorexic 7.6mm. The inclusion of LTE is all new for the iPhone, and will make the most of its availability on Verizon, Sprint and AT&T — though for the contract-agnostic, it is now also available contract-free for the first time. Planning on purchasing an iPhone 5 for your other half? Make sure it’s love, as off-contract the iPhone starts at $649 for the 16GB model, rising to $849 for the 64GB version. On contract prices start at $199 for the 16GB model on all three carriers.
Google Nexus 4 – Consider this Technocrat’s midrange Android option for your Christmas list. Designed by LG, the Nexus 4 is Google’s idea of what a modern smartphone should be. At 9mm thin, with a glass back à la the iPhone 4 (though it’s made of tough Gorilla Glass, unlike Apple’s smash-prone device), it’s a slick handset with minimal branding. Nexus 4 comes with NFC, an 8MP camera, a quad-core Snapdragon CPU, 4.7-inch 1280×768 screen (320ppi), 2GB of RAM, wireless charging, and, the Nexus line-up’s main feature, stock Android — no carrier bloatware, no skins, just pure Android as Google intended it to be. None of the above suggests a midrange device, in fact the Nexus 4 is a relative powerhouse, and perfect for Android devotees or those who appreciate its pure software experience. Why is it our midrange handset, then? Try $299 for the 8GB version. That’s it. No carrier fees, no contract, just $299. Available directly from Google, the Nexus 4 is a steal.
HTC Windows Phone 8X – HTC’s flagship Windows Phone 8 handset is viewed by many as the halo device for Microsoft’s latest version of its OS. It makes a compelling case for itself — a unibody polycarbonate case available in a variety of colors, a 4.3-inch, 1280×720 Gorilla Glass 2 display, 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon, NFC, LTE, 1GB of RAM for snappy performance, Beats audio, wireless charging in Verizon’s version and an ultra-wide front facing camera for improved group shots. Perfect for those turned off by its larger-screened peers, the 8X is a great way to initiate others to the world of Windows Phone 8. It’s available on contract at T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T for $199, $199 and $99 respectively. Off contract prices are $599, $549 and $449 respectively.
Nokia Lumia 920 – Nokia’s Lumia line helped revamp Windows Phone 7, and with the Lumia 920 they’re pushing hard to further improve awareness of Windows Phone 8. The Lumia 920 crams a lot of tech into its polycarbonate body — wireless charging, 8.7MP PureView camera with Optical Image Stabilization and incredible low-light abilities, blur-free 1080p video recording, 4.5-inch 1280×768 PureMotion HD+ display, a super-sensitive touchscreen that can be used with gloves, LTE, dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon and exclusive Nokia apps including City Lens, Nokia Drive and Nokia Music. It’s a breathtaking spec-sheet, with the camera alone worthy of the price of entry, and makes the Lumia the device of choice for any aspiring mobile photographer. Speaking of which, available exclusively on AT&T, the Lumia 920 is just $99 on contract and $449 without commitment.
Sony Xperia TL – The official Bond phone wouldn’t be amiss in Q’s workshop. At 9.35mm thin, it features a 4.6-inch, 1280×720 Reality Display powered by Sony’s BRAVIA Engine, a 1.5Ghz Qualcomm processor, NFC and Xperia Smart Tags to create your own NFC-enabled actions, a WALKMAN music app with access to Sony’s Music Unlimited service and xLoud music enhancement, a Movies app featuring Sony Pictures vast content collection, Playstation certification allowing playback of certified PS One games, 50GB of free online storage and Sony’s EXMOR 13MP camera. Sony has crammed as many services as possible into the Xperia TL, and the result is a smartphone bursting at the seams with content. The breadth of what’s available ensures the Xperia TL is a great media device. Another AT&T exclusive, the Xperia TL is $99 on contract and $449 standalone — just make sure to report to M once you’ve got it.