Cool Yule Tools 2016: Digital disruption at Santa's Workshop

The 17th annual Network World holiday gift guide has something for every techie (and techie-wanna-be) on your list.

silicon santa banner 3 Stephen Sauer
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After Hours (video games!)

In previous years, we had a section called “After Hours”, in which we wrote reviews of video games and other consumer entertainment products that were not seen as “business tools”. We now realize that the entire guide is like this, so in this area we’re going to highlight some video games that we’ve enjoyed recently that you should check out:

Note: All games reviewed with a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) console and PlayStation VR (PSVR) headset, when needed.

Destiny: The Collection
Amazon price: $49.80
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When the game Destiny came out in 2014, it was criticized for being a very short game. Since then, the developer has come out with four different expansions (The Dark Below, House of Wolves, The Taken King and Rise of Iron). This should give you much more content to go through without feeling like you’re playing a short game. It’s also a great starting point if you haven’t yet played Destiny.

The first-person shooter puts you in the role of a Guardian in one of the last free cities of Earth. You fight a whole range of alien bad guys, and eventually get to explore other planets and moons (Mars, Venus, Mercury, the Moon, etc.). You get to choose from three different character classes (Titan, Hunter or Warlock), which is similar to the equivalents in a role-playing game (the Titan is a fighter/tank, the hunter is a ranged fighter and the Warlock is a wizard). Missions can be played solo, but it’s more fun when you team up with one or two other players, especially if using different character classes, which complement each other during the fights.

Like many multiplayer online games, there are player-vs.-player (PvP) missions, although that isn’t required. By the time you get higher up in level and join a guild, you can embark on raids, which are massive fights that take a long time to complete. All of this is done to acquire better gear for your player.

This collection comes with a boost that can immediately bring your character to Level 40 (the top “level” in the game, but not with the best gear); I’d still recommend leveling up at least one character through the normal, slower grind, so you can get a feel for the gameplay.

-- Keith Shaw

Playroom VR
Required: PSVR, PS4 controllers (for non-VR players)
Free download via PS Store
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One of the first games you should download once you hook up the PlayStation VR is Playroom VR. Not just because it’s free, but because it’s a lot of fun and can be enjoyed with people who are not using the headset as well.

Playroom VR is a collection of six mini-games that aims to show some of the capabilities of the VR headset. With one person using the headset, other players can use the regular PS4 controller to watch along on the TV. Mini-games include fighting a Godzilla-like creature (where the VR user is the creature), or a wild-west game in which the VR user has to find a bad guy based on clues given by the non-VR players. All of the games are fun to play, and the more you play you can earn tokens which sends you to another area where you can unlock a display that is cool to look around while in the VR space.

-- Keith Shaw

Required: PSVR, PS4 controller
More info:

This game has three different things to do, but really only one “game” in the sense of getting to win or lose something. First, there’s a Tarot card reading (“The Cards”), and a daily Astrology session (“The Stars”), which gives you your future or a horoscope-like message, based on your birthday and the real-life alignment of the planets when you do your reading.

The third activity is called “A Game of Wit”, and it presents the ancient board game Ur, which plays a lot like backgammon. Roll dice, choose a token and get all of your pieces to the end before your opponent.

The environment is fun to look at in VR, and the horoscopes/Tarot readings are fun to listen to. At $7, it’s not a very deep game, but this can be a nice break from more hardcore offerings, and it’s fun for kids to hear about their futures (“ooooooooh!”).

-- Keith Shaw

Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives
Required: PSVR, Move Controllers
More info:

This VR-based games is another “must-buy” for any new PSVR owner. This uses the headset and two Move controllers, and you have to stand for this, as you’re going to be moving around a bit.

The theme of the game – it’s now 2050 and robots have taken all of the human jobs (in a good way, since humans still exist, one assumes to live out their lives in leisure). As a human, you’re visiting a museum where you get to experience a bunch of different jobs that humans did in the past. These include office worker (cube fun!), gourmet chef (more like a short-order fry cook), auto mechanic or store clerk (think Apu from the Simpsons). For each scenario, you use the controllers to operate your virtual hands, completing the tasks put forward by the game (such as cook a hot dog, put it in a bun, scan it on your register and accept money from the customer).

The game has a great sense of humor about the jobs and tasks, and doing the ‘mundane’ actions is quite fun. My kids LOVED this game, and they spent a lot of time just experiencing the scenario rather than completing the tasks. For example, my son loved eating a moldy donut in the office cube scenario and then watching as the ‘human’ vomited. He also liked throwing staplers at other workers (just like real life!).

Calibration of the VR headset to a user’s particular height is critical here – if you’re too tall you won’t be able to reach things on the floor, and if you’re too short you can’t reach up for some of the items. Fortunately, the game lets you “adjust the floor” to make you either shorter or taller, which my kids appreciated. It’s well worth the $30 for the game.

-- Keith Shaw

Ace Banana
Required: PSVR, PlayStation Camera and two Move controllers
More info:

In this game, you use the two Move controllers to simulate a bow and arrow, protecting sentient bananas from being kidnapped by waves of monkeys. As you progress in the game, different monkeys appear (disguised as clowns, or with the ability to throw paint at you to distort your view), but you can also get other arrow-like weapons (plungers, badminton shuttlecocks, coconuts). It’s all done in a kid-friendly cartoon environment, and you can use a rope to move to different locations to protect the bananas.

The bow-and-arrow simulation was fun to control – my left hand held the bow while I pulled back with the right hand and released with the trigger. Aiming wasn’t that bad either, although at times the tracking was off while I played. After a while, my arm started to ache, so in between waves it’s a good idea to just rest the arms.

I did wish there was a bit more instructions given (especially in the boss level, I wasn’t quite sure where to shoot to defeat it), but that’s a minor nitpick. This is a good game for the entire family, especially if they like the idea of shooting plungers at monkeys.

-- Keith Shaw

Pixel Gear
Required: PSVR, one Move controller
More info:

Pixel Gear is a very fun shooting gallery-style game in which you face waves of comical zombies, skeletons and other monsters coming at you. While you stay in a fixed position (on a hill), waves come at you from the left, right or in front of you (fortunately, you don’t have to look behind you during the attacks). In a nice change of pace, you can sit down while playing this game.

Your gun is controlled by one Move controller, and a laser beam guides you to the target. Hitting the trigger on the controller fires the gun. As you survive the attacks, you collect coins that can then be used to purchase better guns (such as a machine gun or grenade gun). You also get a “skill move” that either does rapid-fire or slows down time, which triggers after certain periods of time.

At some point in each level, ghosts start to rise out of the ground that you can shoot, but so do “angels”, which subtract points if you shoot them. Some of the ghosts also offer up coins when you shoot them.

Overall it’s a fun shoot-em-up style of game, with difficulty settings ranging from easy to crazy, so folks of all ages should get some enjoyment out of this game.

-- Keith Shaw

Required: PSVR, PS4 controller
More info:

Gunjack is a very fun space game in which you operate the gun turret on a mining spaceship (set in the EVE universe, although you don’t really need to know anything about that). Your job is to prevent waves of pirates and other space ships from attacking your mining ship. Imagine the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke and Han are in the gun turret – it’s kind of like that, although you’re not flying.

With the VR headset on, the turret guns are controlled by your head movements. This makes aiming very easy, you just look in the direction of the attacking spaceships and fire your guns (it helps that red arrows tell you which direction they’re coming from). Shoot enough ships and you can get them to drop power-ups, such as homing missiles and repair boxes, which you’ll need at the later levels.

Ships attack in formation and follow a pattern, which should remind old-school video game players of games like Galaxian and Galaga. This means you don’t have to move your head too much, which is a good thing in a VR environment. Helping you out is a drill sergeant-like character who makes jokes along the way to keep things light (when you’re not firing down missiles and other waves of ships).

-- Keith Shaw

Loading Human: Chapter 1
Required: PSVR, regular controller (DualShock) or Move Controller options
More info:

This is a VR adventure game in which you play the role of Prometheus, a man who has traveled to Antarctica at the request of his father to “undergo an intensive interstellar quest: retrieve the Quintessence, an elusive energy source that will help reverse the aging process.”

Like the Job Simulator game, you play this in a first-person mode with the Move Controllers, you can see and move your arms with those controllers. The environment is an open world, where you can move around freely and interact with almost any object in the world (although after a while it gets annoying when you keep dropping items or move them and they fall down). Moving through the world is also tricky, since in the real world you have to stay in a limited game space, so it’s a combination of head tracking and pushing buttons on the controller to move. But if you can master that, the game plays like a regular adventure game – you get a task to complete (like put away the things in your suitcase), then you perform the action to get the next task or option.

The game promises that actions you take have consequences on the outcome of the game, but so far (about 90 minutes of gameplay) I haven’t experienced that (probably because I don’t move around very well. I think you can play the game while sitting down, but I found that standing also worked, but I got tired quickly. You have the option of using the regular DualShock controller instead of the Move ones, so I’ll likely try that during my next gaming session.

-- Keith Shaw 

EVE: Valkyrie
Required: PSVR, DualShock controller
More info:

If you want to see how VR can be a different experience than a regular TV screen, EVE: Valkyrie is one such game. This space combat game puts you in the cockpit of a space fighter, letting you see all around you as you battle against other space fighters (most of the battles are against other online players).

The plot of the game, for those who are interested, involves being a space pilot for a band of pirates seeking fortune in the universe (it takes place in the universe from the game “EVE Online) as well as settling scores against other nefarious types. But that isn’t really that important as the gameplay, which involves space dogfighting.

With the VR headset in the 3D space, the action is fast and loud – it might take you some time to get used to everything. If you’ve played games like X-Wing or Tie Fighter or even those old Wing Commander games, you’ll be familiar with the concept of leading your targets, etc. What’s cool with the VR space is that for the homing missiles, you use your head to lock onto targets by looking at them rather than trying to use your joystick. It’s a subtle change but a very cool use of the VR headset. It’s also nice that you can sit down and play this – a lot of the VR games I played required that you stand, which can get tiring.

-- Keith Shaw

Attack on Titan
Required: DualShock controller (no VR needed!)
More info:

This game is based on the popular Attack on Titan manga and anime series – if you’re a fan of any of those, you’ll understand a LOT of the backstory and characters presented in the game. If not, you may be very confused, so it helps if you read the Attack on Titan Wikipedia entry.

Basically, you’re in a world where humans are fighting against the Titans, giant humanoid creatures who walk around half-naked and who like to eat the humans (like giants usually do). Humans have retreated to build three concentric walls to protect themselves, but at the start of the game the Titans have breached one of the walls. By the time you start playing (as the main hero of the series, Eren), humans have started to fight back, using swords, flying ropes and gas canisters (so they can latch onto to the Titans and kill them in the nape of their necks).

You start the game by training (which teaches you about the mechanics of combat), and then you eventually launch into the storyline to basically attack various Titans. Gameplay was generally fun, although I wasn’t very entertained by the plot or the long periods of cut scenes. It didn’t help that all of the dialogue was in Japanese and I had to follow along with English subtitles. But I’ve really never been a fan of Japanese manga or anime, either.

But for fans of the series, this should be an entertaining game that is pretty faithful to the series that inspired it.

-- Keith Shaw

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