250GB Family Entertainment Bundle (Amazon Exclusive)
While searching for proper bundles, two major thoughts occurred to us. First, the PS3 is in many ways the preferred game console for media center use whether you use physical media (Blu-ray/DVD) or not for one reason: it’s free to access all of the online services. So while the actual physical media portion of Sony’s Super Slim PS3 model isn’t suited for a home entertainment center with a top-load disc drive, the tiny frame, low power usage, large hard drive, and the option to upgrade are all excellent features.
In that respect, the 250GB Family Entertainment Bundle from Amazon exclusively (retailing for $300) is the best shared console bundle you can get. It comes with two excellent games: PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, Ratchet and Clank Collection (which includes four different Ratchet and Clank titles); and it is bundled with a media remote so you can control any media without relying on the Dualshock 3 controller.
Compared to other bundles, this one really suits the whole family with games that the family could actually enjoy together without any gimmicks as well as a full entertainment center built into a single box. Just grab an ethernet cable or connect to your home Wi-Fi network and tons of services, from Netflix to Amazon to dozens of both free and subscription-based video services.
Or, if you don’t care about the media functions much and just want the console, the Assassin’s Creed 3 PS3 bundle scraps the remote and games in exchange for Assassin’s Creed 3 (which is one of the best games of the year) and double the hard drive space at 500GB, for exactly the same price.
PlayStation 3 320GB PlayStation Plus Bundle
It may be last year’s PS3 model, but the 4th iteration of the PS3 (yes, that does sound weird) is still one of the best, and in our opinion better than the newer Super Slim model. It looks better and it’s more convenient for media centers with a front-load Blu-ray/DVD. The 320GB hard drive is big enough for most user’s needs, but more importantly while it doesn’t come with any games, it does come with a year’s worth of PlayStation Plus, which as you’ll see below is a great deal and a great gift to give.
And while it isn’t the great deal that the above bundle is, finding the older PS3 models is hard for the same price. However, if you watch a lot of physical media, the convenience of a front-load tray is worth far more than two games that you may or may not play, a media remote, and using 20W less per hour. On top of that, if you’re serious about the PlayStation 3 then you’re going to buy PS Plus anyways, so why bother spending $350 when you can kill two birds with one stone with this bundle?
Hardware & Services
Astro Gaming A50 7.1 Wireless Headset
I love these headphones. You’ll get a good 6-hours of hardcore gaming before the A50 Wireless headset requires another 40min recharge to get you back in the game. The set comes with its own display stand which is perfect for showing off new gift given while it sucks much needed batt-life. The attached mic is outstanding and provides clear voice transmission. You can even flip the little sucker for quick muting. All the controls you need are embedded in the headphones, easy to reach and work damn well. True to Astro form, you can play with the game audio-to-voice chat volume ratio, dialing one up or down in exchange for the other. It’s handy when chatting with a group, where game music and ambient sounds are less important.
The Astro Gaming A50 is not for financially faint of heart. The quality in style, comfort and performance command an equally lofty price tag. For the worthy loved one give the gift of wireless gaming power with Astro Gaming A50 7.1 Wireless headset.
Sony PS3 Pulse Wireless Headset
When it comes to gaming, Sony has a tendency to put out their own best peripherals, even years after a console release. This rule of thumb for the Japanese company is where the Pulse Wireless Headset steps in; aside from a significant size and shape update from last year’s Wireless Stereo Headset, the Pulse is a true surround sound headset that also supports stereo sound both through the USB dongle and directly on the headset. In this way, it works across practically any device…with the notable exception of an Xbox 360 and Wii U (without an additional audio dongle, that is).
The Pulse is a very strong headset, one that combines a 2.4GHz USB transmitter plugged into the PS3 (or PC) for 7.1 surround audio with the comfort that only Sony headsets afford with strangely-shaped earcans that are angled instead of flat, and shaped for the ear. They’re not the most comfortable set I’ve tested, but they can be worn without complaint for over an hour. Audio quality is excellent, and the pop-out mic isn’t bothersome whatsoever. The fact that it’s so inexpensive may set you back (especially when compared to the A50), but don’t let the low price tag fool you: this is a great headset.
Logitech K760 Bluetooth Keyboard
While the Xbox 360 requires a wired keyboard or some special accessory for typing quickly, the PS3 has a little known technology called Bluetooth. Apparently it was too hard for Microsoft to plan ahead enough to include it. In any event, that Bluetooth functionality allows for any keyboard (and, in fact, any mouse) to work with the PS3 which is extremely helpful when sending messages, typing in redemption codes, or for the occasional use of the web browser.
While any keyboard would work, I recommend the Logitech K760 Bluetooth Keyboard, a solar-powered keyboard that can store up to three Bluetooth profiles at any time. It defeats any reason to buy a separate keyboard for the PS3 by removing the need to pair the keyboard more than once. And as a solar-powered device, the K760 never needs to be recharged with a cable, never needs to be plugged in, and it’ll work for up to eight hours of continuous use without sunlight. So you don’t even need to worry about turning it off!
The best thing about it though is multiple Bluetooth profiles. Oftentimes I move my PS3 from room to room, depending on who wants to play. With multiple profiles I can use the K760 with my moving PS3, and with the flick of a switch use it on my iPhone 4S, and with another flick on my PC. Any device I set up with the keyboard will work just like that, instantly. Logitech really understands convenience; the K760 is exactly that, the most convenient keyboard there is. It also feels great to type on and use on a desk or on the lap. It’s a win-win-win situation.
PlayStation Plus is the answer to Microsoft’s Xbox Live pay-for service, except that you don’t need it to play PS3 games online. That, and every other standard console-gaming feature, is freely available to all PS3 owners worldwide. That’s great and all, but what about a service that for the same price (as of this writing, thanks to deals; PlayStation Plus costs $50/year) offers free games monthly access to early game betas and demos, free cloud storage for game saves, regular discounts on PSN titles, and even deals on media like movies and TV shows? Sony calls that PlayStation Plus, and it’s available for the PS3 and Vita.
And what makes it such a great gift? Not only is it the gift that keeps on giving (with savings, free games, and early access), it only requires one account for your PlayStation consoles. So if you own both, then you have access to all of the benefits of PS Plus on both consoles. I can honestly say that it’s such a good gift that you should buy it for a friend and yourself, if neither of you has it already. That’ll give you around 14 free games as of this writing, plus tons of discounts on a multitude of games. You give it, and suddenly that friend of yours who never seems to have the same games as you now has no excuse.
PlayStation Credit Card
I’ve taken some time to read up on credit cards. There are a lot of them, and they offer a smorgasbord of rewards, services, and features. Picking one is really hard. If you’re a heavy gamer, you can look at an Amazon credit card or one from your favorite retailer, but it’s also worth considering the PlayStation credit card. Why? Because buying games earns a ton of points, and everything else you do to indulge in your media needs earns as many points as other credit cards.
You can look into it yourself here (which I highly recommend; credit cards are serious business), but consider this: if you buy a game on PSN for $60 instead of at Best Buy or Gamestop, you’ll earn $6 towards any other purchase on PSN. Every ten games offers the 11th for free, or ever three-four games offers a free PSN arcade game. That’s a pretty sweet deal for people who play and buy a lot of games, though to really get the most out of it you’ll have to like getting direct downloads from the PSN store instead of buying physical discs. Which I recommend anyways, but you’ll obviously need a serious hard drive to store all those games. But even if you don’t, plenty of purchases still earn 3X the points. So every time you do earn enough to buy something on PSN, you still get 10X the points for that purchase.
Exclusive PS3 Games
Journey: Collector’s Edition
Journey is probably the finest PSN game you can play. Short at just four hours but artistic beyond what most games can offer, it really justifies videogames as art, not just interactive experiences. Traversing a foreign desert world with massive environments, untold dangers, and potentially a completely unknown friend make up part of the beauty found in Journey, but this collector’s set is a bit more memorable than that.
Not only does the Collector’s Edition include Journey on a full Blu-ray disc, it includes all of developer ThatGameCompany’s titles before Journey, including both Flower and Flow, as well as the student projects that the team developed while still studying game development at USC. It also comes with the full Journey musical soundtrack, which is some of the best orchestral work of any game this year, along with a selection of themes, images, and artwork from the game. It’s not just a great deal; Journey: Collector’s Edition is just one of those games you should own both to play and to treasure.
God of War Saga
The Xbox has Halo, and the PlayStation 2 was practically built upon the incredible God of War franchise. Starring Kratos, the original vengeful Spartan warrior both for and against the gods, the God of War Saga includes all five major titles from the series (it does not include the mobile game, made for smartphones years ago) completely remastered with HD graphics and updated controller support for the two PSP titles.
Like Journey, the God of War Saga makes for a great holiday gift for anyone who has or hasn’t played all of the games already. For those who haven’t, it’s a great way to start fresh and enjoy the whole series, perhaps even in the order of the story (instead of the release, since Ghost of Sparta and Chains of Olympus don’t both take place between God of War 2 and 3). And for those who have, the saga is the only way to replay the PSP titles on the big screen, and there’s no better way to play the PS2 titles than with updated graphics to better fit your HDTV.
The Infamous franchise isn’t synonymous with PlayStation like God of War or Uncharted, but it is a sort of cult classic that includes some really fantastic gameplay across a massive city on a scale reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto IV. As Cole McGrath players act as a pseudo-Zeus, firing bolts of lightning and zipping down electric lines to clean out the town from whatever infestation each game brings.
And along with Infamous 1 and 2 is the acclaimed Infamous: Festival of Blood DLC, a standalone expansion pack that is a unique twist on gameplay and story of vampires taking over New Marais (fictionalized New Orleans). It may sound like visiting Twilight, but I assure you the combination of lightning-induced combat and malevolent blood-sucking demons that need petrification is a good one.
Dishonored is a generous blend of first-person stealth gameplay that utilizes an incredibly potent grouping of fast-paced action and thought-provoking strategy. Like Splinter Cell or other stealth-based titles, Dishonored can be played ruthlessly or completely in the shadows. Players choose how to accomplish missions and their actions will determine the events that unfold in the game in the noire steampunk universe.
Gameplay is dastardly fun and very provocative. It’s a mad dash of Assassin’s Creed combined with Skyrim, in a sense creating a very RPG feel to what is in fact a first-person shooter. And thanks to just how deep gameplay can get, the number of available tools enables players to get extremely creative with combat maneuvers and completing missions…or you can do it very topically. The choice is yours, but if you missed this game, now’s the best time to pick up a copy.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
Many will claim that the latest Call of Duty title is just another rehash of last year’s best-selling game, but such statements couldn’t be farther from the truth. Black Ops 2 continues the story from the original Black Ops, which took place during the Vietnam War, but combines the somewhat old-school combat with futuristic warfare in the year 2025 with Alex Mason’s son, David Mason, and his own team trying to stop a global catastrophe from taking place. The brilliant writing is something rarely seen in gaming today, and is reminiscent of Modern Warfare 1’s heart-wrenching plot, but without any over-the-top tricks.
In fact, Black Ops 2 can easily be considered a masterpiece of single-player gaming. It is one of the first FPS titles to offer in-game choice on a realistic scale. Players can actually fail at specific missions, which will impact the game’s story, meaning the following cutscenes and future levels. The choices are few in number, but they’re all critical to the story. Short at just six hours, choice doubles the replay value of the single player campaign.
Of course, the bread and butter of any Call of Duty title is multiplayer, which returns with several major changes like an all-new loadout system that offers more and better customization in a balanced way. Level design is generally good to great, and online multiplayer is very fun. And like all Treyarch COD titles, Zombies returns with three new maps and more on the way for a return to the hectic squad-based survivor gametype.
Rockstar’s original runaway hit returned this year with a final game to the decade-old noire franchise that invented bullet time. Like all Max Payne titles, Max Payne 3 is a brilliant tale of the dark underworld that one man travels through for salvation. The use of graphical technology and keen storytelling weave together to form one of the best stories of this console generation combined with fun gameplay that we haven’t seen since Max had hair.
While multiplayer is fun, the real meat is in the single-player campaign, which is jam packed with not only an incredible story, memorable characters and scenes, and some really excellent acting, but a ton of collectables and secrets that will keep anyone in trance for hours on end.
I had my problems with Mass Effect 3, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a good game. It’s a great trilogy, in fact, and for anyone who hasn’t played through to the end, you are surely missing out, even if the close is lackluster. The space-opera RPG does a fine job of putting Commander Shepard through enough hoops to satisfy any player’s desire for space-faring exploration, and the multiplayer is extremely fun though limited. We absolutely recommend that you play through Mass Effect 3, though if you’ve stayed away because you don’t want to ruin the game because of the atrocious ending, fret not: you can always stop once you reach the end and leave it as a mystery.
That is, until someone spoils it for you. That might prove better than actually watching it though, so it’s not such a bad thing.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted
I loved Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. It was an absolutely brilliant game, one that Criterion Games undoubtedly had a lot of trouble both emulating and besting. One they actually couldn’t best, in fact, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play Most Wanted, their latest Need for Speed title. It’s an open-world arcade racer that features fast cars, lot’s of crashes and intense racing, and some of the best driving you can find in any game anywhere.
With an improved graphics engine and a laundry list of incredible cars, Most Wanted is a well-organized racer that has a massive world for online play as well as a huge solo experience, even if the two don’t perfectly coincide. It’s the same great racing on a bigger scale, though the action isn’t quite as intense or quite as good as Hot Pursuit, which was really a masterpiece of racing. The two are so similar though that I recommend them both: Hot Pursuit for solo play and Most Wanted for online play. It’s a win-win scenario.
The quintessential FPS-RPG this year, Borderlands 2 ups the ante from the original by adding a host of new characters, an incredibly funny new story, a practically infinite number of new weapons and collectables, some of the wittiest dialog ever, and the same excellent four-player cooperative play you know and love. It does so with a vastly improved graphics engine, the same world of Pandora, and an even madder world then you left it just two years ago. Only this time players will have a lot more content in the coming months, with new expansion packs planned in regular intervals and daily updates for earning more current in-game items direct from developer Gearbox. It’s the perfect never-ending story.
The Walking Dead
What do you get when you take one of today’s hottest TV shows and make it into a choice-based arcade game that involves zombies? You get one of the most emotionally challenging games of the year. The Walking Dead takes place in the same world as the hit AMC show but is the story of a different cast of characters, where players work through five individual episodes (that make up season 1) to survive. Every choice made impacts the future of the game, and these choices aren’t like the ones in Mass Effect 3: they actually matter. Most decisions end with either someone dying gruesomely or something very bad happening. Then again, most choices are between bad and worse, and players have to decide which is which.
Few games make players feel and care about characters as well as The Walking Dead. The game itself isn’t particularly challenging, but it can be emotionally draining and it certainly is unique. The full season tells the story of one group surviving after the zombie apocalypse; your choices will make things better and/or worse. It just depends for who, because every choice matters.
After a serious hiatus, the Hitman franchise returns and does so gracefully. Not only is it supremely well balanced, the single-player only game has one of the smartest multiplayer features ever thought of: “Contract mode”, where players, using actual game levels, assign up to three very specific hits on in-game characters for anyone in the world to complete. The whole system is so gracefully done that anyone with the skill to pull off the hit themselves can share it with the world.
Of course, that only adds to the seriously improved gameplay, which is more accessible than ever in the franchise’s history and is also harder than ever before. Creativity, good judgment, fast thinking, and twitch skill is all rewarded across multiple playthroughs of this 3rd-person action title. Sure, it looks a little weird, but Absolution is what people will think of when Agent 47 is brought up in conversation thanks to excellent balance and in-game dynamics. It’s a proper mixture of its parts, and for a game with so many moving parts like Hitman, that’s an astounding feat on it’s own. The fact that it’s also equally frustrating and fun makes it all the better.
Darksiders was considered an underachieving title, but I wrote that it was great because of some of the best storytelling ever seen in a videogame. Darksiders 2 balances the two with a dumbed-down plot but vastly-improved gameplay that loses the repetitive nature of the original and feels much more like God of War than a button-mashing Zelda. Aside from the abrupt ending, Darksiders 2 is a fun tale that continues and ends the legend of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and while the story isn’t nearly as graceful or as potent as the original, it’s still ahead of what most games today can muster. The 10-15 hours of campaign are a decent play.
Assassin’s Creed 3
After playing Assassin’s Creed 3 for the first five minutes, I was hooked. The previous games in the franchise were all decent, good games that had some very serious flaws but the gameplay was fresh and unique enough to still be an enjoyable experience. But AC3 is a step above its predecessors in storytelling, so much so that the exceptionalism that made the first game such a pleasure to play returns in the form of American history, plenty of characters we actually know from history (speaking as an American), and some of the best game writing this year makes Assassin’s Creed 3 a must have.
For the PlayStation 3 specifically, if you buy the Vita game as well (Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation), then an hour of additional gameplay is available in the form of new missions on both games. The reality is that the game is so massive that even after a dozen hours you may not be more than 20% through completing the main storyline, as I discovered this weekend. That said, for an incredibly diverse, historically accurate (and very interesting), well written, and fun game for your holiday time off, Assassin’s Creed 3 should be at the top of your list.
Resident Evil 6
When I spoke with the directors of Resident Evil 6 back at Gamescom, they said that it was the culmination of all of the Resident Evil titles before it, with an ensemble cast and three separate cooperative campaigns to play through. And they weren’t kidding. Each campaign follows one of the three main protagonists: Chris Redfield, Leon Kennedy, and Jake Muller (Wesker’s son) all follow separate paths along the same journey to stop the latest plague of zombies and the more powerful J’avo, gun-wielding and intelligent enemies that at a moment’s notice transform into nightmarish creatures.
The beauty of this trifecta approach is that each gameplay style is slightly different. Chris is hard and fast, with big guns, lots of bullets, and a ton speed and muscle. Leon’s is much slower, with generally just a pistol and your wits. And Jake is a mix of both, with a tinge of unique gameplay elements because of his abilities (which we won’t spoil). All of the stories are interwoven, so players will get a shot at sharing a mission with another character at least once in the game, and for cooperative play (either on-console or online) that means some levels have up to four player coop. It’s a fun mess, though the story is lacking. The PC version is still in the works too, but isn’t expected for some time.
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings Enhanced Edition
A mostly unknown developer shocked the gaming world when it released the first footage of The Witcher 2, at first a PC only title that released in 2011 and brought with it some of the most spectacular graphics you could find anywhere. Even Crysis, known for it’s incredible CryEngine 3, paled in comparison in many ways, and so did plenty of extremely powerful PCs. Even mine, running two GTX 580’s in SLI couldn’t hold 30 frames per second with The Witcher 2.
Now available on all consoles (and for PC buyers upgraded to the Enhanced Edition for free), The Witcher 2 is available to all players in a simple, albeit somewhat quirky RPG adventure following Geralt, one of the few Witchers in the world who hunts monsters, and his quest to maintain order in an old-fashioned world filled with the undead, kings and queens, medieval wars, magic, and a handful of undressed women. Let’s just say that as much as you’ll enjoy The Witcher 2, this one isn’t for the kiddies.