This year, it's going to be different.
You say that every year, of course; but this time, you mean it. No more spending hundreds of dollars on videogames your kid will never play, or consoles for your significant other that will just collect dust. Nope, not this time. You won't be fooled by the holiday hype around the Xbox 360, PS3 and the Wii --- the must-have gift items for '06 --- because you're going in armed. Educated.Enlightened.With our guide to the next-generation videogame consoles, you'll easily dodge the PR-babble and grab the right gift for your gamers this holiday season. (You can thank us later. We like chocolate.)
The Xbox 360
The first contender in The Next-Gen Console Wars was Microsoft's Xbox 360, which made its debut last November. Who could forget the massive shortages, endless checkout lines and hundreds of consoles put up on eBay --- some selling as high as $2000 each? Times are different now; the hype has died down, and stores have had a full year to replenish and expand their inventories. Demand for the 360, however, still remains strong.
The 360's major claim to fame is its emphasis on high-definition gaming; although consumers can play their consoles on standard television sets, games will only look truly stunning with HD-TV. Xbox 360 titles, which come optimized for 16:9 widescreen viewing, support high-def resolutions of 720 and 1080 (standard definition resolutions hover around 480). Higher resolutions provide more detail, meaning crisper images and sharper lines (plus, you can really pick out the sweat on your Madden 07 football players' foreheads).
Another major selling point of the 360 is its highly touted Xbox Live service, an online gaming/download network. The basic, non-subscription version, dubbed Silver, allows users to create profiles, surf message boards and talk to other members free of charge. It also allows access to the Live Arcade, where players can buy arcade games, indie titles, and some select "retro" games. (Some real gems are available through Live Arcade, particularly classic or casual titles like Geometry Wars, UNO, and Texas Hold'Em.) Silver users can also access the Live Marketplace to download and purchase game and movie trailers, demos, gamer tag images, and Xbox 360 Dashboard themes. But for $49.99 a year, gamers can upgrade to Gold status, which allows users to play games against other 360 owners around the world.
Unfortunately, the 360's game library isn't appropriate for young children. Most of the titles --- particularly the high profile ones --- are rated Teen or Mature. So if Junior starts bugging you for an Xbox and Dead Rising, you're better off getting him a pony instead. That being said, if you're an older gamer who likes first-person shooters, survival horror, and sports titles, this console is definitely up your alley. (And even better, future 360 titles will include more platformers, puzzle and roleplaying games.)
You may remember from last year's holiday frenzy that the Xbox 360 has two different price points: $299 for the "Core" and $399 for the "Premium." The Premium version includes everything you'd need or want: a detachable 20 GB hard drive, an HD-TV cable, an Xbox Live headset and a wireless controller. The Core package, on the other hand, comes sans hard drive, offers no HD-TVcapability, and with only one wired controller. For casual players, that's OK. But if you're buying for a dedicated gamer, you'll spend so much money in upgrades for the Core version that the initial price savings won't be worth it.
Ken Kutaragi, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, once famously claimed that the next generation PlayStation would be so powerful that it would "instill discipline in our children and adults alike. Everyone will know discipline." People laughed, but looking at the specs of Sony's PlayStation 3 (coming out November 17), you can see why.
The PS3 is a total powerhouse. Like the Xbox 360, there are two versions of the console, but both forms include an internal hard drive, four USB ports, the Cell Broadband Engine microprocessor, Yellow Dog Linux, a wireless SIXAXIS controller, 1080p video, HDMI capability, and --- if that wasn't enough --- the much-hyped Blu-Ray Disc media player, which plays high-definition movies and games. The "Premium" PS3 also comes with a 60 GB hard drive, Wi-Fi connectivity, and multiple flash memory card readers. The "Basic" PS3, on the other hand, includes only a 20 GB hard drive and neither Wi-Fi nor memory card readers. (However, the package can be easily upgraded later on by purchasing adapters and add-ons.)
For all this power, you pay out the nose. The Basic PS3 is $499, and the Premium is a whopping $599. (Blame the Blu-Ray player for stratospheric price tag.)
The PS3 will also have its own version of the Xbox Live network, tentatively titled the PlayStation Network Platform. Unlike Xbox Live, however, using Sony's online service is free. Users will be able to play online games, mingle with other players, and access downloadable content over the network. They'll also be able to purchase PS1 and PS2 games from the marketplace (although to use your old memory cards, you'll need to buy an adapter).
In the past, the PlayStation has been known for its large and diverse selection of games; in comparison, the PS3 launch line-up looks positively sickly. Although the system launches with 23 games, all but two of them are currently out for other platforms (including the PS2). While this may not matter for customers with no other consoles, most gamers already own at least one other gaming platform and can play these games elsewhere. At least most PS2 games will be immediately backwards compatible with the PS3, but that's small justification for such an expensive purchase.
With a hefty price tag and a weak game lineup, the PS3 offers little reason for anyone to stand in line on launch day. But keep your eyes on this console; as its library grows, especially with games that fully exploit its HD capability, the PS3 could be the console war's long-term winner. It all depends on whether Blu-Ray technology takes off, making the PS3 Blu-Ray Disc player a wise investment.
Are these prices making your wallet ache yet? Never fear: at $249.99, Nintendo's Wii (released November 19) is by far the cheapest of the Big Three consoles. In fact, it's downright reasonable.
What sets the Wii apart is its funky new controller, the Wiimote, or a wireless baton shaped like a TV remote. The controller works as a pointing device aimed at the TV screen, registering motion and rotation in three dimensions; it can act like a fishing pole, sword, light gun, baseball bat, ping pong paddle, magic wand and more. If rotated sideways, it works exactly like a classic NES controller, with a D-pad and two buttons. The Wii also takes various add-ons, like the Nunchuk attachment (which registers motion with no pointing ability), a Classic controller for playing Virtual Console titles, and a Zapper shell for first-person shooters. You can even plug in your old GameCube controllers.
Like the Xbox 360 and the PS3, the Wii will have its own online services, designed to mimic TV channels. Over the Mii Channel, for instance, gamers can customize profiles and avatars as well as interact with other Wii owners. Over the Virtual Console channel, players can purchase and download hundreds of games from previous-generation consoles, including the NES, SNES, N64, Sega Genesis, NEC's TurboGrafx-16, and even some old computer games.
The Wii also features an incredible launch line-up. Not only is the game Wii Sports bundled with the system, but the Wii also launches with at least 30 other titles. In addition, the Wii will be immediately backwards compatible with all GameCube games. Like past Nintendo consoles, most of the games will be family-friendly. But in an effort to secure older gamers as well, the Wii will offer plenty of Teen and Mature titles, too.
So why is the Wii so cheap? Simple: the console relies on last-gen hardware and graphics. Essentially a souped-up GameCube, the Wii won't support any HD gaming whatsoever, and unlike the PS3 and Xbox 360, only 480p resolution will be supported. So, if you're desperate to hitch to the HD bandwagon, the Wii's graphical capabilities will disappoint you. On the other hand, non-HD graphics means that Wii games ---especially titles made by Nintendo itself --- will most likely remain $50 (unlike their higher-priced cousins on the other consoles).
So, here's your cheat sheet for the holiday season. The Xbox 360 offers mid-priced HD gaming, but the games aren't for kids. The PS3 is expensive but powerful, with a weak game line-up. And the Wii is inexpensive and family-friendly, but has no HD-gaming.
We've done all we can. Now you're ready to take on your next challenge: the mall.
The hot list
Need stocking stuffers in a hurry? Here are three of the must-have games for each console this holiday season, complete with six-word summaries for your convenience.
Gears of War: Part tactical shooter, part insect extermination.
Dead or Alive: Volleyball 2: Unique bouncing breast physics! (Volleyball optional.)
Dead Rising: Zombies in a Shopping Mall!
Resistance: Fall of Man: Alternate-history WWII shooter with aliens.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance: When Licensed Comic Book Heroes attack!
Need for Speed: Carbon: Underground street racing goes global. Again.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Link grows up, becomes demon wolf.
Red Steel: Mobsters meet samurai in downtown Tokyo.
Excite Truck: Like Excitebike, but with monster trucks.