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State of Play: Xbox 360

The next-gen party has started, the gang's all here (well, in the US anyway). The Xbox 360 turned up early, the big dork. Can it still pull?

The Xbox 360 has been hanging around for a year now, like the dork who got to the party too early. Now the cool kids have turned up: the PlayStation 3, the rich kid with the flash new car; and the Wii, the quirky arty lad who has no trouble with the opposite sex.

But the Xbox has had a haircut, been to Specsavers and lost a lot of weight. People are starting to notice how interesting and funny he is. And the PS3, well, he just won't shut up about that new Blu-ray ride of his. People are getting sick of his bragging. This could be the night Xbox finally scores.

Crave thinks Sony has got too cocky. It's understandable: the PS2 sold over 100 million units, compared to 24 million Xboxes and 21 million GameCubes. It pwned the last gen, in the terminology of the fanboy. But it had an awful lot going for it: it was earlier than the Xbox, looked a lot nicer, had teen cachet (which the GameCube sadly lacked) and a vast marketing budget. Sony built on the strengths of the PSOne, and added a DVD player. Later in its lifecycle it sold millions to casual gamers off the back of party games such as SingStar and Guitar Hero.

This time around, the PS3 is later and much more expensive than the Xbox 360 (£425 to £280 for the respective high-end versions). The Blu-ray player, which has caused inestimable manufacturing difficulties, is of absolutely no value to the 90 per cent of the UK population that doesn't own an HD Ready TV. And to be quite honest, it offers very little to those who do. It has none of the extra convenience or features that DVD offered over VHS, and the increase in image quality isn't vast (particularly if you have an upscaling DVD player). Plus there's a nasty format war going on and it might end up obsolete (we doubt that, but still).

But the real difference in this generation of consoles is the spread of games. Microsoft has been spraying money at third-party developers and pulled off some major coups, partially because Sony has taken so long coming to market. Grand Theft Auto is no longer a PlayStation exclusive. Neither is the promising Assassin's Creed. Square Enix is bringing its hugely popular Final Fantasy series to Xbox 360. Gears of War is an absolute ripsnorter. Xbox Live, the online gaming and entertainment service, has been a huge success, partly because of simple innovations such as GamerScore, which lets you compare your progress in games with that of your friends. It has also led the way in online multiplayer and downloadable content.

Sony has also bled goodwill with a series of PR gaffes. The rootkit fiasco did not go down well with the online cognoscenti. PlayStation boss Ken Kutaragi said people should be glad to pay £425 for his new console. Sony has consistently acted not as if it is striving to bring a fantastic new product to gamers, but as a company that doesn't care what people say about it, as its brand is utterly invincible. Microsoft, amazingly, has largely kept its head down, fixed problems when they occurred and kept the focus on the games and Xbox Live: ie, what gamers care about.

Here's the bottom line: if you want a Blu-ray player, buy the PS3 (when it finally reaches Europe in March). It's half the price of other Blu-ray players. If you want a media centre to organise your photos and use the Web on your TV, buy a small PC. If you want a hi-def games machine -- particularly if you want one before Christmas -- buy the Xbox 360. In fact, buy a Wii as well -- the two together will be about as much as a PS3 and one game. The girls will love you. -NH