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Christmas Gift Guide
Gaming

Next-generation games console war heats up

Which next-generation console looks set to win the video game battle? Randolph Ramsay looks at the latest happenings in the Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo war.

Come Christmas 2006, Australian gamers will have their choice of three next-generation consoles -- Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii. The recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at Los Angeles unveiled the latest details about the three consoles and gave gamers the clearest indication yet as to what the next-gen battleground will look like. Which vendor impressed the most? Who has the best strategy? What are the major issues that still need to be addressed? Read on to see how Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are shaping up for the next-generation console war.

Click here for CNET.com.au's First Take of the PlayStation 3.

Will Sony sink or sail?
The gaming world expected a lot out of Sony at this year's E3. After all, as the current generation console leader, Sony needed to hit a six at E3 to prove that it could shake off Microsoft's strong challenge with the Xbox 360. There was also plenty of negative speculation in the months before the show regarding the PlayStation 3 that needed to be knocked on the head, such as reports of release delays and prohibitively high pricing. But despite a lot of hoopla at its pre-show conference and having one of the best stands at E3, Sony for the most part failed to quell nagging doubts about the its next generation console.

Granted, Sony's announcement of a firm global release date of 17 November and pricing for the PS3 was big news, and served to dispel concerns that the Xbox 360 would have too long a lead on Sony's new console. The system's price also fitted in with many people's expectations, though it was still somewhat of a shock to the system to see that punters would have to pay AU$1000 for a top of the line PS3 (or AU$829 for a base model). Still, the PS2 launched with a AU$750 price tag five years ago, so many keen gamers will probably accept the PS3 price tag without too much fuss.

What failed to set many gamers' hearts aflutter was the quality of PS3 games being displayed on the E3 floor, at least in terms of graphical eye candy. Sure, they looked impressive, with demos of the next-gen Gran Turismo, Genji 2 and Heavenly Sword being the standouts. But for a machine boasting the tech guts of the PS3, most people expected something that would knock their socks off. Graphics on PS3 games on show looked about on par with what was being displayed for the Xbox 360, which could spell trouble for Sony if marked improvements aren't realised come launch day (punters love eye candy when it comes to new consoles).

There were also rumours swilling around the E3 show floor (backed up by reports from some publishers this week) that many game developers had still not received final specs or development kits for the PS3. With roughly six months to go before launch, this doesn't bode well for those expecting a large range of PS3 titles to choose from come 17 November.

The PS3 controller looks identical to the PS2 one.

Sony's other major announcement for the PS3 -- the addition of movement sensitivity in its wireless controllers -- also failed to generate much excitement. Sony demoed this new functionality on Warhawk, an expected PS3 launch title. Compared to the level of intricate movement being achieved by the Nintendo Wii's own controllers, the PS3's seemed more of an afterthought than an integral part of Sony's next-gen offering. Sony also said that it had only recently disclosed to its game developer partners the existence of movement-sensitivity on PS3 controllers -- the major reason why there was only one game at the show which made use of such functionality.

In the next few months, Sony will no doubt make more announcements, unveil more games and generally try their hardest to impress on gamers the world over that the PS3 is THE next generation console of choice. The question is, is 17 November too pressing a deadline to turn some of the cynicism around?

Click here for CNET.com.au's First Take of the Nintendo Wii.

Will Wii make waves?
Nintendo was in a similar position as Sony in the lead up to this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), with both companies having question marks hovering over their next generation console strategy. But while the questions about Sony were all related to the final cost and availability of the PS3, the questions about Nintendo were about a much more core issue -- would the Wii actually be any good?

Most of the doubts sprung up because of the Wii's unusual controllers. First unveiled last year, the Wii controllers looked more like television remote controls than traditional game ones, and had many perplexed as to how they would work when controlling a game. Nintendo touted that its new wireless, motion sensitive controllers would make complicated gaming a thing of the past, as the new controllers would allow for intuitive control of videogames. The Wii would bring in plenty of new gamers thanks to its easy to use controllers, Nintendo claimed. Many were sceptical.

Plus there was THAT name -- Wii. Game geeks around the world scratched their heads when the new name (taking over from codename of Revolution) was unveiled just a few weeks before E3. Many made jokes. Most weren't complimentary.

Fast forward to the end of E3 in 2006, and conference goers were unanimous in their appraisal -- Nintendo was the darling of the show, with Wii taking centre stage over its more fancied console rivals. Show attendees literally lined up for up to six hours at E3 to grab a short hands-on demo of the Wii in action. And while not everyone walked away a convert, many left feeling just that little bit more bullish about the Wii's chances for success.

Nintendo did several things right at E3. Firstly, they focused on the playability of the Wii, working hard to take away some of the mystery behind the console and its innovative controller by showing plenty of actual game demonstrations. In fact, "playing=believing" was Nintendo's mantra for E3, and the company stuck to it admirably. From its energetic pre-E3 press conference right down to the show floor, Nintendo made sure everyone knew exactly what was in store with the Wii thanks to varied and numerous demos of the Wii in action. Twenty-seven Wii games were on show at E3 -- far more than most game industry watchers expected. Nintendo showed the Wii in action with sports games, action games, platformers, racers and more. Nintendo also made sure to highlight that when it came to games, the Wii wasn't going to be short changed. As well as the usual strong first-party line up from Nintendo, the Wii has games lined up from third-party publishers like Ubisoft, Sega, Activision, Square Enix, THQ and Electronic Arts.

What surprised and pleased many was that as well as video demonstrations, Nintendo had plenty of playable games for people to try. Each one showcased the Wii controllers in a different way -- from the simple mini-game style of a title like Wii Sports, to more complex games like Red Steel. And Nintendo also pleased its loyal fan base by having playable demos of two of its most famous franchises -- Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

Controlling the Wii is fun, but not as intuitive for some games as Nintendo would like you to believe.

So does the Wii live up to Nintendo's hype? Do its unique controllers make gaming easy for everyone? CNET.com.au spent a fair amount of time playing Wii demos at E3, and our initial impressions lean towards the negative. Yes, controlling games on the Wii is fun and exciting, but it's hardly pick up and play material. Some games, like the aforementioned Wii Sports, do offer quite simple control mechanics that are extremely intuitive. Tennis, for example, is performed just as you would in a real tennis game, with the remote-control-shaped controller acting as a virtual racket. But most of the games we played still required some finesse to master, and is at least on par with traditional controllers in terms of ease of use. Super Mario Galaxy, for example, required players to navigate Mario with their left hand using the Wii's "nunchuck" attachment, while using their right hand to perform attacks and collect stars by using the controller as a screen pointer. That's hardly what we'd call intuitive. It is, however, undeniably cool to be using a whole new control system to navigate game genres we've all grown accustomed to. Playing an action game like Zelda or a racing game like Excite Truck using the Wii controllers made the games feel fresh and exciting.

Nintendo's strong focus on demystifying the Wii and surprising everyone with plenty of playable demos made them the darlings of E3, but it wasn't a faultless performance by any means. The lack of a firm release date and pricing hampered Nintendo's overall message. With the 360 already out and Sony causing consternation with the high price of the PS3, Nintendo missed an opportunity to completely steal the limelight from its competitors by unveiling a (much expected) lower price point for the Wii.

Click here for CNET.com.au's full review of the Xbox 360.

Can Microsoft maintain its momentum?
Microsoft must be feeling good about the Xbox 360. Putting aside the shortages that plagued the console in the first few months after its release, things are looking pretty rosy for Microsoft's second foray into the console gaming world. Gamer reaction has been quite positive so far, and the 360's competitors seem hell bent on giving the console a full year's head start before they come out with their offerings. Bill Gates, making his first appearance at an E3, spruiked that Microsoft expects to have sold more than 10 million 360s by the time the PS3 arrives on the scene later this year. An established base of 10 million gamers is a massive hurdle to overcome, even for a gaming giant like Sony.

With its console already out on the market, the majority of Microsoft's focus at this year's E3 was on its slate of upcoming games for the 360. And the big M had an impressive line-up on show, including Fable 2, Forza Motorsport 2, Gears of War, Alan Wake, Blue Dragon and the kiddie-friendly Viva Pinata. Microsoft also announced a major coup, confirming that the next game in the uber-popular Grand Theft Auto series would debut on the 360 at the same time as its released for the PS3 (mid-way through 2007). Snaring GTA IV is a huge bonus for the 360, as Sony had previously enjoyed several month's worth of exclusivity on previous entries in the series.

But most of the buzz was on a game that wasn't even playable -- Halo 3. When the trailer for the latest chapter in Master Chief's adventures was shown at Microsoft's pre-E3 press conference, the crowd went wild. The trailer also regularly drew hoards of gaping onlookers when it was periodically shown on the massive screens hanging over Microsoft's stand at E3.

Hardware wasn't completely ignored, however. Several accessories for the 360 were officially announced, although most came with no price tags or firm release dates. Leading the list was the much talked about HD DVD add on (which has been designed to look like a smaller Xbox 360), a wireless racing wheel, wireless gaming receiver, the Xbox Live Vision video camera and more.

Games was the focus for the Xbox 360 at this year's E3.

Perhaps the most intriguing announcement to come from Microsoft this E3 came from the mouth of Bill Gates himself, who unveiled the Live Anywhere platform. Live Anywhere essentially takes the Xbox Live experience onto PCs and mobile phones, giving gamers the same interface, gamertag and achievements regardless of platform. Live Anywhere greatly expands the reach of Xbox Live, and makes it even more of a hurdle for Sony to overcome when it comes to market with its own online games platform for the PS3.

But the biggest plus to come out from Microsoft at this year's E3 is that its line up of upcoming games held up extremely well against the best that Sony had to offer with the PlayStation 3. Most of the 360 titles looked good -- very good -- compared to the PS3 games on show. By the time Sony's console hits the street, the 360 will already be on its second generation of games -- that means extremely attractive eye-candy which could put the PS3 to shame.

And it certainly doesn't hurt Microsoft that Sony has pegged its rival console at a much higher price than 360. Perhaps Microsoft's stated goal of being number one in this generation of console may come true after all.