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Xbox One vs. PS4: The post-E3 2015 scorecard

Commentary: Which console maker made the most compelling case for gamers' attention?

Josh Miller/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- As the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo draws to a close, the major hardware and software makers at this video-game trade show have had an opportunity to lay out their plans for the next year and make their case for your consumer dollars.

It's an unusual year at E3, as the conversation has been so focussed on the first wave of virtual reality and augmented reality hardware for gamers, drawing much of the attention away from the usual big-budget franchise installments from popular game series such as Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed.

Josh Miller/CNET

Instead, the press conferences (really more like giant fan rallies) put on by Sony and Microsoft promoted exclusive content for each company's respective console -- the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One -- new software features, and of course, the promise of VR.

Nintendo, which also both makes console hardware and publishes games, remained in a state of semi-hibernation at this year's E3, opting for a pre-taped video message (rather than a live press conference) with a mostly ho-hum lineup of games. The company is working behind the scenes on a followup to its Wii U system, dubbed the NX, and a strategy for extending its brand to mobile phone games -- but we won't get news on either until 2016. In the meantime, it's just not really playing at the same level as Sony and Microsoft.

With that said, here's how the big two contenders stacked up this year:

Microsoft

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  • The Xbox One is adding backward compatibility for some Xbox 360 games, through a combination of downloads and physical disc checks. The feature will be available later this year.
  • A new controller, called the Elite , looks impressive but will cost $150.
  • Halo 5 is the Xbox One exclusive blockbuster to beat, even if the last few games in the series suffered from Halo fatigue. A new Gears of War game, due in 2016, adds to the exclusive list -- along with an Xbox One remaster of the original game, coming later this year.
  • Minecraft, the insanely popular building game now owned by Microsoft, made a strong case for the company's HoloLens augmented-reality technology.
  • Hot off announcing a partnership with virtual-reality upstart Oculus Rift last week, Microsoft doubled down and committed to working with Valve's rival VR platform as well.
  • Fallout 4 on the Xbox One will have access to the same player-created add-on content that PC gamers have enjoyed for years, potentially extending the life of the game. (It's possible that feature may find its way to the PS4, too -- eventually.)
  • Indie games got only a nod, but Cuphead, created by two Canadian brothers, was an instant cult favorite.
  • Briefly mentioned, or not at all: Windows 10 gaming, new Kinect games or features, the second-screen SmartGlass app.
  • While not highlighted at the press conference, Microsoft revealed a totally overhauled Xbox One dashboard that will hit the console before the end of the year, too.

Sony

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  • A long-dormant PlayStation 3 game, The Last Guardian, made a surprise appearance. It will be resurrected for the PS4 in 2016.
  • The company highlighted games that feel more creative and less commercial, such as Dreams and No Man's Sky.
  • Sony promoted the Kickstarter campaign to help classic game creator Yu Suzuki fund the development of Shenmue 3. (Shenmue was a cult favorite '90s game series that originally debuted on the Sega Dreamcast.) Gamers responded, driving the funding campaign well over its $2 million goal just hours later.
  • The announcement that another classic, Final Fantasy VII, is getting a modern makeover, was greeted by an enthusiastic fan response.
  • Morpheus , the Sony virtual-reality system, had more VR games to demo than anyone else, and the headset works with a standard PS4 console, so it may have a lower buy-in cost than other VR systems.
  • PlayStation Vue, the just-launched streaming TV service, got a brief (albeit vague) promise of a la carte channels coming soon. It's also expanding to Los Angeles and San Francisco, bringing it into five total markets in the US.
  • Briefly mentioned, or not at all: PS Vita (confirming tough times for dedicated gaming handhelds), new original programming for Sony's PlayStation Network (like Powers, which Sony touted in a big way at last year's show).

Between the press conferences, which now play more toward the consumer audience watching them stream online than the press in attendance, and the massive multistory booths on the E3 show floor, these two corporate giants continue their years-long domination of E3.

But that may be changing, as the single hottest must-see demo of the show took place in a small set of upstairs private meeting rooms, where Oculus was showing off the latest build, and the new controller, of the Oculus Rift .

The post-E3 console landscape

A possible VR revolution on the horizon notwithstanding, these two living-room consoles still dominate the here and now of the mainstream gaming world. And while the press conferences emphasized differences and exclusives, the irony of the E3 show is that it drives home how similar the PS4 and Xbox One remain. The vast majority of big games from third-party publishers -- Fallout 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Batman: Arkham Knight, EA's lineup of sports games -- will be released on both systems, and deliver a largely similar experience on both.

Since both consoles debuted in November 2013, CNET has generally recommended the PS4 over the Xbox One, initially because of its lower price and tighter focus on delivering a game-centric experience.

But Microsoft, to its credit, has worked tirelessly to reverse a rash of bad decisions that burdened its third-generation console. Having already locked in to a lower price and dropped the Kinect as a required peripheral, the addition of compatibility with older 360 games and a promising overhaul of the confusing and crowded dashboard -- both coming later this year -- are both worthwhile additions to the One. (We'll update our review of both consoles as these software updates become available.)

Sony, coming from a better position in the current console war (PS4 sales have, so far, outdistanced those of the Xbox One), had less to prove at this E3. If Sony had a weakness, it was that its most promising exclusive titles -- games like Uncharted 4 and The Last Guardian -- won't hit until 2016.

But new game consoles have historically needed to hit the three-year mark before really coming into their own. That both of these press conferences could be described as mostly killer, with only a little filler, shows that there's finally enough quality content in the pipeline to keep fans of either console happy for the next couple of years.

Follow all the latest news from E3 2015 on CNET and GameSpot.