PS3, Wii, or Xbox 360: What's your best bet?
While keeping an eye on reports of diehard gamers (and more than a few eBay entreprenuers) braving long lines and cold nights and even facing down guns to purchase their Sony PS3s and Nintendo Wiis, we spent the last weekend putting these new consoles, as well as the year-old Xbox 360, through their paces. You might be surprised (or outraged) by our grades. So please keep in mind that these reviews reflect our immediate post-launch impressions we promise to re-review them within the next year. Gary Eng Walk, Geoff Keighley, Evan Narcisse, and Wook Kim
SONY PLAYSTATION 3
After inciting the craziest mob scenes this side of TomKat's wedding, the mega-hyped PS3 didn't exactly make the best first impression last Friday when it went on sale across the country. Instead of images of gamers enthralled by the PS3's cutting-edge graphics, everyone's most lasting memories of the PS3's grand debut consisted of rioting, mugging, and price-gouging on eBay. This is not something Sony wants to hear after spending six years and billions of dollars to create and market a worthy successor to the winner of last generation's console arms race, the PS2. So here's the $599 question: Is the PlayStation 3 worth it? Read on.
WHAT WE LIKED There's no denying that the PS3 is both a beauty and a beast. Shinier than Darth Vader's helmet, the curvaceous console shows no visible switches or buttons (the eject and power buttons are subtle, touch-sensitive emblems on the unit), with only a series of four USB ports causing a faint ripple on its surface. Lurking beneath is a series of powerful microprocessors and circuitry that makes the PS3 the most powerful and complex game console ever. It's truly a high-definition machine, capable of displaying games and movies at 1080p resolution through its HDMI port. (Trust us: What may sound like gibberish to you is beautiful music to anyone who owns an LCD or plasma set.) The PS3 also plays Blu-Ray movies, one of the two high-definition DVD formats that Sony is betting will eventually replace standard DVDs. Considering stand-alone Blu-Ray players cost around $1,000, you can argue the PS3, at $600, is actually a bargain. It also includes useful memory card slots that can display your digital photos, a large 60 GB hard drive, and built-in Wi-Fi to connect the unit to your home network. The PS3's menu navigation, called the Cross Media Bar, is as elegantly designed as the machine itself. It sports a clean interface and lets you quickly rotate through the jungle of multimedia formats that the PS3 can play.
WHAT WE DISLIKED If the PS3 were running at top speed, it would be tough to beat. But despite its clear technological superiority over the Wii and Xbox 360 (see reviews below), right now it feels like it's idling in a garage. The first batch of games is a letdown: Most of them look no better than what you can see on the Xbox 360 and none offer any revolutionary step up in gameplay. The PS3's online service has also stumbled out of the gate. Though Sony boasts that online play is free (in contrast to Microsoft, which charges $50 a year for its robust and time-tested Xbox Live service), it's a frustrating case of ''you get what you pay for.'' We also were disappointed that Sony chose not to mimic Xbox Live's addictive Gamerscore point system, which rewards players with points for achieving various goals in games. For those of you who don't own a HDTV don't be ashamed: despite the hype, most people don't have one yet either the PS3's improved graphics look noticeably less impressive on standard definition sets. PS3's new ''SIXAXIS'' controller looks just like the old PS2 controller, but feels lighter and less substantial and while it offers motion-sensing technology, few of the available games make much use of this capability.
MUST-OWN GAMES Resistance: Fall of Man is the closest game among PS3's first wave to resemble a killer-app. Though first-person shooters are nothing new, this one has a creepy storyline (involving an alien plague spread by roach-like creatures), innovative weapons, and a multiplayer mode that allows up to 40 human players to compete on the same battleground. For speed junkies, Ridge Racer 7 gives a satisfying buzz and, like its forebearers (both the original PlayStation and PS2 also debuted with Ridge Racer games), is a fun, physics-defying alternative to Sony's frustratingly realistic Gran Turismo racing series.
FOR THE BEST EXPERIENCE Assuming your PS3 purchase hasn't completely crippled your charge card, investing in a HDTV and an HDMI cable is a must, if you want to see the best-quality picture. Once you're locked and loaded with high-def, a stack of Blu-Ray movies wouldn't hurt either. For eyeball-melting visuals, we recommend Blu-Ray versions of Stealth, Mission: Impossible III, and Terminator 2.
VERDICT Clad in a stylish tuxedo-chic shell and accessorized with cutting-edge electronic gadgetry, the PS3 is all dressed up...with no place to go. Many gamers, especially those who don't own an HDTV, are paying $600 (or more, if they give into the eBay vultures) for features that they (for now) can't fully appreciate. It's going to take a while before game programmers figure out how to harness the PS3's power and deliver some truly next-gen gaming experiences. Its online network is also a work in progress that has a long way to go before challenging the Xbox Live service. While it's human nature to want something that someone else wants, it's a smart move to resist temptation and sit on the sidelines until there are more compelling and practical reasons to commit to the PS3. B
The Wii comes on the heels of Nintendo's success with its handheld DS and DS Lite systems. When the DS launched, its dual screens and touch-sensitive interface were met with confusion (and even jeers). But with more than 21 million units sold so far, Nintendo says that the DS proves that its strategy looking beyond standard stick-and-button controls, and thinking beyond hardcore gamers as the main audience really works. Hence, the Wii, a console that offers a fun alternative to those sometimes confusing controllers: the wand-like, motion-sensitive ''Wii-mote,'' which responds to the player's physical movements and mimics them within the game environment.
WHAT WE LIKED Hands-on time with current and upcoming titles for the new machine made us a little giddy. Controlling the angle of Excite Truck's high-flying ramp jumps made each lap different than the rest, and the fishing minigame in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess felt as tricky and addictive as the real thing. Super Mario Galaxy offered crazy, vertiginous thrills and nearly had us reaching for the Dramamine and it wasn't all due to the crazy camera angles or stomach-churning little worlds. Even with its lack of next-gen graphics, the Wii will force everyone to re-think what it means to design a videogame and what it means to play one.
WHAT WE DIDN'T LIKE The Wii isn't going to wow you with retina-sizzling graphics. The gesticular mode of interaction can get tiring (but the Wii does ask you if you'd like to take a break), and the sensor seems to have small fits of imprecision where the cursor disappears from the screen. Clueless companies trying to shoehorn existing franchises onto a radically different control scheme aren't doing anyone any favors, either (THQ and UbiSoft, we're looking at you). The lack of next-gen graphics will inevitably catch up with Wii's still way-cool gameplay the best this console can offer is an underwhelming 480p (for which you must buy a set of $40 component cables!). Fatigue is another strange byproduct of the Wii: After 30 minutes of playing Wii Sports tennis, we were rubbing our suddenly sore arms. And make sure you have plenty of space we anticipate lots of dented lampshades this winter.
MUST-OWN GAMES In Rayman: Raving Rabbids, players must keep a passel of bizarrely malevolent rabbits entertained, while swinging the Wii-mote to hammer-throw cows (really) or shoot gallons of carrot juice to keep waves of scuba-mask-wearing bunnies ay bay. When playing the free-wheeling, over-the-top racing game Excite Truck, the Wii-mote becomes a steering wheel (held lengthwise in your hand). Driving these high-flying vehicles is intuitive and loads of fun. And we can't say enough about the bowling game that is part of the Wii Sports disc that comes packaged with the console.
FOR THE BEST EXPERIENCE Since HD sets magnify some of the graphical shortcomings of various games, the Wii is best run on standard TV sets. And early reports have mentioned the Wii's sensor bar freaking out when hit by direct sunlight, so don't go waving your Wii-mote in front of a window.
VERDICT Not quite a next-generation console, the Wii must rely on its unique game interface and a steady stream of titles that make full use of the Wii-mote and the companion Nunchuck. Is the Wii-mote a novelty that will soon wear thin? Beyond the healthy legions of Nintendo loyalists, the Wii's low price, strong lineup of nonviolent titles, and gentle learning curve might actually attract the kind of players (women, parents) normally put off by testosterone-fueled games that reward mastery of a dozen or more buttons. B+
MICROSOFT XBOX 360
Lest you forget that this console smackdown is a three-way (not two-way) race, last year's hysteria-inducing game machine, the Xbox 360, is in bountiful supply on store shelves and is hands-down your best game console option at the moment. While it's possible the situation may be different a year or two from now, when the Wii and PS3 find their sea legs, the 360 has the most diverse lineup of games, thanks to its internal development studios and robust third-party support. Just one year in its life cycle, the 360 has more than a few must-play games on its résumé, including the just-released Gears of War, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis, and Dead Rising. The 360 is a bit light when it comes to family-friendly games, but Viva Piñata, an inventive adventure game bursting with vibrant colors, is perfect for kids. Another advantage to the Xbox 360 being a year old: Microsoft has priced its best-selling launch titles, like Project Gotham Racing, at around $30, compared with the $60 pricing of PS3 launch titles. 2007 looks bright for the 360 owners, with the most anticipated event-game of the year, Halo 3, on track to come out sometime in the fall. Though the 360 lacks a motion-sensing device like the other consoles, its ergonomic wireless controller is second-to-none and is complemented by a lineup of well-designed peripherals, such as the newly released wireless headset communicator and the wireless steering wheel. Microsoft also just released an external HD-DVD player, which connects to the Xbox console with a USB cable and enables you to play high-definition DVDs (though we wish Microsoft had the foresight to integrate the bulky attachment into the console). Last but most important, the 360's superb Xbox Live service sets the benchmark for seamlessly integrated, community-building online gameplay. Microsoft charges for it, but it's money well spent, and they're constantly adding enhancements and additional downloadable content. A-