Let the game console wars begin

Pumped with the latest technology, the new breed of video game machines can do more than just play the hottest 3D games. Both Microsoft's upcoming Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2, for instance, can double as DVD players for watching movies. Either can also be an Internet appliance for playing games online, browsing the Web, and sending e-mail or instant messages.

All three companies have laid out their combat plans at the gaming industry's largest conference, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) held in California last week. To kick off the event, Microsoft revealed some Xbox secrets, announcing the console's 8 November release date and its $US299 price tag. Nintendo intends to make a pre-emptive strike against Microsoft by shipping its forthcoming GameCube three days ahead, on 5 November. But Nintendo didn't disclose the price of the GameCube.

Meanwhile, Sony has outlined its tactics to expand the PlayStation 2, which has been available since late 2000. It plans a handful of upcoming hardware add-ons, including a $US39 Ethernet module for online access and a $US20 remote control for running DVD movies.

Amid the high-tech marketing mumbo jumbo (such as "experiencing the experience") and a few seemingly endless, bass-soaked demos of new and future games, one thing becomes clear: These video game warriors still won't replace your good ol' PC. At best, one of them will wonderfully round out your booming entertainment system.

But just how do you choose the right gaming console for you? Figure out the features you need and what you can live without. Each of the three leading consoles fills a niche that could suit you.

Microsoft: An Eager Upstart Joins the Race. Let's get one thing straight: Microsoft hasn't been an underdog in years. But with Nintendo and Sony firmly entrenched in the minds and hearts of most video game players, Microsoft's Xbox faces an uphill battle. On its side is an outstanding hardware setup--at least on paper. The Xbox has a 733-MHz CPU and a built-in hard drive, a long list of developers writing games for it, and piles of Microsoft marketing dough.

Microsoft has spotlighted its software developer support, which includes Electronic Arts (publisher of popular sports games such as FIFA Soccer, Madden Football, and NHL) and Sega (makers of well-known video games such as Crazy Taxi and World Series Baseball). At the show, they demonstrated their upcoming games and applauded Microsoft's gaming efforts. Even film director Steven Spielberg, in a taped, cameo appearance, praised Microsoft for building a state-of-the-art gaming machine and for working with Warner Brothers to develop games that coincide with his upcoming film AI.

At E3, although every Xbox game showed off one or more aspects of the system's impressive firepower, the machine running the games was hidden from our view. One can't help being leery. And with the launch date approaching fast, is Microsoft still running demos on a machine that looks more like a souped-up desktop PC than a game console? Even more frustrating is the fact that the most impressive-looking games, including Tecmo's stunning Dead or Alive 3, were shown as prerendered videos instead of being played in real time.

Despite those drawbacks, Xbox's impressive hardware should deliver. With its 733-MHz PIII processor, NVidia graphics chip, 64MB of memory, a built-in hard drive, and integrated Ethernet for broadband, Microsoft has the platform to beat.

Nintendo: Doing It for the kids

It's been five years since Nintendo introduced its flagship game console, the Nintendo 64. At E3, the company announced plans to ship its next video game system, the GameCube, on 5 November, beating Microsoft's Xbox by three days.

The GameCube's technical specs are somewhere between that of the Xbox and the PlayStation 2, which means it should pack plenty of power. It is, however, missing several hardware features that may cause some buyers to pause. For example, it won't play DVD movies like the other two machines, which is a major drawback if you're interested in a complete home entertainment centre with a single purchase. Also, it doesn't have a built-in hard drive. (The Xbox comes with a hard drive, and you can add one to the PlayStation 2.) Nintendo has outlined its networking capabilities, but the Xbox is broadband-ready, and Sony offers add-on networking for the PlayStation 2.

Despite those drawbacks, the GameCube is sure to be a hit with a large portion of the video gaming community. Why? It has a solid record of producing fun-filled, cartoony games that appeal to the young (and young at heart). Nintendo's smash cast of game characters includes Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Zelda, and Pokemon. As you might expect, the company is featuring some of those characters in forthcoming GameCube titles, including Luigi's (Mario's younger brother) Mansion, an adventure game that takes you through a ghost-filled house. N64 cartridges can't play on the GameCube, however.

But the company isn't resting on its successful franchises alone. Nintendo has showed an upcoming game called Pikmin, an action/strategy game with a host of colourful and amusing characters. According to game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, his recent gardening chores inspired him to create Pikmins, which are small plant-like creatures that run around the game on your command.

Will Nintendo's proprietary games hold people's interest? That depends. Kids have always been fond of its games, and that may help push the GameCube through. But if you're looking for a more versatile game system, one of its two competitors here may be a better choice.

Sony: Winning, but a bit defensive

Sony is the undisputed reigning champion in the video game console market. Between the original PlayStation (now called PlayStation 1) and the PlayStation 2 (which can play DVD movies), it commands an overwhelming market lead. Its product flew off shelves during the last holiday season, and people continue to buy the console as fast as Sony can make it.

Despite the company's success, Sony executives started their Wednesday presentation on a somewhat defensive, almost bitter note. They focused on explaining various ways in which the company didn't botch its PlayStation 2 launch last year.

"It's time to dispel some myths," says Jack Tretton, vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment.

Despite reports to the contrary, Tretton insists, PlayStation 2 is not a difficult platform for which to create games. He points to more than 300 content developers working on new games as proof.

Tretton also says it's untrue that Sony's manufacturing isn't up to speed. The company was forced to cut dramatically the number of systems it shipped at launch, and many people still can't find a PlayStation 2 to buy. But Tretton insists Sony is cranking out 1.5 million units each month.

Nor is initial content for the PlayStation 2 uninspiring, he says, reciting a list of second- and third-generation upcoming titles. Industry wags, however, suggest the Sony chief may be under the impression that recycling old favourites is the definition of inspired.

Despite the awkwardly defensive opening, Sony is showing some impressive new games in development, as well as some new hardware that will make the PlayStation 2 more powerful and more desktop PC-like.

Chief among the hardware enhancements is a network adaptor scheduled to ship in November. The product, which Sony expects to sell for about $US40, will include both a 56Kbps modem and an Ethernet port. Sony will also offer a 40GB hard drive in November, but pricing is not yet set.

Also this summer, Sony plans to release an LCD screen, keyboard, and mouse for use with the PlayStation 2. Prices are not yet set. A preview image of the keyboard/LCD combo makes the PlayStation 2 package look an awful lot like a PC.

Sony also announced a handful of strategic alliances intended to make the PlayStation work better as an Internet appliance. The company is partnering with America Online to offer e-mail, chat, and instant messaging, as well as a version of the Netscape Internet Browser.

Other major partners include Real Networks, which will adapt its RealPlayer 8 to allow the PlayStation 2 to offer streaming video; Macromedia, which will adapt its Flash Player for the console; and Cisco, which is creating new Internet protocol software for the device.

Don't ditch your PC

With experts comparing the computing power of these consoles to that of high-powered workstations, and Sony rolling out hardware that makes the PlayStation 2 look and feel more like a PC, some may be inclined to consider their next console purchase a PC replacement. Don't.

"These machines are only going to augment your PC, " says Peter Glaskowsky, analyst with MicroDesign Resources. They won't have the power or flexibility to actually replace your good old desktop or notebook PC anytime soon, he notes.

Despite the fact that the PlayStation 2 with the optional keyboard and LCD looked "something like what Larry Ellison was trying to sell us a few years ago," it's not a good computer replacement, Glaskowsky says. Rather, it's a fine way to get computing power into the same room as your couch and television, he suggests.

"Something like this has a valid excuse for being in the living room," he says. It's more natural to have a game console--which also plays DVD and happens to connect to the Internet--next to your TV than a PC, he says.

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