Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony all continue their slow, steady battles for gaming and entertainment domination. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are still going strong, with each console continually adding functionality. Sony just released a redesigned PlayStation 3, and Microsoft continues to tweak its Xbox 360 interface with new features. Nintendo, meanwhile, recently launched the Wii U, its next-gen system. In the handheld gaming world, the Nintendo DS has been replaced by the 3DS, and Sony's PlayStation Vita has unseated the PlayStation Portable.
Below we'll take a look at the big three consoles, and help you decide which ones are best to buy right now. We'll also outline the top options for non-console and on-the-go gaming.
Nintendo Wii U
The Nintendo Wii U is the first "next-generation" console, but in terms of power, it's about on par with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The big sell with the Wii U is its gamepad, which features a 6.2-inch touch screen and a plethora of tablet-like features beyond the standard physical or motion controls. It's pretty pricey at $299.99 for the Basic Set, which includes the console with 8GB of storage and a gamepad, or $349.99 for the Deluxe Set, which offers 32GB of storage and adds a charging cradle for the gamepad and a copy of Nintendo Land.
The Wii U can access Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, and even show Web pages either on your HDTV or on the gamepad. Its real entertainment value will be seen at the end of the year when Nintendo launches TVii, a media service that aggregates live TV, DVR video on your TiVo set-top box, and online services together and offers social networking features while watching.
The Gaming Experience
For a new system, the Wii U has a compelling library thanks to a handful of long-awaited cross-platform titles and a scattering of interesting exclusives. Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. U is the system's first-party AAA title, and Nintendo Land offers varied and entertaining minigames. The latter comes with the Deluxe Set for the Wii U, so depending on the system you purchase you could get it as a pack-in. Nintendo also plans to release Game & Wario, Wii Fit U, and Pikmin 3 in the system's six-month "launch window."
For third-party games, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, Batman: Arkham City: Armored Edition, and Assassin's Creed 3 all have full-fledged ports on the Wii U, with additional features for the Wii U gamepad. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a much-needed upgrade to the mediocre Ninja Gaiden 3 released last year on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and ZombiU offers survival horror you can't get on the other systems.
Buy or Wait: Buy, if you can snag the Deluxe Set. The Basic Set is easier to find, but the Deluxe Set is the better deal. For just $50 more, it has four times the onboard storage, a game (Nintendo Land), a charging cradle, and stands for both the gamepad and the console.
Sony PlayStation 3
If you don't already have a Blu-ray player or want a system with lots of non-gaming entertainment features, the PlayStation 3 is your best choice. It not only plays Blu-ray discs and lets you stream your own content from a PC, it also has tons of video services available through the XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface. The PS3 can play videos up to 1080p, and can access Hulu Plus, Netflix, and other streaming-video services. The PS3 has recently been redesigned to offer more storage in a smaller size, though the top-loading drive seems like a step back from the slot-loading drive in the previous versions. Still, considering its $269.99 price tag with a 250GB hard drive (or $299.99 for a 500GB hard drive version), it's a tempting package even before you get into the games.
The Gaming Experience
The games themselves are many and varied. With the availability of most major releases, a large number of console exclusives, and high-definition remakes, the scales are tipped just slightly in the PS3's favor when it comes to the best titles. Games like Uncharted, Gran Tourismo, and LittleBigPlanet are excellent on the PS3, and remake compilations of the Sly Cooper, Metal Gear Solid, Prince of Persia, and Team Ico games mean last-gen classics feel new again. Top-notch games are aplenty on the PlayStation platform.
When it comes to motion-controlled gaming, Microsoft reigns supreme with its controller-free Kinect for Xbox 360. Sony's answer to motion control, the PlayStation Move, offers a Wii-like wand-based interface that uses the PlayStation Eye camera accessory and a sensor-filled controller with a lit ball to track movement. The Move hasn't caught on like the Wii or Microsoft's Kinect, and Move integration outside of a few gimmicky games is a novelty.
The PlayStation 3 uses Sony's PlayStation Network online service, and despite a few notable security issues, it stands as a top-notch system. PSN lets gamers keep track of their friends, download games, and access online services easily. It's free, but if you want discounts on games and a selection of free games every month, you can pay $50 a year for a PlayStation Plus subscription.
Buy or Wait? Buy. Sony has yet to formally announce the next PlayStation, and while the company is likely developing it, we probably won't hear word about a PlayStation 4 until at least halfway through 2013. The PlayStation 3 just got a hardware upgrade with even more storage for around the same price as the previous version, so it's a solid deal. If you want a flexible game system with a huge title library and excellent media features, pick up a PlayStation 3. There's no reason to wait.
Microsoft Xbox 360
While it lacks Blu-ray disc playback like the PS3 offers, Microsoft's console is just as formidable a gaming platform and almost as handy an entertainment system. The Xbox 360 also features Netflix and other streaming services, a huge library of videos on Xbox Live, and it's a handy DVD player if you're not quite ready to bump up to high-definition optical media. The Xbox 360 comes in 4GB ($199.99) and 250GB ($299.99) flavors, depending on whether you want to use the system as only a game and streaming media system or as a home media hub. Kinect-bundle versions are available for $100 more each, and holiday bundles trim about $50 off of each version with included games, if you pick them up in time.
The Gaming Experience
Like the PS3, the Xbox 360 has tons of cross-platform titles in its library, plus a solid crop of system exclusives. The Halo and Gears of War games are only available on the Xbox 360, as are Fable 2 and 3 and the Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing franchises. Beside Halo Combat Anniversary and a few other remade titles, though, the PlayStation 3 has the edge on high definition remakes and classic game compilations.
The Xbox 360's motion control system, Kinect, goes beyond PlayStation Move and the Wii. While the other two systems use wand-like controllers, Kinect relies entirely on its depth-sensing camera system and your voice to control the system. It measures where you are in the room, maps out your movements, and lets you dance, fight, jump, and run without touching a single piece of plastic. Like the Playstation Move, Kinect doesn't have too many titles available, and while it's unique and innovative, it lacks a specific "killer app" that makes it a must-buy system. Unless, of course, you like dancing. If that's the case, the Dance Central series is the best example of the Kinect at its most entertaining.
Xbox Live stands as the oldest online game service for consoles still running, and it's still top-notch. Xbox Live is free and lets you access the Xbox Live Arcade game library and buy and rent movies. Xbox Gold is $60 per year, and it offers much more functionality, with online gameplay, streaming media, discounts on games, and even video chat with Kinect.
Buy or Wait? Buy, especially if you want motion controls. The Kinect isn't perfect, but it's one of the more interesting, unique interfaces we've seen in a game system yet. Microsoft hasn't yet announced a new Xbox system, and since it's still pushing Kinect and adding new features to the Xbox 360 Dashboard, it likely won't pump out a new Xbox within the next year. We might see the company tease a new Xbox at the E3 gaming conference next summer.
The Nintendo 3DS and 3DS XL have replaced the Nintendo DS and DSi as the big name portable game systems with two screens. It features a 3D screen you can use without glasses that works surprisingly well, more power than the DS and DSi, and an analog thumbstick for better control. It launched with a $250 price tag, but Nintendo cut that price down to $169, making it a much more reasonable purchase. The 3DS can play games like Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, and Super Mario 3D Land, plus it can play any DS or DSi game, so there's already a huge library of great games.
Buy or Wait: Buy. The Nintendo 3DS is a now well-established system with a compelling last-generation library and many great 3DS titles now available both at retail and over the Nintendo 3DS eShop. It's not as powerful or pretty as the Sony PlayStation Vita discussed below, but it's also not nearly as expensive.
Sony PlayStation Vita
The $249 (Wi-Fi only) Sony PlayStation Vita is the most powerful gaming handheld currently available, offering graphical performance far better than the 3DS, with games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Persona 4 Golden looking stunning on the handheld's 5-inch OLED touch screen. It also features dual analog thumb sticks for shooters and other action games, and a $299 3G version lets you stay connected anywhere with an AT&T data plan. The only caveat is the storage; the PlayStation Vita uses an expensive, proprietary memory card format, so be prepared to spend an extra $60 for a 16GB card.
Buy or Wait: Buy. Thanks to recent releases like Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation and Persona 4, the Vita has a handful of compelling titles along with a huge library of downloadable PlayStation Portable games (which, unfortunately, must be purchased over the PSN Store because the Vita can't load UMDs, the physical format of PSP games). A recent update added PSN Plus to the Vita, letting users access a pool of rotating games every month on the system for a $8 monthly subscription. If you get a large enough memory card, you can access titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Gravity Rush, Jet Set Radio, and Final Fantasy Tactics with the subscription.
Tablets and Phones
You don't have to get a dedicated game console if you want to play games on the go. If you have a smartphone or tablet, there are already thousands of games available in the Apple App Store and the Android Play app store. Many of these games are deep and lengthy, but the majority are casual, like Angry Birds and Bejeweled. Depending on how much you want to game, you might not find the satisfying and varied experience that you get with dedicated game consoles and gaming handhelds. The mobile game field has exploded in the past couple of years, but for overall quality of experience (and the ability to play with physical controls on a screen much larger than your mobile device), a game console or PC is a much richer experience.
Other Ways to Game
Now that Nintendo has launched the Wii U, you might wonder if there's any point to get a Nintendo Wii. If you're on a budget, it's a great buy thanks to included games and its lowest price yet. The $129.99 Nintendo Wii Sports & Sports Resort Bundle includes the system, a remote and nunchuk, and two great games. You need to buy another remote if you want to enjoy multiplayer (besides bowling in Wii Sports), but even then you'll get a party-ready game system for the price of a Nintendo 3DS.
Your computer can play plenty of games, even if you don't have a high-end system. New releases are available for top-of-the-line PCs, but every computer can run PC gaming classics. The best thing is you don't have to go anywhere to buy these games. Our roundup of digital game distribution stores lists several great ways to buy and download games, from Wolfenstein 3D to Dishonored, directly to your computer.
OnLive offers several console and PC games through a cloud-based streaming system. When you buy a game or subscribe to a bundle on OnLive, you don't download anything or get any physical media, but instead use your computer, the OnLive MicroConsole, or a growing list of compatible devices as a client that sends out your commands and shows you audio and video from the game as processed through OnLive's own systems. OnLive works well enough, but video quality is lower than with locally played games, and you can run into some lag problems. Even if it's not perfect, OnLive provides a very functional game experience, making it a viable option. OnLive underwent an internal upheaval over the last year involving a buyout and restructuring, but the service is still active and offers current games.