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Is three company?
2006 is all about the consoles
BY MITCH KRPATA

Itís hard to say what part of the Xbox 360 launch Microsoft bungled the worst. The inferior crop of launch titles relies heavily on sequels and ports, some of which are actually scaled down from their current-gen versions. Several manufacturing glitches have been reported. And despite severe domestic supply shortages, the majority of the Japanese 360 stock is languishing on store shelves. Still, thereís no doubting the demand: as of this writing, just before Christmas, premium bundles were still fetching upward of $1000 on eBay.

Where does that leave Sonyís PlayStation 3 and Nintendoís Revolution? Both are slated to launch in 2006, though specific release dates ó like many pertinent details about the systems ó have yet to be disclosed. Of the two, the PS3 is positioned as more of a direct competitor to the 360. Sony is touting the new systemís horsepower, saying itís 15 times more powerful than the PS2. Such claims are speculative at best. Yes, you can throw around fancy-sounding terms like "teraflop" and "floating point capability" and have a shot at describing the inner workings of the PS3, but these refer only to the theoretical power of the machine. Developers are already grousing about the difficulty of programming for the PlayStation 3; the Xbox 360, which offers a Power PC-based central processing unit, is the more programmer-friendly of the two systems.

For the end user, itís still not clear what the hardware differences will amount to. Raw computing power has never had much impact on a systemís software quality or its market share. If the PS3 doesnít fly out of the gate with must-have titles, it could join other poorly marketed powerhouses like the Sega Saturn and Atari Jaguar on the scrapheap of history. But Sony should have little to worry about. Already on the slate are extensions to proven PlayStation franchises like Tekken and Devil May Cry. And the unveiling of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots at last Octoberís Tokyo Game Show has created the biggest PS3 buzz. An eight-minute-long video of the game features an aging Snake on a battlefield that resembles the bombed-out European cities of World War II ó except for the marauding bipedal attack robots, of course. Weíre not treated to actual gameplay footage, but MGS designer Hideo Kojima claims that the cinematic is rendered in real time. If so, Microsoft really does have something to worry about. In close-ups of Snake, you can see that the designers have gone so far as to model the muscles around the characterís eyes. The effect is uncanny. Nothing in the first wave of 360 titles ó not even a profusely sweating Shaq ó matches it.

But even if Metal Gear Solid 4 delivers on its potential (and given how badly Kojima and his cohort at Konami stumbled with MGS2, thatís not a guarantee), it wonít be storming the beaches alone. Bill Gates has said that Microsoft will sit on Halo 3 until the release of the PlayStation 3. This is a bold move but a sensible one. Halo 2 grossed $125 million dollars on release day, and if it werenít for the console-moving popularity of the original, we wouldnít be discussing an Xbox 360 today. I havenít even seen so much as a screenshot of Halo 3 yet, but I imagine it will feature great graphics, highly advanced AI, and the most boring level design this side of Pac-Man. Just like the first two. But that doesnít mean smoked-out rooms from Allston to Anaheim wonít be filled with twentysomething guys male-bonding with Master Chief.

I havenít mentioned Nintendo yet because, in a way, itís taken itself out of the discussion. For one thing, itís not bedtime for the GameCube just yet ó 2006 should see the release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, easily the most eagerly awaited GameCube offering since, well, probably the last Zelda game. Its realistic artwork is a major æsthetic upgrade from the cel-shaded kiddy-cartoon look of its predecessor, The Wind Waker. Once the new Twilight Princess drops, however, that will be the end of the íCube. And just in time for the Revolution. Technical specifications? Well, no one doubts that it will offer the lowest theoretical processing power of the seventh generation. But itís believed that the Revolution will run on PowerPC architecture, just as the Xbox does ó which will make scaled-down 360-to-Revolution ports not terribly difficult. And if third-party developers find it easier and cheaper to create games only for those two systems, that could spell trouble for Sony.

Nintendo executives claim they donít want to play the horsepower game with Sony and Microsoft and instead are focused on providing ó wait for it ó revolutionary gameplay experiences. A year ago, this statement might have been laughable, but not after the creative and commercial success of the Nintendo DS. In addition to offering traditional joypad and button controls, the Revolution controller will, it appears, allow the player to manipulate the events on screen by maneuvering the controller itself. A promotional video touting the technology depicts, among other things, gamers swinging the controller like a baseball bat, waving it like a flashlight, and even chopping imaginary food. Gimmicky, maybe, but thatís what some of us thought about the DSís touchscreen.

As for Revolution software, nothing official has been announced, though we can expect to spend more quality time with Mario, Link, Samus, and the rest of the gang. Nintendo has also promised to exploit Internet connectivity to allow downloads of games for past Nintendo systems. Again, details are scarce, but the Revolution will emulate every Nintendo console from the original NES to the GameCube. This is similar in theory to Turner Broadcastingís GameTap ó a subscription-based Web service that emulates dozens of old games from Adventure to Hydro Thunder on your PC ó with the advantage that Nintendoís own back library will be available. No word yet on whether third-party publishers will sign on, and indeed it would be disappointing if the likes of Castlevania, Mega Man, and Final Fantasy werenít part of the deal. Even so, given the 360ís troubles with backwards compatibility, this has to be seen as a good move by Nintendo ó the PlayStation 3 is alleged to be fully backwards compatible with all PS1 and PS2 games.

Weíll know more come the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May. Unless one of them decides to jump the gun, Sony and Nintendo can be expected to use E3 as the launching point for the consoles. But no matter what happens, youíre still sure to see a bunch of gaming freaks doing the 5 am asphalt campout in front of your local Best Buy this spring.


Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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