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Gaming High Noon: Next-gen consoles prepare to face off

Joe Kirby and Benjamin Lesser
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

Call it Gaming High Noon.

Within weeks, Sony and Nintendo will unveil the latest versions of their next-generation video game consoles. Just in time for the holiday shopping season, the new machines will do battle with the Xbox 360, Microsoft's earlier entry in the gaming race, which now offers a high-definition DVD drive.

The fight for the hearts, fingers and dollars of gamers everywhere begins in earnest later this month. Sony's PlayStation 3 will be released on Nov. 17. Nintendo's Wii will be out on Nov. 19.

Here's what to expect.

PLAYSTATION 3

To imagine the PS3, think a gaming console designed by the Wachowski brothers, the makers of "The Matrix." The PS3 is super-sleek and sexy. It cuts a fine figure with luminescent black skin and a skinny, angular shape that will look right at home next to flat-screen TVs and stylish home theaters. The premium model will even feature chrome trim, like a tricked-out Cadillac Escalade.

The PS3 is one part gaming console, one part home entertainment system, a cutting-edge gadget designed to infiltrate a consumer's home and prove indispensable on numerous fronts. As a result, Sony is unapologetic about its hefty $499 price tag ($599 for the premium silver edition with a 60-gigabyte hard drive), which happens to be right in line with the as-pricey Xbox 360.

The name of the game for Sony seems to be flexibility. Not only will you be able to play your next-gen games on the PS3, but you'll also be able to surf the Net and be one of the first to experience Blu-ray DVD technology, one of the two standards duking it out for next-generation DVD bragging rights. To nudge you in the direction of using the console to watch movies, the PlayStation 3 is being packaged with comic Will Ferrell's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

All PS3 games also will be published on Blu-ray discs. A remote will run you $30. Like the Xbox 360, the PS3 features a wireless controller that allows you to play up to 65 feet from the machine. There has been concern among some gamers that the new SIXAXIS controller's non-removable batteries (like an iPod's) will prove problematic. But Sony executives say their controllers (which, unlike previous versions, no longer vibrate) will enjoy a long battery life. A replacement or extra PS3 controller will run you $50. Up to seven PS3 controllers will be able to access the console simultaneously via Bluetooth.

To help smooth the transition for users of other Sony products, the company designed the PS3 console to be backward compatible, capable of playing titles from the entire PlayStation catalog (PS and PS2 games). Moreover, you also will be able to transfer game-save information for old PlayStation games via a $15 adapter. Even PlayStation Portable owners will be able to access the new gaming console through a feature dubbed "Remote Play."

According to Sony, more than 20 first- and third-party PS3 titles will be available, with most retailing for less than $60. Among the games being offered are industry standards: Call of Duty 3, Madden NFL 07, Unreal Tournament 2007, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas and NBA 07.

WII

The company that introduced the world to Mario and ushered in new eras of arcade and home gaming wants to take gamers in a new direction with the Wii (pronounced "we," or "oui" for you Francophiles). Nintendo is resting its hopes for gaming domination on a console that stands in stark contrast to the PS3 and Xbox 360 and will challenge gamers to think and play differently.

Even the machine's name has furrowed some brows. Gamers thought well of the project's original code name: Revolution. Then, Nintendo executives decided to attach a unique moniker to the console, the two i's in Wii implying two players standing side by side and mirroring the machine's innovative controllers. Nintendo heard crickets, then criticism from game makers, reviewers and the online gaming community: Confusing. Childish. Silly. Or inspired?

If nothing else, Nintendo seems to have again succeeded in making its gaming machine look like nothing else on the market. Whether you stand it vertically or horizontally, the Wii is the smallest home gaming machine you'll soon see, about the size of a thin, hardcover book. It's as if someone took a rolling pin to the GameCube.

But what has everyone in the industry atwitter are the Wii's remote controllers, which are thin and long and have been lauded endlessly by the gaming community. The wireless controllers detect motion, work as pointing devices, vibrate and connect with up to three other controllers, all of which may bring new twists to the gaming experience. Plus, each controller has a speaker.

Shaking things up even further, Nintendo eventually will offer the Wii and its remote in a variety of colors, including red, silver and lime green, besides the standard white. The Wii also will be lighter on the wallet than its competitors, clocking in at $249 -- about half of what an Xbox 360 or basic PS3 (without the bells and whistles) will run you. Also, at least for now, online Wii play will be free.

The Wii will be bundled with a sports game (Wii Sports), apparently to take advantage of the controller's unique capabilities. The company also promises between 20 and 30 game titles available upon the Wii's release. Expect many of the gaming world staples (the PS3 and Wii share some titles, as game makers are hedging their bets), as well as a Legend of Zelda game and eventually Metroid and Mario titles.

The Wii, like the PS3, also will be backward compatible, capable of playing current Nintendo titles. Some news reports indicate that company executives are discussing remaking some of the Nintendo Gamecube titles for the Wii. And fans of the Nintendo DS will not be left out in the cold -- they'll be able to connect wirelessly with the Wii.

XBOX 360 HD-DVD DRIVE

The long-awaited high-definition DVD drive for the Xbox 360 also is forthcoming. Xbox manufacturer Microsoft announced the drive in January in order to compete with Sony's inclusion of a Blu-ray DVD player with the PS3.

So the two heavyweights of the gaming console world have chosen up sides in the coming Beta vs. VHS type battle for supremacy in the next-generation DVD market -- Blu-ray or HD.

If you decide to place an early bet on the eventual winner, the HD-DVD drive will set you back $199, significantly cheaper then other standalone HD-DVD drives now on the market. The drive connects to the Xbox 360 console with a USB 2.0 cable and will play current generation DVDs in addition to HD-DVDs. A universal remote also is included.

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