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Reviews of new video game systems

Billy O'Keefe
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

SONY PLAYSTATION 3

Price: $599/$499 (20 GB)

Available: Now (if you're lucky)

Sony's Playstation 3 will force you to use your mind, body and whatever courage you have to engage the enemy in ways you never imagined possible. And that's just to get into the line to buy one.

Impervious to learning from past mistakes, Sony has once again refined the art of how to screw up a console launch. As scarce as the Playstation 2 was in 2000, the PS3 promises to be even harder to find. Not only is demand higher _ the industry hasn't exactly suffered in the last six years _ but Sony appears to have failed to meet its already-bleak target of 400,000 North American units at launch by as much as half or more. Unless you have an eBay account and $3,000 lying around, you might have to make like the Cubs and wait until next year. Remember when $599 seemed expensive?

THE HARDWARE

To Sony's credit, that $599 gets you a lot of system. The higher-end PS3 includes a 60 GB hard drive, SD and Memory Stick slots, digital/AV/HDMI outputs, four USB ports and built-in Wi-Fi. The system is a beast, but the power supply is encased inside, making it less clumsy to set up than, say, the Xbox 360. The slot-loading drive supports Blu-Ray, DVD, PS2 and PS1 discs (though you'd be wise to fully test the latter two before giving your PS2 to the little brother). The thermal-activated power/eject buttons functional like any power/eject, but their slick execution only adds to the system's sophisticated allure.

The $499 model is comparable in quality but does not include built-in WiFi or memory card readers and comes with a 20 GB hard drive. That kind of storage doesn't go as far here as it does on the 360 _ "NBA 07's" save file, for instance, demands a whopping 3 GB all by itself _ but the drive is upgradeable should you opt for this model (or have no choice).

THE INTERFACE

As much as the 360's dashboard has matured over the last year in terms of functionality, it remains a continual reminder of just how lousy Microsoft is at designing an organized interface.

The PS3, by contrast, is as sleek on the inside as it is on the outside. Sony's menu system for the Playstation Portable was a primer on how to present a multi-tool system _ video, music, pictures, Web and of course games _ in a way that neither skimped nor overwhelmed, and the PS3 pretty much lifts it with great success. Compared to the 360's candy-coated mess of styles, the PS3 makes it easy to tap into features you know and don't know lie within. Given Sony's appetite for system updates _ the PSP has "enjoyed" more than its share in the last couple years _ it's a safe bet more features will reveal themselves as time goes on.

The Playstation Store _ Sony's answer to the Xbox Live Marketplace _ is similarly polished, resembling the iTunes Music Store in how it presents demos, multimedia and downloadable games and eschewing an unnecessary points system in favor of dollars and cents. The online suite includes centralized support for friends lists, instant messaging, voice chat and more. Sony has pledged not to charge for online play, though time will tell whether this promise holds up.

THE CONTROLLER

You wouldn't know it to look at it, but the PS3's SIXAXIS controller is not just a PS2 controller without wires. It's also, sadly, a PS2 controller without rumble support. Sony's spin machine claims the SIXAXIS can't support both rumble and the new tilt capabilities, which is its very rudimentary answer for Nintendo's Wii Remote (which does support rumble). In any event, the rumble is missed, and the lack of motors robs the controller of any serious weight. The surprising lightness initially makes the SIXAXIS feel cheap, but that feeling fades with time. And between the guide button, lack of wires and the excellent new L2/R2 triggers, we gain as much as we lose.

THE GAMES

You might want it right now, but even the Playstation 3 isn't worth three grand. The PS3 has a white-hot future ahead of it, but a vast majority of its launch lineup is either on the Xbox 360 (EA Sports/Activision Games), awesome but similar enough to an Xbox 360 game ("Ridge Racer 7"), or solid but unspectacular ("Genji: Day of the Blade," "Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom"). The exceptional exception, by a wide margin, is the first-person shooter "Resistance: Fall of Man," but even a game as incredible as this isn't worth dropping starving to play early. The PS3 is a breeze to recommend at $599, but with so few games of note surfacing between now and the new year, you're smart to wait until you can get it for that price.

___

NINTENDO WII

Price: $249

Available: Nov. 19

Anyone who laughed Nintendo out of the room when it announced the Nintendo DS isn't laughing now: The left-of-center handheld, which promised to reinvent the way people perceive video games, is the best-selling gaming system of any kind _ portable or otherwise _ at the moment.

With the curiously-named Wii, Nintendo is gambling on a second lightning strike. While the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 use graphics and raw power as their sales pitch, the Wii promises an experience that not only will change common perceptions of gaming yet again, but also will compel both the casual and hardcore crowd to play games in ways that previously were impossible.

THE CONTROLLER

At the center of this shift is the Wii's primary controller, which resembles the love child of a video game controller and television remote. But rather than simply pressing the Wii Remote's buttons, players move it in a sort of 3D space to influence what happens on the screen. Want to hit a tennis ball? Swing the remote like a tennis racket, and watch your onscreen character mimic your swing. Want to drive a car? Turn the remote sideways and "steer" it like a wheel, using the buttons to accelerate and brake. By upgrading the remote with attachments _ one of which is included in the box _ you can engage in pretty much any gaming genre in exciting and immersive new ways.

It looks awkward until you try it yourself, but it's second nature the moment you do. Nintendo has polished the Wii Remote with such a shine that you need not even calibrate the thing before putting it to work. As long as you follow each game's instructions on how best to use the remote in play, its ability to mimic your movements range from amusing to staggering. Games made specifically for the Wii will break all kinds of new gameplay ground, but games ported over from other systems have, surprisingly, fared just as well thus far.

THE SYSTEM

Nintendo's ongoing Apple fetish is in full blast with the Wii, which borrows its packaging from the iPod and its casing from ... well, the iPod. The glossy white console leaves a small footprint: It's roughly the size of your typical TV-on-DVD season set, and it easily lays flat or stands up with the included stand.

Nintendo displays a surprising adherence to standards with the Wii, which features two USB ports and an SD memory card reader. That adherence doesn't translate into full HD support, but folks with HD sets can sub component cables for the included AV cables if they want a crisp picture. The system doesn't sport a hard drive, but does include a serviceable 512 MB of flash memory storage, and the low price of SD cards means storage won't be the hassle it was with the Gamecube. Speaking of which, the slot-loading drive accepts both Wii and Gamecube discs, and the Wii also has slots for up to four Gamecube controllers (Wavebirds included) and two memory cards. Full backwards compatibility with the Cube is promised, and all indications point to Nintendo delivering.

THE INTERFACE

How ironic is it that Nintendo _ easily the least Internet-savvy of the big three _ has beat both Microsoft, Sony and even Apple to the finish line in the living room Internet appliance race?

The Wii's interface, designed around the remote, is organized in a "channel" format. You can, for instance, browse a memory card full of photos on the Photo channel, or download classic Nintendo, Sega and other games on the Virtual Console channel. But you also can read news headlines or get a weather forecast on their respective channels. The Wii promises a full Web browser either at or shortly after launch, but these browser-free channels are a clever, convenient and eye-strain-free way to surf the Web on a television. The main interface features nearly four pages of blanked-out channel slots, making new channel offerings all but inevitable at and beyond launch.

The Wii wasn't able to connect to Nintendo's server at press time, but Nintendo promises a free online play system that's more centralized than its somewhat scattered first run on the DS.

THE GAMES

No bones about it: Games on the Wii don't look nearly as flashy as games on the PS3/360, and that gulf is likely to grow as developers tighten their grip on those systems. The Wii's launch offerings range from "looks like Gamecube" to "looks marginally better than Gamecube," and there's no telling how much prettier games will get over the system's lifespan.

That said, the Wii's launch window lineup is impressive. Give Nintendo some credit for that: "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" is a game-of-the-year candidate, "Excite Truck" is a riot, and the free pack-in "Wii Sports" is a simple but hilariously fun introduction to the Wii Remote's capabilities. But give equal credit to EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Atlus and other third-party developers who have embraced the new philosophy with inspiring levels of enthusiasm and competence. Growing pains are an inevitability for a system like this _ the DS was home to some real disasters during its first year. But if the big guns' ability to deliver from day one isn't a sign of great things to come, nothing is.

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