Game console reviews

We put the top three console entertainment systems to the test: the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii.
 
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01 .Introduction

LEAD

In a push to get everybody to join in the home gaming revolution, the big three consoles – the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii – now have new control systems that put an end to button-mashing complexity in favour of natural gestures and even whole-body movement. 

The aim is to make playing games so simple that anybody can do it and there’s a whole new range of “casual” family-friendly games to go with the new controllers. These consoles have grown into all-round home entertainment hubs offering movies, music, web browsing and social networking. They each have their strengths and weaknesses though, so the question is, which console should you put under your tree this Christmas? For movie buffs, the answer may be relatively straightforward.

The PlayStation 3 (PS3) is still the only games console with a high-definition Blu-ray player. Sony has also upgraded its online service to include movie downloads, though at much lower quality. However, the highly successful Xbox Live online service has also been revamped in the past year to include social networking and it still has exclusive blockbuster games such as the Halo series; while the Wii still has the greatest appeal for casual gamers, which is the fastest-growing market. 

It’s this last area that sent Microsoft and Sony back to the drawing boards. The incredible sales success of the Nintendo Wii over recent years unexpectedly spanked the Xbox and PlayStation very hard and they’ve learnt their lesson. Sony and Microsoft are prepared to spend big dollars to convince everybody that they’re finally getting serious about casual games. 

The boom in games

This is the biggest growth area – games that anybody can play, even if they’ve never held a controller before in their life. We’re not talking complicated futuristic soldier of fortune shoot-em-ups here, we’re talking tenpin bowling, tennis, golf, simple car racing and so on. In fact, anything that normal people do for fun in real life. And there’s a range of dance, fitness and lifestyle titles too.

"Natural movement" controllers

Sony and Microsoft are out to challenge Nintendo at their own game (pardon the pun) with their own versions of “natural movement” controllers that can have game newbies competing confidently in just minutes. Sony has the Move. Microsoft has the Kinect.

The Move system is a controller which works with Sony’s Eye camera to track movements and put players in the game. Microsoft is aiming to go one better by getting rid of the controller altogether with the Kinect. This camera device simply recognises body movement, so in effect your whole body becomes the controller.

Both controller systems are in their infancy, with few titles ready to take advantage of their new style of gameplay, but you can expect a steady flow of new games for both platforms over coming months in a bid to shake the Wii’s position as the casual gaming king.

What will set the Move and Kinect apart from the Wii, however, is their potential not only for casual games, but for bringing a new mode of play to their more serious titles. The new ease of use of the natural motion controllers could eventually see legions of casual gamers “graduate” to the big leagues of multi-player action and roleplaying titles – areas where the superior processing power and realistic graphics of the Xbox and PS3 have traditionally held sway.

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WiiWII_BIG

(nintendo.com.au)

The Wii is essentially unchanged since its debut, relying heavily on it’s simplistic wand-like controller and family-friendly games, lifestyle titles and accessories such as the Wii Fit and Wii Balance Board to attract players who avoid the two-handed complexity of traditional games controllers. Competition from the updated Xbox and PS3 units is putting more pressure on Wii sales, but Nintendo's modest little box is still well ahead of both its rivals.

The console is just under $300, including a Wii Remote controller and games pack. Extra Wii Remotes are $70 and the Wii MotionPlus add-on (which boosts accuracy in supported titles) is $35. The new Wii Remote Plus controller that now ships with all new Wii consoles has this built-in. The optional Nunchuck controller, which is needed for some games, is $30. The Wii includes Wi-Fi and a memory card (SD) slot but has no hard drive. It supports up to four players at the same time.

It's interesting to note that compared to its rivals, the so-called limitations of the Wii in some cases can actually be seen as advantages. For example, unlike it’s new motion-sensing rivals, the Wii can be controlled with full-range movements or a simple flick of the wrist. This can be an advantage where you don't have much room, particularly for multiple player games. It also gives you the option of not having to stand, jump, run on the spot, and use large full-body movements to control a game - you can just as easily take it easy and play while sitting on the lounge, which can be nice when you get tired of the energetic full-on interaction. Also, because it doesn't use a camera, the Wii doesn't require very good lighting conditions. You can even play it in the dark if you like.



Xbox 360xbox360

(xbox.com.au)

The new slimmer version of the Xbox 360 released this year is faster, leaner and, thankfully, a tad quieter than its predecessor. It has five USB ports, wireless controller and built-in Wi-Fi (802.11n). The standard model has a 250GB hard drive ($450), but there’s an entry-level version with only 4GB to come out with the Kinect. The Xbox 360 has two big action blockbusters exclusively (for consoles): the Halo series and Gears of War. The Xbox Live service is still arguably the most popular, and now provides access to Twitter and Facebook.

Kinect controller: lets users control Xbox 360 titles by simply using gestures, spoken commands, or presented objects and images. It can mirror your body motions using in-game characters and tell players apart using facial recognition. It supports up to four players, which makes its $199 price tag not so forbidding, compared to the cost of equipping four PS3 Move players or Wii players. Of course, then there’s the cost of compatible games on top.



Sony PlayStation 3PS3

(playstation3.com.au)

Sony’s latest version of the PS3 is smaller, slimmer and lighter than previous models. Still the only console to include a Blu-ray player for high-definition movies, the PS3 currently ships in two models: with 160GB hard drive for $500 or a 320GB model with extra game at $600. Both have built-in Wi-Fi and two USB ports and include a DualShock 3 wireless controller that includes motion-sensing. The optional PlayTV accessory ($170) turns the PS3 into a twin-tuner DVR. You can also upgrade the hard drive easily using a standard 2.5-inch SATA drive.

Move controller: the Move uses the PlayStation Eye camera to track the wand’s position using the glowing ball on the tip, while inertial sensors in the wand detect its motion. There’s also the secondary Navigation Controller (NC) for the other hand. You can also buy an optional charging station for $48, which is handy because the current PlayStation 3 console only has two USB ports. The charging station will charge two controllers without having to connect them to the PS3. Depending on the game, you can use just the Move controller, both the Move and the NC, or two Move controllers.

The $99 Move starter kit includes the Eye camera, Move controller and a disc with demos of several titles. The optional NC is $50. Sports Champions includes includes six games: archery, bocce, disc golf, gladiator sword fighting, table tennis and volleyball. Some games, such as archery and the gladiator duel use two controllers. Start the Party is a collection of 20 mini-games in a virtual environment. To equip two players for full Move action – Move starter kit, plus extra Move controller $70) and two NCs – will set you back almost $270 plus Move-compatible games.


Online services

A broadband internet connection is vital for getting the most out of all three consoles. Each have online connectivity for downloading music, video and games and for social networking – the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. Most retail games also need online support for patches, updates and extra features. The Wii and Xbox have in-game characters, called avatars, to represent the user, while the PS3 has the PlayStation Home virtual world. Both Xbox and PlayStation have free and paid online services.

PlayStation Plus costs $70 for 12 months and $21 for 90 days. Xbox LIVE Gold is $80 for 12 months and $40 for three months. Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection is free, but has paid content such as downloadable games.

The Xbox offers Zune Movies on Demand and will introduce internet-based Foxtel live-streaming TV and on-demand movies for an extra subscription cost.

Sony also has movies on demand as part of the PlayStation Network with titles available for rental or purchase.

Move

kinect

The Move has the potential to be very accurate – even twitchy at times – but it’s very software dependent. Some games we played were more forgiving than others and for a beginner this could be a real advantage. Its ability to track the controllers position in three dimensions adds to some game play, in that it can make some movements closer to a “real“ action (e.g. Heavy Rain), but it also means you have to be careful to position the controller accurately when playing a game such as table tennis, because the orientation of the bat will affect your ability to strike the ball properly. If the controller slips in your hand you have to use visual cues to reposition it.

This realism has a potential problem. When playing table tennis or golf, for example, you don’t have the weight of the club or racket to deal with. The Move controller offers no resistance so it’s very easy to overdo a swing and possibly cause yourself some injury. The Wii, by comparison, can be controlled with a lot less effort, reducing the possibility of movement-related injury. However, you’ll work a lot harder with the Move, which could be a good thing for fitness titles.

Good lighting is essential with both the Move and the Kinect, so the camera can clearly “see” you. We found the Move’s setup easy, but found it required frequent recalibration, possibly due to less than ideal lighting. This is less of an issue if you’re playing only a couple of games, but extensive use could see it become quite annoying. The Move controller seems very responsive to quick movement, with only a very slight lag at times. However, in a frantic-action first-person-shooter this could still be annoying. Time will tell how well this  works when full action titles start using it.

Kinect

Microsoft’s hands-free controller system (release date 18 November 2010) at $199 includes the basic game set, Kinect Adventures, with around 15 Kinect titles available at launch. The Kinect works purely by motion-sensing camera, without requiring any hand-held controller.XBOX_ATTACH

Having played with a pre-release version, our initial impression is that the Kinect could really be a lot of fun with the right games and especially for multiple players. We found it to have a short but noticeable delay, or lag, in sensing body movement but as with the PS3 Move, many initial titles will be casual games designed to capitalise on the new system, where slight lagginess shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The technology will be applied to upcoming big-name titles such as Fable 3 and Forza Motorsport but it remains to be seen how, or if, others will be adapted and whether cross-platform titles will properly take advantage of the new system, or whether it will be applied awkwardly like a bandaid simply to have the Kinect label.

Wii started it all


Games console controllers used to be awkwardly-held two-handed units with a dizzying combination of buttons and joysticks that required considerable dexterity to manipulate. The Wii console put the writing on the wall with it’s Wii Remote, that let users play just by pointing and pressing a button. If you could hold the controller then you could play. In doing so, it proved that the console games marketplace was many times bigger than previously thought. The Wii opened up a treasure trove of games opportunities for young and old. 

Most noticeably, it was the older generation and women that took up Wii remotes in droves –  so-called non-gamers who baulked at the complexity of game controllers and the overwhelmingly serious nature of the games on offer. In short, the Wii taught people across several generations that consoles games could be fun for everyone. Wii Sports was bundled with the Wii console, bringing a range of everyday-style games to lounge rooms around the world, with one of the most popular being tenpin bowling. It didn’t take long before tenpin bowling tournaments started up in nursing homes, with physical therapists finding it gave normally sedentary senior citizens incentive to get up and play. Soon, inter-city championships were being played by people who’d never used a games console in their very long lives.

Sony and Microsoft tried to stem the tide of users rushing to Nintendo by bringing out upgraded versions of the PS3 and Xbox 360, along with new controllers, but the Wii casual gaming juggernaut just kept rolling, racking up sales figures the others could only dream about.

Despite it being technically underpowered compared to the Xbox and PS3, Nintendo didn’t change the Wii console, apart from some dressy new coloured versions rather than the Wii’s trademark white. Inside, it remained the same. The Wii didn’t compete head-on with the type of graphics-intensive games that were the bread and butter of the other two makers, it carved out its own sizable market niche in family and lifestyle games. Nintendo did eventually up the ante slightly with the introduction of the Wii Motion Plus controller add-on, which provides greater accuracy. It can be retro-fitted to any Wii remote but will only work with the new generation of Wii games designed to take advantage of it. The new Wii Remote Plus controller has this built-in.

Entertainment alternatives

Games aside, there’s also plenty of other competitors looking to take over the lounge room, with a huge range of PC-based media centres, digital video recorders (DVRs) including TiVo, the Foxtel IQ and the new Telstra T-box. The latest to join the fray is the dark horse in this race, the newly revamped Apple TV which could cause a big upset over the next year.

The contenders

TiVo 
The TiVO adds broadband internet to its easy-to-program DVR for free-to-air digital TV channels (Freeview). The famously easy-to-use EPG lets you record, pause and rewind live TV and gives great recording flexibility. It can record a single show or a whole season and even learn your viewing habits. It also gives access to internet-based entertainment including on demand movies, television and music. 

Foxtel IQ 
Foxtel's digital set-top box and DVR with twin HD tuners features an EPG and advanced programming options including remote access via the internet or an iPhone. It offers a growing number of TV shows and movies on-demand, for instant access. Foxtel’s more advanced iQ2 model has four tuners, allowing recording of two programs while simultaneously watching a third live show. The fourth tuner is used for on demand content. You need to be a Foxtel subscriber.

Telstra T-box 
This is a HD DVR which with access to streaming online channels and lets you hire movies and TV shows. T-Box is aimed at Bigpond customers, for whom the Bigpond Movies downloads are “off the meter”, meaning they don’t count towards their download quota.

Freeview
Though not a device itself, Freeview is accessible via digital set-top box or Digital TV. It’s actually a collection free-to-air digital TV providers banded together under a united marketing effort to combat subscription TV services such as Foxtel. Certain makes and models of DVR are being marked with stickers as “certified” for Freeview to indicate that they are fully compliant with the service. 

Freeview has a much-expanded offering these days with the free-to-air digital TV multi-channels, such as ABC2, ABC3, SBS2, ONE HD, GO!, 7TWO and more recently 7Mate and GEM. Several of the major stations, such as the ABC, SBS, and the Seven, Nine and Ten networks let viewers catch up on selected shows they missed by offering them on their websites after they’ve been broadcast.

Apple TV 
Apple TV is a small digital media appliance designed to play content from the online iTunes Store,  YouTube, Flickr, MobileMe or a Mac OS X or Windows computer which is running iTunes. The first Apple TV device was basically just a streaming media player with a built-in hard drive. It’s the new version, launched in September, that could just upset everyone else’s apple cart.

A quarter the size and around a third of the price ($129) of the previous version, the new model has no hard drive but streams rented content from iTunes online. It also streams photos, music and video from computers running iTunes, and iOS devices such as the iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone. It’s this iOS connection that has the most potential. Apple TV now runs a version of iOS, raising the possibility of a future TV App Store, similar to that of the other iOS devices. 

This anticipated, but not yet announced, store could do for TV what the App Store did for the iPhone and iPad, prompting a rush of developers with made-for-TV apps. It could also unleash a world of existing apps including news and video services, plus thousands of games, to any connected TV, almost instantly catapaulting Apple into even more direct competition with the big three games consoles. 

Fetch TV
This newcomer is an internet TV (IPTV) service via a set-top box for watching and recording free-to-air TV plus subscription TV channels, on-demand movies. It requires a subscription, but free content is delivered over the internet. New release movies will be pay-per-view, but it also provides access to games and social networking (Facebook, Twitter).

Google TV
Google TV will combine a set-top box with Google’s Chrome web browser for viewing free-to-air TV, with DVR functionality, and a wide variety of web content. Due for launch in 2011, the box itself will cost around $300. Google has reportedly signed deals with media and internet companies to bring content to the box, including Time Warner’s HBO, NBC Universal’s CNBC, and Amazon for movie-on-demand services. 
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