For the second part of my three-part roundup of holiday gaming gifts, we’ll be taking a look at how to pick out a console. (The first part of the roundup dealt with software, and can be found here. The third part, on a handful of gaming products you should avoid giving as gifts unless they’re specifically asked for, will be coming later this weekend.)
We’re far enough along in this generation of game consoles and handhelds that they’re all pretty much known quantities, and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. Each has its pros and cons, and all have a robust lineup of games worth checking out.
If you’ve got your heart set on buying a console as a gift, you’ll need to know your audience. While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are, in many ways, quite similar (and share some of the same games), the Wii is an entirely different animal. It’s currently the only system on the market with motion-sensitive controls, but it’s also somewhat underpowered compared with its competitors, and Nintendo’s online services are in many ways lacking. While you can expect a game released for multiple consoles to play largely the same on the Xbox 360 and PS3, you’ll be getting an entirely different experience on the Wii. Sometimes, this can be great. Other times, not so much.
In other words, if the gamer on your holiday shopping list asks for a Wii, there’s a good chance they won’t be happy with a PS3 or Xbox 360. The opposite probably holds true, as well.
If you’re going into this thing without much input from the gamers in your life, here’s a brief rundown of each system, along with some pros and cons:
Nintendo Wii ($200): Nintendo’s console has that pick-up-and-play, everyman appeal that’s made it a hit at senior centers and dorm rooms alike. “Wii Sports,” which comes with the console, can be learned in a matter of minutes. But the Wii’s not without its limitations. It packs less processing power than the other consoles on the market, and so you won’t be playing mass-market blockbusters like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” or “Grand Theft Auto IV” on Nintendo’s machine. This is somewhat balanced out by Nintendo’s excellent lineup of exclusive games, including the Mario and “Legend of Zelda” franchises, as well as newer games like “Wii Fit Plus.” The online play, while free, is often lacking or an afterthought. While Nintendo games are shipped on DVDs, the Wii doesn’t function as a DVD player. Multimediawise, it’s the weakest of the three current consoles.
The Wii is ideal for: The Wii is a great fit for families, houses full of college students or people who entertain a lot of guests. It’s a social machine, and you’re usually going to want to play it with other gamers in the room. There are a handful of solid single-player games, such as “No More Heroes,” “Okami” and “Metroid Prime Trilogy,” but such titles are the exception rather than the rule.
What you’ll need: The $200 Wii box comes standard with “Wii Sports,” a two-piece controller, cables you’ll need to hook it up to your TV, a sensor bar for the controller and a power source. It even comes with batteries for the controller. If you’re giving one as a gift, you’re going to want to include at least one extra Wii remote ($40) and Nunchuck ($20), which combined equal one Wii controller, so that your gift recipient can play with someone else.
PlayStation 3 ($300/$350 with larger hard drive): The PS3, which doubles as a Blu-ray, hi-def movie player, is a great addition to a home that already has an HDTV. (The Blu-ray drive also plays standard DVDs.) It’s got a fairly large lineup of mature games, aimed at adults. It has free online gameplay, like the Wii, but online play on the PS3 can feel a bit isolating and less social than on Microsoft’s machine. Gamewise, Sony started slow this generation but really found its stride in late 2008, when it started publishing a steady stream of great exclusive games that included “LittleBigPlanet,” “inFAMOUS” and “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.” Next year, with niche titles like “Heavy Rain” and “The Last Guardian,” as well as blockbuster “God of War 3” is already looking quite strong.
The PS3 is ideal for: The tech-savvy gamer who’s also a movie buff. The PS3’s exclusive games look fantastic in high definition, while multiconsoles games tend to look about as good as they do on the 360. The console has a nice blend of single-player games that can suck up hundreds of hours of antisocial alone time, as well as multiplayer hits like “Killzone 2” and “Madden NFL.” The games lineup is a lot lighter on kids games than what you’ll find on the Wii, though “LittleBigPlanet” and the “Ratchet & Clank Future” games aren’t bad places to start.
What you’ll need: Despite being a high-definition consoles, the PS3 comes with standard A/V cables. If you’ve got a hi-def TV, you’ll need to pick up an HDMI cable separately. Nearly every brick-and-mortar retailer charges $50 or more for these cables that you can find for $5 online, so buyer beware. If you plan to play online, you’ll want some sort of headset, but the good news is that the PS3 supports Bluetooth, so you don’t have to buy the PS3 branded headset for $50. If you’ve go a Bluetooth headset for your phone, it’ll work for your online games, too. There’s also a media remote available for $20 that you’ll want to pick up if you plan to watch many movies.
Xbox 360 ($200/$300/$400): Microsoft’s console offers a lot of the same games and features you’ll find on the PS3, but the Xbox 360’s online offerings trump anything offered by its competitors. The console’s ability to form parties of up to eight friends and smoothly move with the same bunch from game to game, for example, makes forming a reliable core of online gaming buddies much easier. A recent integration with Facebook that lets you see which of your Facebook friends are on Xbox Live adds to the package. The downside to the 360, of course, is that Microsoft knows it has the best online offering, and so you’re expected to pay a yearly membership fee of $50 or so to access said features. Because it’s been out a year longer than its competitor, the 360 has the deepest lineup of quality games, many of which can be purchased for quite cheap. It’s also worth noting that the machine has acquired a bad reputation for dying a premature death. Microsoft has alleviated this problem somewhat, thanks to a strong warranty/repair program and aggressive behind-the-scenes quality control,but still, if I had to be money on which of my consoles would fail first, I’d take the 360 every time.
The Xbox 360 is ideal for: The social online gadfly. Though the dashboard interface isn’t as minimalist or elegant as the PS3’s operating system, Microsoft continues to add new features and lead the way in the online console gaming field. Forming a group of up to eight friends to share photos, play games or just shoot the breeze while you each do your own thing is a great way to keep up with real-life friends both near and far-flung.
What you’ll need: The lowest-end tier of 360 is lacking a lot of stuff that comes standard on the more expensive models. You’re best off going with the $300 Elite or the $400 limited edition bundles with the 250 gigabyte hard drive. Assuming you buy the $300 Elite, you’ll need to pony up some money for HD-ready AV cables. The gamer on your shopping list will also appreciate if you spring for a prepaid card that covers a year’s Xbox Live gold membership. The MSRP on those things is $50, but they can often be found for $38 or so if you’re willing to shop around online. Also worth a look is the Play and Charge Kit ($20), which comes with a rechargeable battery and a cord you can plug into your Xbox to charge the wireless controller while you play.
My situation: If it helps to know, I have all three consoles. The Wii tends to be played most with my wife or when we’re entertaining guests. (We don’t have kids, but if we did, I suspect the Wii would get more use.) If I want to play a game online with friends, I’ll usually pick it up for the Xbox 360. If there’s a PS3 exclusive game, or a game I expect will mostly be a single-player experience, that’s where my PS3 comes into play. The PS3 is also our default movie player. The disc drive is much quieter than the 360’s, and DVDs seem to look better when played on the PS3.