Selecting a video game system is like choosing your favorite Beatle or deciding which member of the Williams clan (Serena? Venus? Richard?) to root for: It tells you something about yourself. Are you a cutting-edge junkie or the conservative type? Do you favor the prospect with raw, undeveloped talent, or do you stick with the proven quantity? What revs your engine: power or speed?
This holiday season, three distinct options will be available: Sony's PlayStation 2, and the newly launched Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube. Here's a scouting report.
Sony PlayStation 2
With a year's head start, PlayStation 2 fans can find comfort in numbers—big numbers. Sony has already sold more than five million systems in the U.S. since introducing the PS2 in October 2000 and expects to sell another two million of the $299 units by March. More than 150 games are available for the PS2, with 130 more due out by the end of the year. In short, choices abound for Sony devotees.
Sports games, in particular, are plentiful. Of these, Madden NFL 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95) sets the standard. A rousing football simulation, Madden features outstanding graphics that put you squarely in the middle of the anion. The play-calling options mirror those of NFL playbooks, making for a seamlessly realistic gridiron experience. If the college game is more your style, NCAA Football 2002 ( Electronic Arts, $49.95) is essentially the same game as Madden but features the plays and personnel of 117 Division I-A and 27 Division I-AA teams. As with Madden, the level of detail is astounding: Play a game at Notre Dame and not only will you hear the student band playing the Notre Dame fight song, but you'll also see banners featuring the Irish mascot on the sideline.
Racing games are also well represented. Since its release in July, Gran Turismo 3 ( Sony, $49.99) has sold more than two million copies in the U.S., and it's easy to see why: With photorealistic graphics and precisely calculated physics that reproduce the performance details of more than 150 car models, this virtual racing game is mesmerizing. If you're a NASCAR gearhead, try NASCAR Heat 2002 (Infogrames, $49.99), a faithful and pulse-quickening re-creation of the Winston Cup experience.
In the last few years extreme-sports video games have become hugely popular, and there's no shortage of these bump-and-grind tides for PS2 fans. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (Activision, $49.99) is a worthy sequel to last year's top-selling skateboarding game, with imaginative new venues to conquer in your endless quest to ollie and nollie. Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2 (Acclaim, $49.99) plops you on a bike and dares you to perform gravity-defying stunts—more than 1,500 tricks are built into the game—which is easier than it sounds, due to the game's intuitive controls. For supercross fans, MX 2002 (THQ, $49.99) is a crisply drawn dirt-bike simulation that permits a player to compete on 22 tracks and against 30 pro riders. Thanks to the PlayStation 2 controller's built-in rumble function, you can feel the jolts from every wipeout.
Microsoft isn't the 800-pound gorilla of the tech world, it's the behemoth that 800-pound gorillas run whimpering from. So you can imagine the gnashing of teeth among the video-gamerati when Bill Gates's crew trained its sights on the Pac-Man set.
So is Microsoft going to blow Sony and Nintendo out of the virtual skies? The answer is a definite...maybe. The $299 Xbox, Microsoft's first game system, which hit stores on Nov. 15, is a technological marvel. With an Intel 733-megahertz chip and an eight-gigabyte hard drive under the hood, the Xbox outmuscles most office computers, not to mention its Sony and Nintendo counterparts. Microsoft has also built in networking support so that once its game network is up next year, online play will be available. Sony also has plans for online gaming, but you'll need to buy extra hardware for the PS2; Nintendo has yet to reveal its online plans.