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Gamer 101 

With two new systems and a bunch of new titles, game lovers are anticipating a happy holiday season

If you're a video gamer, November isn't just the retail ramp-up for the Holidays; it's the time when every manufacturer brings out their newest, bleeding-edge hardware, not to mention their strongest game titles. This year is no different, except that this year, we have a damn traffic jam of new titles, along with the launch of two new consoles. Yikes!

For that reason, I'm concentrating on the consoles and a small sampling of new games sure to please the most hard-core gamer you know.

Santas? Start taking notes now.

If you've been following business news in the last year, you've read about the "war" between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Sony and Nintendo are bringing out their new consoles against Microsoft and its one-year lead to market. Here are the facts:

In November 2005, Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in a launch marred by supply problems. Built with HDTV/home-theater compatibility, the 360 wants to be your "home entertainment hub." Beyond playing games, it plays CDs, DVDs, stores home movies and pictures, and hooks up to your router or cable modem for Internet play. You can import songs and playlists, and even play your iPod through it.

Xbox Live—the online component—is five years old now and flat-out terrific. A gold membership, with full access to all the features on Live, costs $50 per a year. (With all the consoles, a broadband Internet connection is required.)

Xbox 360 Core System: $299. You get the console (three USB ports and one Ethernet port), one wired controller and one composite AV cable; no hard drive is included.

Xbox 360 Premium System: $399. You get the console (with a 20 GB hard drive—allowing users to save games, music, etc.—three USB ports and one Ethernet port), one wireless controller, one Xbox live headset, one component HD AV cable, one Ethernet cable and one free month of an Xbox Live gold membership.

Supply is very good on the Xbox 360, thanks to the system being out for a year.

Some games gamers want?

Gears of War (Epic Games, Rated M): Epic is one of the industry leaders in quality titles. This sci-fi/horror shooter is at the top of most 360 owners' wish lists, believe me. Not for the squeamish; $59.99.

Viva Piñata (MS Game Studios, Rated: E): A charming cartoon world where you collect living piñata animals, nurture them and build a community. Family fun! $49.99.

Star Trek: Legacy (Bethesda Softworks, Rated: Pending; slated for release Nov. 21): Ship-to-ship "naval" space battles span the three time periods of the TV shows. Bethesda—another quality publisher—almost guarantees a great game; $59.99.

F.E.A.R. (Sierra, Rated: M): If your gamer played last year's PC version, don't bother with this: It's the same game. If they haven't, get this truly creepy, horror action title. A package of Depends is advised; $59.99.

The original Xbox is still going strong, too.

Gift ideas? Destroy All Humans! 2 (THQ Inc., Rated: T): In this follow-up to the hilarious hit from last year, you play a wisecracking alien invading Earth. The first game was a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek take on '50s America. This time, the '60s get skewered; $39.99.

Arriving nearly eight months later than the initial announced launch date, Sony's PlayStation 3 will be released Friday, Nov. 17. Sony is the market leader, but in the last year, Sony's spokespeople have made a list of idiotic/perplexing/arrogant statements, and that leader spot could be lost.

Or not. Time will tell. See, it's all about next-generation formats, as in DVD formats. MS has positioned the 360 as high-definition ready, but it doesn't play HD-DVD movies. (Microsoft is offering, this holiday season, an external HD-DVD player for $199.99.)

Sony is literally banking everything on a competing format—Blu-ray. Which format will the movie studios back? That will decide the issue. The Blue-ray DVD holds much more data than HD-DVD and promises higher resolution graphics. Sony's Blu-ray player isn't optional; it's standard with the PS3.

This holiday season, Sony is also launching a new free online service to compete with Xbox Live. Another PS3 perk is that, unlike the 360—which has a fair number of original Xbox titles playable on the newer console—the PS3 promises close-to-total compatibility with thousands of PS1 and PS2 titles.

OK, here comes Bad News Part 1: the price—the PS3 costs $499. You get the console (with a 20GB Blu-ray DVD drive, four USB ports and one Ethernet port) and one wireless controller. HD cables are not included. Or you can fork out $599 and get the console (with 60GB Blu-ray DVD drive, four USB ports, one Ethernet port, memory stick/SD/compact flash slots, Wi-Fi enabled) and one wireless controller. HD cables are not included.

Bad News Part 2: Availability through Christmas will be iffy—and that's being kind. The pre-orders have been taken, and supply will be spotty.

The must-have launch titles?

Resistance: Fall of Man (SCEA, Rated: M): An alternative history pits the United States and Britain—alone—against the Chimera, a formerly unknown species who produce a virus converting other species into more Chimera. Most of Asia and Europe have been overrun. Can you, as a U.S. Army Ranger, stop the Chimera? $59.99.

Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion (Bethesda, Rated: M): A big hit on the PC and the 360, Oblivion comes to the PS3 with extra content. This giant sword and sorcery role-playing game had at least 200 hours of game play. Now, there's more! Prepare to put real life on hold when you start Oblivion; $59.99.

Ridge Racer 7 (Namco Bandai Games, Rated: Pending): Part of one of the premier "arcade" car-racing game franchises, RR7 promises more gorgeous cars, more tracks and more of the crazy, drifting action the series is known for. It's an exclusive title for the PS3; $59.99.

The PS2 is still very popular. For the PS2, check out Bully (Rockstar, Rated: T). Rockstar—a truly controversial developer—developed the Grand Theft Auto series. In Bully, you play a kid who's dropped off by rich, uncaring parents at a boarding school. The initial take on the game was that it would generate a "video games caused Columbine" reaction. Wrong—the reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Who knew? $39.99.

The console war wild card, the Nintendo Wii console, launches Nov. 19. Pre-orders have been taken—and they're gone. Supply, again, will be a problem through the holidays, although Nintendo is reportedly shipping twice as many units as Microsoft did for the 360 launch or Sony is for the PS3. It's not touted as a next-gen console; the Wii is more of an upgraded version of the GameCube. And check the price—yeah!

Nintendo Wii costs $249.99. It includes the console (one Ethernet port, four GameCube controller ports), a console stand, Wii remote, Nunchuk, sensor bar, AC adapter, AV cable and Wii start-up disk.

The introduction of the Wii this year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles was the surprise hit of the convention. The console's innovation is two wireless controllers—the remote and the "Nunchuk"—both of which are motion-sensitive. Playing a tennis game? You swing the remote, and the game play matches your swing. Firing a gun? You point the remote at the screen and press a button. Blam.

Games? A few of the new ones gamers want at launch:

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, Rated: E): Other than games featuring certain Italian plumbers, Zelda is probably one of the most beloved game franchises of all time. Link is back; only this time, when you fire his bow, you use both controllers to mimic the action. Frankly, this one might sell me a Wii; $49.99.

Excite Truck (Nintendo, Rated: E): An off-road/dirt track racer, again utilizing the remote to "steer" by holding it sideways and turning it. You can create your own custom tracks; $49.99.

Red Steel (UbiSoft Paris, Rated: T): Set in modern Japan and the United States, this first-person shooter pits you against the Yakuza. Again, both controllers are used to fire guns, wield a katana, open doors, etc. This looks promising; $49.99.

Nintendo is notorious for not releasing very much information prior to product launches; the Wii's debut is no different. It promises Internet connectivity through the Wii Channel menu system, which will allow you to view weather, news, Nintendo updates, download games from every Nintendo game system except the GameCube and more. (GameCube games will be playable off the bat.)

That's it. Due to space, I couldn't get into PC/Mac games, handheld systems or many of the present-generation console games available.

If you're buying for a gamer, know that most of us are up on the hardware and know the games we want. If the gamer you're buying for hasn't specifically said what he/she wants, then a gift certificate is a very welcome present. If you want more information, the Internet is a great source for console gaming—www.gamespot.com is a terrific, informative site, for instance.

More questions? Email me at marxb2@cox.net. Have a great holiday season!

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