Forget the battle between the bear in the John Lewis Christmas advert and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in her undies for Marks & Spencer. The real Christmas battle for 2013 will be the mighty clash between the new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (PS4) consoles.
First up is Microsoft's Xbox One, which goes on sale this Friday and costs £430. It is available in the UK a week before its arch rival, Sony's PS4, and is Microsoft's long-awaited replacement of the top-selling Xbox 360. PS4 launched in the US last Friday, but British gamers will have to wait until 29 November to get their hands on the first new console from Sony in seven years. It will sell for £350.
The latest salvos in the console wars, which have been running between Sony, Microsoft and the other industry stalwart, Nintendo, for the past decade or more, are extremely important for all involved. The PS3, the Xbox 360 and the Wii had unusually long lifespans of seven to eight years, compared with the usual five, which meant that games sales stagnated over the past couple of years.
For many, the two new consoles represent the true dawn of the next generation of gaming. They follow the launch of Nintendo's Wii U in November last year, sales of which have not lived up to expectations. The Xbox One and the PS4 include all the usual upgrades in power and graphical prowess but the innovative social aspects of gaming, movement software and dual-screen technology are set to really excite.
When Microsoft first announced details of the Xbox One earlier in the year it said that the all-black device would require a constant internet connection and there would be restrictions on the used-game market. After a wave of bad publicity, the firm saw sense and dropped these plans.
The Xbox One's Kinect camera, which comes bundled with the console, has motion-detection software and a microphone. These allow not only motion-controlled gameplay for multiple users, enabling a better view around corners in racing title Forza 5 if you tilt your head, for example, but also voice-activated commands so that the user can turn the console on and off or alter the volume.
Another feature allows multiple games and apps to be used at the same time. Thus, users could Skype someone at the same time as playing.
Rob Crossley, associate editor at CVG, a leading games news website, said: "Kinect is quite divisive: some like the novelty of a camera, some don't. It may seem like a small thing but the fact that you can easily multi-task, being able to play games and surf the internet or have two different apps on screen at the same time – that could prove very popular."
The biggest thing that attracted Crossley's attention about the PS4 was the "Share" button which sits in the middle of the controller enabling players to upload video or live-stream themselves playing to social networks such as Facebook and streaming services such as Ustream.
"Allowing players to upload video of their achievements turns the focus on to the player in a way that hasn't been done to this extent before – their records and achievements, the 'look what I've just done' factor," he said. While Xbox One has a similar system, including a studio to edit video, it does not take pride of place as with Sony's machine.
Michael French, publisher of MCV, a trade publication for the games industry, said the industry had changed since the last round of consoles, with many now playing games through apps and social networks. He said the new consoles would help to "reinvigorate" games sales.
However, he warned that some buyers may be disappointed when it comes to both the launch and Christmas.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see some of these consoles up on eBay and other auction sites for inflated prices straight after launch. Stocks are also going to be light as we head into Christmas. That is one of the risks of the machines being produced in Asia and then shipped over to Europe," he said.
These predictions already appear to be coming true, with the UK branch of Amazon stating that anyone who hasn't pre-ordered either console by the end of last week will have to wait for delivery until after Christmas.
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