Will Santa deliver a Christmas games console?

You may want a new console for Christmas. But what are the chances of getting one? Rebecca Armstrong reports
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The Independent Online

Xbox 360

RRP £279.99, GAMES FROM £44.99

What are the chances of getting one?

The Xbox 360 was last year's Christmas must-have, although demand seriously outstripped supply. This year Microsoft's box of delights is in plentiful stock, with retailers looking forward to bumper sales. It's the only console that will be available in the shops right up until Christmas so forget auction sites with audacious prices and simply head down to the high street for some great value bundles (Xbox 360, controllers and games).

What's all the fuss about?

The first "next generation console" to hit the shops, the Xbox 360 offers high-definition gaming, a large back catalogue and superb online play. The Live Vision webcam has just gone on sale, giving gamers the chance to come face to face with their opponents online or simply to chat for free online. Xbox Live, the online gaming service pioneered by Microsoft, is by far the most accomplished around and the Xbox 360 enables owners to make friends online, send messages and do battle with gamers all over the world. The Xbox Live Arcade is an internet marketplace where games, trailers and demos can be downloaded using Microsoft credits. An HD-DVD plug-in player is an optional extra, costing £129.

What are the games like?

The Xbox 360 has had a head start on both the Wii and the PS3, so its stable of games is looking full. This Christmas, the biggest Xbox 360 titles look set to be the ultra-violent but visually gorgeous Gears of War - one for bloodthirsty over-18s only - and Viva Piñata, a new departure into children's gaming for Microsoft. Backed up in the States by a TV cartoon series, Viva Piñata is an incredibly cute game where players must build a garden to attract animals to come and live there. Though aimed at the under-10s, don't be surprised if this turns into a cult title for all ages. The biggest future release is Halo 3, due some time next year.

How can I justify the cost?

The Xbox 360 isn't just a games console; you can stream music, share photos and download new and retro games on the Live Arcade. As well as the HD-DVD (£129) plug-in, owners will have access to an HD movie and TV download store (Video Marketplace) which launches in United States today and will follow in the UK soon. By letting gamers download films straight onto the Xbox 360's hard drive, they can chose between investing in HD-DVD or simply watching HD-quality films on the box.

Nintendo Wii

RRP £179 GAMES FROM £39.99

What are the chances of getting one?

The Wii is set to go on sale here on 8 December, but that doesn't mean it will be plain sailing for Santa. Amazon has stopped taking pre-orders after pre-selling its stock in seven minutes, although Woolworths, PC World, HMV and Argos are still taking orders. Anyone who doesn't order now is unlikely to get hold of a Wii, although online auction sites will be no doubt be full of overpriced ones in the run-up to Christmas.

What's all the fuss about?

Instead of joining Microsoft and Sony in the battle for the fastest, most sophisticated games console, Nintendo has headed in a different direction. In lieu of a button-filled joypad, the console has a one-handed controller with motion-detection sensors that allow players to dictate play by moving the controller in the air. Although neither as graphically impressive nor as multi-functional as the Xbox 360 or PS3, Nintendo has a loyal fanbase who are seriously excited by the Wii.

What are the games like?

No new Nintendo console would be complete without a Zelda title. This time, it's The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess that's making fans excited, although the remote controller takes some getting used to. In place of ultra-violent games and big-name franchises, Nintendo has developed the family-friendly Wii Sports - including boxing, tennis, bowling and golf - and WarioWare, a collection of slick, quick mini-games. Others worth looking out for are Excite Truck, played by holding the controller like handlebars and steering, and Square Enix's Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. A bonus is the online Virtual Console function, offering games from Nintendo's 20-year-old library for download.

How can I justify the cost?

If you put the effort into playing Wii Sports then expect to get some exercise - the Wii is a good way to get couch potatoes flexing their muscles. The back catalogue is an inexpensive way to play old favourites and since most of the games are child-friendly, the Wii is an excellent choice for families. It also offers an easy-to-navigate web browser and special "channels" that let players catch up on news, weather and messages on a virtual notice board. Best of all, it's by far the cheapest of the consoles, making it the least expensive way to go next generation.

Playstation 3

RRP £420 (FULL VERSION) GAMES FROM £49.99

What are the chances of getting one?

The PS3 isn't due to appear in British shops until March, but it went on sale in the US and Japan last week so shoppers may be able to find one online - for a price. The current highest price paid for a PS3 online this week is £2,100; eBay would be your best bet.

What's all the fuss about?

Sony's console release has been delayed many times but this has only made punters keener to get hold of one. As well as stunning graphics the PS3 is also a Blu-ray disc player and has ambitions to be a home media hub thanks to a web browser, digital photo storage and the ability to rip CDs on to the hard drive.

What are the games like?

The launch title, Resistance: Fall of Man a retro alien adventure, is deemed to be good rather than great while MotorStorm, an off-road racer, is garnering rave reviews. The online play, something of a let down in the PS2, has been given a shot in the arm and is free to PS3 owners.

How can I justify the cost?

The Blu-ray player alone makes the PS3 worth investing in, although some experts remain unconvinced about Blu-ray's staying power. Companies supporting Blu-ray technology are Sony, Philips, Panasonic, Apple, Pioneer and Disney while HD-DVD has Toshiba, Microsoft, TimeWarner, Warner Bros and Paramount. Still, if you're keen to get a player - and they cost around £1,000 - the PS3 is one of the cheapest ways to go about it, even if as a console it busts the bank at nearly £500.

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