The next generation console wars have begun. The Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U camps have entered their trenches, and for the next few years there will be a lot of people screaming about which is the best. So, how do the systems stack up?
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both have what are essentially off-the-shelf computer parts, making them nearly equivalent to a good gaming PC, yet the PS4 seems to be a bit more powerful. Both systems are vastly more powerful than their predecessors, allowing them to run at higher resolutions, use higher quality textures and more polygons, feature better lighting effects, and all of that good stuff; visually, this generation will be defined by more. But for many games, the difference between Sony and Microsoft’s systems will probably be pretty negligible, and it may come down to a case-by-case basis (frequently true during the last generation). The best resources for comparing the visuals in different versions of games are the technical breakdowns done by Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry in its “Face-Off” series, and Dig. Early reports indicate that the PlayStation 4 has a slight edge both on paper and in practice, but only time will tell if the rift between visual fidelity will grow or shrink as developers learn the ins-and-outs of the systems.
Meanwhile, the Wii U isn’t directly competing with either console, falling more in line with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 than with its newer peers. Look at the games from the past year or two on those platforms and use that as the benchmark for what the system can do, but know that in the years to come it should be able to do even more. One needs only look at Nintendo’s software for the platform to see that it can do some amazing things with the right people behind it. Sure, it won’t be able to match what the newest consoles are doing, and the different architecture means that ports from the PS3 and 360 are often needlessly subpar, but as time goes on it will allow for some great looking games.
Winner: PlayStation 4 (Probably)
One lesson that every company seems to have learned this time around is that controller comfort is important. The Wii U Gamepad, although it looks unwieldy at first, is actually great to use. The giant touchscreen in the center of the controller uses dated technology and is less responsive than an iPad, but it is completely functional. Even in cases where it isn’t used for much, the ability to play games off the TV is fantastic for games that support it.
Sony’s DualShock 4 is a dramatic improvement over the DualShock 3, and it feels great in the hand. The touch pad in the center seems functional and responsive (although it hasn’t gotten much use yet), and it definitely feels great. The design team of the original Xbox made an interesting point that it looks kind of odd, though, and doesn’t aesthetically fit with its system. On the other hand, the Xbox One controller is nearly perfect. It started from an already-excellent template (the Xbox 360 controller) and improved on it in almost every way. Aside from some excess noise emitted when the vibration motors really get going, there’s nothing bad to say about it. It’s awesome.
Winner: Xbox One (but they’re all great)
Xbox Live has long been the standard by which all other online services were judged. Online play was free but subpar on the PlayStation 3, so people were willing to pay the extra $60 on the Xbox to have a better experience. They also locked down a number of extra features like access to Netflix behind the subscription pay wall.
Wii U isn’t directly competing with either console, falling more in line with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
PlayStation Plus went in a different direction: towards value-add rather than content-lock. For $50 a year, owners of a PlayStation 3, Vita, or both would get discounts on the digital store as well as several free games a month that they could keep for as long as they had the Plus subscription. And these titles were (and are) not just small things no one has heard of; they are some of the platforms’ biggest games. The service has made its way over to the PlayStation 4, and in its first month two games are already free to those with the service. (Unfortunately, online play has been locked for the new system, though it remains free for both the PS3 and Vita.) Microsoft says a similar system will come to the Xbox One but has given no timetable.
Nintendo does not have any sort of subscription service, but it does have the Miiverse, a social network of sorts that is built around each title on the Wii U. Players can leave messages and drawings in the Miiverse for each game/app, sometimes from within the game and other times through the Miiverse utility itself. It’s like a giant forum, which can be both a good and a bad thing, and it’s fun to check out every so often.
We’ll see how each system will hold up for online play, and it’s possible that Sony’s strides to make its backend better will fail, but although Sony has locked online play behind a pay wall, the PS+ service is still more value-add than Xbox Live Gold, and it’s cheaper to boot.
Winner: PlayStation 4
While the Wii U has been on the market for over a year now, it’s been kind of a dead zone. It’s only in the past few months that the system has really started pushing out quality content. But anyone who picks up a Wii U today has some really great stuff to play, especially now that Super Mario 3D World has released. Sony has a couple of great exclusives (Killzone and Resogun come to mind) as well as pretty good third party support. Microsoft is the same (with Dead Rising 3 and Forza Motorsport 5 as its great games). Neither system has a notably better lineup than the other, and neither has as much awesome stuff as Nintendo’s system does. Plus, it’s the only system that is fully backwards compatible, and while it took a while, the Wii developed a pretty amazing library of its own.
Winner: Wii U
Blu-ray, Netflix, and Television
Both the PS4 and Xbox One use Blu-ray drives, meaning they can play DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Neither experience is notably better than the other. The Wii U plays neither, using a proprietary technology to store games. All of them can access Netflix and Hulu Plus as well, and a variety of other outside media sources. While the Gamepad is nice to use for both controlling and watching, the fact that it won’t shut off during playback is bothersome in a dark room, and Nintendo doesn’t offer access to anything its competitors don’t have.
The Xbox One has embedded television integration, which Sony can’t match (although Nintendo TVii is kind of a thing, even if it’s been basically forgotten) but that is meaningless for the increasing number of cable cutters (and isn’t fully ready to be the only way for cable users to interact with their channels), and everything is locked behind an Xbox Live Gold subscription, where it’s available to all (who have the requisite other accounts) on other platforms. Also, the PlayStation 4 has access to Crunchyroll. Game, set, and match.
Winner: PlayStation 4
Big-Name Developer Support
Since the N64, Nintendo’s systems have succeeded almost single-handedly because of their own games. The company has a massive stable of franchises that are guaranteed to sell millions, and they also have some of the most talented developers in the world working on projects. People buy Nintendo’s games, but they don’t always buy other games on Nintendo systems, which has led to less-than-stellar support from other publishers.
The new hardware similarities between the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 mean that developing games for both systems should be easier than it has ever been (and the similarity of both systems to PCs should help as well). Once the PS3 and Xbox 360 are officially cut loose, anyone who wants to play the latest games from EA, Activision, and Ubisoft will have to choose a next-gen system. Each console will get some exclusives or otherwise exclusive content (the PlayStation versions of Assassin’s Creed 4 have extra content missing elsewhere and Xbox versions of Call of Duty games often get DLC first), but a lot of the biggest games will come to both.
Where is Nintendo in all this? Hard to say, but probably not in a whole lot of places. Many big games will hit the Wii U, but many more won’t, especially as the generation continues (it will be like the Wii all over again). Things will hopefully turn around as the Wii U grows its user base, but it’s unlikely third parties will ever see the Wii U the way they see the PS4 and Xbox One. But if that’s the case, Nintendo’s in-house teams will just pick up the slack. There may not be a constant stream of big titles, but you can pretty much always trust Nintendo quality.
First Party Winner: Wii U
Third Party Loser: Wii U
Indie Video Games
Independent games are becoming increasingly important in today’s industry. One person can make a game, release it digitally, and the world may fall in love. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft earned a lot of ill will from independent developers who felt snubbed by their digital policies. While Microsoft execs claim things have improved, they have nothing to show for it. On the other hand, Sony has been pushing independent developers hard, and Nintendo has a good deal of support as well, especially from developers who have turned to Kickstarter to fund their projects.
Even when there are the inevitable droughts of major releases during the year, a system with good independent support will never be at a loss for new experiences. Some of the best games of the past few years have been tiny productions that blow the big names out of the water. The indie space is what everyone should watch, and Sony and Nintendo have been doing a good job of cultivating it (Sony especially, although Nintendo has made great strides from its previous console).
But Microsoft? Eh.
Loser: Xbox One
On paper, there is a $100 jump for each successive console. The Wii U retails for $299, the PS4 for $399, and the Xbox One for $499. It’s not that simple. The Wii U, for example, comes packed in with a game, and there are several different bundles to choose from.
The PlayStation 4, for $100 more, has no pack-in, nor does it have the PlayStation 4 Eye camera. To get one of those (though there’s currently no reason to do so) would add another $60 to the price tag.
The Xbox One also lacks a pack-in but has its impressive Kinect camera. But since so much of the system requires access to Xbox Live Gold, the $60/year is especially required. (The $50/year PlayStation Plus subscription is recommended, but not necessarily to use most of the system’s applications.)
Once again, big new titles will cost $60, so buyers of the PS4 or Xbox One should expect to plunk down at least another $100 before they can really get everything out of their system, if not more. Factor in extra controllers ($60 for PS4 and Xbox One; there are no extra Gamepads for sale, although Wii remotes/nunchucks are compatible and can be purchased for approximately $60 together) and the price soars (this is an expensive hobby), but the Wii U will always be significantly cheaper than the competition.
The Future (As We Know It)
This is probably the most important category of them all. Early adopters are buying early to get in on some of the cool pre-show action but they are mostly acting in anticipation of what’s to come. Sony has shown more of its hand than Microsoft has, and the company has a good 2014 lined up, with some great-looking exclusives mixed with excellent indie support.
The Xbox One has Titanfall, the big new multiplayer shooter from the people behind Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It has mechs in it, and it looks amazing. There’s some other cool stuff coming (another Halo, for example), but I get the feeling that Titanfall is really the system’s killer app, and the thing that will convince people they need to own one.
For Wii U owners, that killer app will be the next part of the Super Smash Bros. series, which promises to be completely amazing. There are some other great looking titles in the wings, like Bayonetta 2, the mysterious action-RPG X, and the sight-unseen-but-definitely-going-to-be-incredible Zelda game. The indie support is also looking good, so there are going to be a lot of reasons to own a Wii U in the years ahead.
Buy a Wii U now. Buy a PlayStation 4 in six months. Buy an Xbox One in a year or two. That’s right: get it all, but stagger. The Wii U has the library now, and the PS4 will soon; the Xbox One is awesome, but it doesn’t feel totally ready yet. Titanfall will undoubtedly be a blast, but it probably won’t justify the cost of the console to most. Each of the consoles offers a distinct experience, though, and even if some of the features from each can be found elsewhere, they can’t truly be replicated. In a couple of years, all of these systems are going to have awesome libraries and their kinks will (hopefully) have been sorted out. Naysayers claim that dedicated video game consoles are on their way out (and Microsoft might agree), but they’re certainly not dead yet. Whether or not there is a ninth generation of videogame consoles doesn’t really matter. Right now, we’ve got three awesome machines vying for attention, and all of them are worth having. It’s a good time to play video games.