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High-End Games Move Beyond Button Pushing

At this week's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, all the major game system manufacturers -- Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo -- took the wraps off powerful new hardware and software that make games more realistic in look and feel.

Sony is the industry behemoth, with more than 100 million PlayStation 2 systems sold. By comparison, Microsoft Xbox units total 22 million sold worldwide, and Nintendo's GameCube comes in at 19 million units.

Sony's new PlayStation 3 reflects its dominant position, updating the familiar hardware with a more powerful processor and the ability to play games and high-definition movies stored on new Blu-ray DVDs. The system also acts as a media hub, allowing users to purchase and download video and audio content.

Sony's new hardware delivers realistic graphics meant for high definition TVs. In-game characters are animated with life-like facial expressions and movements that look much more natural than the stiff, robotic looks of today's characters. A player in a tennis game, for instance, actually follows the ball with his whole body and leans into shots and turns as he maneuvers around the court. That power comes at a cost, though -- Sony announced that the PlayStation 3 will come in two configurations, priced at $499 and $599, when released this November.

Despite the graphical upgrade, most of the games for PlayStation 3 were hard to distinguish from new games for Microsoft's Xbox 360, released last November. Microsoft stressed that developers are just now beginning to unleash the real graphical power of the system, and demos of games like dystopian shooter Gears of War and psychological thriller Alan Wake seemed to confirm their claims, showing off extremely detailed environments and cinematic camera angles that shake along with the action.

Microsoft also announced upgrades to its popular online service that will allow users to download a wider variety of classic and independently developed games. A new service called Live Anywhere will also allow users to play games and communicate freely between Xbox, PC and cell phone.

While graphically advanced, most of the games on display for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 didn't break new ground in terms of game play. Games that emphasized fighting, racing and shooting were abundant, while only a few games introduced truly new concepts. Nintendo, on the other hand, showcased a system with a new controller that aims to change the fundamental way games are played.

The controller for Nintendo's Wii (pronounced "we") has just a few buttons and resembles a TV remote more than a video game controller. What really sets the controller apart is its ability to detect motion. Players use the controller to swing an onscreen tennis racket, steer a car, aim a gun or conduct a symphony. The set-up is extremely intuitive (if a little too sensitive to shaky hands), and I found myself unconsciously bobbing and weaving along with the characters on screen. By the time I left Nintendo's booth, I was surprised to find a slight glean of sweat on my brow.

Games for the Wii tended to look cartoony and dated when compared with the detailed graphics on the other systems, but Nintendo is hoping the controller will make its games more accessible to non-gamers. The strategy just might succeed -- it's a lot easier to picture my mother waving the Wii remote than facing down the dozens of buttons on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox controllers.

Whether traditional gamers will take to the system, or prefer the graphical fidelity of the selections from Sony and Microsoft, will be revealed when the Nintendo Wii launches this fall.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kyle Orland