December 5, 2005

Xbox or Not, it’s a Jolly Gaming Holiday

LOS ANGELES -- The sought-after Xbox 360 video game console is likely to be out of reach or out of stock this holiday season, but loads of other gifts promise to deliver joy to gamers, from hard-core enthusiasts to aspiring rock stars.

Microsoft Corp.'s premium next-generation machine tops many wish lists and, even at a rich $400, has been selling out fast in stores. Though easily found on Web auction site eBay, buying the Xbox 360 there means agreeing to pay the hefty mark-ups demanded by sellers.

While video games are always a good choice, this year's line-up is bereft of blockbusters like last year's must-have titles "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" and "Halo 2."

Still, reviewers say publishers have something for everyone.

"It comes down to what your poison is," said Josh Larson, director of industry products at GameSpot Trax.

One potential sleeper hit in this season of game sequels may be "Guitar Hero" for Sony's PlayStation 2 console.

Delivered by game controller maker RedOctane and "Karaoke Revolution" developer Harmonix, the new title puts a three-quarter size guitar in the hands of players who can earn points by hitting notes in 30 licensed songs from contemporary bands such as Franz Ferdinand as well as legendary blues/rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

Points accumulated by hitting the right notes allow players to eventually leave their garage for gigs at clubs, festivals and finally, stadiums. The game also includes 17 unlockable songs from independent bands.

Sam Kennedy, editor-in-chief of 1UP.com, said "Guitar Hero" took the gaming Web site's office by storm.

"If our rating scale went up to 11, this is the game that would have gotten it," he said of the title that maxed out 1UP's 10-point scale.

Kai Huang, CEO of RedOctane, said the company was aiming for a music game that would strike a chord in the United States.

"When you think about American culture, it's a natural for people to want to be a rock star," he said.


For hard-core players who already own an Xbox 360, Microsoft's "Perfect Dark Zero" title could be just the thing. Starring a fledgling female bounty hunter with big guns, it is the Xbox 360 game generating the most information requests on GameSpot's network of Web sites, Larson said. The game has earned high ratings, even as some current owners have reported minor graphical glitches.

Among PC titles, Take-Two Interactive Software Inc.'s "Sid Meier's Civilization IV" has drawn the most information requests, while console games "WWE SmackDown vs. RAW 2006" from THQ and "Star Wars Battlefront II" from LucasArts are top buzz generators in their category.

The lack of a hot title that blows gamers away means that new hardware other than the attention-grabbing Xbox 360 could steal the show this Christmas.

This is the first holiday season of sales for Sony's PlayStation Portable, and analysts are betting that the top title for the new handheld game player will be Take-Two's "Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories."

Sales of the Nintendo DS, a dual-screen portable player, have been boosted by hit games like "Nintendogs." Its most anticipated holiday title is "Mario Kart DS," the latest installment in that motor racing franchise.

The PSP retails for around $300 and the Nintendo DS prices at roughly $150, depending on accessories and other add-ons such as games.