Current-Generation Consoles: Xbox One, PS4, Wii U
Xbox One: Manufactured by Microsoft and released in late 2013, the Xbox One is actually the third Xbox to be released, despite the confusing name. The name is referencing Microsoft's positioning as an "all-in-one" media center for your TV room—it plays games and streams video, and you can use HDMI pass-through to hook up your cable box and watch live TV on your Xbox, just to name a few potential uses.
The Xbox One is available in 500GB or 1TB hard drive configurations and has a built-in Blu-ray player for watching movies in Full HD, in addition to gaming. Other key features:
- Xbox Live: Microsoft's two-tiered online gaming network offers a free version (Xbox Live Silver) and a $60/year version (Xbox Live Gold). Gold is required to play online with other gamers and offers occasional free and discounted titles; Silver is fine if you just want to access basic online-only features like Netflix or other apps. One Xbox Live account works on the same profile across Microsoft consoles (so you only need to pay for one subscription for access to Xbox Live Gold on the Xbox One and Xbox 360). However, multiple profiles will require multiple Xbox Live Gold accounts if each profile holder wants its benefits.
- To Kinect or not to Kinect? The Xbox One comes with or without the Kinect accessory, which is a full-body motion tracker and camera. Kinect is used for games with motion controls like Kinect Sports Rivals and Dance Central Spotlight; these are generally easy-to-play, family-friendly titles, so that's something to consider if you're buying a system for gamers of all ages and experience levels. The Kinect's camera and microphone allow gamers to broadcast their sessions on sites like Twitch, an increasingly popular pastime. Additionally, voice controls let players use verbal commands to choose a game, open an app, or even switch channels if they're watching TV.
- Key exclusive and first-party games: Halo: The Master Chief Collection; Dance Central Spotlight (download only); Forza Motorsport 5; Kinect Sports Rivals; Sunset Overdrive; Titanfall; Zoo Tycoon.
- Other things to do: Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Twitch, Amazon Instant Video, WWE Network, YouTube, additional TV/entertainment apps
PlayStation 4: Also released in 2013, Sony's PS4 has a much-less-confusing name, a 500GB hard drive (which users can expand by purchasing and installing a larger HDD), a built-in Blu-ray player, Wi-Fi, and an optional camera accessory (sold separately). The PS4 also introduced the latest in Sony's line of first-party controllers, the DualShock 4. Notable controller features include a clickable touchpad, contextual light bar that changes colors depending on your activities, and a "Share" button that makes it easy to post in-game screenshots and videos to social networks.
- PlayStation Network/PlayStation Plus: PlayStation Plus is Sony's subscription service, which is required for online multiplayer (PS4 only; multiplayer is free on other Sony systems). Additionally, subscribers receive free games monthly and steep discounts on select titles; a single PS+ subscription works on the PS4, PS3, and Vita. The PlayStation Network is Sony's online network, and also houses the PlayStation Store, which has a library of games (including PS1 and PS2 classics) and other entertainment available to rent or buy.
- PlayStation TV & Vita compatibility: Select PS4 games can be played remotely from a PlayStation TV unit or Vita handheld over any Wi-Fi connection. Additionally, some PS4/Vita games are cross-compatible and/or cross-buy, meaning they can be played on either system or bought for one system and owned for both, respectively.
- Key exclusive and first-party games: Bloodborne; Driveclub; Infamous series; Killzone series; Knack; LittleBigPlanet 3; Ratchet & Clank series; MLB: The Show series; The Last of Us Remastered; The Order: 1886; Uncharted series
- Other things to do: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Twitch, YouTube, MLB.TV, Vudu, WWE Network, additional TV/entertainment apps
Wii U: Not to be confused with the previous generation's Wii, the Wii U is Nintendo's latest entry in the console market. Of the three major video game hardware publishers, Nintendo is probably the one you're most familiar with; it's been making consoles and handhelds since the 1980s and has a well-known line-up of family-friendly but thoroughly entertaining first-party games.
The Wii U uses the tablet-like GamePad controller, which has a touchscreen and stylus as well as traditional analog sticks, face buttons, and a D-pad. This can be used to play games on the TV in 1080p (making it Nintendo's first system to allow Full HD visuals) or for off-screen play for compatible games, meaning you can switch from the TV screen to the GamePad screen and free up the TV for someone else.
- Nintendo Network, eShop, and Virtual Console: The Nintendo Network is a free service that allows gamers to play online with others, send and receive messages, and interact with the MiiVerse, a sort of hub for players' avatars. Full games are available to purchase and download on the eShop, while the Virtual Console houses old classics available for generally $5 to $15; this includes NES, Super NES, Sega Genesis, and other generations-old favorites.
- Backward-compatibility: The Wii U is backward-compatible with most Wii games and accessories. Additionally, many Wii U games use Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk controllers for multiplayer games. These don't come with the system, but if you already have a few lying around your house (entirely possible given the Wii's massive popularity), you're all set!
- Key exclusives and first-party games: New Super Mario Bros. U; New Super Luigi U; Super Mario 3D World; Mario Kart 8; The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD; Nintendo Land; ZombiU; Bayonetta 2; Super Smash Bros.; Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker; Hyrule Warriors; Lego City Undercover; Splatoon; Wii Fit U; Yoshi's Woolly World
Last-Generation Consoles: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii
Xbox 360: Microsoft's predecessor to the Xbox One was released in 2005, and the hardware has undergone several makeovers since then, even adding integrated Wi-Fi and an HDMI port missing from the original model. While the launch model Xbox 360 was also prone to defects, newer models are slimmer and more reliable, as well as being more budget-friendly. And because it's been around so long, the 360 has a library that consists of hundreds of games across just about every genre—there's something for every kind of gamer. That means that even though this system is nearly a decade old, it's still a pretty good time to be an Xbox 360 owner!
- Key features: Xbox Live; streaming apps; DVD player; extensive library of downloadable and disc-based games.
- Key exclusives and first-party games: Halo series; Gears of War series; Forza series; Fable series; Left 4 Dead series.
PlayStation 3: Like the Xbox 360, the PS3 has gone through several iterations since its 2006 launch, with Sony still manufacturing the super-slim model. The PS3 has many of the same features as the Xbox 360, like built-in Wi-Fi and a huge game library. Where it varies, however, is the optical drive: like current-gen consoles, the PS3 doubles as a Blu-ray player. It's worth noting that online gaming doesn't require a PlayStation Plus subscription on PS3, setting it apart from the PS4 and Microsoft's Xbox Live Gold model.
- Key features: PlayStation Network; streaming apps; Blu-ray player; PlayStation Store with access to downloadable PS1 and PS2 classics and a wide range of games from indie to AAA.
- Key exclusives and first-party games: Uncharted series; God of War series; Gran Turismo series; inFamous series; The Last of Us; Killzone series.
Wii: Since its release in late 2006, Nintendo's Wii has sold over 100 million units, making it likely that you already have one in your home. Like the Wii U, the Wii is somewhat different from other consoles of its generation in that it relies more on first-party franchises and a unique control scheme.
- Key features: Virtual Console with a library of downloadable classics; GameCube backward-compatibility
- Key exclusives and first-party games: Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2; New Super Mario Bros. Wii; The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Gaming on the Go: Handhelds
PlayStation Vita: The PlayStation Vita is Sony's newest handheld system and the successor to the now-discontinued PSP. Released in early 2012, the Vita has a quad-core processor, a high-def multi-touchscreen display, and a rear touchpad. The combination of powerful specs and more unique features mean the Vita is capable of near-console gaming experiences and unusual control schemes.
- Key features: PS4 Remote Play; PlayStation Network; PlayStation Plus; PlayStation Now
- Key exclusives and first-party games: Tearaway; Persona 4 Golden; Danganronpa series; Uncharted: Golden Abyss; Assassin's Creed Liberation
Nintendo 3DS: Originally launched in 2011, the 3DS has undergone several hardware revisions since it's been on the market. These include the 3DS XL and New 3DS XL, as well as an ever-expanding assortment of colors and themes. The core features of the 3DS have remained the same, though: the dual-screen, touchscreen gaming experience of its predecessor, the popular Nintendo DS, along with glasses-free 3D visuals.
- Key features: StreetPass lets you collect other players' Miis; many games have their own unique StreetPass or wireless functions; Nintendo eShop; 3D slider; Amiibo compatibility
- Key exclusives and first-party games: Super Mario 3D Land; Persona Q; Pokemon series; Super Smash Bros.; The Legend of Zelda series; Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon; Professor Layton series; Mario Kart 7; Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies
- Nintendo 2DS: In 2013, Nintendo released a budget version of the handheld without the 3D capabilities, appropriately called the 2DS. The 2DS has dual screens, a bottom touchscreen, and plays all 3DS games (albeit without 3D), but doesn't have the folding model that makes the 3DS great for portability.
PC Gaming: A Brief Overview
Maybe consoles and handhelds aren't your thing—you're more into playing on your laptop or desktop computer. No problem! PC gaming is alive and well, but before buying a gaming PC (or a computer game) there are a few things to keep in mind.
- Check the specs! This is something to keep in mind whether you're buying a new computer or just a game. If you know PC gaming is important to your family, you'll want a computer with a speedier processor (generally a quad-core), at least 8GB RAM, and possibly an additional graphics card, such as NVIDIA graphics.
If you're just buying a game, check the minimum system requirements online—you don't want to buy a game that requires more RAM or a more recent operating system than your existing PC has, for example.
- Physical discs vs. digital distribution: It's increasingly common for PC games to be distributed digitally—that is, the games are downloaded from a retailer, voucher, or distribution service, rather than in disc form. Several publishers offer their own distribution services; Valve has Steam, EA has Origin, and Ubisoft has UPlay, for example, though these are just a few of the online marketplaces where gamers can purchase and download games.
- Steam Boxes: A PC for your TV room? What's a Steam Box, you may ask? It's a nickname for hardware designed to run Valve's Steam operating system (or an optimized version of Windows 8.1) and be used primarily as a gaming PC hooked up to an HDTV with a controller. This allows gamers to get the benefits of PC gaming (higher specs, a massive library of games often at reasonable or discounted prices) and console gaming (use of a controller, big screen).
From MMO to FPS: Know Your Genres!
If you're buying games for a loved one and you're not sure what to look for, knowing what genres he or she generally prefers may help. This is not an exhaustive list, as it's becoming increasingly common for games to combine or defy established genres, but these are some of the most popular types of games.
- MMO: Short for massively multiplayer online; refers to online-only games like World of Warcraft. MMOs generally have persistent worlds and allow players to team up with others online. Be aware that some MMOs have monthly subscription costs, while others follow the free-to-play model that has no cost of entry but offers in-game purchases.
- RPG: Role-playing game. RPGs are generally story-based and have well-defined worlds and a leveling-up combat system; the genre is an evolution of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. RPGs with real-time combat (Kingdom Hearts, Fallout, Skyrim) are usually known as action RPGs, while others in the genre use a more traditional turn-based system (Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Persona).
- FPS: First-person shooter. These games are displayed from the perspective of the main playable character, so as the player, your view is centered on your weapon (often a gun) instead of a third-person view of the character's entire body. This extremely popular genre includes popular series like Call of Duty and Battlefield.
- Third-person shooter: Like first-person shooters in concept (weapon-based gameplay), but you can see the playable character's entire body. Examples include the Gears of War series, Sunset Overdrive, and The Order: 1886.
- Puzzle: Any game in which the main mechanic revolves around puzzle-solving, from the old-school classic Tetris to modern-day puzzle standards like the Professor Layton series.
- Strategy/Tactics: Games that emphasize strategic challenges and/or tactical actions to achieve victory fall into this category. Popular subgenres include real-time strategy (Starcraft series) and turn-based strategy (XCOM series).
- Simulation: Simulation games attempt to recreate real-life experiences as their main gameplay mechanic. These can cover almost any topic: sports management, farming, city building and maintenance, or even day-to-day life, like in The Sims.
- Action: A broad genre that encompasses games that utilize physical challenges but don't fit neatly into any other defined genre. Action games may have a mix of combat, platforming, exploration, and puzzle-solving, like in The Legend of Zelda and Uncharted series.
- Adventure: A story-driven game usually requiring exploration, puzzle-solving, and interacting with other characters to progress. This covers old-school point-and-click adventures like Day of the Tentacle and The Secret of Monkey Island, as well as more modern adventure games like The Walking Dead.
- Platformer: In which the gameplay involves traversing levels made up of platforms or obstacles. The most famous example is probably the Super Mario Bros. series, though recent hits like LittleBigPlanet also fall into this category.
- Fighting: Exactly what it sounds like: a game in which fighting is the whole point. Think Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter.
- Racing: Racing games revolve around using vehicles to defeat other players and/or beat a certain time on varying courses. These can range from the realistic (Gran Turismo) to cartoony (Mario Kart).
Video games have come a long way in four decades, but one thing hasn't changed: games have the power to entertain, inspire, and bring people together. With so many options, picking out new titles or systems can be overwhelming, but now you're armed with enough knowledge to make the right choices for you and your family. Happy gaming!