Image: Call of Duty 3
Activision
The stunning high-definition visuals of Call of Duty 3" suffer from slight frame-rate issues when played on the PlayStation 3.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/19/2006 6:51:35 PM ET 2006-12-19T23:51:35

This holiday season, gamers (and the people who shop for them) technically have three choices when seeking out next-generation hardware: Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3. The technicality is that two of the three choices — the Wii and PS3 — are almost as rarely spotted in the wilds of retail as a giant squid in the Pacific Ocean. Microsoft’s Xbox 360, however, is readily available.

But if you’ve got an itch to pick up a next-gen system, bypass the back-of-the-box bullet points and the sales pitch from the guy at Best Buy. Look first at the games available for these consoles before exercising your credit card.

Each system has exclusive titles, such as “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess” on the Wii, but lining up games released on all three quickly reveals the differences between hardware. We've chosen a trio of currently available games – Activision's “Call of Duty 3,” “Marvel Ultimate Alliance,” and Electronic Arts' “Need for Speed: Carbon” — to compare the graphics and gameplay.

"Call of Duty 3"
Publisher: Activision
Rated: Teen

“Call of Duty 3” is a first-person shooter set in war-torn, World War II Europe. “Call of Duty 2,” a launch title for the Xbox 360, was a monster bestseller, and this sequel replicates as much of the thrill as possible with a meager one-year window. Authenticity is a major selling point for the “Call of Duty” series, and the third installation delivers accurate weapons and battles ripped from history books.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 editions look remarkably similar — a thread that extends through all cross-platform releases currently on shelves. It's obvious, however, that the Xbox 360 edition was the lead product. The stunning high-def visuals suffer from slight frame-rate issues on the PS3, which means you might experience a slight hiccup in gameplay.  The 360 edition is much smoother, and the colors actually appear a little richer, too. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 version have online multiplayer, but only the Xbox 360 version supports voice chat.

“Call of Duty 3” takes a dramatic visual hit on the Wii, but that’s to be expected — Nintendo’s new console doesn’t pretend to have the horsepower of the Xbox 360 or the PS3.

If you pony up for component cables — which bump up the resolution to 480p — “Call of Duty 3” looks somewhat better on the Wii. But the Wii version of the game lacks multiplayer gameplay. On the plus side, the Wii remote offers offers excellent control — especially with targeting. Using the remote as a gun allows you to pull off some pinpoint headshots on Nazi thugs.

“Marvel: Ultimate Alliance"
Publisher: Activision
Rated: Teen

“Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” is the equivalent to video game junk food – glorious fluff. Players command up to four superheroes from an impressive roster that includes major leaguers like Spider-Man, Wolverine and Captain America, as well as fan favorites like Ghost Rider and Deadpool. Marvel fans – and our reviewer, Winda Benedetti , have lavished praise on the game — but which which version should you pick?

Again, the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are nearly identical. Nearly. At its highest high-def setting, 1080p, the PS3 version features a slightly overall sharper look. The game also employs some neat lighting effects that trump the Xbox 360 version, too.

However, the Xbox 360 version boasts a better frame rate, and in  an action game like “Marvel,” smoother gameplay is more important than cool special effects. Both the Xbox 360 and PS3 version feature online multiplayer.

The Wii version of “Marvel” does not feature online multiplayer, and it takes a steep graphical hit. Attacks and maneuvers normally triggered to controller buttons are assigned to motions with the Wii remote, such as swiping downward to perform a slam attack. (The motion-sensitive PS3 controller sports a few similar features.)

Hardcore gamers, the type normally attracted to beat-'em-ups like “Marvel,” will likely prefer the traditional controls of the Xbox 360 and PS3 -- and enjoy the extra visual polish, as well.

"Need for Speed: Carbon"
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Rated: Teen

“Need for Speed” is another yearly franchise, for better or for worse. This year ditches most of the high-speed cop-chase thrills of 2006's “Most Wanted” and replaces them with big underground rallies between rival racing teams. The goal is to control as much of the city as possible, earning real estate by winning a series of races — often with the help of an artificial intelligence-controlled teammate.

For once, there is an immediate, noticeable difference between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 visuals. When hurtling down the nighttime straightaway in the Xbox 360, the blurring effects look stunning. The PS3 is plagued with a lower frame rate that dampens high-speed situations. Car models don't look quite as nice as the Xbox 360 vehicles, too.

This isn't to say that the PS3 version is ugly by any stretch, but the Xbox 360 version definitely has the edge, especially since it has a photo mode for grabbing in-game shots of your tuned-up rides.

Image: Need for Speed:Carbon
Electronic Arts
The Wii's controller makes "Need for Speed:Carbon" feel like an entirely new experience.
“Carbon” on the Wii is a different animal. Yes, the visuals are significantly downshifted, and that includes a frame-rate hit that doesn't make racing as smooth as the other versions. But the control mechanism — using the Wii remote with or without the extra nunchuk attachment — makes “Carbon” feel like an entirely fresh game. Whether you're tilting the remote to steer, or steering with the nunchuk and using the remote as a virtual gas pedal, Wii Carbon features pitch-perfect steering that will please race fans.

In many ways, comparing the Nintendo Wii to the PS3 and Xbox 360 is an apples-to-oranges scenario. The visuals on Wii games just aren't as strong, but the game mechanics are usually so different that you really have to make up your mind based on controls. Do you want to play these games as you have for the last 20 years? Or take a walk on the Wii side?

The Xbox 360 had a significant head start on its closest rival, the PS3, and the games available for both systems demonstrate that pretty clearly. But even though Xbox 360 has won the immediate battle, Sony’s not giving up on the war — not by a long shot. The PS3 games planned for the back half of 2007 are not likely to have the same problems as these earlier titles. If you can wait it out, you’ll probably be richly rewarded.

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