This year’s E3 saw the next-gen console war kick off. With Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo showing off new hardware, we asked the experts who’s going to win.

If you thought the gaming bliss of Vice City couldn’t be topped, think again. Last month, at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles, the video game industry took a giant step forward with the announcement of three next-generation consoles – Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Nintendo’s Revolution.

Of course, the Big Three’s announcements at E3 have sparked many questions, including the inevitable: Which system will win the latest console war?

For a little prophesizing, I turned to three experts who attended the show: PC World Senior Associate Editor Grace Aquino, G4 TV’s Director of Games Editorial Tom Russo, and a producer with an independent game developer who preferred to stay anonymous due to his relationships with companies developing all three platforms (we’ll call him “Dig-Doug”).

The early favourite

According to our experts, the early buzz goes to Sony for its amazing tech demo of what the PlayStation 3 is expected to do. Not only did Sony impress audiences with support for 1080-progressive high-definition televisions and Blu-ray Discs, but it also showed amazing graphics and impressive processing power. Its 3.2GHz Cell processor gives the system about 2 teraflops of performance – twice what Microsoft is claiming the Xbox 360 will do. “Just seeing the specs of the PS3 was amazing,” says Dig-Doug. “All the subprocessors – that’s just a huge deal – you’re going to be able to do so much.”

“I was pretty impressed with the graphics on the PS3,” adds Aquino, who also cautions, “that was a tech demo and not the actual unit, so it’s a bit early to tell whether it’s going to deliver.”

“In terms of a traditional, purely powerful game-playing device,” says Russo, “Sony had its ducks a little more in a row in terms of what they’re doing and where they’re going in a game console.”

Too soon to tell

While Sony wowed, the other two companies came off a little less sparkling. Nintendo didn’t reveal much about its system, merely announcing a few specs and showing a non-functioning mock-up. According to Dig-Doug, while Microsoft did demo impressive games, they “didn’t seem light years ahead of what you can do now.” In fact, he says, “I was surprised that Microsoft didn’t have more to show, especially with the system releasing in about four months. I was really expecting to be stunned, but I was actually underwhelmed.”

But there may be several reasons for that, says Russo. First, he points out that programmers may not have had their developer kits long enough to show off the power of the Xbox 360 hardware – and in fact, programmers were working with alpha, not beta, kits at the time. He says that the original Xbox is still a powerful system, with good-looking games. “I don’t think you’re going to see the quantum leap between stuff that’s already out this year and stuff that’s going to come out this fall,” he continues.

While the Xbox 360’s graphics underwhelmed some people, its growing online capabilities impressed many others. Expanding upon its Xbox Live service, Microsoft will be offering a number of new features such as 802.11a, -b, and -g wireless compatibility; a marketplace for downloading new levels and content; and for those willing to pay for Gold memberships, video chat and a spectator mode that lets you watch other people play.

The new features may even offer the possibility of big-money online tournaments, says Dig-Doug. For example, Microsoft, which controls Xbox Live, could hold a racing tournament in which 250,000 participants pay, say, $10 each to enter, and the winner receives a million dollars. It’s also conceivable that competitive drivers could solicit sponsorships from real-world companies, or those good at customizing cars could sell their designs to other drivers. “That’s a really compelling prospect,” says Dig-Doug.

Fewer details are known about Nintendo’s Revolution, but the most talked-about feature is its backwards compatibility – you’ll be able to play games from as far back as the NES era (that’s going back to the mid 80s). But don’t start pulling out your old cartridges just yet. The system will be able to play GameCube and Revolution discs, but you’ll have to access Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, and NES titles via download. Whether you’ll have to pay for those downloads is unknown. Plus, there’s Nintendo’s traditional ace in the hole: innovative titles that you won’t find on any other system. “Nintendo’s strength is its ability to innovate and bring classic franchises [like Mario and Zelda] up to date,” says Russo. “They are second to none at that.”

Competition benefits gamers

While Nintendo and Sony have promised their systems in 2006, Microsoft is hoping that its fall 2005 release date will give it a leg up. “I think Microsoft was hoping that coming out first would be a key competitive advantage,” says Dig-Doug, “but Sony was able to skew a lot of that thunder. Still, Microsoft is much further ahead in terms of development, and it definitely has the potential to capture mindshare early, especially by delivering solid games in that launch window.”

However, in the end, no one will hazard a guess as to which system will come out on top. “Technically, the PS3’s numbers are higher,” says Aquino. “But I think they’re doing that to try to one-up Xbox and make people wait. It’s between the two, but I don’t want to pull the trigger before I get playable boxes.”

“I think it’s early days,” says Russo. “It always comes down to the company with the best gaming software.” Third-party support is also crucial, and Russo says that Microsoft has done a good job of improving its partner roster, especially in Japan. Want proof? Microsoft has teamed up with Square/Enix to bring the super-popular Final Fantasy franchise to Xbox 360.

Ultimately, though, the real winners will be gamers. You can expect next-gen titles to have detailed worlds, realistic physics, and more human-looking characters than ever before. “Everything will look a lot more realistic,” says Russo.

“Right now, you can make a game that looks really pretty, but there’s a limit to how many people you can get on screen,” says Dig-Doug. “But in the next generation, those limits will be gone. You’ll be able to get hundreds of people on screen at once, all at high polygon counts and high-resolution textures.”