Buying a new games consoles is one of those most vitally important decisions you can make in life – we’re only partially joking. Choose correctly, and you’re guaranteed years of fun and entertainment; make a bad call, and you’ll have a useless black box under your TV, endlessly incurring the disappointment and embarrassment of your children and the mockery of your friends.
So let’s say you’ve committed to buying at least one shiny new machine. Which should it be? Here is a quick guide to where the big consoles are right now.
We’re not going to list all the tech specs here, so click through the official PlayStation 4, Wii U and Xbox One information at your leisure – or IGN has a big comparison chart while Trusted Reviews goes into lots of technical detail.
In terms of power consumption, Xbox One and PS4 have both been criticised for the amount of juice they get through, especially if you’re leaving them in standby mode, or using one of the sleep modes to allow seamless downloads of game updates. A report last year found that the Xbox One can use up to 253 kWh per year, with PS4 on 184 kWh per year. Although Sony’s machine consumes more power while gaming, Xbox One is more greedy in standby mode. Both companies say they are addressing power consumption in firmware updates.
Wii U is much more power efficient, on 37 kWh/year.
All three machines have proved reliable so far, with Microsoft particularly determined to make up for the technical issues that plagued the Xbox 360, providing vastly improved cooling systems.
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
Sony and Microsoft’s machines are essentially moderately powerful desktop computers with very similar technical specifications – the only real difference being the type of RAM, or memory, they use, and the rendering power of the graphics processors (PS4 has more teraflops). For a while, developers were getting better performance out of the PlayStation 4 and many still think it has the superior architecture, though Xbox One titles are catching up.
The important thing is that both machines are considered to be around 8-10 times more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360. You can expect to get true high definition (1080p) performance out of most games – and, on a big full-HD display, titles like Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 look gorgeous.
Nintendo never competes on technology, so Wii U is much less powerful than the other consoles and games don’t look quite as beautiful as their Xbox One and PS4 counterparts. However, if you’re buying this thing, you’re not getting it for flashy multiplatform titles like Fifa, you’re getting it for exclusive Nintendo games, which have a visual charm of their own – and many run in full 1080p HD.
Both PS4 and Xbox One come with chat headsets so you can talk to friends online, and both have features that let you record and share video online, either streaming live or uploading to YouTube (though it takes time to figure out). All have wireless controllers.
The DualShock 4 controller offers an innovative touchpad (which hardly any developers use, apart from as an extra button), as well as the usual analogue sticks, six-axis motion controls (again, hardly used), shoulder buttons and all that. There’s also a share button for uploading videos and screenshots of your gaming, a headphone socket and a built-in speaker which allows certain game noises to pop out at you unexpectedly. It’s comfortable and familiar to PlayStation veterans.
A PlayStation Camera is available separately, offering voice control, facial recognition and picture-in-picture video footage of yourself if you like streaming games. The camera will also be an essential component in Sony’s virtual reality plans. Its PlayStation VR headset (previously known as Project Morpheus) is due out next year.
The biggest “unique selling point” of the Wii U is its GamePad, essentially a sort of tablet computer, with its own touchscreen display and joypad controls. This allows you to continue playing your games even if someone else is hogging the TV. It is also used by certain titles as an extra display, perhaps showing a game map or inventory. Some initial games, such as Nintendoland, offered asymmetrical multiplayer, so one participant using the GamePad did different things than other players using standard controllers. But everyone seems to have forgotten about that.
The machine used to come with a new version of its Kinect motion tracking camera as standard, but it was expensive, games didn’t use it much and everyone was fed up with it, so now Microsoft has largely ditched it – you can still buy it if you want to use facial recognition and voice commands to control your console though.
The controller is a refined version of the familiar Xbox pad; it’s chunkier than the PS4 equivalent, but has super comfortable analogue sticks and really accurate rumble effects so you get excellent tactile feedback. There’s a new Elite version coming out with interchangeable parts for pro gamers who like to interchange things.
Most of the big blockbuster “multiplatform” games (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Fifa) will come to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, usually at the same time and price. Sometimes publishers work out timed exclusivity deals so that a big title will appear on one machine first – this is happening with Rise of the Tomb Raider, which will be on Xbox One before Christmas, but not PS4. Publishers may also tie up deals with Sony or Microsoft to offer exclusive content – like multiplayer maps or weapons – to one machine. Try not to be swayed by timed exclusives though – for the sake of getting a single title a few weeks early, you may be saddled with a machine you don’t want.
For a while, PlayStation 4 was getting visually superior versions of many multiplatform games, with smoother framerates and support for Full HD, but this seems to be equalling out. Eurogamer has a good analysis of this.
PlayStation 4 exclusives
Sony has a worldwide network of “first-party” studios that produce games only for its hardware. It has also tied up exclusivity deals with publishers on key games. So far, however, its exclusive titles haven’t been Earth-shattering with only the dark adventure Bloodborne and the smaller indie titles Resogun and N++ really hitting the heights. It has relied on remasters of great PS3 games, such as Last of Us and God of War.
Coming up, however, are Uncharted: A Thief’s End, the enchanting adventure Last Guardian, vast space epic No Man’s Sky and prehistoric role-playing game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a big, intriguing line-up.
Wii U exclusives
The best Wii U titles tend to be the ones Nintendo makes itself, or that have been designed by one of its very close development partners in Japan. The current line-up (Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros, Splatoon) is skewed toward kid-friendly local multiplayer, but no one on earth does this like Nintendo, and there’s always enough tactical depth for older players.
On the way we have Mario Tennis, Star Fox Zero, a new Zelda title, retro platformer Mighty No 9, a survival horror sequel and Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water. There are not as many releases as for the other machines, but the really good Wii U titles will occupy you and your family for months.
Xbox One exclusives
Like Sony, Microsoft has its own studios all over the world (though it has every little developer support in Japan). As with PS4, the Xbox One hasn’t exactly been overloaded with legendary exclusives so far, relying heavily on the motor sport titles Forza and Forza Horizon, and giant robot blast’em-up Titanfall. However, crazed shooter Sunset Overdrive, and beautiful indie titles Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time and Ori and the Blind Forest are worth a look.
Coming up we have Halo 5: Guardians, interesting sci-fi adventure ReCore, 1940s-inspired platformer Cuphead, Gears of War 4, open-world epic Crackdown 3 and giant monster-slaying fantasy Scalebound. It’s a very strong slate, especially for veteran Xbox fans who’ve waited patiently for some old favourites to return.
All three consoles allow you to connect seamlessly to the internet via Wi-Fi or ethernet cable (the Wii U requires an extra peripheral for wired connections). Each one offers access to an array of video services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix and YouTube, though the exact line-ups are different from machine to machine. PS4 and Xbox One both play Blu-ray and DVD movies, Wii U won’t play either.
If you want to play PS4 games online you’ll need to join Playstation Network, which costs £35 a year and also gives you access to free games through the excellent PlayStation Plus service.
Along with all the usual video-on-demand services, PS4 has its own version of Spotify, which lets you play your own music choices in the background while gaming. PlayStation 4 is not backwards compatible with older games so you won’t be able to put in a PS2 or PS3 disc and play it. Instead, Sony has a service called PlayStation Now which lets you rent retro titles for between £2.99 and £7.99. You can also buy a PlayStation TV box which costs £45 and lets you stream your PS4 content to other TVs in your house, as well as download a handful of classic PlayStation titles.
Nintendo’s machine has a modest range of video apps and services, as well as a really friendly and nicely designed online community called Miiverse, which lets players share content and ask for gaming advice in a safe way. You can also download lots of classic titles via the Virtual Console digital shop. But it’s very much a games machine rather than a multimedia hub.
Xbox Live Gold is the service you’ll need to subscribe to in order to play against others online – like PlayStation Network, this also offers monthly free games. It’s still a more robust infrastructure than Sony’s, which has suffered a series of hacker attacks over the past two years.
Again, there’s a big list of apps and entertainment services. Xbox One offers HDMI throughput, which lets you plug in your satellite or cable box, then view it all through your console without having to keep unplugging all your leads. It has the capacity to watch live TV, too, so it’s very effective as a multimedia “set-top box” that you can put in your living room and use to run all your screened entertainment. The console also integrates closely with Windows 10, so you’ll be able to keep up with your Xbox Live friends via your PC and even try cross-platform online multiplayer games between consoles and computers.
The price of all three consoles has fallen since they first arrived and you should shop around for the best deals. Look especially for special bundles that may well throw in a game you really want with the machine at no extra cost. All come with at least one official controller and the leads you need to plug it into your TV.
A basic PS4 package with a 500GB hard drive will cost about £280, with a 1TB model at about £299. It’s worth looking out for game bundles – there are Fifa, Batman, Destiny and Uncharted Collection versions around right now.
The basic pack is £180 making this the cheapest current generation console available. However there are premium packs (with 32GB hard drives instead of 8GB) complete with Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Maker, Splatoon or Super Smash Bros. These make it £240-£260.
A basic Xbox One with 500GB drive comes in at £270, or £350 with the 1TB drive. There will be a range of bundles to accompany the release of Halo 5 at the end of October.
So which console is best for you? Before you decide there’s one important factor to consider. “Follow your friends,” says Oli Welsh, editor of Eurogamer. “It’s more important than ever to be on the same platform as people you know in order to get the full online, social experience”. Indeed, there are so many titles nowadays that offer compelling cooperative and competitive multiplayer gaming (Destiny, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Star Wars Battlefront, Tom Clancy’s The Division), you’ll want to have the same machine as your mates.
With that in mind …
PlayStation 4 is best for:
People who want to play a wide range of games, from blockbusters to indie titles, with the best visuals and with decent multiplayer components. It is selling better than Xbox One, making it the target platform for many studios. There’s also the potential to experience virtual reality soon courtesy of the PlayStation VR headset.
Wii U is best for:
Families who want to sit and play bright, accessible and compelling games together on the sofa. You won’t get all the big blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid, but this is the only place you’ll get the latest games from one of the best design studios in the world. The machine hasn’t sold brilliantly, though, and there’s a chance Nintendo may announce a successor, currently codenamed Nintendo NX this summer – maybe even for a winter release.
Xbox One is best for:
People who want a games machine that’s also a powerful multimedia hub able to control all of their entertainment from video-on-demand to satellite TV. The online infrastructure is comparatively secure and the Windows 10 implementation may interest PC users. There’s also a great range of exclusive titles.
“Come Christmas, Xbox One will a different proposition to the machine that launched two years ago,” says Official Xbox Magazine editor, Matthew Castle. “The Windows 10-powered ‘New User Experience’ will replace the clunky panelled interface of today – a hangover from its original Kinect dependency – with a faster, simpler home page and the option to bark commands at Cortana. More importantly, it has actual new games to play – Halo 5, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Forza 6, Fable Legends – and where it does lean on re-releases, it does so generously, such as Rare Replay’s tasty 30 games for £20.”
Our recommendation: right now, PlayStation 4 is in a very strong position as a pure high-end gaming machine. Xbox One is improving all the time, but Sony’s console has a big head start, with 25m machines sold compared to around 14m Xbox Ones, putting it at the forefront of publisher development plans. If you can afford it, Wii U is a lovely second machine.