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Digital Derby This holiday season it's a three-way race among video-game systems. Your pick?

Selecting a video game system is like choosing your favorite
Beatle or deciding which member of the Williams clan (Serena?
Venus? Richard?) to root for: It tells you something about
yourself. Are you a cutting-edge junkie or the conservative type?
Do you favor the prospect with raw, undeveloped talent, or do you
stick with the proven quantity? What revs your engine: power or

This holiday season, three distinct options will be available:
Sony's PlayStation 2, and the newly launched Microsoft Xbox and
Nintendo GameCube. Here's a scouting report.

Sony PlayStation 2

With a year's head start, PlayStation 2 fans can find comfort in
numbers--big numbers. Sony has already sold more than five million
systems in the U.S. since introducing the PS2 in October 2000 and
expects to sell another two million of the $299 units by March.
More than 150 games are available for the PS2, with 130 more due
out by the end of the year. In short, choices abound for Sony

Sports games, in particular, are plentiful. Of these, Madden NFL
2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95) sets the standard. A rousing
football simulation, Madden features outstanding graphics that
put you squarely in the middle of the action. The play-calling
options mirror those of NFL playbooks, making for a seamlessly
realistic gridiron experience. If the college game is more your
style, NCAA Football 2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95) is
essentially the same game as Madden but features the plays and
personnel of 117 Division I-A and 27 Division I-AA teams. As with
Madden, the level of detail is astounding: Play a game at Notre
Dame and not only will you hear the student band playing the
Notre Dame fight song, but you'll also see banners featuring the
Irish mascot on the sideline.

Racing games are also well represented. Since its release in
July, Gran Turismo 3 (Sony, $49.99) has sold more than two
million copies in the U.S., and it's easy to see why: With
photorealistic graphics and precisely calculated physics that
reproduce the performance details of more than 150 car models,
this virtual racing game is mesmerizing. If you're a NASCAR
gearhead, try NASCAR Heat 2002 (Infogrames, $49.99), a faithful
and pulse-quickening re-creation of the Winston Cup experience.

In the last few years extreme-sports video games have become
hugely popular, and there's no shortage of these bump-and-grind
titles for PS2 fans. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (Activision,
$49.99) is a worthy sequel to last year's top-selling
skateboarding game, with imaginative new venues to conquer in
your endless quest to ollie and nollie. Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX
2 (Acclaim, $49.99) plops you on a bike and dares you to perform
gravity-defying stunts--more than 1,500 tricks are built into the
game--which is easier than it sounds, due to the game's intuitive
controls. For supercross fans, MX 2002 (THQ, $49.99) is a crisply
drawn dirt-bike simulation that permits a player to compete on 22
tracks and against 30 pro riders. Thanks to the PlayStation 2
controller's built-in rumble function, you can feel the jolts
from every wipeout.

Microsoft Xbox

Microsoft isn't the 800-pound gorilla of the tech world, it's the
behemoth that 800-pound gorillas run whimpering from. So you can
imagine the gnashing of teeth among the video-gamerati when Bill
Gates's crew trained its sights on the Pac-Man set.

So is Microsoft going to blow Sony and Nintendo out of the
virtual skies? The answer is a definite...maybe. The $299 Xbox,
Microsoft's first game system, which hit stores on Nov. 15, is a
technological marvel. With an Intel 733-megahertz chip and an
eight-gigabyte hard drive under the hood, the Xbox outmuscles
most office computers, not to mention its Sony and Nintendo
counterparts. Microsoft has also built in networking support so
that once its game network is up next year, online play will be
available. Sony also has plans for online gaming, but you'll
need to buy extra hardware for the PS2; Nintendo has yet to
reveal its online plans.

Software developers, however, have yet to learn how to take full
advantage of the Xbox's processing brawn, so don't expect the
first generation of Xbox games (about 30 titles will be available
by Christmas) to look or play much better than PS2 games. For
example the Xbox version of Madden NFL 2002 (Electronic Arts,
$49.95) is essentially identical to the PS2 edition. Given that
Madden is an exceptional game, that's not a bad thing. Indeed a
number of standouts for the PlayStation 2--such as the superb NBA
Live 2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95) and the equally impressive
NHL 2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95)--perform similarly on the Xbox.
For gamers torn between platforms, that's a win-win situation.

Some early titles do take advantage of the Xbox's power. NFL
Fever 2002 (Microsoft, $49.99) is the most beautiful football
game ever made: The eye-popping graphics are so detailed that
the muscle definition in the players' bodies--not to mention the
seam-bursting bellies on the linemen--is readily apparent.
Similarly, Project Gotham Racing (Microsoft, $49.99) is so
gorgeous to look at that one is tempted to put down the
controller and watch the game run by itself. Both NFL Fever and
Gotham boast precise controls and a wealth of gameplay options.
If games like these keep coming, by this time next year
Microsoft could well have lapped the field.

Nintendo GameCube

Nintendo has always been the Disney of the video-game world: a
widely beloved, family-friendly brand that has stayed focused on
the juvenile audience. Because of that, mature sports titles
have been in short supply for Nintendo platforms. The few
quality sports games that have been released have tended to be
like last year's Mario Tennis, an entertaining if cloying game
in which the Mario brothers and their toon pals took to the court.

At first glance the $199 GameCube, which was released on Nov.
18, seems to continue that trend. Even the look of the new
Nintendo machine screams kid-approved. Whereas the PS2 and Xbox
are blinking black boxes that would fit in comfortably with home
stereo equipment, the GameCube is a petite, purple unit that
looks like a child's lunch box. The GameCube also accepts only
Nintendo's proprietary 3 1/2-inch disc, which is roughly two
thirds the size of a standard CD. That means that unlike the
PlayStation 2, the GameCube can't double as a DVD or audio CD
player. (The Xbox can also play audio CDs; to play DVDs, a $30
remote control accessory is required.)

The GameCube's toyish looks, however, belie some serious
engineering might. Although its raw processing power isn't up to
Xbox standards, the GameCube's graphic abilities are formidable.
Pop in Wave Race: Blue Storm (Nintendo, $49.95), a wet-and-wild
Jet Ski simulation, and marvel at the transparent water effects.
Underwater coral reefs can be seen shimmering under the surface
as you motor from swell to swell.

Nintendo has said that while it will continue to serve the kiddie
set with the GameCube, titles aimed at an older
audience--including sports games--are also planned. Indeed, of the
20 GameCube games that will be on the market by Christmas, at
least 10 will be sports titles. For now, though, the best sports
games for the GameCube are also available on the other platforms.
Madden NFL 2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95), Dave Mirra Freestyle
BMX 2 (Acclaim, $49.99) and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (Activision,
$49.99) have all been prepared for GameCube, and none of them
lose anything in the translation. Other good bets: SSX Tricky
(Electronic Arts, $49.95), a fluid snowboarding simulation; NHL
Hitz 20-02 (Midway, $49.95), a cartoonishly entertaining
three-on-three hockey game featuring real NHL players; and FIFA
Soccer 2002 (Electronic Arts, $49.95), a deeply detailed soccer
simulation that lets you play as one of more than 500
international teams.

Because all these games are available for the other machines, is
it worth it for a sports fan to buy the GameCube? If you have
young kids who will also be clamoring for the latest Pokemon
game, then yes. On the other hand, if you're an older, hardcore
gamer who needs the latest and greatest sports games, then
no--go with the PlayStation 2 or Xbox.

COLOR PHOTO: SONY/AP (PS2) SONY PLAYSTATION 2 Price: $299 GAMES AVAILABLE BY CHRISTMAS: 280Best sports games: (1) Gran Turismo 3, (2) Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3, (3) Madden NFL 2002, (4) Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2

COLOR PHOTO: SONY (GRAN TURISMO) [See caption above]


COLOR PHOTO: EA SPORTS (MADDEN) [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: ACCLAIM (MIRRA)[See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: NINTENDO (GAMECUBE) NINTENDO GAMECUBE Price $199 GAMES AVAILABLE BY CHRISTMAS: 20Best sports games: (1) Wave Race: Blue Storm, (2) FIFA Soccer 2002, (3) SSX Tricky, (4) NHL Hitz 20-02



COLOR PHOTO: MICROSOFT (XBOX) MICROSOFT XBOX Price: $299 GAMES AVAILABLE BY CHRISTMAS: 30 BEST SPORTS GAMES: (1) NHL 2002, (2) Project Gotham Racing, (3) NFL Fever 2002, (4) NBA Live 2002

COLOR PHOTO: MIDWAY[See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: MICROSOFT[See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: EA SPORTS (NBA) [See caption above]