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Xbox 2 and PlayStation 3: A sneak peek
First official details should come in May, but see what the future holds now.
April 8, 2004: 9:31 AM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Here is what I know: In less than five weeks, most of the questions about the two hot handheld game players on the horizon - Sony's PSP and the Nintendo DS -- will be answered.

Here is what I'm fairly sure of: In less than five weeks, Microsoft will start talking about its next generation home console.

Here's what I'm not ruling out: In less than five weeks, Sony and Nintendo could have a few things to say about their own next generation consoles.

May is never a calm time for the gaming industry. It's when the annual madness known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo (the gaming industry trade show) occurs. It's when holiday line-ups are revealed. And it's when a lot of deals get started. But it's only every fourth or fifth May that new console and handheld hardware gets introduced.

In previous columns, I've discussed expected features of both the Nintendo DS (which will receive a new name at E3) and the Sony PSP. Information about the next generation of consoles for the living room, though, has been little harder to come by.

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Confirmed details are still few and far between, but with developer kits in the field for Xbox 2 and Sony quietly talking with partners, a clearer picture of what we can expect for the next generation is beginning to emerge.

Keep in mind the earliest we'll see new game machines for the home is late 2005. Sony and Nintendo likely won't release theirs until late 2006. In that time, all features are subject to change and often do.

Most software publishers agree on the basics we'll see in the next round of consoles. They're expecting HDTV resolution out of the box and believe both Sony and Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) will include a broadband connection in their machines. In terms of raw power, major publishers are looking for at least a 10-fold increase over the current crop of machines.

For Sony (SNE: Research, Estimates) and Nintendo, there's little doubt the new consoles will be linked with their new handhelds. What form that connection will take remains to be seen, but at the very least, expect to be able to use the PSP or DS as a wireless controller. Microsoft seems more interested in tying Xbox 2 and PC gamers together via its recently announced XNA suite of tools.

From there, things become more speculative. Will Xbox 2 have a hard drive? (Rumor has it Microsoft wants to drop the feature to cut its costs, but developers are pressing the company to rethink that decision.) Will there be two different types of PlayStation 3s? (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe president David Reeves told Europe's official PlayStation web site that the company is considering one PS3 with "all singing, all dancing features" and a hard drive. A second version would simply play games and movies.) They're good questions, but we won't have answers for at least a few weeks - and maybe more than a year.

In fairness to Digital Extremes, this still does not do  
In fairness to Digital Extremes, this still does not do "Dark Sector" justice. Click on the teaser-trailer to see the game in action.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait as long to get an idea of what sort of graphical quality to expect from the next generation machines. Canadian developer Digital Extremes has released a teaser-trailer for their upcoming game "Dark Sector." The footage shown in that teaser is real-time gameplay based on Digital Extreme's projected specs for the Xbox 2 and PS3. Company spokesperson Meridith Braun won't say which emulated console the teaser is running on, only that it represents "a next generation platform."

The trailer is actually a technology demo, showing what the engine is capable of, rather than gameplay footage. Its purpose is to attract publisher interest. But if it is, in fact, representative of what we can expect from the next generation, tomorrow's games will boast a graphical quality that's on par with the pre-rendered (non-interactive) cut-scenes in today's titles.

Want more? Click the gaming zombie - or his boss.

Digital Extremes first announced "Dark Sector" four years ago as a massively multiplayer online action game that would use Epic Games' "Unreal Tournament" engine. The developer later changed its mind, though, changing the focus of the game, removing the MMO elements and, beginning in January 2003, creating its own game engine (dubbed "The Sector Engine").

While new technology is, by default, sexier than today's, don't be fooled into thinking the current generation of consoles are going to be outdated anytime soon. Sony expects the PS2 to have a 10-year lifespan (much like the original PlayStation is still a strong seller today). And Microsoft will keep as much attention as possible on the Xbox, particularly with this fall's release of the eagerly anticipated "Halo 2".

But, that said, change is once again looming in the gaming world and that's always an exciting thing to experience.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.

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