Break out the champagne and joysticks – thanks to HD-friendly blockbusters like The Orange Box, Gran Turismo 5: Prologue and Grand Theft Auto IV, interactive entertainment is back in a major way. (Recession aside, mega-retailer GameStop’s profits grew a whopping 82% in 2007, with $17.9 billion in industry sales expected this year alone.) But as home theater enthusiasts already know, prepping your pad to make the most of these titles, and next-gen consoles like the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii, isn’t all fun and games. Here are several tips sure to help you maximize your button-mashing experience without skipping a beat.
Countless TVs and projectors from Samsung’s LN52A750R to Panasonic’s PT-AX200U promise dedicated “game modes,” which purport to reduce lag (thereby improving character/vehicle response times) and greatly improve visibility. With many simply amounting to preconfigured contrast and color levels however, don’t buy into the marketing hype and pay extra for these “exclusive” features – actual gains are incremental at best. Instead, simply find a mid- to high-end HDMI- and component video-ready 1080p unit (I recommended the Samsung PN50###0 and Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4) with swift response times (e.g. 4-8ms, the lower the number the better); optional built-in viewing mode presets; and front-/side-panel inputs for easy setup and configuration. Though rear-projection sets offer solid performance at reasonable value, LCD or plasma models are preferred, with response times on the former and burn-in issues on the latter having largely been resolved in recent years.
Digital distribution – the ability to download new/classic titles (e.g. Ikaruga or PixelJunk Monsters) on-demand straight to console or PC – is one of 2008’s hottest trends. The same goes for online multiplayer, a must-have feature for most games today. With services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s WiiWare (coming May 12) booming, and wireless connectivity built into most machines, do yourself a favor: Grab a network adapter if your system doesn’t come with one already integrated, plus a fast and reliable router. Word to the wise… Modern consoles don’t yet support the “n” standard, so stick with a good 802.11b, or preferably 802.11g, model – Linksys’ WRT54G and WRT54GS ($35.99 and up) remain stable and speedy standbys, as does D-Link’s DGL-4300 Wireless 108G Gaming Router ($139.99). Conversely, PC gamers with high-speed connections addicted to World of WarCraft or shopping on Steam can consider taking the plunge and upgrading to D-Link’s DGL-4500 Xtreme N Gaming ($219.99) router instead.
Although the PlayStation 3 can pump out 7.1 audio, as with titles found on the Xbox 360, most games top out at Dolby Digital 5.1, and Wii offerings rely on Dolby Pro Logic II technology. That said, having full surround sound capability is crucial to heightening immersion, letting you savor the moment as tires squeal in Burnout Paradise or bullets whiz by during Resistance: Fall of Man’s furious gunfights. Logitech’s Z-5500 (listed at $400, but available for as little as $187 on Amazon.com), connectable via optical cable, offers 505 watts of crisp, full sound at a budget price, and will also pair handily with your PC. Pioneer’s HTS-GS1 ($138 and up) – designed specifically to work with and aesthetically match the Xbox 360 – remains a popular choice as well. Own a PlayStation 3, love watching movies and money’s no object? Step up instead to a 7.1 system with HDMI input like Onkyo’s HT-SP908 ($999), which takes advantage of the Blu-ray drive-packing console’s DTS-HD Master Audio film support.
Finally, no gaming setup would be complete without the little touches that make life easier. For example, XCM’s HDMI/DVI Crossover Selector ($64.99), which offers 4 HDMI inputs and 1 DVI connection for easy swapping between PCs and next-gen consoles. Or PDP’s HD System Selector ($24.99), which lets you painlessly connect four systems to your TV via component, S-video or composite AV cable without causing unnecessary clutter. Wii owners will also find Nyko’s Kama Wireless Nunchuk ($34.99), which removes the standard controller’s troublesome cabling, and battery-saving Charge Station ($29.99) welcome additions.
The Ant Commandos’ cord-free Double Range Guitar ($49.99) and Widow Maker Bass ($59.99), compatible with Rock Band and Guitar Hero titles, are also a must for music-loving PS2/PS3 owners. Sony fans additionally owe it to themselves to purchase the new DualShock 3 controller ($54.99), which – while pricey – reintroduces rumble (vibration) functionality to titles like Metal Gear Solid 4, missing from the original SixAxis pad.
With the format wars over, an Xbox 360 HD DVD drive can further be had for a song at Xbox.com ($49.99), with manufacturer MadCatz’s NFL team-branded gamepads ($39.99) and Xbox 360 Arcade GameStick ($39.99) also cool touches. Really want to make a statement, though? Hit DecalGirl.com, where you can dress up any next-gen console with dragons, aliens, pouting anime babes, lightning bolts and apocalyptic scenes using custom skins ($14.99 and up).
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