Holiday Central

The real surprise for gamers this holiday season: So much new hardware

Visitors take pictures of the new Playstation 4 Pro and the Sony VR.
Nicolas Datiche | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

It's not a surprise to have a rich holiday catalog of top-tier games when you're three years into a console cycle, but it is a bit shocking to have so many new hardware options.

Both Microsoft and Sony are offering refreshed versions of their Xbox One and PlayStation 4 systems this holiday season. And in Sony's case, it's actually two updated PS4s that are hitting the market — a slimmer version of the existing console and the PlayStation 4 Pro, a high-end system designed to appeal to hardcore gamers and videophiles, with an enhanced graphics chip and a focus on 4K video.

Nintendo's Wii U, meanwhile, is likely to limp through the holidays, as the company will launch its next generation system, called Switch, in March.

And amidst all of this, there are three virtual reality systems (including one from Sony) trying to turn gamers' heads. It might all sound a little confusing, but analysts say it could also mean a revenue bonanza for the industry.

"New consoles from both Microsoft and Sony are a clear positive for the industry, as new hardware sales drive increased software sales," says Ben Schachter of Macquarie Capital. "Additionally, Sony's introduction of PlayStation VR, while having limited near-term direct financial implications, should drive interest in the group and traffic to stores."

The fourth calendar quarter is a big one for the gaming industry, representing more than 40 percent of the industry's overall sales, according to The NPD Group. But it's also simply a great time to be a gamer.

This is when the heavy hitting franchises generally make their way to market. And this year, there are plenty to choose from.

Activision's "Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare" will take the series in a new direction — to outer space. That change has generated some of the biggest buzz in the last four years for the games, which have been released annually since 2003. (Wedbush Securities' Michael Pachter says he expects the game to be the year's most popular title.)

"Call of Duty" has stiffer competition from EA's "Battlefield 1" however. The World War One setting of the game has resonated with players and critics. And EA's "Titanfall 2" (from Respawn Entertainment, the development studio founded by the creators of "Call of Duty") is shaping up to be a big hit as well, as players battle each other (and engage in a new single-player campaign) in giant mechanized robots.

Other fast-paced titles to watch include Take-Two Interactive Software's "Mafia III," set in 1960s Louisiana, Bethesda's stealth-action fan favorite "Dishonored 2" and Ubisoft's "Watch Dogs 2," which casts players as an activist hacker in San Francisco.

Family-friendly titles are a bit less prevalent this year than last, but there are still some excellent suggestions. "Skylanders Imaginators" blends the popular toys-to-life game with user-generated content, letting players create their own heroes, rather than rely on the ones imagined by designers. And "Civilization VI" brings back the incredibly popular strategy series in glorious addictive fashion.

Other big games to watch include "Gears of War 4," Sony's long-in-the-making "The Last Guardian" and "Pokemon Sun" and "Pokemon Moon," which should give Nintendo's 3DS handheld system a boost.

Ultimately, though, a lot of the gaming chatter this holiday season will be centered around virtual reality. High-end headsets from Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC were released earlier this year. And Sony's PlayStation VR has been a hot seller since its debut last month, with many retailers reporting shortages already.

There's some overlap in terms of software between the three platforms ("Job Simulator" is available on each — and is absolutely worth the download), but it's the exclusives that the three are using as their selling points.

For Oculus Rift owners, "Project Cars" and "Lucky's Tale" have received kudos. HTC Vive owners have praised "Fantastic Contraption," which has you create 3-D objects in a VR world, and "Audioshield," a music game that doubles as a good workout. And absolutely don't miss "The Lab," a terrific series of short VR experiences for the Vive created by Valve Software.

PlayStation VR has the most support from established game publishers, offering VR versions of the "Batman: Arkham" series, music game "Rez" and "RIGS: Mechanized Combat League," a multiplayer action sports game from the creators of the "Killzone" series. Ubisoft, meanwhile, will release "Eagle Flight" and "Werewolves Within" for PSVR (and other systems) later this year.

That extensive lineup, along with its lower retail price, should make PlayStation VR the most popular virtual reality headset this holiday, assuming it can keep up with demand.

"Sony's virtual reality experience will be more affordable than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and is targeted directly at the most relevant audience for VR: gamers," says Thomas Husson of Forrester. "Beyond its brand DNA in the gaming space, the key advantage for Sony is that it can already leverage an install base of close to 45 million PS4 users."