5 Game Stories to Watch in 2012

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Goodbye 2011, you tumultuous, fickle, lovely year — hello 2012, another 365-day stretch full of promises, disappointments, and with a little luck, a few pleasant surprises as well. While we’re recovering from Christmas candy excesses and priming our livers for New Year’s debaucheries, let’s have a look at gaming’s crystal ball and see what bobs up.

Microsoft’s Next Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation 4

Will Microsoft announce its next Xbox? Could Sony actually deploy its PlayStation 4? Look for product leaks and maybe official acknowledgment that they’re in the offing, probably, but actual product launches, absolutely not. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 debuted in late 2005 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 a year later in 2006, but they’re both sitting with less than half the PlayStation 2’s record-breaking worldwide tally of units sold (the PS2 sold over 150 million units worldwide), meaning that — with price drops and bundling — there’s plenty of sales headroom left (though the chances either will eventually catch the PS2 are at this point zero). We’re also in the major moneymaking phase for each, where developers know how to wring every last bit of performance from the system and turn games around quickly — and with games like Skyrim and Modern Warfare 3 shattering sales records, no one wants to rush either system to its grave.

That said, both the Xbox 360 and PS3 look ancient in PC-gaming terms — at least a generation old compared to contemporary PC hardware. Even ultra-slim tablets like Apple’s iPad are packing technology that compares favorably, and I’ve noted that with wireless display and gamepad support, it’d be a snap for Apple to make the hypothetically more powerful iPad 3 a console contender. The question in 2012 (and through 2014, when I’d wager one or both of these next-gen devices will finally appear) is whether Microsoft and Sony will go with expensive, dedicated set-top systems, or offer less-expensive tablet-like gaming devices (or gaming hubs that interface, like Nintendo’s Wii U, with tablet-style hardware).

(MORE: Nintendo’s Wii U: Why It’s Time to Stop Fretting About System Specs)

Nintendo’s Wii U

No question about it, Nintendo’s Wii U will be with us in June 2012 — and it’s a device said to range in processing power anywhere from “on par with” to “several times more powerful than” either the Xbox 360 or PS3. We’re talking about a quad core 3GHz PowerPC-based 45nm CPU, 768MB of memory and an ATI-based GPU (it’s an Xbox 360-plus, in other words). There’s also the tablet-style gamepad, a gamble by Nintendo to put a frankentablet in your hands in hopes of … well, we’re not exactly sure at this point, though it’s obviously not an iPad competitor — you wouldn’t drag one around for day-to-day computing, email, browsing and so forth.

But Nintendo’s real trick is going to be getting third- and first-party development in lockstep. The Wii’s library of shovelware rivals the original PlayStation’s, and Nintendo’s first-party games have been in a creative rut for years. Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda — they’re like that song the radio station won’t stop playing (and we can’t stop listening to). Forget tablets/pads, no-glasses 3D and motion controls (gaming’s gimmicks, in other words) and let’s see some genuinely fresh gameplay ideas that don’t involve plumbers, gorillas or kids in green stocking caps.

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