Platform Dive-In 

Before you spend big bucks on a video game system, read these consumer tips.

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As Christmas approaches, you’re probably getting the urge to run out and buy expensive video-game consoles and all of the hottest games to make the underside of your tree look like a 1980s shopping-mall video arcade.

Not so fast, Donkey Kong. The days when $50 got you the top-of-the-line machine are way over; buying a gaming system is more of an investment than a pastime. Here are four key considerations that will help as you head out to the stores.

PlayStation 2 or Xbox? It really does depend on the individual. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an Xbox user and a rabid fan of the green-and-black monster. But I’ve also spent quite a bit of time on the PS2. I prefer Xbox because it provides crisper game play and, in my experience, fewer game-play interruptions. As for PS2, it’s easy why it’s favored: games, games, games. There are far and away more game choices with the PS2. However, I think pure gamers tend to gravitate toward Xbox. When making your decision, however, do not let a deciding factor be, “I can play my PS1 games on PS2.” Believe me, you’ll never play them again. Once Santa brought you the Huffy, did you ever ride the tricycle?

Buying for kids: Two thoughts. First, it’s widely held that all kids love video games, but that’s not necessarily true. Before dropping $150 on a next-generation console, invest the money in a used PlayStation 1. Let the store staff suggest the games, and make sure your kids are interested before making the big investment. Second, for younger gamers up to 12 or 13, I wouldn’t consider an Xbox. The way to go is PS2 or, even better, a Nintendo Gamecube. The PS2 matures better with your kids, but the Gamecube is the best system for kids in terms of more family-friendly game choices.

There’s no shame in buying used: You can find quality games and consoles secondhand. You get the boxes and everything that comes with new equipment, but at a discount. Whether for you or your kids, nobody’s going to know the difference.

Don’t forget the accessories: Look for bargains on extra controllers. You’ll need them, while gimmicks like steering wheels and microphones rarely get used. However, strategy guides are good ideas, and the more popular games—like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—offer kick-butt soundtracks and DVDs (Interscope $21.95) to go along with the games. Definitely great stocking stuffers.

Do game research: Learn about the games you’re buying. If you’re shopping for your 12-year-old, and you get the feeling that Hitman or Manhunt might be inappropriate, trust your instincts. Make sure you make the right choices, because most stores won’t take back a game unless it’s defective—and the resale rate will make you feel like you got coal in your stocking.

In Brief

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Before I played this game, I never knew my lifelong ambition was to be a Space Marine. But once I started smacking down Space Marine-style, I was ready to be cryogenically frozen until the 41st millennium. Warhammer is a strategic combat game where you have to decide when it’s right to plot your next move, and when it’s right to surge ahead and think on your feet. Flying by the seat of your pants and not following orders can cost you an entire squad in one fell swoop. Perfect for a single player or up to eight online, it’s a thinking person’s combat game that’s not just about racking up body counts (although that’s pretty fun, too). (THQ, PC, Rated M, $49.95)

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005: It’s tough to find fault with a game from EA. They’ve been making and perfecting them for so long, they seem to fix problems before they ever occur. Tiger Woods is a great golf simulator with realistic courses. The one flaw? Game play isn’t very challenging once you play a few tournaments. However, this shortcoming doesn’t take away from this entertaining title. (EA Sports, PS2, Xbox, PC, Gamecube, Rated E, $49.95)

Shellshock: Nam ’67: This is one of those games you wait and wait for, only to be disappointed when it finally arrives. The game starts out tremendously; the storyline is intriguing and the open game-play allows you to roam freely through base camp buying weapons, talking to comrades and even getting a little boom-boom from a little mama-san. But as you navigate different levels, there are several bugs that either hinder or—at one point on the Xbox version—stop game-play completely. If the bugs were fixed in later versions, it’s worth the pickup. If not, wait to see what happens in ’68. (Eidos, PS2, Xbox, PC, Rated M, $49.95)

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