It's hard to believe that after years of rumour, speculation, and drip-fed fact, the build-up to the next generation will finally be over in a matter of weeks. By Christmas, both Wii and PS3 will have joined the Xbox 360 on the shelves (albeit not in Europe, admittedly), putting real products from each platform holder within reach of consumers and replacing boasts and hyperbole - to some extent, at least - with real games that people can judge for themselves.
For Microsoft, in particular, this is a moment of truth. The Xbox 360 has had a one year head-start on its rivals, and while sales have been respectable so far, they have certainly not run away with the market to the extent that would leave their competitors scrabbling for scraps from the table - as, for example, Sony's PS2 did in the last generation. That's fine; indeed, it's to be expected, and nobody at Microsoft could have realistically expected anything more from the Xbox 360 to date. The console has won over a large proportion of last generation's Xbox owners, along with a healthy chunk of the early adopter market, and has sold strongly enough to justify major commitments from top publishers - including, crucially, many Japanese publishers who spurned the previous Xbox - not to mention key retailers.
The test, of course, will come this Christmas and next year - when the Xbox 360 will finally have to stand alongside rival platforms and continue its sales trajectory past the 10 million unit mark. Ten million units, after all, is a very small number in a business this large - consider that Sony has sold around a quarter of a billion units of console hardware to date, and probably has between 80 and 100 million consumers, and you have some idea of the mountain Microsoft still has to climb. For all the negative press and bad feeling swirling around the PlayStation 3 - much of it originating from carefully stage managed but seemingly innnocent statements from Microsoft, in fact, which if anything illustrates just how far the Redmond-based firm will go to injure its rival's chances - this is still a console with superb hardware and excellent software support, and there's absolutely no question of Microsoft climbing the aforementioned mountain like a lazy Sunday afternoon hillwalker. They're going to have to fight tooth and nail for every toe-hold on the slopes - and they know it.
That's why it's encouraging to see that this time around, Microsoft has made sure to bring good climbing gear. This week's X06 presentation was a perfectly pitched whirlwind tour around a wide variety of very exciting software titles; a few scant minutes were devoted to the HD-DVD peripheral (nice price, decent bundled title, but the jury's still out on whether the market will ever care enough about next-gen DVD formats to buy into them), the online service numbers, and so on, and the rest of the night was games, games, games. That's exactly as it should be, and it was beyond a shadow of doubt Microsoft's strongest ever performance in a press conference. Titles like Bioshock, Lost Oddysey, Blue Dragon, Halo Wars, GTA IV and Project Gotham Racing 4 are all astonishingly strong products in their own right - compressed into a one-hour presentation and placed alongside non-exclusive but nonetheless impressive titles such as Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell Double Agent, they make up one of the strongest line-ups of software ever seen on a single stage.
This, ultimately, is how battles between platform holders should be fought - and for all that Microsoft have proven themselves to be the masters of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about their rivals in the last year or two, it's on the strength of their software portfolio that they will ultimately be judged, long after everyone has forgotten their carefully worded sly comments about Blu-Ray or hardware delays. While early adopters may buy consoles based on such things, the mass market choses to buy hardware simply because it has software they want to play - and Microsoft did extraordinarily well on that front this week. So it should; Sony, after all, proved to be no sluggard on the software front either when it showed its hand at TGS last week.
That's not to say that everything is going well for Microsoft. The fact that only Gears of War - a resolutely hardcore title that's firmly in the "teenage boys with anger management problems, look here!" category - stands out as a heavy hitting exclusive title for the Xbox 360 in the pre-Christmas period is worrying, but hopefully won't impact the console too badly since both of its rivals will struggle with hardware volumes. Meanwhile, despite the firm's assertions to the contrary, Japanese and even to some extent European sales of Xbox 360 continue to disappoint; and the more rapid than anticipated transition to HDMI-enabled screens threatens to leave Xbox 360 looking a little underspecified in the video connectivity department, as purchasers of new TVs discover that their next-gen console can't take advantage of its best quality connection standard.
These, however, are issues which pale in comparison to the astonishing software line-up Microsoft has now revealed for 2007. We all know that the history of the videogames industry is one in which, time and time again, consoles which did not have the technological edge - and even consoles which seemed to face serious market adversity - have triumphed thanks to having a strong, broad and deep enough line-up of software. Right now, both Microsoft and Sony are showing every sign of being well on the way to developing that kind of line-up for their next-gen systems - and as well as being good for market watchers sick to death of bickering over specifications and keen to actually bring some entertainment back into this so-called entertainment industry, it's also good for consumers, good for developers, good for publishers, and inevitably, good for the growth of the videogames medium. This is the kind of competition that's truly healthy; let the games begin.