Video: Inside Xbox 360

By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 11/22/2005 12:21:57 PM ET 2005-11-22T17:21:57
REVIEW

The buzz surrounding the Xbox 360 reached "Elvis is Alive" levels months ago.  No surprise for an industry where game designers strut like rock gods and star players have groupies  — albeit few actual groupies of the opposite sex. A whole new generation of game consoles is upon us, and Tuesday's launch is the starting shot.

But while the Xbox 360 has the potential to be a superstar, this Elvis is not quite ready to headline in Vegas.

Don't get me wrong. Microsoft's new game console has all the trappings of stardom, starting with looks. With its creamy-color, smooth fronting and hourglass figure, the machine looks like the SexBox 360 when compared with its bulky predecessor.

And if we're talking chops, the Xbox 360 has them. A custom IBM PowerPC processor and 500 MHz graphics processor combine to create graphics that can be near cinematic in quality. The Xbox 360 also plays DVDs, interacts with various multimedia devices, hooks up to the revamped online gaming hub Xbox Live and supports high-definition video and 5.1 channel surround-sound audio.

But the Xbox 360 needs some hits — i.e., great games — to earn credibility. Do that and this reviewer will scream louder than any teeny bopper on the Ed Sullivan Show. (More on that later.)

Pretty and pricey
Booking the Xbox 360 for an unlimited living room engagement ain't cheap. For $300, gamers get the bare bones: Console, wired controller and AV cable. The $400 bundle, a no-brainer in terms of savings and functionality, includes a wireless controller, headset, detachable 20GB hard drive for saving game data, a free month-long subscription to Xbox Live and backwards compatibility with certain original Xbox games. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Xbox 360
Odd Andersen  /  AFP - Getty Images
The Xbox 360 has a vaguely modernist style that's more South Beach than living room drab.
The console is the same, whatever the bundle, and what an aesthetic improvement it is over the original. Its hourglass shape may evoke a rather elegant bong to some players, but nevertheless, it represents a bold step by Microsoft. Truth be told, however, the vaguely modernist style would work better in a South Beach pied-a-tierre or in the lounge of JFK's old TWA terminal than in a typical living room. Set against my living room's black and silver electronic boxes, the Xbox 360 stood out like, well, a PC.

But at least the look is clean with the memory card and USB ports neatly hidden behind beige flaps. While the front evokes lightness, the back is another story. The power cord required to power the Xbox 360 looks and feels like a medieval weapon.

One potential negative with the 360 hardware is the DVD disk tray, a piece of plastic easier to break than a wishbone. Why such flimsy construction for the one moving part that will receive the most use is a puzzler, especially considering that the rest of the 360 feels solidly constructed.

Parental controls
Setup is a breeze. With Tivo-like "bloops" you jump from one Easter egg-colored setup screen to the next. Connect the Xbox 360 to the Internet either though one of its three USB hubs, an Ethernet hub and it takes just minutes to create your gamer identity and set up an Xbox Live account. (One discordant note: While you can buy a wireless antenna separately, a next-generation gaming console should have Wi-Fi built in. Sony and Nintendo both say theirs will.)

Beyond setting up a gamer identity and confirming your television resolution, the most important part of setup may be controlling the content for the little ones. Don't want your kids to access "M for Mature" games or R-rated DVD movies? You can restrict their access to what you deem appropriate and create a password using the various buttons on the controller. Then the only one playing "Grand Theft Auto: Poughkeepsie" will be you ... or at least until your kid figures out you used the dog's name as the password.

The games
Once set up is secured you're ready to rock n' roll. Just don't expect to be blown away — not yet, anyway.

Fans of "Madden 06," one of the 18 titles available at launch, may disagree, as may those who buy the Xbox 360 to play the shooter, "Call of Duty" or "Perfect Dark Zero," the eagerly awaited action game from Rare Studios, a game aficionado favorite.

Maybe I've been conditioned by the hype, but when I hear "next-generation console" I expect "next generation gaming." I'm expecting an experience that says "you're in new, exciting territory" much like "Halo" did for the Xbox and "Grand Theft Auto" did for the PlayStation 2.

That's difficult to find when the games on offer are a conservative mix of sports, racing and shooters and the majority of them are sequels to games available on earlier systems. However, the games do give a hint of the Xbox 360's untapped power. 

The World War II shooter, "Call of Duty 2," boasts some of the best graphics I've seen. When it snows in Stalingrad it doesn't so much fall, but swirls in hundreds tiny vortices. Smoke billowing forth from a grenade provokes a "whoa" reaction. Soldiers, and there can be dozens on screen at any one time, move in a mixture of fits and starts. Interiors, be they the duct-ridden corridors of "Quake 4" or the hovel-like tenements of "Condemned: Criminal Origins'" have more of a three-dimensional organic bumpiness. Improved lighting and shadow play a role here, thanks, I assume, to the Xbox 360's ATI graphics chip.

Exteriors likewise reveal marked improvement when compared against the original Xbox's graphical powers. Individual blades of grass shimmer in the breeze in "Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 06." And when graphics power is extended to fanciful landscapes as in the pixie-dusted world of "Kameo: Elements of Power," fughedditaboutit!

Of course, with this much power, the extent of eye candy in some of the launch games borders on the baroque.

In the racing game “Need for Speed: Escape from the Underground” the road upon which you’re racing has been lovingly rendered with detailed cracks and potholes and various rivulets. The funny thing is, you're seeing this detail while going 180 mph. Have Tylenol handy.

A family affair?
Microsoft has long declared its intention to re-introduce gaming to the living room, to make gaming a family affair, to be — if we can beat a metaphor to death — both the young Elvis for the younger, hard-core gamers and the hefty Elvis for the casual gamer and film watcher. The game library at launch clearly skews young Elvis, but there's plenty here for fans of the old King, as well.

The Xbox 360 offers DVD playback in progressive scan format and the movies I watched with it looked great. And because the Xbox 360 is wired for easy HDTV setup and 5.1 channel surround-sound audio, the home theater experience is that much more attainable for those who care. 

Using the console's three USB ports, users can hook up a music player or a digital camera to stream music or images. I found the process intuitive and easy.

However, these are all things you can do with a PC as well. And Microsoft certainly doesn't want you to get rid of your PC. If anything, they want you to interact with your PC, preferably if your PC has Windows Media Center Edition 2005 to stream recorded shows and movies from the PC to the Xbox 360.

Multimedia offerings are all well and good, but the one Xbox 360 feature that may bridge the divide between the hard-core and the casual gamer is the re-tooled online community, Xbox Live.

All users who connect their Xbox 360s to the Internet can take advantage of Xbox Live's free membership to chat with other users and peruse the Xbox Marketplace, where they can download game levels or other game-related goods and view game previews. Paying members can not only join online games, but join those that meet their skills (a major plus for old time gamers like myself).

For casual gamers there is Xbox Arcade, which is supposed to house friendly fare of the "Bejeweled" genre. The offerings are rather sparse now, however.

Final verdict ... for now
The Xbox 360 does a lot of things very well. The first being that it keeps to Microsoft's promise of trying to offer something for everyone: gaming, DVD playback, seamless interaction with your PC or digital camera.

But the Xbox 360 is first and foremost a gaming machine and by this standard it must be judged. The 18 games available hint at the potential of the Xbox 360 as far as graphics are concerned. What's missing is a demonstration how the 360's graphics ability and its touted artificial intelligence can be exploited to games and game play that are truly "next generation."

With a couple rock n' rollers overseas — Sony and Nintendo — busily putting together licks for major product rollouts sometime in 2006, the Xbox 360 needs to get those games out in a hurry if it truly wants to be the de facto hub for living room entertainment.

All this takes time. Remember that Elvis was a just a hillbilly with a guitar until he met Col. Tom Parker. And the original Xbox was nothing until it met "Halo's" Master Chief. Stay tuned. The story is still being written.

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