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This is hard-core, continued

360 Test-drive

Three games, two players, one huge-ass TV

The message-board masses have been moaning since learning that the biggest weakness of the 360 will be the lack of a killer launch title. Xbox is banking on Perfect Dark Zero to be its new Halo (until Halo 3 next spring). But it doesnít have the hard-core, built-in fan base of Master Chief wannabes.

Our demo featured three new games, none of which will be worth getting the system for, but that served the purpose of showing some leg.

Graphically, the Xbox 360 rivals the best PC engines. Shown on a monster 36-inch HD-TV, the cinema sequence in Call of Duty looked damn near movie quality, and, perhaps most impressive, was seamlessly integrated into the game, with hardly any load time. Plus, "your" hand (itís a first-person shooter) is all veiny and hairy like the real thing. In Peter Jacksonís King Kong, the backgrounds were thickly layered, with the rain and fire physics creating mist and distorting views. Jack Blackís video counterpart looked so lifelike that we half expected him to bust out the opening to "Tribute."

In Kameo: Elements of Power, you play a fairy who turns into an ogre (killing people by picking them up and throwing them onto your spike-filled back). The playability was intuitive and smooth, thanks to a new controller layout, which gets rid of the poorly placed black and white buttons, and adds two triggers. Itís even smaller than the re-jiggered Xbox controller (the original controller for the Xbox was a hulking behemoth).

But should you drop the $400 on it (and donít give us any of this $300 without-the-hard-drive crap ó you need the hard drive, particularly for the backwards compatibility)? Hereís the bottom line: If you donít have a quality TV (32 inches or larger), you will be wasting your money and Xbox 360ís time. The benefits, at least on the gaming front, are all about the visuals.

ó Aaron Solomon and Ryan Stewart


The cable modem in my home office sits about 20 feet from the A/V system in my living room. Letís say I wanted to set up a home network: I could easily run ethernet through the wall ó my electricianís itching to do it ó or I could just go wifi.

Except that I donít want a home network yet, and neither do a lot of people. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, 29 percent of American households have broadband, but only 8.8 percent have home networks. That means only a fraction of Americans want to stream music to their kitchens and living rooms, or connect their den TiVo to the one in the bedroom, or post a family-trip slide show and watch it from any room in the house.

But Microsoft has added digital-entertainment features that make the 360 a more useful piece of your home-entertainment system. You could call this the "mom strategy" that transforms the Xbox from a violent time suck that the kids leave lying on the floor into a vital appliance that takes a prized place in your A/V cabinet. Sure, the original one could play DVDs or rip music to its hard drive. But the Xbox 360 will talk to your iPod and digital camera, and share media over Xbox Live, or with the latest Media Center Edition of Windows XP. "We wanted to make it easier to let people enjoy all forms of digital entertainment," says de Leon. "We see the hub of the home as being the PC," and the Xbox 360 "becomes a spoke in the wheel."

Like the original, the Xbox 360 can get on the Internet through Xbox Live, which will evolve into more of a social, community experience. Naturally thereís a commercial play as well: Xbox Live Arcade will sell simple and casual games, and the Marketplace will sell everything from new game maps to virtual decals for your digital car. But you can also build a profile, and feed your gaming stats into a "matchmaking" engine that pairs you with other players. Basic access to Live will be free ó and Microsoft wants everybody to sign up.

The Xbox could become more than a game console, a combination of Amazon, MySpace, and AIM where you can communicate with your friends and blast them into charcoal.

Itís the social aspect, the potential to build a larger community through a simpler appliance than the PC, that marks the area where Microsoft could actually deliver the next generation in gaming. Imagine every kind of player ó alone in their apartments, piled together at their friendsí houses, and networked across a gaming center ó all connected, all talking and screaming at each other, and all immersed in the most realistic yet fantastic worlds in gaming. Hard-core gamers do it now, but the masses have not caught up. Maybe the Xbox 360 will make that leap ó or maybe people will just buy it to play Halo 3.

Chris Dahlen can be reached at chris@savetherobot.com.

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Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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