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Microsoft Xbox 360 Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 December 2005
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Microsoft Xbox 360
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Xbox 360 continues the Xbox Live tradition of offering games with both solo and online playability. While I have never found playing solo against the computer to offer the pleasure and diversity of playing literally against the rest of the world, the onboard fuzzy logic in the solo games now imitates and learns how to be smarter, just like online opponents would. Furthermore, offline play is made smarter through online play, as many games, particularly from EA Sports, add their fuzzy logic from online play experience to any game that’s played. This is a fascinating improvement in game logic which I believe is being tested silently now, which would account for the lack of rollout of a neat and critical feature.

It is important to note that, while many Xbox games are compatible with Xbox 360, each one must have an emulator program written specifically for it to run at all. I cannot entirely understand then why a new and exciting game like Star Wars Battle Ground II, released eight weeks before the 360 hit the streets, is still incompatible. Or Star Trek: Shattered Universe, for that matter. So before you go and sell your original Xbox and buy a 360, make certain that you have checked the Xbox 360 older game compatibility list, which changes almost daily, in order to avoid great disappointment.

Otherwise, the more diminutive and styli-able Xbox 360 sets up identically to the original Xbox, with the exception of a rather large external power transformer, nearly half the size of the unit itself. Initial reports since the November 22 launch have indicated there have been a small number of overheating incidents. This is suspiciously similar to the original Xbox overheating when the tiny two-prong IEC power cord supplied with new units prior to 2005 would overheat after many, many hours (say 12) due to the high current draw required to run more complicated games over time. A few cases cited fire, but I have never seen any pictures or seen any lawsuits, so this is perhaps exaggerated. Still, my experience was that the 360’s transformer did get quite hot, and I found myself setting it up as a precaution on end so that more air could flow around the unit – perhaps an unconscious concern over sudden immolation. The 360 console also gets quite warm along the backside, but this is no worse than most gaming PCs or front projectors with their cooling fans running on high.

As is true of all my reviews, I evaluated the Xbox 360 on a minimum of five different playback systems, ranging from the 24-inch Sony GDM-FW900 HDTV/Computer CRT monitor and the Sony 40XBR700 40-inch CRT television to the Sony Qualia 006 70-inch XBR100 SXRD RP and the NEC XG135-2 eight-inch CRT front projector (similar to the Runco 991 Ultra) on a Stewart StudioTech 130 screen of 12x6.75 feet, all the way up to the Sony Qualia 004 (with the 1080p mod and the Faroudja DVP 1080P scaler) on a Stewart 18x10.125-foot Snowmatte Laboratory Grade motion picture screen. Sound systems included the two-channel Bose Wave radio featuring Dolby Prologic II all the way through the Theta Casablanca III operating in 8.4 mode, plus two additional Bryston crossovers using my custom Snell THX 8.8 system to play back over 26 channels utilizing 30 McIntosh MC-2102 Vacuum tube amplifiers.

By comparison to anything other than the best gaming PCs currently available at four and five times the price, Xbox 360 is hands-down the best visual and sonic performer for almost any reasonable amount of money one might choose to spend. At the same time, it retains a nearly flawless controller interface with a basic 32-bit architecture, common controller design with the previous system, and, unlike so many PC games, there are few hang-ups, even after extended game play, which has been a real problem with certain original Xbox games, regardless of software iteration.

My initial concerns notwithstanding about the slightly smaller, snazzier 360 case design and its heat dissipation, as it has three times the processing power of the previous Xbox (and this must include the rather large and hot external A/C power transformer – boo!), I find this platform to offer the most significant improvement in both absolute picture and sound quality (particularly with the Component Video HDTV connection) of any standalone platform thus far created.

Equally as much, this platform offers an enormous and broad improvement in the quality of game play. Options and visual expectations that would be involved with those realities suddenly come to light in a very visceral way. For example, in any of the new EA 360 Sport games from NFL 2006, and NGA 2006 to NBA 2006 and NHL 2006, the impression of individual player’s attention (with eyes following the action closely) and fatigue as witnessed by sweating, drinking water on the sidelines, panting and overheating due to stress are palpable and visceral as the games progress, providing yet another previously unrealized physical element that can be portrayed as an element of game environment history. The play field also ages with time, showing scuffs on the Astroturf, scrapes on the court and blood on the ice after a scuffle – most realistic in a way we could have only imagined a few years ago.

To me, after this tangible improvement in the portrayal of time upon the environment (and any consequences that might happen) through game play, I now feel new games must be required to recreate an actual event accurately and tactilely. This includes the decimation of initially perfect players (or vehicles) and environments, which, over the course of the game, change to the point where they are not even recognizable or drivable. This level of “historical authenticity” produces an “almost live effect,” with lighting, camera angles and subtle detailing and damage effects giving both the flavor of the real event (as in earlier Xbox games) and the raw detail that is required to produce realistic results in 1920x1080 in real-time on a really large screen.

I find this effect to be of the same level of improvement as previous transitions in my personal history of new video game platforms, starting with that early flat black and white Pong game as seen with color gels fore and aft game in “Airport 1977” (Universal HDTV Network), which would lead to a new form of 2-D hockey and tennis, followed by great improvements that produced Space Invaders, Missile Command, and finally Zaxxon in 1983, the first third-person shooter. (Never to have been reissued – boo!!!)

Having said all this, my personal playing experience with the 360 is transcendent vs. any other currently available gaming system. On a large screen, in particular, the visual presentation at 720p, much less 1080i, produces an outstanding picture, as well as fantastic sound quality with a commensurate system. Unfortunately, loading time is just as slow as with the original Xbox and most PC gaming solutions. Oh, well, perhaps the Sony Playstation 3 with Blue-ray will be speedier.

Exciting games included Project Gotham Racing 3, with its completely realistic New York skyline, particularly the trip across the Brooklyn, Washington, and Varizano Bridges towards Manhattan. Equally as nonstop was the warmongering involvement of Call of Duty 2 in the European WW2 theater that included the streets of Paris and Berlin, among many others, coming to life as though you were there – brrrrrrr. The snow was as subtle as any I have experienced outside of a professional simulator or real life. Troop movement was like watching an HDTV movie, although it was clear during still moments that textures of people and places are matted onto a wire frame of visible points in a scene. Still, these two games in particular struck me for their nearly limitless playfields (well beyond the corner limits and local battlefields encountered in previous game formats), constant adaptations of computer opponents to actual live opponents, and a superb sense of beauty, subtlety, depth of field and total player immersion, particularly on large screen systems over 60” at close seating distances.


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