|Microsoft Xbox 360|
|Home Theater Accessories Game Systems|
|Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis|
|Thursday, 01 December 2005|
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As a hard-core gamer for over 30 years and a programmer to boot, both in the arcade and on PC and consoles over multiple platforms, I can say with authority that the true test of any new game system or technology is how much better it is then anything else that’s come before it. And, what does it cost for that performance improvement? Back in the 1970s, when there was almost nothing in video games to play, we were happy to upgrade from black and white to color or from Pong to Space Invaders. Even to go as programmers from Basic or Fortran to DOS offered significant improvements to gaming that a few years before were simply unimaginable. This is because computer power was at a premium, as it was throughout the U.S. Apollo missions to the moon, and arcade games circa 1980 like Donkey Kong, Tempest, Frogger, or Pole Position required the equivalent of $5,000 worth of hardware, but only the equivalent of the current processing power of a current $30 logarithmic calculator from Wal-Mart. These games relied heavily on visual suspension of disbelief, and similar allowances with regard to the audio, as they were all terribly, terribly two-dimensional in presentation. Even sports and racing games from the 1980s were substantially flat and cartoonish in comparison with anything we have experienced since the original Xbox appeared in 2001.
At that time, alongside a whole slew of new and superior PC gaming platforms, like Alienware and Apple Computers’ first foray into the Gigaflop processing arena, the original Xbox set the standard for both stand-alone game play and high-definition graphics with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. I found it to offer significantly better game play than anything else with respect to three-dimensional visual presentation, complex light and shading, sound accuracy and spatial envelopment, along with a truly lifelike sense of immersion, previously felt to this degree only in military and research simulators. While the early Xbox games varied in quality, as with all new platforms, many subsequent games like Halo and Halo II first set the benchmark as tangibly real for first-person shooters on any platform. Others like Call of Duty followed. Certainly, sporting games created by EA Sports have utilized every bit of processing power available from the original Xbox, and in the last year or so, EA’s games have looked better on a fully screaming gamer PC platform.
With all the pre-press blah blah about how incredible or terrible the Xbox 360 might be, no less than eight domestic retailers have sold out of all products by the initial November 22 rollout. Most websites that list the product for sale give a time frame for new orders that stretches to at least March 2006. And I am truly shocked by how eager people are, standing in line outside in the fall cold for days, and what they are willing to pay for a system before Christmas, in some cases four and five times the retail price. Fortunately, this did not deter me. And I can say here and now if you are a gamer, you will want to own this platform. But will it be as exciting and new when the Sony PlayStation comes out in May 2006 featuring Blue-ray and 1080p playback capability?
The Xbox 360 looks like it came from the designers of the Apple iBook, offering up a sleek and largely white exterior case slightly smaller than the original Xbox but considerably larger than the Sony Playstation 2; it offers the ability to add skin faceplates and change the GUI to re-characterize each individual unit as its owner desires. The platform is capable of processing one teraflop of information, thanks to its three symmetrical IBM computer cores operating at 3.2 GHz each. The custom ATI processor and its ultra-fast memory run at 500 MHz and feature 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM in a unified GPU/CPU architecture. This allows game designers to make the most of the 1280 x 720p or 1920 x 1080i arena they are charged with filling creatively. In fact, for the 360, all new games must be in high definition and Dolby Digital 5.1, mandated by Microsoft. I think this is a great step towards totally embracing the 16:9 HD aspect ratio and making the most of the improved resolution this game format offers.
A removable 20 GB hard drive (along with a wireless controller, Xbox Live headset, three-month silver Xbox live subscription and a component/HDTV interface cable) are available as standard in the $399.00 MSRP Deluxe Package. I do not recommend purchase of the “Core System” at $299.00 MSRP, as the wired controller is a step backward and the hard drive is absolutely necessary to save game profiles, updates and additions, but it is also useful to store music and high-definition video when exchanged with a PC or Windows Media Center using an optional Microsoft Extended Media cradle; this concept was designed as an afterthought, in my opinion, and not worthy of review unless you must share all your entertainment sources and audio and video selections with each and every different platform and component you own throughout your home, including your car and cellular.
The wireless controllers (which require two-AA batteries or the recharging pack included with the deluxe system) are very similar to the “J” version (the smaller one) of the wired Xbox controller introduced in 2003, being very slightly more tapered at the palm holds – most comfortable – and slightly heavier than the “J” version, yet lighter than the Xbox aftermarket wireless controllers. I found I could get at least 18 hours of continuous play out of the best Duracell AA batteries, while the rechargeable pack was good for 12 hours at a time. This was dependent on the amount of vibration induced by the game, of course, but I think this is quite extraordinary for a wireless product of any kind, all the same. There are two 64 MB memory slots, useful in transferring saved data from an Xbox to the Xbox 360 with older games (and a lot of help and a prayer) and touring with your saved data to other players’ homes, as well as three USB ports for expansion to additional controllers and accessories like a steering column and accelerator for Project Gotham Racing 3. The GUI is very TiVo-like as an interface, both simple and intuitive to operate. The operating system takes a new user through the usual date/time, screen aspect ratio, HDTV format and Dolby Digital sound selection, and in no time you will be playing both new and old games like you had the system set up forever.