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A Full Revolution

Dan “Shoe” Hsu

"We will have the most powerful platform,” says Chief Xbox Officer Robbie Bach. “The Xbox 360 will be the Porsche of videogaming.” Bold words from a console maker who less than four years ago was struggling to prove that its hulk-sized Xbox was as viable a gaming system as anything Sony or Nintendo could bring out. But it’s easy for Microsoft to boast right now. Sony and Nintendo haven’t shown much of their next-generation hands yet, and of course an Xbox successor—now officially named Xbox 360, as you’ve probably guessed—will manhandle the current generation’s now-ancient-by-comparison hardware. But is the 360—due out this fall with a yet-to-be-determined pricetag—coming out too soon? What if the leap in performance isn’t as great as people expect? What if gamers are expecting the Ferrari Enzo of videogaming instead?

Seeing isn’t always believing

You can sense the excitement—and overwhelming hype—when listening to Microsoft talk about its new baby. “This is not Xbox 2,” says J Allard, corporate vice president for Xbox. “This is not an incremental thing within an era, like PlayStation was the beginning of the 3D era, and PlayStation 2 was the second half of the era. This is a new era. This is a big jump—kinda like vinyl to CD to iPod.” OK, unless Allard is talking about some sort of fourth-dimensional gameplay, we should expect two things: much-improved graphics and new gameplay experiences not available on current systems. How does the Xbox 360 fare in these two categories so far?

It’s not fair to criticize a game’s graphics five to six months before its release, but that’s not about to stop us. So far, with a few exceptions like NBA 2K6, Xbox 360 games generally aren’t blowing our minds. Where they should be screaming “photo-realistic next-generation graphics,” it’s more “I’m a really good-looking Xbox game.” Keep in mind, all these titles still have months of development left, and no one was impressed by Halo when it debuted at a trade show six months before its release—and look how that one turned out. So even though Xbox 360 games aren’t making the greatest first impression so far—certainly nothing we’d classify as vinyl to CD to iPod—developers have plenty of time to polish things to a high-resolution shine.

Part of the problem is, visually, the current Xbox still has some legs, as proven with recent hits like Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Forza. Can games really impress more than those lookers? “With 720p and 16:9 [standard for all games], Xbox 360 is going to knock people’s socks off,” says Allard, pointing out an HDTV resolution and widescreen ratio that also happen to be options on the Xbox 1. “That said,” continues Allard, “we’re approaching a [limit] here in graphical fidelity. The difference between a film like Toy Story and Halo 2 is pretty compressed now. There’s still room to go, make no mistake, but it’s all finesse. The average consumer goes to see Toy Story and then The Incredibles and says it’s the same visual quality. You know how much better The Incredibles is than Toy Story, technically? Huge! But the reality is, we’ve gone beyond what most consumers can perceive.” And what if you don’t have a widescreen HDTV? “It will look awesome on a standard 4:3 TV,” says Bach about the type of television most Americans own.

So gamers who set their 360 graphical expectations on “Toy Story to Incredibles” won’t be disappointed. Those hoping for games that look like real life...shouldn’t give up hope just yet. A few specific things we’ve peeped—like a Project Gotham Racing 3 in-game car model and hoops star LeBron James dribbling and shooting a basketball in NBA 2K6—looked unbelievable. A casual observer may have trouble distinguishing these things from their real-life counterparts, but then, we didn’t see them in their real in-game situations (i.e., in a full game with other cars, players, crowds, etc.). We’ll see how everything turns out this fall.

You’ve got services

The other part of the 360 equation has to do with the gameplay experience. Pretty graphics aside, what can this new machine offer that its predecessor couldn’t? Most 360 developers we talked to can’t wait to use the extra horsepower to improve things like artificial intelligence and physics. (And you wonder why more of them aren’t married....) But more ambitious than that, Microsoft is attempting to bring about a new world order within the gaming community—and it starts with one fat button.

The current Xbox offers features you can’t find on the GameCube or PS2, like universal friends lists and custom soundtracks, but have you ever noticed how inconsistent the interfaces are, if these services are even available? Try messaging your friends through Halo 2 and then Chaos Theory—it’s a world of difference.

On the new controller you’ll find a dedicated Xbox Guide button, a one-stop shop to access features common to all Xbox 360 games. “The dedicated button flips you out of your game,” says Allard. “It pauses Halo or whatever your game is and lets you go manipulate the system—then you push it again to [go back to your game]. It’s a simple way to get in and out.” This means you can message your friends, send game invites, download new levels, listen to your custom soundtrack, see your stats...all by pressing this one button.

The Xbox 360 is always connected (or “Live Aware”), too—if you want it to be. Say you’re watching a DVD or playing a single-player game. Your Xbox 360 can still be hooked up to the Internet so you can receive invitations to play games from your needy friends. A small notification window will pop up, then you hit the Guide button to instantly jump to the message.

The idea here—and it’s a helluva smart one—is for this one universal button to do it all, offering consistent services on consistent menus all of the time, no matter what you’re doing with your console. Forget about whether an individual game supports this or that anymore—your Xbox 360 will always be able to take care of it.

Media outlet

When you insert a music CD into the 360’s disc drive, MSN Music will kick in (assuming you’re connected to the Internet) and have track and album names all ready for you, so you no longer have to type in anything for your custom soundtracks. Even better, “If you have a Windows XP PC on the home network,” says Jeff Henshaw, executive producer for the Xbox Platform, “you can stream your music right over to the Xbox 360 console without having to go rerip [your CDs].” This should work for all the digital music on your PC except for the protected songs purchased from Apple’s iTunes Music Store. (“We’ve approached Apple,” says Henshaw, “but they are not interested.”) A home network too complicated for you? Just plug your portable digital-music player straight into the Xbox 360 to stream the tunes directly. And Microsoft says this method will work with Apple’s iPod.

You’ll also be able to bring in your digital pictures from your Windows XP PC via your home network. Again, if that’s too much work, the 360 offers simpler solutions. You can plug a digital camera directly into the 360 and download the files via the USB 2.0 port, or you can get the Xbox Camera, which acts like the PS2 EyeToy, only it takes sharp, high-resolution images and can be used for online video chats or video messaging. Once you get those pictures into your 360, the in-game world’s the limit: Map your ugly mug onto characters, put a logo on a T-shirt or car, or create whatever icon you’d like to represent yourself to other gamers online. Just try to keep it PG-rated, OK?

It’s a-Live!

At about 2 million subscribers, Microsoft’s online service, Xbox Live, is just a small club of avid (and sometimes a-hole) gamers when compared to the 20 million people who own Xboxes. But most of those 2 million members will tell you that this club is worth not only the $50 a year they’re paying for it, but the thousands and thousands of hours of fightin’, shootin’, racin’, puzzlin’, and ball-throwin’ gameplay invested in Live gaming so far. This stellar service can’t be beat, and it’s about to get a whole lot better.

Noticed how we called some of those Live gamers a-holes? That’s because online gaming tends to bring out the most annoying, racist, sexist, backwoods, cheating jackasses in society. But in the 360 generation, you should see a lot less of them. Matchmaking will be much more refined: For example, if you’re playing with JerkStore007 and he’s mouthing off throughout the game, just leave negative feedback on his profile, and Xbox Live will not pair you with him for future skirmishes. If you like that dirty talk, however, you can give him positive feedback to bump up your chances of getting matched up with him in the future—and you don’t even have to add him to your friends list for that. The Live community will also be divided into general zones and skill levels, so theoretically, you’ll be playing mostly with like-minded and similarly skilled gamers when you’re not playing with friends. If this all works like it’s supposed to, hallelujah.

Live gamers will also see microtransactions in their online world. These are small purchases you can make with real-world money to enhance something in your virtual world, such as new car models for driving games, new clothes for characters, or...well, just about anything you can imagine that could customize your game-playing experience. “Fable [2] will sell tattoos in the [Xbox Live] marketplace for 50 cents apiece,” Henshaw offers as an example. “So you can really deck your characters out exactly the way you want to deck them out, without spending an arm and a leg.”

It’s an interesting concept, sure, but a dangerous one. What if developers start pulling bits and pieces of content from their games so they can sell them to you later online? Why just make $50 selling one game when you can make $50 plus several 50-cent microtransactions? Microsoft seems to think the market will stay balanced on its own: “[Maybe] the community will come back and say ‘not interested’ and won’t buy the game,” says Cam Ferroni, general manager for the Xbox platform. “I think the market will dictate how far this will go. There will be a couple of mistakes along the way; there will be a couple of revolutions along the way as well.”

Even gamers can get a piece of the action (hey, 50 cents is 50 cents). Eventually, Microsoft envisions part of the Xbox Live marketplace being run by the gaming community itself, where creative types can design something on a computer, upload it to Live, then sell it to other users (Microsoft is considering taking a small fee for these transactions, eBay style). “You know, the notion of users being able to create their own custom paint jobs for cars,” says Henshaw, “and take them online and sell them to other users...I get excited about the viral community contributions. I think game publishers do a great job of building great downloadable content, but it’ll really get good when [gamers] are able to do it themselves.”

Premature evaluation

Talk to any of the Microsoft executives and you can really feel a sense of readiness on their part: They’re ready to unleash the Xbox 360, and they’re ready for a full-scale console war with their biggest competitors, Sony and Nintendo. But are gamers ready?

Look at an Xbox game like Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and tell us if you really need better graphics right now. See what developer Bungie has done with stat tracking and rankings for Halo 2 and ask yourself whether you’re tired yet of what the Xbox can offer. Seems to us there’s still plenty of potential left in the big system.

Plus, Microsoft’s going after the online and high-definition crowd. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, little more than half of the United States is on broadband, and the Consumer Electronics Association says only around 10 percent of Americans own high-definition TVs. Sure, those numbers will grow in time, but it’s still not exactly the biggest market Microsoft can go after (that would be Sony’s target audience: everyone). Is the Xbox 360 coming out too soon? “Ultimately gamers will be the judge of that,” says Bach when presented with that exact question. “When people see the 360, they’re either gonna say it’s a big leap ahead—or it’s not. If we don’t produce a great gaming experience, it won’t matter if we ship it in ’05, ’06, ’07, or ’08. If it doesn’t have a next-generation game experience, people won’t buy it.” This fall, gamers will get to make that decision for themselves.

Ready or not, the Xbox 360 is coming.

So here it is. The Xbox 360 can stand vertically or horizontally, just like the PlayStation 2 (it’s roughly the same size, too). Don’t ask us how you’re supposed to stack other systems or components on top of this curvy thing if it’s lying on its side—the little contact-lens-shaped gap that’s left probably won’t look too hot in your audio-video setup. To get a behind-the-scenes look at how the Xbox 360 evolved from a simple vision into what it is today (including how it got its circular name), check out the second part of our story at xbox360.1UP.com.

The System

Sleek and functional

Hard Drive

The removable 20GB hard drive (compare to the Xbox’s 8GB hard drive) sits on top of the machine and will come preloaded with casual games (think arcade titles), demo movies, and Gamer Tiles (your onscreen icon, see pg. 68). It’s possible Microsoft may sell larger hard drives down the line.

Infrared Port

When you press any of the buttons on the optional DVD remote control, it beams magic rays into this hole, so your Xbox 360 knows what you want done with your Titanic DVD.

Ethernet Port

Somewhere back here is the Ethernet port to plug in your network cable for local area network (LAN) or Xbox Live broadband gaming. Microsoft will also sell an optional Wi-Fi adapter that snaps on the back of the Xbox 360 to wirelessly connect it to an appropriate router in your home network.

Memory Unit Slot

Did any of you actually use memory cards for your Xbox? Didn’t think so. Microsoft hinted, however, that future faceplates may be sold with memory units built in, so when you slap that sucker on your console, it’ll change the themes and skins in your 360 menus.

DVD Disc Tray

If you don’t know what this is for, you’re lying. That, or you have no business reading a videogame magazine.

Wireless Binding Button

When your friends bring their wireless controllers over to your house for some multiplayin’, you hit this button to bind them to your console. No more controller ports and messy wires!

Faceplate

Don’t like how the Xbox 360 looks? Change it. This entire front panel pops off, so you can swap it for another design, much like cell-phone faceplates. Some designs and themes are already in the works, but we’ll be holding out for something unicorn themed. Preferably airbrushed.

Power Button/Ring of Light

Power button: see DVD Disc Tray, above right. Also note the outer green ring (dubbed “The Ring of Light”). It’s actually made of four quadrants, each of which can change colors to indicate something to the different players. For example, if an outside game invite comes in for player 3, the third quadrant may flash red to let him or her know. Other possible uses considered by Microsoft: a way to indicate your character’s health (yeah, that’s real practical—to have to look away from the screen to get that information) or the health for all four players. The quadrants will adjust properly if the machine is turned sideways.

USB 2.0 Ports

Underneath this cover are two USB 2.0 ports to accept peripherals (one more is on the machine’s backside). Use these to plug in digital cameras, MP3 players, weird controllers, and more.

The Controller

Familiar territory—except for one important new button

Audio/Expansion Jack

You can also plug just about any headset mic you want into the round jack here, like the one you have for your cell phone, for example—wired or wireless, it doesn’t matter. Your crappy old (probably busted) Xbox Live headset will work here, too. The oval holes are for future expansions. Microsoft won’t say for what exactly, though.

What An Extra 360 Degrees Gets Ya

Here’s how Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 compares to its older brother in the tech department. Too geeky for you? Chris Satchell, general manager of XNA (a development tool for the Xbox platform pioneered by Microsoft), explains what this stuff means for gamers in more everyday gaming terms. Oh, it’s still geeky, but a lot more comprehensible.

Satchell: “Developers can do so many more physical simulations than before, so when you interact with the environment, it’ll all feel real and live and not pre-canned or pre-scripted—everything will react properly. You’ll feel much less constrained with how you play with the world. Characters will have better A.I. and be more realistic in how they move. So imagine shooting a character, and he’s limping and falling against the wall realistically.”

(uh...ditto)

“This allows so much more detail and realistic surfaces, which are the keys to having absolutely lifelike experiences. For example, you’ll see characters casting multiple shadows, which is really important for realism.”

“Extra memory means bigger, richer, more detailed worlds. They can be huge, and you won’t have to wait at loading screens for it all to stream in. This memory is also needed to store all those high-definition graphics.”

“This opens up the memory bottleneck so developers can really go to town in how they render up scenes. This means you’ll see more realistic worlds and lighting—a lot of effects you’re used to seeing in cinemas you’ll now be able to see in-game.”

“You won’t be seeing those horrible sharp edges around everything. There’s nothing worse than seeing a beautiful game, but the character’s head is this strange cubey thing. With a higher polygon count, you can smooth out all those hard edges to make things look more realistic.”

“To make surfaces look real and natural, like leather or skin or wood, you have to have a lot of textures. You will really feel like you’re seeing real materials in the game. The game world will feel much more like real life.”

“Now we can make all these great visual effects we’ve been talking about without bogging down the framerate [how smoothly everything runs in motion].”

“With developers, no matter how much memory you give them, they always want a lot more. Compressed textures let them use that memory more effectively, so everything in the game world can look unique, rather than having to repeat textures everywhere, which looks artificial. Audio programmers will breathe a sigh of relief, too, because they get more audio space back now.”

“The coolest thing about USB 2.0 ports is all the peripherals that we haven’t thought of yet that can plug into the Xbox 360. We’ve opened up the whole market for peripherals, whether it’s force-feedback steering wheels or fishing controllers. By having an open [USB] system, the imagination is the limit.”

“More channels let developers...give different audio experiences that react to what players are doing. So if you crash your car into a wall, instead of getting the same ‘thud,’ the game can take into account how fast you were going, what materials you hit, and modify the audio in real time to give you the correct sounds.”

The Services

What you’ll see when you hit that fat button on your controller...

Xbox Live

On this screen, you can check your friends list and send messages and invites. Note your, or rather, Burning Sky’s gamer card in the upper left corner. His rep is based on feedback other gamers have left for him; gamerscore we’ll get to in a bit; and zone is what category of gamer he considers himself (for example: pro zone for hardcore types, family zone for G-rated gamers, or underground zone for jerks who can’t stop f’in around). All of these combine to match the most compatible players together for a better online-gaming experience.

Gamerscore, by the way, shows just how serious a gamer you are. You earn points by playing games and completing accomplishments. What accomplishments? That’s up to the individual games, but all 360 titles will have the same number of points to offer up. Some points will be easier to get than others....

Live...From Your Xbox 360

If you have broadband, you’re automatically an Xbox Live customer on the Xbox 360. Just plug in to access the basic-services-only Xbox Live Silver for free (minus anything you end up buying). If you want to play most multiplayer games, however, you’ll have to pay the standard $50 a year for Xbox Live Gold, which is basically what Xbox Live is now with additional features. And good news for current Live subscribers: Your membership carries through to the 360, so you can keep your same account and gamertag.

Rumor Control

Pricing: No official price yet, but one analyst we talked to predicts $349.

Backwards compatibility: Nope. The Xbox 360 won’t be playing Xbox 1 games. And that includes the rumored 360-optimized version of Halo 2 that people are speculating will come pre-installed on the new console.

Bundles: Microsoft is only producing one standard package (with 20GB hard drive) for launch, unless retailers make a stink and ask for different configurations.

TiVo/WebTV 360: Xbox 360 will not have TiVo-like video-recording capabilities. Microsoft, however, could not rule out Web browsing on the console.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.





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