As I write this review of tonight’s premier event for the X-Box 360, I am entering my 25th straight hour awake. Today I’ve spent 6 hours on planes, 4 hours waiting in airports, and took an hour walk through downtown Los Angeles to the Shrine Auditorium so understandably, I’m a bit tired. Fortunately, Mountain Dew premiered a test version of their new Mountain Dew Extreme at the party tonight tonight, so I’ve got the fuel to get this article in.
Now that I’ve given my sob story about how long my has been, let me cut to the quick: When it comes to graphics and sound, the meat and potatoes of any gaming experience, the X-Box 360 is light years ahead of any hardware on the market today. The video clips and video-captured gameplay presented tonight gave only the slightest hint as to what this new hardware is going to be capable of, but that small hint was breathtaking.
The 360 as you’re probably aware, takes advantage of HD capable televisions, with a minimum standard of 720p, and capable of 1080i, with anti-aliasing included. Additionally, the minimum standard for audio is now 5.1 Dolby Surround sound. So X-Box 360 purchasers can count on movie theatre quality video and audio from every title created for the platform.
Microsoft predicted 25-40 titles at system launch, expected to be sometime shortly before the 2005 Christmas holiday. Roughly 15 of those titles were shown in some form tonight, and none of them failed to impress. Titles from EA, Ubisoft, Microsoft, and a new partnership with Final Fantasy developer Square Enix give the console a great starting point when it comes to launch titles. Additionally, Microsoft further broadened the software base for its new console when it confirmed backwards compatibility for some X-Box games.
My last point when it comes to the gaming aspect of the 360 has to do with the design of the new controller. If you’ve read the list of items I wanted to see at this E3, you’ll remember I was looking for controllers that had evolved. The first point about this new controller is that it comes in both standard plug in and wireless versions. Microsoft is pushing its new wireless controllers as a primary feature of the 360, and with good reason. Also, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to handle one for a few minutes. It is smaller and lighter than today’s controllers, even with batteries installed. It feels more comfortable, even in large hands. In my opinion, it is a step in the right direction.
With the gaming aspects out of the way, Microsoft then presented what it considers to be the groundbreaking aspects of the 360. The software for the new operating system includes a large set of functionality designed to stretch the gaming platform beyond the standard definition of the console. This new feature set pushes the X- Box 360 nearly into the realm of a media center pc. X-Box Live users will be able to download music, streaming video and game updates over the network via an interface known as the ‘Marketplace’. Napster was listed on a screenshot of this functionality as a partner where 360 owners could obtain songs. Users will be able to interface with other hardware, such as the Apple iPod, Dell Jukebox, or even the Playstation Portable. Additionally, these users will be able to stay connected to Live even while using their TV for HD viewing. Microsoft demonstrated some new features similar to a buddy list. Former opponents or those who know your gamer tag can request to play you, and a message is displayed on your TV as you watch your HD programming. Taking the marketplace to the Nth degree, Microsoft even suggested it was an ideal way to bring female gamers back to the fold by allowing them to build and sell tracks for racing games, or t-shirt designs for specific games right over the network.
The X – Box 360 is going to be a top tier gaming console. Even though the technical specs of the Playstation 3 slightly outshine the 360 in pure numbers, the 360 will still provide amazing graphics and audio well beyond anything available on today’s consoles.
The difficulty I have with the 360 is in Microsoft’s preoccupation with marketing the device as far more than a game console. It’s a gaming platform and network, a media extender, and now, a marketplace. In trying to deliver something for everyone, have they gone too far? During the post-event party, I spoke with Manju Hegde, CEO and Chairman of Ageia who said, “I think it’s confusing. In general, consumers like something simple. The X – Box is a game platform, and I think it’s good to stick to games. This (X – Box 360) is trying to become an ‘all-in-one’ device. I really don’t know where they’re going to go with that, but I guess you never know.”
With the launch of the X-box 360, Microsoft’s most direct appeal outside of their core market of hardcore gamers seems to be towards women who don’t consider themselves to be hardcore gamers. I spoke with Tiffany Sanders, a casual gamer who attended the briefing for a woman’s perspective. When asked about the appeal of the new streaming media features Ms. Sanders replied, “I think between the ability to download music and video is going to be something women will find appealing.” When asked if women will be willing to leave their traditional sources for streamed media, she replied, “Remember, iTunes and Napster were new once too.”
In conclusion, Microsoft looks poised to deliver a terrific new generation of their gaming platform, but as to where the many roads they’ve chosen to walk with the 360 will end up is anyone’s guess.
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