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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW

Xbox 360's Thrills Are Many but They Don't Come Cheap

Microsoft's new console won't disappoint serious gamers, but all that power costs a steep $399.

November 22, 2005|Pete Metzger | Times Staff Writer

Microsoft Corp. might actually pull it off.

After years of losing money on the original Xbox video game console, the software titan today unleashes its successor, Xbox 360 -- a serious gaming machine likely to make market leader Sony Corp. look nervously over its shoulder.

The powerful but expensive Xbox 360 is the first entrant in what's expected to be a ruthless fight for dominance in the $25-billion global games market. Rivals Sony and Nintendo Co. are readying their own next-generation consoles for release next year.

Until then, Xbox 360 offers more than enough in the way of flashy graphics, sophisticated play and worthwhile extras to keep gamers' thumbs tapping happily. And if Microsoft and its partners can deliver a steady pace of innovative and compelling games, Xbox 360 may well vindicate billions of dollars of investment with the sort of market significance Microsoft craves and so often achieves.

But first, a reality check. At $300 for a basic system -- and $400 for a nicely equipped one -- Xbox 360's technical charms are not to be had cheaply. If they are to be had at all. Put it this way: If you didn't spend last night lined up outside an electronics store, this review is probably about as close as you'll get to an Xbox 360 before New Year's.

As with previous game console rollouts, demand for Xbox 360 sharply outstrips supply.

In addition to games, Microsoft wants the white, curvaceous Xbox 360 to anchor living room entertainment. Connecting it to a home network allows the console to play music, run video and display photos stored on a personal computer. Changeable faceplates allow finicky buyers to coordinate the console with their interiors.

Xbox 360 is not alone in its designs on the living room. Sony's PlayStation 3 also will attempt to act as a home entertainment hub. Unlike Xbox 360, though, PlayStation 3 will play high-definition DVDs recorded in Sony's proprietary Blu-ray format, a feature that might give PS3 an edge.

Expect Sony to fight aggressively with PS3, particularly because games are one of the few bright spots in Sony's sprawling portfolio of electronics and entertainment. The company already is trying to convince more casual gamers who want only one console that PS3 will be worth the wait.

But that's months away and Xbox 360 is first and foremost a game machine. Hard-core gamers like those who waited outside Best Buy for their Xbox 360s last night will probably go through the same drill again when PS3 hits store shelves.

Three super-fast processors and 512 megabytes of RAM equip Xbox 360 with unrivaled power to render lifelike graphics. Best results appear on high-definition monitors, but players with standard television sets will notice a difference between the abilities of Xbox 360 and its predecessor.

Many of the more than 20 titles available today showcase Xbox 360's strength.

In "NBA 2K6," for instance, players work up a sweat, just as they do in real life. Few details are overlooked: By the end of the game, Shaquille O'Neal's white jersey had visible sweat stains, and his brow was soaked. On-court movements were fluid and lifelike. The stiff, robotic motions of generations past give way to natural running, jumping and shooting. Even uniforms flutter like actual fabric.

In "Madden NFL '06," quarterback Donovan McNabb walks to the line of scrimmage before a play and his eyes scan the opposing defense. After each play, an instant replay is available, a great way to get a "Matrix"-like look at what just happened. Zooming in close to the action even shows the mesh of the jersey and the joints of the players' gloved fingers.

"Call of Duty 2" immerses players in a realistic World War II battlefield. In the snow-covered ruins of war-torn Russia, the fog of an enemy's breath is sometimes the perfect way to get a bead on him.

The games are so engrossing that players may lose track of time. But at least they'll be comfortable with Xbox 360's redesigned controllers. They fit in the hands better than previous versions, which always felt too big and clunky. Buttons are placed in natural positions. And a rechargeable wireless controller, included in the $400 deluxe package, is liberating.

Because Xbox 360 connects to the Internet and not just a TV, Microsoft has dedicated many of the console's new features to online gaming, building on the success of its Xbox Live online community.

Within the 360's "gamercard," online gamers receive a reputation rating based on feedback from fellow players and can offer a boastful motto, such as "I'm the best gamer in all of Pacoima." Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the card also gives players the choice of one of four "gamer zones" -- something sorely lacking in previous versions of Xbox Live. Players can select what kind of people will be on the other side, from the docile family-friendly zone all the way to the underground zone, where smack talk and foul language are prevalent.

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