By Albert Samaha
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Q: A drunken pal recently destroyed my PlayStation 2 during an overly spirited game of charades. I was all set to make him buy me a replacement, but then I hear Xbox's online gaming is way, way better than PS2's. Is it worth making the switch?
Despite its technological muscle, the Xbox has never been a Mr. Roboto fave. The controllers are unwieldy, the game library limited (no Grand Theft Auto!), and the contraption weighs damn nigh a metric ton. But let's give credit where credit's due: If you've ever dreamed of playing Unreal Tournament against a 10-year-old from Austria, without ever leaving the comfort of your tattered La-Z-Boy, Xbox is the way to go. Tangling with remote foes is much easier on Microsoft's flagship console than on Sony's PS2, and the experience is bound to appeal to serious gamers who can't abide jerky graphics or garbled sound. That said, don't be too quick to abandon your PS2 roots, especially if you're a post-collegiate type who worships at the altar of Electronic Arts.
Ever the console pioneer, Sony has been selling the PS2 Online Adapter since August. The $40 card, which snaps into the machine's expansion slot, features ports for either a phone line or an Ethernet cable. Once you've got the software installed, simply pop in one of PS2's dozen or so online-enabled titles, like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 or NBA 2K3, and you're whisked away to an online arena operated by the game's developer.
Sounds easy enough, but using a dial-up connection puts a damper on the experience. Fifty-six kilobytes-per-second is a joke when it comes to online gaming, and guarantees plenty of frozen screens. Things run smoother over broadband, but quality still variesin the DSL-equipped testing lab, Mr. Roboto occasionally felt like his NFL 2K3 receivers were running their patterns in molasses.
No such problems with Xbox Live, which requires a $50 starter kit consisting of a setup disc and a wraparound headset. The service is broadband-only, so dial-uppers should steer clear. The biggest difference between Xbox Live and PS2 Online, though, is Microsoft's centralized approach. Rather than letting third-party developers like Sega run the servers, the House That Gates Built handles all the gaming traffic itself. Yeah, it's kind of creepy realizing you've been seduced into Microsoft's quasi-authoritarian fold. But the games run splendidly, you can use the same screen name and password for every title, and a global "buddy list" lets you find and challenge friends (or enemies). Oh, and Xbox Live lets you download new MechAssault levels to the console's hard disk. If that's evil, then Mr. Roboto doesn't want to be good.
As cheesy as they may seem, the two-way headsets are also a nice touch. There's something invigorating about bouncing a "Yo mama . . . " joke off an opponent after schooling them on fourth and goal. You can even mask your voice with some tough-guy sound effects, turning your scrawny alto into a robo-growl. The chatter doesn't always delight, however: Only a linguist would love hearing a thousand and one regional variations of the word bee-yotch. (One PS2 title, SOCOM: Navy SEALs, currently supports headsets, though the sound gets a bit choppy.)
Xbox Live's downer is the dearth of adequate sports games, particularly those insanely popular EA offerings like Madden NFL 2003. The other issue to be wary of is cost. For now, the first year of Xbox Live is free, but Microsoft's generosity won't persist forever. The company has yet to announce what the subscription fees will be; most estimates range from $6 to $10 per month. As for PS2 Online, Sony's leaving it up to the third-party server managers as to whether and what to charge. None have yet, but the feeling here is that some will eventually find a way to suck the coins out of your change purse. They always do.
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