Ever since May at E3, that Texas Chainsaw Massacre of a video game convention, I wondered whether the XBOX 360 would be a mammoth flop. The 360 press conference was a nightmare — with fuming journos waiting hours to get in. Once inside, we watched hoodied honcho J. Allard kowtow to a group of MTV-like pretties who were paid as extras to sit on the stage and cheerlead the crowd. The script was read by everyone from Bill Gates (on tape) to Steve Balmer (on tape) to Allard (Stepford-live), and it stank of condescension (who writes those speeches, anyway?). Later, my demo at the convention consisted of the Xbox 360 Live online portion only: No games at all. During the summer and into the fall, Edelman, Microsoft’s PR agency of record at least since Windows 95, hosted no demos of the games here in Manhattan, and there was no premiere in New York City at all (unless you think waiting in a rain-swept line for Midnight Madness at some megastore is something about which to get excited). From Rolling Stone to Newsweek to MTV, journalists expressed their lividity to me. It was a public relations disaster of epic proportions, as though the 360 marketers thought: If we show games in Manhattan, the terrorists will get us good. (Instead, on launch night, they did something akin to the Xbox 360 meets Burning Man, an event in the Mojave Desert.)
When the Xbox 360 was delivered last week, I saw this mammoth nearly-two-pound stick of an AC adaptor, the biggest adaptor I’d ever seen. It looked powerful enough to beam me up to Star Trek’s holodeck, and not in a good way. By that time, The New York Post had already condemned the system in a piece that was riddled with errors, as if Maxine Shen hadn’t even seen the device. She wrote that if a geek wanted to take advantage of the 360’s superior graphics, an HDTV would be needed. True or not, this worried me. Then, it was noted elsewhere that only about 200 Xbox games would be backwards compatible with the Xbox 360. What about great games like “Psychonauts” or “Destroy All Humans”? Can’t play them. Talk about woe!
But when the Xbox 360 was plugged in and turned on, I have to admit I was surprised. The graphics on NBA Live 06, NHL 2K6 and Kameo looked staggering-on my non-HDTV 32″ Sharp. This made me want to play games I’ve never really liked. I put in “Need For Speed: Most Wanted” and raced so long, I got a return of carpal tunnel on my right wrist. As I sped through somewhere that looked like the primeval forests near Seattle, the rain came down, and the rain looked so real, I thought I would get wet. All right, when I put in the snowboarding game Amped 3, the graphics didn’t seem all that: but that’s because the game, which tries to be hipper than thou, ain’t great. I didn’t even launch King Kong or Perfect Dark Zero because I wanted to maintain some semblance of decorum, not bop around the living room in a paroxysm like Kate Moss pogo-ing in that video from showstudio.com.
I’m not saying you should spend your $400 right now on an Xbox 360. And I’m not saying I forgive Microsoft or Edelman for ignoring us haughty leeches here in the media capital of the world. What I am saying is that the Xbox 360 is worth $400. Its specs are impressive (512 megs of memory, a 3-core CPU, an ATI 500 MHz processor, HD, infrared ports, a 20 gigabyte hard drive, a remote control, USB ports to play almost any media — even from the Sony PSP, a revamped online gaming hub, and a wireless controller with no lag time). What’s beyond impressive are the graphics and gameplay. In panoramic scenes of bucolic wonder, the jaw just drops, just like the jaw dropped in the theater when I saw Peter Jackson’s vision of a dreamlike New Zealand in Lord of the Rings. Sure, there’s no killer app for the system, and that’s hard to reconcile. There should have been something utterly inventive beyond Halo for the 360. But right now, the Xbox 360 is indeed the shit. (And it’s now been confirmed that all Xbox games will be compatible with the system: eventually.) All of this bodes well for the future of the Xbox 360. If the games look this magnificent at the beginning of hardware’s lifecycle, they’re going to look even better by this time next year. And if future games look more and more movie-like, the lure to play will be palpable. But by that time, the arguably more amazing PlayStation 3 and the more creative Nintendo Revolution hardware will be available. Will it be a three-way battle of mythic proportions? Stay tuned: Next week, a review of games for the Xbox 360.
Developer: Rockstar Toronto
When games take place in New York City, instead of some boring West Coast berg, I’m all over it like an all night club kid sucking up a six pack of Red Bull. THE WARRIORS begins during a Coney Island night time, with the Wonder Wheel and The Cyclone in the background. To me, this game should have more Sol Yurick’s book than Walter Hill’s movie. I mean, Yurick’s first sentence sets it all up succinctly, “Six warriors crouched in the shadow of a tomb.” The fact that the disc ain’t gang lit. is not a game killer for me, since the movie itself rocks and always will. Plus, there’s so much more to the game than the movie: you actually begin the game in tutorial mode 90 days before the frantic meeting of gangs in the park. While the tutorial seemed overly long to me, the rest of the game showcases both the adventure and the brutality of gangs — along with the necessary macho camaraderie. Beyond this, there are more prequel type things: you can go on missions that tell how each member became part of the gang. Yeh, it’s a brutal, raunchy game (and it should feel even more like New York City than it does). But as Hubert Selby said, “Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there’s something inside us that’s so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won’t be able to stand looking at it. But it’s when we’re willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.” That’s the spirit you have to have when you go fighting in “The Anabasis,” in the big city — or even in a game.
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
Developer: Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North
GRAND THEFT AUTO: LIBERTY CITY STORIES is the first GTA for the PSP that’s based in a fictional NYC. There’s something perfect about being able to take what’s essentially a driving game on the road with you. Not to get all Kerouac on you, but like Kerouac, the makers are trying to work in revelations, not just story. You’re Toni Ciprini, a tough introduced in GTA III, and you do the gritty bidding of Mafia warlord Salvatore Leone. That in itself isn’t revelatory. But it’s a deep gaming experience, almost as multi-faceted as the console versions, one of the best the PSP has to offer. Here, you’ve even got multiplayer action (not just single player as in the console versions). And you’ve got a system that easily locks onto your foes when you want to do them the requisite sadistic damage. All that evil on one tiny PSP disk. Pretty “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” huh?
Soul Calibur III
There is a certain creepy, meticulous, lurid quality to the Spider art of Louise Bourgeois. Like, when you go to the cavernous Dia:Beacon and see “Spider,” all enclosed and adorned, you feel the hairy arachnid creeping inside you. You get that same feeling from Soul Calibur III, probably the best fighting game ever made. After you play it, it lives inside you. Now, what distinguishes the Soul Calibur III series is its artful attention to story and its careful consideration of the most minute detail. There are some games, just a few of them, that can be called art — not just tech art like some Ipod-like gizmo from Wired, not just popular art like a cartoon from Spain Rodriquez. In Soul Calibur III, the art is so rich on alls levels from gameplay to graphics, it could be displayed in the Gug.
In the latest version, the character rendering is more lurid than in past iterations. Even the darkest characters seem brighter. The newest, the pixie-ish Tira with her circular fighting sword and vivid green outfit, is a cross between the delicacy of Peter Pan combined with the hard-edged spirit of Courtney Love.
And (oh, joy) you have to be a reader to really sponge up the story in SCIII. Take time to read the odd grammar within the text that appears on the screen when each character fights through the single player mode. Here, the character’s personality unfolds. Whether it’s the sad immortality of Zasalamel, which recalls the most passionate yearning of Anne Rice’s vampires, or the almost religious purity of Sophitia, you get to know the compelling, complex nature as though they were real people.
Buy this and you’ll find it’s like a drug and literature rolled into one. As you sleep, you’ll dream about SCIII. During the day, you’ll analyze it, deconstruct it, even wonder about influence of myth upon the creators. And you’ll kick some real A when you play.
The Complete New Yorker
Publisher: The New Yorker
Developer: The New Yorker
The Complete New Yorker puts 8,220 jpeg thumbnails of covers in a file on your computer. It took such a long time to install its “New Yorker Viewer” files on my new Toshiba, that I wondered if every word of every issue were going onto my hard drive, or if my Pentium IV chip had reverted to an old Intel 386. When it finished taking my laptop on a one hundred yard dash, the first thing I looked up, of course, was video games.
The New Yorker is the closest thing to literature in magazines: that’s not news. But would the writers over the years treat video games as they treat any other popular art? Though the search engine took some getting used to, I finally found Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on “Ultima Online” from 2001. It was beautifully and meticulously written, but it just did not seem to take any joy in the beauty of the game or the gaming experience itself. Is this a pattern? In December, I will continue this search through The New Yorker archives for words about video games — to let you know if they’re written with condescension or with the same adulation and appreciation that you get from a New Yorker writer, when, say, you’re reading a pop music piece about Keren Ann.