Last week, they fought in line in Cecil County, Maryland over the Xbox 360, like they were polygons in Devil May Cry III But there were real injuries in this one. OK, the Xbox 360 rocks, but it’s no cause for fisticuffs. That’s especially true since one of the dirty little secrets of the industry is that the early games in the hardware lifecycle are often wankerama. That’s because developers haven’t figured out how to take full advantage of the box: this complex engineering process sometimes takes years.
First off, dispense with QUAKE 4; it’s not that enthralling on the 360 because the whole concept is of Quake isn’t that new. Forget AMPED 3 unless you’re one of those addicted snowpunks who feel Adrian Benepe should make a mountain of flakes in Central Park for you to board all winter long. Amped 3 is a convoluted game whose graphics aren’t all that.
If you’re trying to choose between NEED FOR SPEED: MOST WANTED and PROJECT GOTHAM RACING 3, put on the old Jordans and speed to the store to get the former. PGR3 is a good game, but it feels sterile like Mr. Clean made it. Living in Manhattan as I do, I don’t feel the graphics are detailed enough. Of course, I demand a lot: for every store to be labeled, and for every bit of grunge and rust to be shown. I want to smell the acrid stink of the city, and I don’t with PGR3.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted, on the other hand, makes racing feel alive: you feel challenged and you yearn to win. You even get geeky about it, yearning to learn more about the mechanic that makes your car win. As you speed, you can almost feel the wind whip through your hair. You can almost smell the pine as you drive through forests.
In KAMEO: ELEMENTS OF POWER, you’re a warrior who rescues something called the Elemental Ancestors and tries to destroy the Dark Troll King (no, not Tom Delay). It has such a great amount of varied characters into which you can morph, I felt like I had multiple personalities straight out of “Adult Psychopathology and Diagnosis” (in a good way). The rich graphics really show off the 360’s heft, so much so that you might get a crush on the prettier characters. When I stopped fighting and looked at the environment, I felt as though I could see detail for miles and miles, like I’d had a Lasik procedure and my eyes were super-human.
GUN, a jaunty game of six guns, jealousy and retribution set in the Old West, is also available for the other boxes. But here, the graphics are full of stunning panoramas, especially in the HDTV format. You’ll be riding a horse a lot as in Dark Watch, but the beauty and terror you see as you gallop make up for the slowness of riding a steed. You won’t wake up miming Duvall in True Grit and say, “I call that bold talk for a one-eye fat man” to your significant other. But that’s a good thing.
CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS, a game made exclusively for the 360, has an FBI agent tracking down lascivious serial killers. You’ll feel as though you’re inside Silence of the Lambs, but not Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In other words: it’s creepy, eerie, bloody fiction. Of course, having written a book on serial killers, I damn well know this isn’t really the way multiple murderers act in real life. That’s a strike against the game since the developers should have done serious research. But Condenmned showcases the way serial killers are portrayed in movies and on TV, as monsters borne of evil and Freddie Krueger.
As Joanna Dark, beautiful bounty hunter and star of PERFECT DARK ZERO, you’ll shoot through graphically intense locales around the world. During this time, you’ll wish the thin script was written by Charlie Kaufman. Hey, even Shane Black would do. But PDZ really shines online, when you engage in two-player coop mode. You’ll move stealthily though all the missions as in the single player game, but the developers have added some surprise, puzzle-filled challenges for you.
Can you hear me roar? I’m just a little disappointed with PETER JACKSON’S KING KONG. While the game’s graphics are really florid and occasionally scary (it’s like Lost on steroids), the gameplay seems short. Yeh, I love the opening scene, rocking on the ocean à
la The Perfect Storm. But it’s not that interactive, and it could have been. While it’s fun to play as the giant ape, the final scenes including Kong and the Empire State Building should have been imbued with more passion (especially since Jackson wanted to do Kong more than Lord of the Rings ) . . . and mo’ better gameplay. In other words, it needs more intelligent design.
Overall, though, caveat emptor. These, generally, are games that cost $60 a pop, 20 percent higher than most games. Be warned that none will induce geek rapture in your soul during every moment of play. But on the occasions that they do, the feeling is pretty darn like Siddhartha Gautama approaching nirvana. Which is not to say you’ll follow the four noble truths and becoming a wandering ascetic. Then, you’ll have to give up the 360.
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.