The Empire Strikes Back | Gaming | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Empire Strikes Back

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This is the videogaming console Apple should have made. But it was built by Microsoft.

The sleek, pearly-white case of the Xbox 360 reminds you of the hip, contemporary design pioneered by Apple -- not the boxy utilitarian functionality made famous by folks that brought the world Windows, World and the original Xbox. As if to prove the point, at a recent pre-launch event for the system, 360s were lined up for play testing, each with a glistening black iPod Nano connected to the system. And, yes, you can listen to the music from the iPod directly through the 360 -- even while playing a game.

When Microsoft's new gaming console launched on November 22, Bill Gates' empire took another a giant leap outside the comforts of office productivity into the world of home entertainment. Because at the heart of the 360 strategy is Microsoft's desire to see the Xbox 360 at the center of home entertainment. Imagine a game machine that plays movies on the built-in DVD player, and streams music, images and video over the Internet and from an attached Windows computer.

This is the future of geek chic: a game system that does it all. Of course, most of us just show up to watch the game. Whatever else the 360 can do, its ultimate success depends on its ability to deliver interactive fun.

Sampling titles available for the system at launch suggests that it might take some time for the box to deliver anything really revolutionary. But in the meantime, the system lives up to the promise of delivering a high-definition wallop at home.

Perhaps no game shows this off better than EA's "Need for Speed Most Wanted." We've raced down this road before, avoiding the cops and crashing through barriers. This time, though, the scenery raises the fun from simple high-speed thrills to a direct experience with beauty. Really, this chase game looks as if it takes place in a Renais-sance painting.

"NBA 2K6" has gotten creative with its use of 360's ample power. It doesn't just increase the realism of the players in this quality hoops sim, but also has enough juice left over to include 10,000 individual fans sitting, standing and cheering in the stands.

Or try this little trick out in the 360 version of "Madden NFL 06." Zooming into the Jumbotron reveals that the game renders each individual blinking bulb of the big screen. Gratuitous? Sure. Cool? Without a doubt.

A few original titles have muscled their way in among the sequels and spin-offs. "Condemned: Criminal Origins" offers an "X Files" versus Silence of the Lambs thriller that turns pixel-pushing power into eerie atmosphere. The platform's advanced graphic power lets empty warehouses loom with shadowy menace and swinging light bulbs remind you of the greatest moments in horror cinema.

Microsoft's "Kameo: Elements of Power" provides a gaudy action-adventure title in a gorgeous pink-and-purple world filled with cuddly monsters and challenging game play. The game is so graphically rich that you eventually forget you are playing in land that looks as if My Little Pony dreamed it up.

One feature likely to be overlooked by hardcore gamers rushing to grab copies of "GUN," "Call of Duty 2" and "Quake 4" is the Xbox Live Arcade. Taking the cue from casual games available on the Web, the Live Arcade offers easy-to-pick-up-and-play games that should appeal to the dedicated gamer's non-gaming family members. Low-cost, download games such as the classic "Joust" or "Bankshot Billiards 2" turn the 360 into a portal for part-time fun.

At $299 for the basic system and $399 for the version sporting a hard drive, the latest and greatest ain't cheap. Add in a Live subscription for full-featured multiplayer online play, money for a few games and an extra controller or two, and an upgrade to the 360 could easily run $600 or more.

But with built-in support for high-definition television, many consumers may look at the 360 less as an expensive new gaming console and more as a must-have device for showing off that $5000 HDTV sitting alone in the basement entertainment center.

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Media Melee

Microsoft wants more than your thumbs.

The launch of the Xbox 360 not only heralds the start of the latest wave of the gaming console wars, but also opens a new front in the battle for the living room. With built-in network support and the ability to stream media directly from a home PC, the 360 looks more like a multimedia Swiss Army knife than a simple gaming platform. Attach a $1000 Windows XP: Media Center edition PC to your 360 and enjoy high-definition movies, music, photos and television with a quick flip of a button on your game controller.

Media, it seems, are converging and hardware manufacturers are racing to be the hub for consumer entertainment. And while the 360 winds up its pitch for a central place in the family room, it might look to battles already raging in the portable industry for some advice. Sony's launch of the PSP, a tiny, powerful portable PlayStation, was hyped not just for its games, but also by a steady supply of full-length Hollywood movies for the device. Apple made its grab for portable eyeballs by enabling the newest generation of iPods with downloadable video.

Sony and Apple want to own portable entertainment.

But portable music players that support video and videogame machines that support movies and music provide a market conundrum for both consumers and suppliers.

"I don't think it's so much a matter of whether consumers are ready for such a device, as whether the companies involved can effectively educate consumers about how such a device will work as part of their lives," explains Rob Fahey, editor of http://Gamedaily.biz. "Consumers now understand how digital mobile music works, but video is a new hurdle; most people can't imagine a circumstance where they'd want to watch a movie on the move."

Will gamers put down Madden long enough to figure out how to record HDTV on their PC and then stream the files to their Xbox? Microsoft will need more than a talking paper clip to coach users through this next era of personal technology.

-- D.T.

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