My Official X-Box (and games) Review

Gareth

Starting XI
This is my review having played the X-Box this week at the Microsoft Offices in Sydney, sorry if there are some typing and grammer errors, I was in a hurry.

Installed on the top floor of Sydney’s Microsoft Offices, I could tell my Xbox hands on evaluation was going to be a special experience from the moment I walked in the door. Set up with a massive widescreen plasma display, the graphics churning out of the Xbox seemed to be dwarfing the walls. On top of that, a comfortable couch was all laid out with surround speakers placed in the correct audiophonic positioning, raised from the floor in champagne stands. The sound of the Xbox was rumbling out of this surround set-up, augmented by a massive subwoofer.

If there was ever a positive environment to appreciate the features of a games console, this was certainly it. But, I went in with a clear perception. The worst mistake I could make would be to become overwhelmed by the (frankly quite rare) quality of set-up and allow it to skew my journalistic principles. So throughout the session, I imagined the Xbox graphics, not blasting across a vast display filling my entire periphery, but rather buzzing across a tiny 14-inch TV set. And I imagined the sound, rather than creating an effect like a wall of thunder, shaking the floor, I imagined it squeaking out of a single mono speaker. That said, my impressions of the machine Ire mixed.

The Xbox debugger is a translucent green device, slightly thinner than a VCR, but with around the same footprint. Quite a large device. Also, the controllers have most definitely taken the "bigger is better" approach, they are quite massive in comparison to the Playstation 2 controls. The total surface area is about the same as the rather large N64 controller, but flatter and heavier and more solid feeling. The Xbox controller is definitely designed for larger hands, hundreds of times more comfortable than the Playstation 2 controller, which is dwarfed in the typical adult palm, and comparatively far more difficult to grasp hold of in my opinion. The Xbox control is spacious and hefty, Ill designed and positively studded with buttons. The two joysticks, although being offset, are easy to use and the analogue triggers beneath present a smooth resistance. Certainly the vibration effects in the controller are much heavier than their Playstation counterparts, really rocking and shaking with noticeably improved impact.

Obviously the Xbox supports surround sound outputs, which I experienced in action. The screen display was travelling through a high-quality RGB component video cable, also an option for the Xbox. Thus established, with some light refreshments on hand, I took a look at some of the Xbox first-party games, which are naturally being published by Microsoft.
Foremost in most people's minds who know about the Xbox launch titles is Halo, the futuristic first-person-shooter created by the halloId Bungie Entertainment, the outfit that brought you the Myth series of fantasy combat strategy games. Halo has been in development for many years, originally planned for the PC platform. The excitement around this game has been quieter in recent times, as the Iight of time dulled people's memories, but it is finally here. It is probably true to say that this would be a great game on any platform you made it for. Halo is a simple game to play, taking place in quite a complex and surreal world inhabited by a race of nasty Turok-style aliens, called the Covenant. Halo mixes vast outdoor settings with cavernous interior zones, with next to zero transition in betIen. Much like Half-Life, Halo pauses occasionally to load information, but the loading process takes less than one or two seconds. You also have controllable vehicles, which in multiplayer mode can be populated by separate driver, gunner and passenger seat soldiers. There are some interesting characters like the ships' computer, a female who has been immortalised in digital form. She is entrusted to my character's care and provides you with information and orders during the conflict. Halo is a continuous, massive gun-battle, with a fantastic arsenal of weapons. The AI processes of the Covenant really are quite advanced, displaying tactics such as firing explorative shots down a corridor to see if anyone will respond. These "test" behaviours dictate whether the aliens will advance or dig in to their current position in battle, which makes a dynamic difference to the flow of play. You also have numerous friendly soldiers who will travel around in groups and fire alongside you with, it is fair to say, an unprecedented level of sophistication. Some of these characters have authentic Australian accents, which is nice to see. I played about two hours of Halo, the action was saw was fierce, explosive, and very Ill presented. Even two-hours deep into the game I had yet to see any examples of blatant repetition. It was still consistently surprising us with varied experiences and scripted events which Ire so seamless and interactive, they almost didn't seem scripted at all. The physics are great, the effects are fantastic, the variety is very strong. Perhaps most impressively, I didn't see a moment of slowdown, ever. Halo looks like it could deliver everything I Ire promised of it on Xbox, short of a persistent and dynamic campaign environment online.

The other killer title that has most of the press foaming at the mouth is Munch's Oddyssee, the next instalment in the massively popular Abe's adventures from the outfit Oddworld Inhabitants. Originally planned for Playstation 2, the designers crossed the floor in console terms to develop their title for the Xbox, instead. Munch's Oddyssee finally catapaults Abe into full-on 3D, with large, rolling, Ewok-village kind of environments with quirky little puzzles and far more of a platform game component. At the same time, the game at times approaches a kind of "action RTS" fusion with Abe commanding a small army of soldiers with short and long range weapons into battle. Abe is now joined by the last member of a race of extinct fish, Munch. Munch has been experimented on, resulting in a cybernetic Sonar device installed in his head, which locates nearby "Fuzzles", tiny furry creatures. Munch is on a mission to free them, using his new found electric shock abilities, with his Sonar and obtuse ability to control certain machinery with his mind. Once freed, the Fuzzles will devour any enemy that Munch orders them to, with a twisted vocal command: "Eat Em". These two components of the game exist in tandem, sometimes simultaneously with a buttonpress switching live control of Abe over to Munch, and back. In certain levels you need to use them both in disparate locations to overcome complex obstacles and enemies. With these two formidable characters, you are off on a vast 3D adventure against environment-destroying foes, familiar from previous titles in the series. Naturally, the award-winning full-motion-video sequences return with a vengeance, twisted and insane than ever

Those two games are certainly the magnum bullets in the Xbox launch arsenal, with the rest of the offerings solid, but perhaps not quite as inspired. Unlike the first two projects, which had something of a life of their own, the remainder seem to have been conceived and completed for Xbox only.

Gotham Street racing is a self-explanatory title (although nothing to do with Batman) about racing through city streets in sports cars, trying to cut the perfect racing line. As you race you are awarded "kudos" points for stylish or dangerous manoeuvres. My objective is to attain enough Kudos points to earn bronze, silver or gold medals on each course, something like the Gran Turismo 3 licence tests. While Gotham Street racing claims to have at least my times the polygon detail for each car model, the environments seem to have suffered as a result. For example, the witches-hat's at the side of the road appeared to be flat-shaded, bizarrely enough. The game is smooth and fast and I will wait for the final version to pass judgement, but I don't expect this to be a Gran Turismo 3 killer.

Blood Wake is a bit of a concept game, the concept being "demolition derby in speedboats with machineguns". You take the part of an angry young anti-pirate man, in a speedboat, with machineguns. The machineguns largely auto-aim to track targets, the game has a great "extreme" physics engine whereby you can almost pull off skateboarding rail-slides across jetties and other boats. Fast and exciting, the only drawback with this title is the rather unimpressive graphics.

Fusion Frenzy is the real sleeper title from the Xbox launch line-up. While on first observation it appears to be a wacky kind of kid's-grade C title, it is anything but. Fusion Frenzy is the game to kill Mario Party, once and for all. But unlike the button-smashing action of the aforementioned, Fusion Frenzy combines analogue control and skill-based action in a seemingly endless series of excellent fmv-player mini-games. The game apparently features "urban edge" in the form of a soft hip-hop soundtrack and characters subscribing to broad fashion stereotypes. Funny, fast and blessed with a deft execution, Fusion Frenzy could sell more copies than anticipated.

Overall, my impression of the Xbox first-party launch titles was much as expected. The titles which have been visionary productions in progress for years of course hold the most promise. As developers become more comfortable with the machine and have the time to create vast projects, specifically conceived for it, I expect the second generation will raise eyebrows with considerable force. In the meantime, the high quality of the second-generation Playstation 2 titles almost creates a level playing field betIen these two machines.
 


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