A morning with Microsoft's Xbox 360

Microsoft's Xbox 360 games console won't hit store shelves anywhere worldwide until its North American launch on Nov. 22, but there is one place where people can walk in off the street and get an early taste of next-generation gaming.

The Xbox 360 Lounge opened in Tokyo's trendy Omotesando district on Nov. 2 as part of Microsoft's publicity for the console ahead of its Japanese launch on Dec. 10. The lounge offers visitors a chance to play demos of six upcoming Xbox 360 games.

In the lounge, which includes a cafe, are six display stands similar to those Microsoft used at the Tokyo Game Show. Each display houses an Xbox 360 console playing a different game and high-definition television set. At the game show there were numerous stands showcasing 27 games.

The demo games on display at the lounge are: Ridge Racer 6; Every Party; Wrestle Kingdom; N3: Ninety Nine Nights; Kameo, Elements of Power; and Shin Sangoku Musou 4 Special.

On a recent weekday morning, the lounge attracted a handful of people who were playing the games and drinking banana lattes -- one of the drinks on offer at the cafe. While only a handful of visitors might not be great for Microsoft it did make it easy to try out the games on display. And unlike the game show, where visitors got a chance to play the game once before having to make way for someone else, at the Tokyo lounge there was no such pressure to move on.

So what's next-generation gaming like? There's no doubt the Xbox 360 represents a big jump over the graphics capability of both the current Xbox console and also the Sony Computer Entertainment (SCEI) PlayStation 2. The jump from standard to high-definition gaming alone makes an impressive improvement on current games; but there's also the benefits from the Xbox 360's more powerful hardware platform.

Everything about the visual aspect of the games is improved and the games on show were very responsive and fast moving. The skin of the characters in Wrestle Kingdom looked almost life-like; reflections shone realistically off of the cars and objects in Ridge Racer 6; and, though in the heat of battle it's easy to miss, the screens of Ninety Nine Nights feature scores of warriors all moving independently and fighting each other.

Of course, it's much too early to compare the Xbox 360 with SCEI's upcoming PlayStation 3. In pure processing terms, the Sony console is more powerful and an impressive gaming experience is also expected. But prototype systems and games have yet to be demonstrated, so it's impossible to tell if this power advantage will also translate into a better gaming experience.

It's also too early to pass a final judgement on the Xbox 360. It typically takes developers time to get to know a new gaming platform and learn the tips and tricks that make for truly spectacular games. Games developed later in a console's life are more impressive than the first software.

The Xbox 360 lounge also showcases a couple of prototype consoles alongside big-screen plasma TVs in a living room environment. Here the consoles are free standing and provide a chance to glimpse the back of the device, which is hidden from view in the display stands.

It's clean with only a power socket, a display connector and an Ethernet port. The display connector appears to provide both standard and high-definition outputs together. The plug connected to an Xbox 360 at the lounge had a switch on the side for flipping between standard and HDTV outputs.

Game players in North America themselves will get a chance to pass their own judgement on the Xbox 360 in a week from now when it goes on sale. The European launch is scheduled for Dec. 2 and the Japan launch for Dec. 10. Sony's PlayStation 3 isn't expected on the market for between 3 and 6 months from now.

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Martyn Williams

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