E3 - Xbox gears up to challenge PlayStation

Microsoft announced an expanded Xbox Live service and a long list of new games--including titles from gaming giant Electronic Arts--at an event Monday night preceding the kick off of the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

The company also announced a November 9 ship date for the highly anticipated Halo 2, which will also include Xbox Live capabilities. The first version of Halo helped put the Xbox on the map, and fans of the game have been clamoring for the follow up since Microsoft demonstrated an early version at last year's E3.

Face To Face

Chief among the new Xbox Live features is a video conferencing capability that will let up to five players taunt each other face to face. Today's Xbox Live service includes only audio conferencing capabilities. Xbox executives demonstrated the new feature with an awkwardly executed real-time chat with actress Jenny McCarthy. The company did not give details about the camera required to make the service work.

Microsoft also announced plans to offer downloadable games through a new feature called Xbox Live Arcade. The service will include classic games such Dig Dug, popular puzzle games such as Bejeweled, and digital basics such poker and bridge. Players will download the games to the Xbox's integrated hard drive. Pricing was not announced.

EA on Board

Electronic Arts has offered Xbox games in the past, but had not signed on to the Xbox Live service, offering its own online game play instead. Now EA will offer many of its popular games through Microsoft's service.

"EA has always been a great publisher for Xbox," said Microsoft Chief Xbox Officer Robbie Bach Monday. "We're strengthening our alliance by bringing EA's world-class games to Xbox Live, the undisputed leader in online console gaming."

EA is a heavy hitter in the world of sports games, as evidenced by the who's who of sports legends that joined company executives on stage at the event--including NFL great Marshall Faulk and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

EA plans to offer more than 15 titles through the Xbox Live service by the end of this year. Some of the most notable games are Madden NFL 2005, NBA Live 2005, FIFA Soccer 2005, and Need for Speed Underground 2.

Gunning For Sony

With new online features on the way and a long list of upcoming games, Microsoft executives made it clear that they're going after Sony Computer Entertainment and its popular Playstation 2 console with a vengeance. They even brought in The Donald to poke fun at their market-leading rival.

In a video parody of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" television show called "The Novice," Microsoft Xbox executives faced off against Sony executives in a race to build the best online gaming experience. Not unexpectedly, the Sony execs ended up hearing Trump's catchphrase, "You're fired."

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