Microsoft is making its first foray into the gaming console market, releasing the high-powered Xbox system to crowds of eager gamers. The company has been talking up Xbox for nearly two years, originally unveiling it at a game developers conference in March 2000. Company officials have offered several peeks at the console (see May 2001 issue, Xbox eXposed page 76) and heavily promoted it to developers.
PC World took the system for a test drive along with several of the games available at US launch. Initial finding: it's a worthy competitor to Sony's PlayStation2, the current king of the consoles.
Take a look at Xbox's specs, and you might think you're shopping for a cheap PC. That's because Xbox is built around a collection of PC parts. A 733MHz Intel Pentium III CPU acts as the brains of the unit, while a 250MHz NVIDIA GPU provides the graphics muscle. Using the newer NVIDIA chip puts the Xbox's graphics a notch ahead of the GeForce3 chip, which is one of the fastest PC graphics chips available. The system uses 64MB of 200MHz DDR RAM to hold graphics and game code data.
Games play through the system's 5x DVD-ROM drive, and you can save them to the 10GB internal hard drive or to proprietary 8MB memory cards that fit into the controllers. Sound is enabled by a custom NVIDIA chip that can handle 64 3D voices simultaneously, and can output audio encoded in Dolby surround. A built-in 100Mbps Ethernet port lets you network Xboxes together for competition play and will allow on"line gaming when Microsoft adds broad"band support, scheduled for late 2002.
All that horsepower drives games written for a version of Microsoft's DirectX 8 API - the same set of functions that game developers use to create PC games. That's one attraction of the system for game developers - DX8 is a familiar environment, so they can get games up and running quickly.
A hands-on take
Don't expect PC-type boot times and crashes with the Xbox. Just hit the power button and after a brief splash screen, it's ready to go. You won't have to install games, either - they play off the disc.
The Xbox itself looks more like a high-tech stereo component than a game console. It's a heavy machine with an imposing profile, significantly larger than Sony's PS2. All of the controller's eight buttons and two triggers are pressure-sensitive, and the two analog sticks plus a digital direction pad provide plenty of control options. Unfortunately, the button placement is a little awkward. The controllers are large, too.
Of course, Xbox isn't just a games machine. You can play DVD movies on it, although to keep down costs, Microsoft kept DVD movie playback out of the basic console package. You need to add a $US30 DVD Movie Playback Kit to play DVD videos. The kit includes an infrared remote and receiver that plugs into one of the controller ports. Although some games can play at higher resolutions on HDTV sets, Xbox doesn't support progressive scan for DVD playback.
On the audio side, you can rip songs to the Xbox's hard drive using a simple audio console app. You then assemble those songs into soundtracks that can act as background music when you play games. While you can't copy songs between Xbox and your PC's music collection, you can play back any of your soundtracks directly from the audio console.
Getting to the games
As with any console, the success of the Xbox will depend on the quality of the games available for it. Microsoft has covered most of the gaming genres with its line-up of launch titles, and the early games show an admirable amount of polish.
A fighting game called Dead or Alive 3 may be the most visually impressive title available at launch. The large, detailed characters fight through some truly amazing multi-tiered arenas, including a stunning forest level with thousands of moving leaves. Another level features beautiful snow effects, and characters even leave tracks through the fallen snow.
Another game, Halo, provides the first-person shooter game play found in PC games like Quake 3. Halo's graphics have some subtle but impressive touches as well, including some beautiful reflective surfaces. Xbox's networking capabilities allow for cooperative or competitive multiplayer games, though those will probably be scarce until broadband access is available.
Xbox's sports titles include NFL Fever 2002, which features extremely lifelike players. Project Gotham Racing has you careening through the almost photo-realistic streets of Tokyo, London, New York and San Francisco to rack up "Kudos" points and unlock better cars and more tracks.
What's next for X?
Xbox faces some stiff competition for the hearts and dollars of gamers, but all signs point to Xbox being a serious contender for the foreseeable future.
Available: 14 March 2002
Phone: 13 2058