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Microsoft isn't often described as an underdog. But in the world of video games, Sony's PlayStation is king, and all others fight for scraps. While Microsoft's Xbox managed to bump the once great Nintendo into third place, it nevertheless remains a distant second to the PS2, which commands an installed base of almost 100 million units.
But the Redmond giant never expected to kill Sony on the first try. Xbox was always considered -- at least at Microsoft -- to be v1.0 of what Gates and company hoped would eventually grow into a franchise that dominates the home-console market the way Windows owns desktops. Now, with the recent release of Xbox 360, the war has begun in earnest.
Sporting curved angles and a soft white veneer, the 360 looks more like an oversize iPod than a video-game console. It can be set up horizontally or vertically, and either way it looks great on the shelf. The goal here is clear: Go from geek to chic and woo nontraditional gamers. Wireless controllers that feature a handy guide button help the effort by providing ease of use.
But the most pleasant surprise about the console's aesthetic is that it extends into the gameplay experience itself. The 360's dashboard is an elegant, color-coded navigation system that runs in the background whenever the machine is on. This allows for an experience not unlike instant messaging: Windows pop up to let you know your friend has come online, at which point you can send messages back and forth, invite each other to join games, or just chat away by headset -- all without exiting the game you're playing.
The 360 is the first true multimedia console, the holy grail that the video-game industry has chased for years. From making custom soundtracks of your favorite tunes to checking out your digital-camera photos, the 360 allows you to perform a remarkably diverse array of electronic activities.
Yet ultimately the 360 will live or die by the quality of its games. Launch software is usually a hit-or-miss affair, with a few solid titles bobbing in a sea of crap, and the 360's lineup doesn't break with that trend. At least half its launch titles are lackluster, lazy ports of games already available on other consoles, with nothing to recommend them but a slight visual polish.
The standout is definitely Project Gotham Racing 3, a driving game featuring only the finest rides, from Ferraris to Maseratis. Not only do the cars have realistic modeling, right down to their speedometers, but the real-world cities you race in are equally photorealistic. Add wonderful controls and extensive Xbox Live features, and you have a game that's so polished, it's hard to believe it's a launch title. (Score: 9 out of 10)
While Perfect Dark Zero has some big, Halo-sized shoes to fill, it does an admirable job -- though it's not quite so groundbreaking or well designed. A few missteps in this first-person-shooter's single-player mode are redeemed by excellent multiplayer options, which should give the game legs. (8/10)
Kameo is an action-adventure game in the mold of Legend of Zelda. The visuals are gorgeous and the gameplay solid, though hard-core black-T-shirt types might be turned off by its cutesy look and short duration. (8/10)
Beyond Microsoft's own titles, two notable third-party titles have heft: Condemned (Sega's gorgeous serial-killer hunt that's also the scariest game in recent memory) and Call of Duty 2 (a fantastic WWII shooter).
The sports lineup for the 360 is good overall, but the games seem to have fewer features than their counterparts on other systems, probably because of the rush to get them on shelves. The best example of this would be Madden 2006, which has all the next-gen visual gloss you could ask for (fantastic-looking stadiums, roaring 3D crowds and the sharpest helmets you've ever seen), but relatively slim pickings when it comes to extra features; create-a-player mode, a staple of the series, is notably absent.
If the 360 has a killer app, it's Xbox Live -- in fact, the console feels as if it were designed around the online experience. Whether you're racing friends through the streets of Tokyo in a Lamborghini or just yapping with a pal during a game of virtual pool, Microsoft has taken everything that was great about Live and made it better. Those who go online with the 360 definitely get the feeling they're part of a club, which is appealing.
How will the 360 stack up against Sony's PlayStation 3, due sometime next year? It's too early to say. Despite Sony's dismissal of the 360 as "Xbox 1.5," the technically minded say that in terms of graphics and sound, the two consoles will perform similarly.
One potential danger is that the 360 will split its own market. Two versions of the 360 are available, at two different prices. At $299, the Core System is a bare-bones model -- essentially just the console and a controller. At $399, the Premium System includes a host of extras, including a detachable 20GB hard drive, a wireless controller, high-end video cables and a headset.
Considering the price you'd pay for these items separately, the Premium represents a massive savings. And while some may feel they don't need all those extras, consider this: Core System buyers will need to buy a memory device to save their games, and the cheapest is Microsoft's 64MB memory card for $40. Since it's such a good value and most of the extras are things you'd end up buying anyway, go for the Premium. And patient, fence-sitting gamers definitely have incentive to wait: Not only are some of the most promising 360 games coming next year, but many expect Microsoft to lower the 360's price when the competition arrives.