When Microsoft first announced that they were entering the cut-throat world of console manufacturing, many people were sceptical. They were going up against the might of Sony and Nintendo with no previous console experience, and offering what appeared at first sight to be a glorified collection of PC spare parts in a (relatively) compact, non-upgradeable box with all the style of a VCR. And yet, when the Xbox arrived in America last November it sold a highly respectable 1.5 million units over the holiday season, slightly more than Nintendo's much vaunted GameCube. The question is, three weeks after its disappointing Japanese debut and plagued by rumours of technical faults, can Microsoft mirror that success in Europe?
Last But Not Least
It's long been said (not least by us) that Europe is treated like the ugly red-headed stepchild of the gaming industry, so it's no surprise to find Microsoft launching the Xbox here seemingly as an afterthought, and with a much higher price tag to boot. What you get for your Ł300 (or €479) is certainly an impressive hunk of hardware though. As you're all no doubt aware by now, the Xbox features a custom graphics chip designed by NVIDIA, which is not entirely dissimilar to the GeForce 3, along with some high end 3D audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound capabilities. The addition of a hard drive does away with the need for a house full of memory cards, as well as allowing some games to cache data to enable faster load times, although Microsoft are quick to emphasise that games don't require installing before you can play them, as they would on the PC. In terms of raw performance and features then the Xbox is at the head of the field, pushing more polygons and pixels than its rivals and sporting built-in broadband internet support, which may or may not be made use of towards the end of the year in Europe. Which is all very exciting for the developers no doubt, but what ultimately sells a console is the games that run on that hardware.
Shiny Happy Polygons
Luckily then Microsoft has one of the strongest launch line-ups of recent years, which may explain why punters in America bought an average of 2.4 games with their Xbox, compared to 1.9 for the GameCube and PS2 launches. Or, if you're feeling sceptical, it could be because Microsoft forced most of the big retailers to sell the console in bundles with two or more games. Either way, heading up the launch hit list is Halo, arguably the best first person shooter ever to grace a console. Not only does it look gorgeous (if a little too shiny), it also oozes atmosphere thanks to a combination of solid AI, plenty of radio chatter and some truly cinematic moments. Yes, it's rather linear in places and the big glowing plot arrows on the floor directing you from one room full of enemies to the next can get a little wearing, but overall it's an immersive and entertaining experience. And just to put icing on the cake, Halo is one of the few recent shooters that features proper co-operative support, allowing you and a friend to battle your way through the single player campaign side by side. If Halo doesn't float your boat though and you need something to show off the graphical capabilities of your Xbox to jealous mates, Dead Or Alive 3 should fit the bill nicely. It may not be the greatest beat 'em up ever made, but it's certainly the best looking, with lush animated backdrops ranging from forests and beaches to a mountain-top temple, and a range of attractive young ladies in revealing costumes beating the living daylights out of each other. It's a formula that worked well on the Dreamcast, and with the added grunt of the Xbox behind the latest installment in the series it should be well worth a look.
Odds And Ends
The same could be said for Project Gotham Racing, an eye-candy laden follow-up to the popular Dreamcast motor racing game MSR. While it doesn't have the breadth or scope of Gran Turismo 3, the brute force driving model which awards you kudos points for pulling off spectacular power slides and slick overtaking moves does make it a lot of fun. Jet Set Radio Future is another excellent Dreamcast exile getting a make-over for the Xbox, with a combination of madcap Tony Hawk style grinding antics and gorgeous cartoon graphics. Last (and perhaps least), no console launch would be complete without a platform game of some description, and the Xbox is no exception. Oddworld : Munch's Oddysee is no Jak & Daxter, but it is an entertaining 3D platform romp with some truly bizarre looking characters and the ability to play as both the familiar Abe and aquatic newcomer Munch. Indeed the two butt-ugly heroes work side by side through much of the game, although the move Abe, open a gate, move Munch, pull a lever gameplay may get repetitive after a while. Still, it rates high on cuteness factor and it has a forgiving save game system, so if your wife starts complaining about the Ł300 you dropped on the console, this could be just what you need to shut her up. The Xbox also has a fairly impressive supporting cast. There's the now inevitable array of sports games, both normal and extreme, ranging from surfing and snowboarding to BMX riding and basketball. Max Payne has been moved forward to act as an Xbox launch title, having topped both PC and PS2 charts in the past, and it could do well again if there's still anybody out there who hasn't seen it. Wreckless might not be the Xbox's answer to Grand Theft Auto 3 that some people have been hyping it up to be, but it did seem to be a fun mission-based driving game when we tried out a demo version at Xperience a couple of months ago, with spectacular crashes and outlandish vehicles. And if you take your driving a little more seriously, there's always Rallisport Challenge.
In total there are twenty launch titles lined up for the Xbox's arrival in Europe this Thursday (the full selection can be found on EuroGamer's UK release date list), and although several are either unremarkable or simply ported from the PC or PS2, there's enough quality gaming there to keep you busy this spring. Compared to the PS2's lacklustre launch line-up, this looks like a flood of AAA titles. But that's the problem. The Xbox has arrived in Europe fifteen months after the PS2, and now has to contend with Sony's huge installed base and massive back catalogue, including the recently released Metal Gear Solid 2 and old favourites like Gran Turismo 3, Grand Theft Auto 3 and Jak & Daxter. And at Ł300 it's 50% more expensive than the PS2, and almost double the GameCube's expected street price. Suggestions that we're footing the bill for Xbox cost cutting in Japan won't have won Microsoft any more friends on this side of the pond either, and although there's a certain amount of hype surrounding the Xbox's European launch, it's nowhere near the fever pitch seen when the PS2 arrived on our shores. It's also not entirely clear how many consoles will be available to punters at launch - Microsoft have only promised to deliver 1.5 million boxes by the end of June. If the Xbox sells purely on its own merits it should do very well in Europe, as it has mind-numbingly powerful hardware and a wide selection of games, including three or four real gems. But with strong competition from Sony and the GameCube looming large on the horizon, it's hard to predict whether the Xbox will prove as popular here as it did in the States. My own gut feeling is that it will do well, but not that well, but no doubt whatever happens we can rely on Microsoft to bombard us with press releases telling us that this is Europe's best ever Xbox launch.