Microsoft's decision to become a format holder is a step up into the big leagues for them, and unlike PC games where failure is only as great as a single lost sale, complete failure in this arena could mean billions in lost revenue. On the other hand though, it works both ways. Complete success would put Microsoft at the head of another multi-billion-dollar industry. The stakes are high, but that's the way they like them. When GameCube launched in Japan on September 14 it did so with a wafer-thin covering of launch software. Reports suggest that Nintendo has barely sold 300,000 units in its home country to date, but despite that GameCube definitely has class. Games like Luigi's Mansion and Super Monkey Ball are easily palatable on such a cheap console - Cubes have been making it into this country for less than £200, even via the usually extortionate importers, and gamers are impressed at the potential. Xbox is going to be a harder pill to swallow for the consumer, simply because it costs more. Its launch titles have to justify $300 to the American consumer, making it much harder to construct a killer app for the Xbox than the GameCube once the relative price tags are taken into consideration. Amazingly though, going on the strength of the Xbox launch titles seen in London this weekend, it already has several. Even if, in PR terms, the event dubbed Xperience was a blunder. Back at the beginning of September, Nintendo put on a show in Westminster to demonstrate GameCube to hundreds of journalists and gamers. The event wowed visitors. By comparison 'Xperience', the Xbox equivalent staged in Covent Garden's Nutopia this weekend, has failed dismally to arouse excitement amongst its guests. It may yet be a success - it continues for the next few weeks, with excursions to other cities around the country along the way - but the crowds at the Nintendo Show were buzzing, while the only frenzied swarm we saw in the unusually dingy Nutopia this weekend was around the exit.
Microsoft didn't exactly set itself up for success, it's fair to say. Low-resolution FMV footage was projected onto a wall in the first of three 'Zones' at Xperience, and found itself competing for attention with aquariums full of tropical fish. The gameplay zone didn't fare much better. Players were given little green tokens upon entry, which when inserted into grooves at the front of the gaming units displayed the name of the game on that console. Each player got five minutes per game, and three games total, or if you were sneaky as I was, several successive three-game stints as you did the circuit. The first problem was the 14" LCD displays that were hooked up to the Xbox. Whichever PR bod was sent to case the joint ought to be shown the door - most people's first impression was of grainy, badly-defined visuals with a liberal sprinkling of that familiar LCD ghosting. Hardly the best showcase for the world's most powerful games console, and the games suffered because of it - Halo seemed like a cross between Unreal and Red Faction, Project Gotham Racing looked rather too much like MSR, and everyone's rabbit-in-the-hat prediction Jet Set Radio Future looked like a slightly smoother version of the Dreamcast original as well. The Xbox famously has a marketing budget that dwarfs the GNP of some small countries, but this dismal display at Nutopia is apparently the best they could come up with. It's The Third Place all over again for Europe. Fortunately there were a few moments of excitement though. Anybody who discovered the Wreckless unit tucked away in a musty corner of the event will have been in for a treat. The game looked Crazy Taxi-esque through the grainy LCD, but it played like a dream and we can't wait to get our hands on it.
Many have looked to Halo as the Xbox's water carrier. It's already receiving overzealous reviews from American fansites, so getting the chance to play it for ourselves was welcome. And in fairness, it's a tremendous game, and one that Bungie deserve every success with. Amongst its many features are a sprawling single player adventure of epicurean proportions, which can also be played through as a co-operative mission, along with a slew of deathmatch and other multiplayer modes. Halo is a well-rounded first person shooter in that respect and, if you believe the reviews, every other. Even the poor LCD screens in Nutopia had difficulty disguising the sensational visuals. It isn't running at a clear 60 frames per second, but it moves with surprising speed for the most part. Slowing down to 30 frames per second more often than not, Halo serves to remind you that even the GeForce 3-derived NV2A inside Xbox has its limits. If the thought of a game that can give GeForce 3 a run for its money doesn't get you excited, I expect nothing will. On the first level, we were treated to an awe-inspiring Unreal-esque planetary surface, with a steaming waterfall and hilly inclines on both sides. Staggering out of a busted pod we were suddenly overflown by a dropship searching for survivors of our crash, and the sharply defined shadow was stunning as it darkened our surroundings on a narrow log-bridge. Looking up, the glint of the sun from behind the dropship was enough to make us lose our footing and plummet into the frothing waters below... One of the things that strikes you most about Halo's visuals is the quality of the textures, and all the great things NVIDIA's chip can do for them. The textures were clearly bump-mapped and lit to accentuate every nook and crevice. The other thing that struck us about Halo was the surround sound, which was instantly recognizable - tremendous attention has obviously been afforded to the balance of sound effects. The guns don't just titter and the aliens don't just squawk, and when a mighty starship is bearing down on you, you can feel the rumbling vibrations through the gamepad and hear them through the speakers before you're even plunged into the shadows. The crescendo is delicious. Never have a game's sound effects impressed me so thoroughly within such a short space of time. Halo is really going to be something for gamers in this country on March 14th. Let's hope the rest of the game lives up to our first impressions.
Project Gotham Racing
It seems strange, moving from what is obviously one of the most seminal of first person shooters this year and next to what is arguably a rehashed Dreamcast racer, but this was how we were treated, so we feel it only fair! Project Gotham Racing has absolutely nothing to do with Batman or anything like that, but is instead Metropolis Street Racer taken to the next level. Whatever anybody says though, we feel that the visuals in PGR are not up to the levels seen in Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec on the PlayStation 2. There will perhaps be consternation over that point, but we feel it quite prudent to point it out. It's the lighting, you see, which is far too simple. In fairness, the cars and environments are beautifully realized, and with so much light on the scene you would expect such clear reflections. It's nice to have proper damage skins this time around too, so that the crystal clear reflections can actually look like a patchwork of inverted buildings on a piece of tinfoil after a few laps. Texturing here is also extremely well defined - it seems to be a virtue of pretty much every Xbox game we've seen thus far. We do have a pet peeve with Project Gotham, though, and that's the painted-on windows found in the scenery. These don't reflect light, and 90% of the illusion of reality is lost with them, photo-realistic though they may arguably be. Like Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec, Project Gotham Racing has a large collection of excellent music tracks. In the options menus were found a total of 60 tracks from artists like the Chemical Brothers and Gorillaz. We may cop a bit of flak for this, by the way, but in our opinion none of the tunes on the soundtrack has the exhilarated feel of Just A Day by Feeder, GT3's warm-up track. Nevertheless, each city features real DJs from their respective radio stations spinning the decks, meaning that you can expect to hear jingles for Capital FM as you take a spin through London, for instance. This is certainly one up on GT3, which went for a more traditional approach. As far as the gameplay is concerned, one of my colleagues was absolutely taken with the game, but he's not a big GT3 fan. I'm a fan of both, of course. Things that really impressed were the return of the Kudos system, which has received a bit of a makeover for PGR, rewarding you more bountifully for things like getting onto two-wheels, sustaining a powerslide and the usual combos. If Kudos mode doesn't take your fancy though, there are the usual Quick and Arcade races to boot. Project Gotham Racing is an amazing successor to Metropolis Street Racer, and second only to Gran Turismo 3 in terms of its visuals.
Dead or Alive 3
For some reason the version of Dead or Alive 3 on display at Xperience was limited to Time Attack mode. The truth is that this was largely irrelevant though. Nothing can disguise the extraordinary and wholly unprecedented level of detail seen in Dead or Alive 3. Everything is animated, and animated beautifully. When I saw the game in action for the first time, I was convinced I was looking at some sort of pre-rendered cutscene. Everything hits the mark; every effect, every texture, every pixel. Every single visual detail you can imagine has been woven into an extraordinary whole. It's not just a patchwork of effects, it's a living, breathing world. Picture the scene. You're in a dojo somewhere in the mountains, with a faint trace of background visible through the paper walls. The tassels at the edge of the carpet are flapping in the draught and a light is swinging from the ceiling. Two fighters square off; one decked out as a ninja with headband swishing and swoshing from side to side, eyes bright through a slit in the fabric, with muscles visibly tensing on the side of his neck. The other is barely a girl, wearing a skimpy sarong and top, her bosom heaving and her eyes alluring yet playful. Characters full of emotion. Before long they are fighting, and it's clear that the girl has the upper hand, eventually thrusting the ninja out through the paper wall. It crumples as his weight hits it and then gives away explosively, spilling him and a million tiny shards and splinters of wood into the night below. They all roll over in the air, flailing until they hit the ground outside, littering the floor. The girl follows. The air is whipping the girl's hair from side to side, and little clouds of dust engulf her toes as she dances around her opponen. Seagulls can be seen pecking on a nearby beach… There really isn't enough room here to give the graphics suitable praise, but the best thing I can do is compare. Although they are from completely different ends of the stick, Gran Turismo 3 and Dead or Alive 3 are the two best-looking console games out there, right? Well, DOA3 knocks GT3 for six. GT3 is a bland, featureless desert of sharp-angled polygons compared to DOA3. In fact, even the skin on the bare arms and legs of some of the fighters is realized with apparent ease. If that wasn't enough, DOA3 runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. It's barely worth noting that DOA3 is one of the most substantial beat 'em ups this writer has ever seen, with tons of gameplay modes and simplistic controls that can be manipulated spectacularly under the right guidance. With virtues too numerous to list here, just keep this in mind; Dead or Alive 3 is the best looking console game ever, and possibly the best beat 'em up too. We can't wait to give it the full treatment when it arrives on our shores in March.
From an enormous success to a potential failure. Jet Set Radio was a fabulous Dreamcast game, and we respect everything it achieved, but it did get a touch boring after a while. Sega want to address this with the sequel, but first they will have to address the various problems that dog the Xbox code at the time of writing, namely the bizarre and consistent slowdowns throughout. There is a stunning amount of detail on-screen at any one time, even if the cel shading technique does leave JSRF looking suspiciously similar to its predecessor, but it's obvious that the Xboxes at Xperience weren't coping with it. We can only hope that Sega, Microsoft or whoever is responsible rectifies this situation, because everybody here loved Jet Set Radio, and it deserves a worthy successor. Another disappointment was Oddworld : Munch's Oddysee (official spelling, odyssey fans!). Lorne Lanning has been droning on and on about how the Xbox was the only console capable of realizing Munch for about a year. Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to capture what made Abe's Oddysee so special in this sequel. The control system is nowhere near as polished as it should be, and the graphics just look .. well, odd. Okay, that's the design brief, but it does nothing to pull you in, and compared to the likes of Halo, Project Gotham Racing and Dead or Alive 3 it comes up short. Reviews Stateside have been less than glowing so far, and according to a chum in the States, it was one of the least popular launch titles. Aside from the big names there were a lot of also-rans. Fuzion Frenzy was a peculiar little puzzle game, which would make a decent party title but lacked anything particularly clinching. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2X was .. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. Cel Damage tried to take the best bits of car-combat games but instead ended up with more problems than it should inherit from the genre in the first place. The NFL, NHL and NASCAR games weren't on display, perhaps wisely being kept from European players, and games like Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2, 4x4 Evolution 2 and Test Drive Off-Road - Wide Open were all out of touch, and certainly not worthy of the might of the Xbox. Amped was available in a limited capacity, and we like the look of it, but Wreckless was the outstanding title of Xperience, taking elements of Carmageddon, Blast Corps, Chase HQ, Destruction Derby and other games and creating something wholly unoriginal but also extremely exciting. We look forward to it with bated breath.
Xperience was a marketing blunder. Giving gamers in this country their first taste of Xbox was important, but using Nutopia, and in particular those horrendous LCD screens it houses, was a big mistake. Compared to Nintendo's offering, this was Sideshow Xbox. But poor planning and a sweaty whitewashed basement in central London can't hide the power and prestige that Xbox brings with it. Titles like Halo, Project Gotham Racing and Dead or Alive 3 are going to shape the future of gaming, and whether you like it or not, they represent one of the finest launch trios ever, and demonstrate Microsoft's aptitude for the console market. Potentially the best shooter, racer and fighter on any console to date, all from day one, and with a variety of sports and puzzle titles to back them up. It's a well-rounded line-up, even if a number of the games are less than stellar, and something that GameCube lacked in Japan and PS2 lacked everywhere. As far as this journalist is concerned, Xbox has made a strong first impression. Let's hope it can sustain that into the New Year. The console wars are very much alive, and the victor is far from clear.