Much-hyped Xbox delivers the goods

Launch But whether Microsoft can deliver enough consoles or game titles remains to be seen.

November 19, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Some products live up to their hype. It remains to be seen whether Microsoft's first foray into video game consoles will fulfill its promise - but the Xbox is off to a good start.

The top suits at Microsoft, who launched the console Thursday, have vowed that their game machine won't simply compete with consoles from Nintendo and Sony for the attention of families around the world, but also with books, television and the Internet.

After spending several hours playing a half-dozen Xbox titles, I can say that Microsoft has done its homework. But unless you pre-ordered your Xbox, you'll have a heck of a time seeing the results of Microsoft's experiment for yourself.

Late last week, the $299 machines were scarce at toy outlets, electronic game shops and department stores. And while Microsoft has promised to supply more than a million units by Christmas, it may fall prey to the same problems Sony faced a year ago, when launch-time shortages of the PlayStation 2 left hundreds of thousands of rabid gamers unsatisfied for months.

Why the excitement? In part it's the hype that only a $500 million ad campaign can buy. In part it's that Microsoft has the technological muscle to make a better graphics experience for a testosterone-laden audience that prefers crouching in front of a TV set, controller in hand, to surfing the Web.

While the PlayStation 2 renders beautiful images and the Nintendo Game Cube's 3D animation is superb, what's under the hood of the Xbox makes a difference.

The Xbox sports a 733 MHz Pentium III processor, about the same level of power as today's low-end computers, coupled with a 233 MHz graphics chip designed jointly by Microsoft and Nvidia Corp., a top player in the PC video adapter market. That's more power than PlayStation 2 offers.

Like the PlayStation 2 (also $299), the Xbox will play DVD movies with the addition of a $30 remote control. The Xbox also plays audio CDs and supports Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound.

Nintendo's Game Cube, which went on sale yesterday for $199, uses proprietary 1.5-GB mini-discs that hold only a fifth as much information as regular discs, so the console won't play DVDs. If that's a major part of your buying decision, the Xbox or PS2 makes a better choice.

The front panel provides access to four controller ports (for multi-player gaming), power switch and eject tray for the slide-out disk drive.

The Xbox has 64 megabytes of RAM and an 8-gigabyte hard drive, making it much more like a PC than the other consoles. The design speeds up play because the Xbox can store games temporarily on its fast hard disk, instead of reading from a slow DVD. It also allows users to store saved games internally instead of buying memory cards. An 8-megabyte memory card is available for $35 to haul your saved games around.

Another unique feature: if you don't like a game's soundtrack, you can rip music from your favorite audio CD to the hard drive. Then, you can substitute those tunes for the original (if the game publisher activates the feature).

Of course, all this 21st century high-tech hardware doesn't mean much if you can't see the results - and Microsoft can be proud of what's on the screen.

For a look at the millennium's slickest graphics, plug in Tecmo's Dead or Alive 3 martial arts extravaganza or Microsoft's NFL Fever 2002, which is similar to Madden Football but better looking.

Thanks to crisp, clean images and super-smooth animation, watching the backgrounds in some games can be awe-inspiring.

Take a sideways glance at NFL Fever as players move from the huddle to the line and for a second, you may think you're watching a real game. In slow-motion replays, you can see the players sweat and read the label on the ball.

Most impressive were reflections in glass and water, which shimmer and shine in titles like Dead or Alive 3 (although the game's water splashes - dots of white - weren't convincing).

On the downside, Microsoft's bulky controller - with two analog joysticks, triggers, a D-pad and other buttons - is less than ideal. If you've got hams for hands, it's quite comfortable. But if your digits are average sized or below, the sleeker PlayStation 2 and smaller Game Cube controllers feel better.

You can always find a third-party substitute, however. I liked the Trick Controller for the Xbox by Pelican Accessories ($29), which has a more streamlined feel and a rubberized grip. It also records combination moves.

Microsoft hopes the Xbox's expandability will make a serious dent in PlayStation 2 sales over time. The Xbox's Ethernet connection, which is designed for cable and DSL modem hookups, should allow for Internet play and the ability to download new characters and missions for games you own.

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