Jaw-dropping video gaming


No question, the Xbox 360 is a great game console worthy of all the hype. The games perform incredibly smoothly, and the controllers are a joy to hold. But unfortunately, some of the features that pump up the price to about $300 for the basic system and $400 for the deluxe are useless.

What Microsoft is trying to do with the 360, which went on sale this week, is create the perfect gizmo that will be the center of your living room entertainment experience. In fact, the sleek, stylish console was even designed with changeable faceplates for those seeking to coordinate their interior decoration.

Console aesthetics aside, this is the next generation of video gaming, and the games meet the expectations that come with that. The 360's level of computing power easily surpasses anything seen to date, with faster-loading, superior graphics. Indeed, the graphics are the major indicator that times have changed. On a few of the titles we tried, most of the visuals were absolutely jaw-dropping.

In NBA 2K6, as the basketball game went on, the players worked up a sweat. Few details were lost: By the end of the game, Shaquille O'Neal's white jersey had sweat stains and his brow was soaked. The players' faces had such detail you would swear you were watching an actual game, rather than playing one. And the on-the-court movements were fluid and lifelike. No stiff, robotic motions but rather natural running, jumping and shooting. Even the uniforms flowed as if they were fabric.

On a game like Madden NFL '06, the visuals were amazing as well. When quarterback Donovan McNabb walks to the line of scrimmage before a play, his eyes scan the opposing defense. After each play, an instant replay is available, a great way to get a Matrix-like look at what just happened. Zooming in close to the action even shows the mesh of the jersey and the joints of the players' gloved fingers.

Call of Duty 2, another of the more than 20 titles released concurrently with the Xbox 360, immerses gamers into a World War II experience with a richly detailed, war-torn Russia. In the snow-covered battlefield, your enemy's breath is sometimes the perfect way to get a bead on him.

Another great thing about gameplay is the 360's newly designed controllers. They fit in your hands a lot better than the last Xbox versions -- which always felt too big and clunky -- by contouring to your palm. Buttons are placed in natural positions as well. And a rechargeable wireless controller, included in the deluxe package, is liberating.

Because the 360 plugs into the Internet and not just the TV, Microsoft has dedicated a lot of the console's new features to online gaming, building on the success of its Xbox Live online community.

Within the 360's "gamercard," online gamers receive a reputation rating (based on feedback from fellow players) and can offer a boastful motto (such as "I'm the best gamer in all of Pacoima"). Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, the card also gives players the choice of one of four "gamer zones" -- something the previous versions of Xbox Live were sorely lacking. In this incarnation, players can select what kind of people will be on the other side, from the docile family-friendly zone, all the way to the underground zone, where smack talk and foul language are prevalent.

Xbox Live offers two levels of accounts: A free Xbox Live Silver account is included with the 360, allowing players to sign on and send and receive voice and text messages but not play games online. For that, a Gold account is required, with prices ranging from $7.99 for one month to $49.99 for a year. And gamers can even download new games -- most for an additional fee -- and store them on their hard drives for play at any time.

So with all that good stuff, what's not to like?

The price, for one. The 360 is being released in two packages: the "deluxe system," which retails for $399, and the "core system," which sells for $299. The deluxe version includes a wireless controller, a three-month trial Gold membership on Xbox Live and a hard disk drive, among other things.

To save the progress of your games, your Xbox Live information and downloaded games, the capacity of a hard drive is essential. So buying the cheaper core system pretty much means later having to buy the removable hard drive for $99.99. And after you play with the wireless controller, being connected to a line is going to seem so dated. So for those trying to save on the initial investment, that means spending the $49.99 for another controller. Add that up, and the deluxe system is the only way to go. Yet $400 might be too much for some families to spend on a game system.

Why so expensive? Simply put, the Xbox 360 gives us a bunch of features that you don't need on a game system if you have a personal computer.

The 360 offers the ability to rip and store music, movies and photos, presumably to play on your TV. It's pretty hard to imagine anyone doing something like burning a CD to the 360 when they can use iTunes instead. It's almost as if Microsoft is trying to replace the computer component in the digital living room, something that just isn't going to happen.

Also, the 360 isn't fully backward-compatible yet, meaning all of the games from the previous Xbox won't play on your 360. And that means shelling out as much as $59.99 each time you want to add a title.

So what's the bottom line? Serious, hard-core gamers will surely plop down the money and won't be disappointed. For those less serious, a better plan might be to save your money for the release of next year's PlayStation 3, a system that boasts to be the generation after this one.

Pete Metzger writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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