Copyright 2002

[ March 7th 2002 ]

It is bulky, black and aesthetically challenged, but the Xbox is Microsoft's entry into the 11bn videogame industry. Launching in Europe next Thursday, the Xbox is set to spark a huge battle in a market dominated by Sony's PlayStation 2.

A successful US launch has put the software giant in a confident mood, but this is virgin territory for Microsoft. The PlayStation 2 is the market leader worldwide, while gaming veteran Nintendo is set to release its latest console, the GameCube, in Europe in May. But while the latter, despite some notable announcements such as exclusive development of the Resident Evil series, remains aimed at the younger audience, the Xbox is the main competitor for the PS2.

The machine itself is large - reminiscent of an 1980s VCR - and unlikely to be moved once stowed under the telly. The controllers are similarly oversized, although relatively comfortable with prolonged play. Unlike the PS2, the Xbox doesn't play DVDs as standard, but buy a separate remote control (about 20) and you've got DVD playback that is better than the PS2. Online connectivity is important too, with the Xbox having a built-in Ethernet adapter, although you'll have to wait until a network is developed for full broadband gaming. Michel Cassius, head of publishing at Xbox Europe says: "Broadband online video gaming will have as dramatic an impact on video games in this generation as the move from 2D to 3D did in the last generation."

Sony has also announced a hard drive and a broadband connector for the PS2, with Telewest currently running networking trials. A first for a console, the hard drive doesn't just keep the price high - 299 compared to PS2 (199) and GameCube (approx 160) - but offers developers a host of opportunities. There is the chance to create more realistic environments and game worlds, with less delay in loading. And there is the potential of episodic gaming, where small sections are downloaded on a regular basis, creating a "soap opera" style commitment to the title.

Realising that any console is only as good as its games, Microsoft has tried to make development as easy as possible. Unlike the arcane intricacies that need mastering to develop for the PS2, the Xbox is based on fairly standard PC and Windows technology. After all, it is essentially a medium spec PC, with a great graphics card. "We have very good tools, and developers can also start development of their games/concept on a PC and get to a very good prototype very quickly," says Cassius.

Mark Gordon, technical director of Climax London is typical of many developers: "The Xbox is a very powerful machine, which means that we can go quickly from artist to console without too much reduction in texture size or polygon count." Microsoft has also started a developer support programme which has been popular in the UK. Complementing Microsoft's releases, there are 14 third-party titles due out on launch day, from companies such as Eidos and Activision.

John Davis of Eidos says: "Microsoft has the objective of growing the overall market, rather than just pinching customers from competitor platforms." And Roger Walkden, European marketing director of Activision, is similarly upbeat: "It's always encouraging to see healthy competition at the beginning of the life of a new hardware platform as it shows that developers and publishers have committed themselves to its success."

With 20 games available on day one - the biggest in gaming history - the results are mixed, although of a higher quality than the initial PS2 launch line-up. The one standout title is Halo. Ostensibly a first person shooter (FPS), Halo mixes team and vehicular combat with a surprisingly enjoyable sci-fi story. The 5.1 Dolby digital sound is impressive but the graphics really demonstrate the leap forward from the PS2, with high-resolution textures creating incredibly realistic environments.

While none of the other Microsoft titles can match the quality of Halo, there is an eclectic mix to choose from. Project Gotham Racing may be an update of a Dreamcast game but its innovative scoring system - drive daringly to gain points - make it a must for petrolheads. Another Dreamcast update and published by Sega is Jet Set Radio Future, the unique and stylish skateboarding title.

Dead or Alive 2 is a gorgeous fighting game, with stunning character animation, while Amped is the finest looking snowboarding sim around. But perhaps the most interesting release is Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, a platforming, puzzling hybrid that should appeal to all ages. The other Microsoft releases are the mediocre puzzle game Fuzion Frenzy and the disappointing boat shooter Blood Wake.

The third party release schedule includes big name publishers such as EA, Eidos and Activision, although as with the Microsoft releases, the results are predictably mixed. PS2 ports predominate, with Xbox conversions of Max Payne, Tony Hawks 3, and NBA Live offering few surprises. Eidos and Activision do offer some exclusivity though, with both Mad Dash Racing and Wreckless: the Yakuza missions only available on the Xbox. The former is an enjoyable, if limited, cartoon racing game, while the latter is essential for racing fans looking to steer fast cars through crowded cities. With a large urban environment to cause havoc in, Wreckless is a worthy rival to Project Gotham in the Xbox driver rankings.

More releases are scheduled later in March - including EA's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Championship Manager 2002 - the Xbox hard drive making this the first-ever console release for the football management sim. This is only the beginning of the battle for Microsoft and it has some big hurdles to leap. Despite a fairly impressive launch line-up, reports from the US suggest that some of the momentum has been lost with a mediocre second wave of releases. Microsoft also lacks the brand sexiness of Sony, which did much to bring gaming to an older audience.

Nevertheless, it's clear that Microsoft is here for the long haul. It won't win any design awards, but with powerful graphical and broadband capabilities, and most importantly, a massive marketing budget, it is hard to see the Xbox failing.

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