- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The first shot in the next level of the video-game revolution was fired this holiday season as a small number of lucky players got their hands on Bill Gates’ latest entertainment console.

Only time will tell if the Xbox 360 can live up to the marketing hype, but families and part-time gamers should hold off trying to buy Microsoft’s latest media-merging spectacle. Right now, I see the system catering to a narrow demographic, specifically the 30-year-old male technophile who loves to interact in beautiful, virtual worlds with avatars using his 50-inch high-definition plasma television.

The latest-generation Xbox certainly is impressive to behold, with innards boasting a processor with three cores that clock in at 3.2 GHz each, a 500 MHz ATI graphics processor and 512 megabytes of RAM.

The Xbox 360 comes in two configurations. Each gets a wireless controller and cables, but the cheaper one ($299) will lose audience appeal to the premium package ($399). Among its extras, the premium includes a detachable 20-gigabyte hard drive to allow for backward compatibility with a selection of older Xbox games, a real sticking point for folks who already have invested heavily in the original system.

The Xbox 360 offers the ability to pop in almost any type of popular disc or media card and access the contents onscreen via three USB ports and a 12X dual-layer DVD-ROM drive. That means it is easy to watch a movie on DVD, listen to an MP3 player’s catalog, save cuts from a music CD, view pictures from most digital cameras and further hook up a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 for another level of multimedia.

The Xbox 360 also is seamlessly integrated into Xbox Live, Microsoft’s all-encompassing broadband online community, which gives its Gold members ($49.99 a year) multiplayer gaming, the ability to browse and purchase new titles, and the ability to talk to one another via voice, video and text chat functionality.

As for specific games for the system, they definitely shine when displayed on a big high-definition television displaying 1080i output in a widescreen format with an ear-shattering surround-sound system. Of the games currently available, the best-looking and -playing of the bunch ($59.99 each) include:

Dead or Alive 4, from Tecmo, rated M for violence. The 3-D fighter helped define its genre, and a complete cast of martial-arts-proficient, jiggly female heroines and vein-popping brutes return in lightning-fast gladiatorial contests. The game boasts interactive environments that are as beautiful as the lead characters and a multiplayer option that will make the player feel as if he’s hanging out at an arcade.

Call of Duty 2, from Activision, rated T for violence. This gorgeous, brutally demanding first-person shooter set during World War II allows intense single-player missions and also lets up to eight players battle online.

Perfect Dark, from Microsoft, rated M for violence. Stick a healthy-looking heroine named Joanna Dark into a James Bond-like film, and this first-person shooting title gives single players an eye-popping experience with an option for 32 players to meet online in team battles.

See a trend? It’s not exactly the most child- or cost-friendly experience. Actually, when the smattering of available sports and driving games are removed, the lack of family-friendly titles for the Xbox 360 is disturbing, especially for a system that could become the entertainment hub of the household. Now, here are a couple of reasons why families and casual gamers should hold off on committing to the Xbox 360.

First, what’s the hurry? It’s nearly impossible to find the system, and in about nine months, the entire gaming environment will change radically as Sony introduces the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo presents its Revolution. If either system is cheaper than the Xbox 360, Microsoft will need to drop its price. I also guarantee that both Sony and Nintendo will be doing everything possible to make the Xbox 360 look like a Sega Genesis in performance and innovations.

In fact, both companies already are boasting complete backward compatibility for their new systems; Nintendo’s even will take its smaller Game Cube discs. In the PS3, Sony will use a Blu-Ray drive, one of the next-generation DVD formats.

Second, numerous gaming options for the family already exist at a better or comparable price. Parents with two children joining the video-game revolution could purchase a pair of hand-held Nintendo DS systems ($149 each) with the wireless Mario Kart Racing game included or just buy an original Xbox ($149) or PS2 ($149), throw in some wireless controllers ($29.99) and find a huge selection of great games already discounted in the $19.99 to $29.99 range that would last them at least a couple of years while the entertainment console wars settle.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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