- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 29, 2001

Here's a look at new hardware and software that may make life more enjoyable.

Xbox by Microsoft (Stand-alone gaming system, $299). Bill Gates and Microsoft have officially entered the $20 billion world of video-game consoles with one of the most anticipated and powerful products to date. Microsoft delivers an impressive though unattractive multifunctional system that reaches the shelves with a solid lineup of games.

Fanatics looking for speed, uncanny realism and action will not be disappointed. Boasting a 733 MHz processor, 64 MB of memory and an 8 gigabyte hard disk, the Xbox clearly leaves Sony's PlayStation 2, which has no hard drive and a 300 MHz processor with 32 MB of memory, way behind.

Furthermore, when one compares the versatility of the Xbox which offers DVD playback (with the purchase of a DVD playback kit) and Dolby Digital surround sound and pushes 117 million polygons per second against Nintendo's newest system, the GameCube also bites the dust. The new Mario Bros. portal only uses a 485 MHz processor, offers no DVD movie playback and pushes 6 million to 12 million polygons per second.

Other Xbox features include a high-speed serial port, compatibility with high-definition televisions, an onboard CD mixer to make custom music mixes and parental-control options built into the hardware.

Of course, the deciding points for families come down to availability and price. First, Microsoft has been waffling about the number of units that will be available by year's end. It remains to be seen if the projected 1.5 million units can be turned out.

Second, assuming units make it to retail shelves, how much will one spend to have fun? Parents not afraid to blow their entire tax rebate check (if they haven't already) could purchase the console, which comes with one controller ($299); an extra controller ($39.99); DVD Movie Playback Kit ($29.99); and four games ($49.99 each), with enough money left for a visit to Fuddruckers.

Keep in mind, families could get a full computer for that price and even a year's worth of Internet access thrown in.

Overall, the Xbox delivers for the serious gamer, but mom and dad will need to think about the options before padding Mr. Gates' pockets. Don't count out the PlayStation 2, with its number of diverse, child-friendly titles, backward compatibility with PlayStation 1 games, its DVD movie playback option (with no additional purchase required) and comparable cost ($299). Junior also might be satisfied with the popular hand-held system, Game Boy Advance ($99 plus $29.99 per game).

No matter the decision, the point of a powerful console is to make the video game an amazing and immersive adventure, blurring the line between reality and pixels. Of the roughly 18 games currently available for the Xbox, here are a few that really show what the system can offer:

NFL Fever 2002 (Microsoft, rated E for ages 6 and older, $49.99) Microsoft dances in dangerous waters trying to tap into a football market dominated by Electronic Arts' John Madden franchise. Unbelievably, it succeeds by offering simple-to-control action, ridiculous player animations (do I need to see bulging arm veins?) and plenty of pounding action. The title should impress inexperienced gamers with extras, such as being able to challenge the greatest teams of all time (as in the Madden game) and the ability to bring one's own music mix into the background.

Shrek (TDK Mediactive, rated T for ages 13 and older, $49.99) Based on DreamWorks' animated summer blockbuster, the game gives players the chance to become the famed, flatulent ogre and traverse eight incredible worlds to save Princess Fiona from the evil sorcerer Merlin. A combination of sarcastic dialogue and brilliant graphics makes for a perfect blend of giggles and gasps and really brings the game to life.

Fusion Frenzy (Microsoft, rated E, $49.99) This mixed bag of challenges tries to please everyone in the family. Forty-five games taking place in six arenas allow up to four players to compete in everything from crashing bumper cars to smashing bugs to creating the hottest fireworks display. Because Microsoft has no official mascot to rally around (such as Nintendo's Mario or Sega's Sonic), this title's colorful hipsters, including Dub, Samson, Zak and Geena the skateboard punk will have to do.

Dead or Alive 3 (Tecmo, rated T, $49.99) This gorgeous 3-D fighting monster of a title boasts 16 playable characters, jaw-dropping environments in which to wage war and a soundtrack featuring legendary rockers Aerosmith. Up to four players can fight in this virtual "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" feast, or everyone can sit back and watch as the computer controls the action. After viewing a Randy Macho Man Savage clone and a Bruce Lee dude pummel each other on the rooftops of Hong Kong, I cannot imagine how a video game can look any slicker.

Cel Damage (Electronic Arts, rated T, $49.99) Up to four players drive around a cartoon universe and cause mayhem whenever possible. Obviously paying homage to the "Wacky Racers" animated gems, the title uses 36 Tex Avery-style weapons, four themed worlds and 12 crowded levels. The game definitely makes for a family fun night I only wish it incorporated licensed characters instead of some strange fellows such as Fowl Mouth and Brian the Brain. Where's Dick Dastardly when you need him?

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2X (Activision, Rated T, $49.99) Taking virtual extreme sports to their hottest level, the legendary skateboard rider brings all 19 levels from his last two games and adds five more to the Xbox. With features ranging from creating a park to skating around lifelike pedestrians and birds to controlling the top 12 players in the sport, this game quickly will become a core title for the edgier game player in the family.

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