Introduced just over a year ago, the Xbox hit the gaming community with a lot of fanfare and push from corporate America's biggest bully, Microsoft. While it clearly had the competition beat in the hardware department, a weak game line-up, unpopular controller, and poor reliability made for rocky going early on. Fortunately MS has been dedicated to making the Xbox a success long term, and have addressed some of these issues, and continue to be a player for the foreseeable future. HARDWARE
Read the spec sheet for the Xbox and you'd think it's a home PC. This is a good thing, as PC gamers have long had a major advantage in graphics and general gaming complexity due to the heightened processing ability of the PC. For the console gamer that gap is finally shrinking, and the Xbox is leading the charge.
The Xbox processor is a thundering 733MHz, which makes it significantly more powerful than the Gamecube's 485MHz Gekko, and the PS2's 294MHz unit. Processor speed isn't the only factor in determining system performance, but it will suffice for this review. The Xbox graphic processor is a NV2a made by nVidia, and falls somewhere between the G-Force 3 and G-force 4 in performance. With 64MB of RAM, the Xbox almost doubles the competition. Add all this up and what you get are very impressive looking games, that generally run smooth as silk.
The Xbox comes with a 10GB hard disc drive (HDD). One of the benefits to this is having the ability to save games right to the HDD, and avoid the use/expense of memory cards (though they are available). In addition, the HDD is used to minimize loading lag with the dvd format, improving load times. One of the really interesting benefits of the HDD is the ability to rip your own music to the HDD and use it with games that support the option.
The Xbox is the only console that comes equipped for online gameplay, with a built in Ethernet port (you need to buy adaptors for the GC and PS2). The Xbox does not support a modem connection, broadband only. The Xbox offers solid DVD movie playback, with the purchase of the DVD playback kit. DVD playback is NOT
in progressive scan, this is only offered for games, there is a possibility of a module being released at some point to remedy this. The Xbox does support HDTV quality, and many games offer 16:9 screen ratios. In addition to the impressive visuals, the Xbox is capable of true 5.1 audio. The Xbox features four controller inputs, with a modified USB interface (round instead of square). Though criticized for its overall size and weight, with this list of goods under the hood, at least you can say its justified. CONTROLLER
Being that it's the link between the game and the gamer, the controller is one of the most important aspects of a console. The original controller was rather large, and received harsh criticism, especially from the Japanese market. I rather liked the original controller, it borrowed heavily from the Sega Dreamcast controller in size and shape, however MS sought to remedy the criticism and quickly came up with the Japanese controller (now known as the Controller S). The controller S now can be considered the standard, as it now ships with all Xbox bundles.
The controller S is a comfortable controller, with a nice size and shape. It maintains the two trigger setup of the original, and the left side features your primary analog stick, the start and back buttons, and a nice sized d-pad. The right side features a symmetrical button layout like the PS2 dual shock, though the buttons are slightly smaller. Below the main buttons, you have smaller clear and black buttons, and a second full size analog stick. The controller also features a long (near 10ft) cord, which features a simple male/female breakaway connection, to prevent the system from being pulled off the shelf if the cord is yanked. The controller also comes standard with its own "dual shock" capability.
Though I feel the controller S is a superior controller to the original, I would still rank it third compared to the Sony Dual Shock, and the brilliant Gamecube controller. PERFORMANCE
Just reading the hardware specs above means this thing should offer the goods when it comes to the graphics and game performance, and it does. The Xbox's use of FSAA (full screen anti-aliasing) helps to minimize one of my major graphical pet-peeves, jaggies! This combined with the processing power of the engine means you have the smoothest, most detailed graphics to ever grace a console. That's not to say every game looks amazing, a lot depends on the actual software development, and while many multi-platform ports do offer minor improvements on the Xbox, you'll get essentially the same modeling. In addition to the graphics, games generally run smooth, slowdown and framerate drops are much less common in Xbox titles. Having past the one-year anniversary, the best should be yet to come! GAMES
You can spout hardware specs all you want, but it's all about the games! This is the area where the Xbox has been hit and miss. Right now the Xbox lacks the exclusive line-ups that Sony and Nintendo currently have. While this criticism is valid, I think a brand new platform needs time to be given to allow it to establish itself, to make up for the multi-year head-start Sony and Nintendo have in the console market. Below are some of my favorites, and some upcoming titles I'm excited about. Halo
- The game of the year for 2001, most consider it the best game on the Xbox, and the only top flight FPS ever released on a console. Amazing graphics and gameplay, with an awesome multiplayer mode. Project Gotham
- A take-off of the immensely fun MSR (for the DC), it offers amazing visuals and high octane arcade racing action, a must own title, especially at $30. Rallisport Challenge
- Possibly the best looking Xbox game, offers a perfect mix of arcade and real-world Rally racing, another must own $30 title. Moto GP2
- One of my favorite PS2 games, the Xbox version eliminates the graphical imperfections of the PS2 and offers yet another stunning looking game that is a blast from a gameplay standpoint. DOA
- Though not a big fighting fan, this game is fun and has stunning animations and character models.
In addition to these, the Xbox offers some other strong titles, including multi-platform releases. The future looks bright, with games like Knights Of The Old Republic, B.C., DOA Volleyball, and reportedly Doom III. If these titles fulfill their potential, the Xbox can certainly solidify its position in the console market for the long-term. ONLINE PLAY
The viability of online play through consoles is still an unproven niche in my opinion. Sony and MS recently launched their programs, and it will be interesting to see if either (or both) can find a growing market as time passes. For around the price of a game ($50), you can buy your Xbox Live! pack, which offers the software to support the online play, and one year of service. Reportedly after the year is up, it will be a $9.95 monthly fee for the service. Due to the built in 10/100 ethernet card, you don't need to worry about any adaptors. As stated above, Xbox Live! will be broadband only, which will be provided by the user. Unlike the Sega DC, Xbox Live! is for gaming only, it will NOT allow you to search the internet or check email. It is also possible to hook up multiple systems and have LAN (local area network) parties, as PC gamers have long been doing. It will be interesting how the concept of online play via consoles shakes out, and which of the consoles excel (if any). ACCESSORIES
With the system coming pretty much loaded, there's not a lot of peripherals like the PS2. The main accessory for most will be the DVD playback kit. Unlike the PS2, you MUST
have the playback kit to play dvd movies on your Xbox. There is a memory card available, which plugs into the controller. With the size of the HDD you'll be hard pressed to ever fill it up, but the memory card does allow you the portability of taking your saved games with you. Lastly, there are a number of s-video and component video cable options available. I highly recommend the s-video if your tv supports it. The component cables are really only worth it if you have a HDTV setup, if you do I hear its really
nice! As for the improved shielding of Monster Cables vs lower priced cables, I doubt the differences are really noticeable, at least for the difference in price. OVERALL
Microsoft has delivered an impressive piece of hardware which has the ability to push the limits of console gaming to unparalleled heights. Depending on your genre preferences, the Xbox either has a lot to offer or seriously lacks. It clearly doesn't offer the game selection of the PS2, but in the next year I think that gap will shrink, and given the Xbox's power it has an opportunity to stake a strong claim in the gaming market long-term. A lot of people say that they think the Xbox will fail, some sooner than later. While it may never be #1 (or #2 for that matter) in sales, I don't think it's going anywhere based on Microsoft's commitment financially (2 billion plus still slated for the Xbox). Not only that, but MS claims to be already at work on the "Next Box" for the 2005 time frame. At $199, it now comes with the Controller S and two games (Sega GT and JSRF), MS has aggressively tried to give the gamer the most out-of-the-box bang for buck on the market. A strong case can be made for owning any of the three systems, it really comes down to the individual, what they value from a system, and the types of games they like to play. Related Reviews:
Sony PS2: http://www.epinions.com/content_62988258948
Nintendo Gamecube: http://www.epinions.com/content_65837567620