written by Mike Shea on 27 December 2002
It has been almost a year since Microsoft released the behemoth game system, the Xbox. A lack of solid games didn't make it a great purchase until now. With a $200 price tag and the inclusion of two games, the system is now the top home theater friendly game system. Lets look at the summary of their features:
As of this writing, the xbox is the only game system to embrace home theater standards including Dolby Digital 5.1 in-game sound and hdtv resolutions. While 720p and 1080i HDTV resolutions are supported in hardware, it would seem that most games only support 480p with a 4x3 aspect ratio. Until top selling games include widescreen aspect ratios and 1080i HD resolutions, the system is not truly home theater friendly. Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is supported in almost every game as is full progressive scan video. Dolby Digital sound and HDTV component video requires an external $20 adapter purchased along side the console itself.
One serious problem is the lack of a VGA connector or adapter. With resolutions of 1080i, 480p, and 720p, a VGA adapter would offer the best picture available. With a solid 19" or 21" VGA monitor, one could set up an excellent desktop arcade. Alas, no such device is available so the only way to get the best picture is with a $2000+ dollar HDTV. There is little reason Microsoft cannot release a VGA adapter, however, but it appears they are unwilling to do so.
Setup and daily use of game systems is one of their great benefits. Game system manufacturers have taken usability seriously in their construction and design, something computer manufacturers seem to have forgotten. From the moment I walked into my door to the time I started playing Halo was 10 minutes, although I had the component and toslink plugs already installed in my Mitsubishi 55819 HDTV and Yamaha DSP-A1 receiver. An initial setup screen had me enter the date and time while another less obvious audio and video setup let me tell the xbox that I had a widescreen HDTV and a Dolby Digital / DTS receiver. Solid knowledge of your system is needed to properly select these settings.
Installing and playing a game is no harder than any previous game system. Press open, put in the disc, close, and off you go. There is no noticeable operating system, a good thing, and no setup per game is needed. The system simply gets itself out of the way and lets you start playing. An internal 8GB hard drive (I learned of its existence from How the Xbox Works, the best features are the ones you don't notice) apparently speeds up boot time on games, a nice way of decreasing a more common problem with dvd based games.
The controller is an often unnoticed component of a game system, but it is the most used piece of hardware the system has. There were complaints from people with smaller hands that the Xbox controller is too big and bulky. Newer Xbox packages include a smaller controller called the controller-s. For my stubby fingers this new controller was not uncomfortable at all. There are more than enough buttons including two analog sticks, one digital pad, four main buttons, two analog triggers, and four option buttons. The pad includes two expansion slots and buit-in rumblepad capability. Rumblepads are an excellent interface element, adding a whole new sense, feeling, to what is normally just sight and sound. Bravo to Microsoft for including rumblepads with the system instead of making it an option. There are four controller ports on the Xbox, an advantage over the Playstation 2 which requires an extra multi-tap adapter.
The is one golden rule for the success of a video game system. You need hit games. If a system has no good games, it doesn't matter if it beams dreams into your brain, the system will die. This was a problem for Xbox. While Playstation 2 had Grand Theft Auto, SSX, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy X, Xbox had only Halo. Now things have changed. Games like Splinter Cell, Sega GT 2002, Mech Assault, and Unreal Championship give the Xbox some grounding in good games. None of them are what I would call a system seller but the inclusion of Sega GT 2002 and Jet Set Radio Future (Both highly rated games) within the $200 pricetag goes a long way towards the sales of the system.
The holy grail for Xbox would be two or three Xbox exclusive games that are so popular your mom heard about them while watching Martha Stewart. These games can't be planned, however, since a lot of their greatness comes from an undefinable mix of playability, story, graphics, and sound. Halo seems to be the closest call and it's been out for a year.
This generation of game systems is the first to include real internet play. Unfortunately both PS2 and Xbox failed to include it as a standard non-pay feature. The PS2 requires another $50 network adapter while the Xbox requires a $50 one year subscription to Xbox-live (also included is a headset for voice during games). Both systems should have learned from the past. Video game accessories don't have good sell through. If Microsoft wanted every Xbox on the net, it should have included free internet play. The only remote chance it has of making Xbox live a hit is to bundle it with one of those "must have" games mentioned above. Some massive multiplayer action or role playing game might do the trick if they put the right talent into it. Mech Assault and Unreal Championship go a long way towards internet gaming but they aren't exactly the killerapp that Xbox Live needs.
Setup for Xbox Live is easy hardware-wise but painful to sign up. On initial sign up you must spend about 15 to 20 long minutes hacking in your credit card information with a hunt and peck controller-based virtual keyboard. It is not clear how much Microsoft plans to charge, but requiring the initial $50 purchase at a store AND a credit card registration is way too much for something as delicate as internet-based console gaming. Microsoft would have done very well for themselves if they bundled in a one year subscription, free of charge, with the console and not requiring credit card info until the year is up.
Probably the least important factor of a game system is the technology. Nothing matters more to a system than good exclusive games. However, framerate, graphic detail, solid audio, and an infrastructure to support them can lead towards that one great game. The Xbox is the most technically powerful gaming console available at this time. Probably the best endorsement has been that of John Carmack, lead programmer for Id Software, who stated that it is the only console that will do justice to Doom 3, their upcoming hot first-person shooter. Of the many problems with the Xbox, technology isn't one of them, and for $200, Microsoft is losing almost $100 a system, so if you want to poke the man in the eye, buy a system and no games.
Game systems are wonderful in their simplicity, staggering in their power, and a true value in price. Few systems are home theater friendly, but the Xbox is very close. Good games, a great pricetag, and some home friendly features such as Dolby Digital 5.1 and HDTV compatibility give this system a great future as long as they can get some exclusive hit games. Bundling in Xbox Live with a top online game such as Doom 3 would go a long way towards bringing Internet play to the masses. Forcing support of 1080i resolution widescreen aspect ratio games would better support higher end home theater systems and offer much better immersion. As it stands right now, for $200 with two hit games, the xbox is a steal.
If you enjoy this article, please consider bookmarking this link to purchase anything from Amazon.com