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Xbox 360 in a league of its own

At a preview event in San Francisco, a reporter gets a chance for a hands-on look at Microsoft's next-generation video game console.

SAN FRANCISCO--If there's one thing you can say about the Xbox 360, Microsoft's next-generation video game console, it's that this is one impressive machine.

For all the talk about whether there will be enough games available when the Xbox is released on Nov. 22, few doubt that the games that will be ready will be a cut above anything available for current-generation consoles.

And after seeing a handful of Xbox 360 games Monday, I can say with confidence that it's true.

Xbox 360

Over plates of olives, endives, red peppers and other snacks at Dogpatch Studios in this city's somewhat rundown Dogpatch neighborhood Monday, Microsoft finally pulled back the curtains on the new Xbox for a small crowd of journalists and invited us to try our hands at 12 titles expected to be ready in time for the console launch next month.

It was an odd event. For one thing, the invitation said nothing about photography, but on arrival, I was told that Microsoft didn't want any photos taken because some of the titles weren't 100 percent finished. In addition, while there were 13 Xboxes arrayed across an open-space studio, we were told not to touch--even as some people were already playing with them.

Never mind, I thought: I'll wait. And I did, as all 13 screens, set to an opening sequence from the game "Kameo: Elements of Power," displayed a wizard in the middle of an undulating purple diamond who said over and over again, "You're looking a bit stuck, but not as stuck as I am." The words seemed to cascade around the room, as the 13 machines were not in synch.

Finally, Blake Fischer, the worldwide content planner for Xbox 360, began to talk. He instructed us to grab our controllers and dive in to "Kameo."

Immediately, we were immersed in a magical world of stunning graphics that brought even the blades of grass to life. The level of detail was monumental, and it occurred to me that a lot of programmers' spouses probably hadn't seen them in a while.

Fischer led us through a few minutes of "Kameo" and then moved us on to some of the features of the Xbox Live service--things such as the ability to go online to ask friends for help with games or the availability for download of a series of classic and casual games. Moderately interesting, I thought, but nothing special.

Then he got us into the racing game "Project Gotham Racing 3." He told us we had to follow a sequence of menu commands "exactly," something I bristled at a bit, but in the spirit of cooperation, I complied. Soon, I was piloting a Ferrari with a hell of a growl through the blocked off streets of Tokyo, trying hard to make my way through a hairy, three-lap trial without crashing. I failed: The things I did to that poor Ferrari were a shame.

Attention to small details
Still, Tokyo looked amazing, and the racing was pure pleasure. I've never been particularly adept at these kinds of games, and I'm sorry to report I'm still not, but the attention to detail on "Project Gotham Racing 3" was indeed noteworthy: spectators who reacted individually when my car got too close, glare on the window, even a realistic reflection in the side-view mirror. And the driving, I have to admit, was pure fun.

After five or 10 minutes of this, Fischer's official demo was over and we could now engage in "free play." But when I attempted to choose another city to race in--New York, since I had just returned from a conference there--Fischer came over and asked me to stop. Again, it was something about the game not being fully ready and his not wanting me to see some of the glitches. It didn't feel too much like "free play" to me.

So I ran the Las Vegas course Fischer cued up, and it was pretty good: Having spent some time there, I have to say they did a pretty good job of replicating Sin City's look and feel, though I began to wonder whether it made any difference what city you were in since the courses seemed to feel more or less the same in each location. Maybe that was because I was so focused on trying not to destroy my car on the walls at each turn.

At this point, I went downstairs, where Microsoft had set up a room with a bunch more Xbox 360s and representatives were on hand from some of the publishers that will be putting out launch titles--Electronic Arts, 2K Games, Rare, Activision, to name a few.

I started out with 2K's "NBA 2K6." Again, the level of detail represented the peak of what a next-generation console can do: realistically shiny hardwood floors, sweat on the players I could almost smell, thousands of fans, each their own individual polygons. Yet precisely because of the stunning graphics, other little things--jerkiness in players' or fans' movements here and there, or the odd rotation of a jump shot--stood out. Perhaps that's the problem with graphics made to look too real: The little elements that don't measure up are the ones that catch your attention.

The problem is that current-generation console games are already damned slick. Are these new ultra-ultra-impressive graphics really necessary?

It's true that looking at an arena filled with tens of thousands of fans--each of whom is rendered individually--sounds good. But does it make for a better game? I think the jury's still out on that.

Actually, maybe that's not true. Analysts have predicted that when the Xbox 360 hits shelves next month, it will quickly sell out. And that's going to be based on the games that are available. EA's "Madden '06," the newest version of the venerable football franchise, is indeed spiffy. I watched a demo and saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Atlanta Falcons.

It was raining hard, and the water was pouring off the players. We zoomed in and I could see the stitching on their jerseys. I was almost intimidated as they made their way imposingly up to the line of scrimmage, getting ever bigger on the screen as they did so.

But once again, with all the photorealism, it was the little things that stood out. In this case, it was their eyes, and it was the same in each of the sports titles I tried: The bodies looked right; the eyes looked like those of zombies. It felt very strange.

After four hours of this, I left the event. I'd tried about five or six games, and have no trouble reporting that the Xbox 360 was the best console experience I've ever had. The graphics were nearly perfect, the sounds were melodic, the interfaces mostly intuitive and I even have to say that the launch titles Microsoft has lined up, while not huge, covers the right range to please the hard-core gamers that will be the target market: basketball and football, several racing titles, a first-person shooter or two and some fantasy.

Yet in the end, I came back once again to wondering if it's all really necessary. When it comes to enjoying a video game basketball experience, just how real does the sweat have to be?