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.

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