I'm a wee bit late to the 360 party. Although stencilled in for a launch day delivery, Argos fucked me good and hard - sans lube, no less - with my machine not showing up 'til two weeks later. Needless to say, I won't be pre-ordering the PS3 from these gobblers of cock.
But rather than detail Argos' horrendously laggy service, terrible customer support, and complete and utter scam job of a "guaranteed launch day" offer, let's get onto the real reason you're here; Microsoft's new baby. With this machine, the much-fabled next gen we've heard so much about is finally here. Does it live up to the hype? Are the games any good? Has the machine crashed, exploded or set fire to my cat yet? Read on for the full low-down.
How's it Look?
Aesthetically speaking, the machine is far sleeker than your average console. It's a shameless take on the iPod design - simple and white, rather than black and industrial - but it works. It's thin, it's smooth, and you can even clip on custom faceplates to make it your own. I like, as Borat would say.
|The Xbox 360 certainly looks better than most consoles|
Along with the usual plethora of sockets and memory card slots covering each of its sides, this baby also boasts three USB ports, which not only work as controller inputs, but also accept keyboards, USB drives and a whole lot more. That said, if you know what's good for you, wired controllers will be a thing of the past. The fact that the 360 supports wireless pads as standard is a reason to rejoice.
I can't stress how cool it is to be finally rid of the troublesome spaghetti of wires traditionally associated with console controllers. As an owner of all the current machines, my setup was starting to look like the Nebuchadnezzar, but wireless pads hint at a future without wires...one where the game controller can sit comfortably next to the TV remote without shame. Needless to say, the wireless pads work without hitch; just as responsive and playable as a wired pad, yet thrice as sexy.
The controller itself is a slightly smaller, more comfortable reworking of the old Xbox controller "S". The black and white buttons are long gone, replaced with two new "bumper" buttons along the top. All that worked so great about the old pad remains though; the beautifully responsive analogues and the deep, satisfying triggers in particular, but it's so much sleeker now, so much prettier, and unless my imagination is getting the better of me, even slightly lighter too.
Obviously, anyone who's anyone will be buying the full-on premium pack when they pick up their 360. The core 360 pack is surprisingly cheap in comparison - popping up at just over £200 - but trust me when I tell you, you'll want all those extra goodies found in the premium. The hard drive in particular is what really unlocks the true power of this beast, and it's all down to a little thing known as Xbox Live...the online component of the 360 package.
Live & Reloaded
Where to begin? To explore the new Xbox Live is to witness the future of online gaming. There's so many features, it looks so beautiful, and it works so intuitively that it borders on perfect (well...almost). Seeing the wealth of opportunities that this system has opened up - both for gaming and non-related - makes me genuinely amazed that Sony aren't doing anything similar for the PS3.
The new Xbox Live does away with the archaic splitting up of single and multiplayer games. Now, you're always connected, no matter what. Basically, imagine all the best features of X-Fire, Teamspeak and All Seeing Eye on the PC, bundled together and running on every single system, and you'll just start
to scratch the surface of how fully featured this thing is.
You can be hopping around platforms, playing Kameo by yourself, when a friend logs on and invites you into a multiplayer game on Perfect Dark. You can be zooming around a single player race on Project Gotham, and get online news tickers along the bottom of your screen about races your buddy just won. Or you could be battling the end of game boss in Condemned when your grandma sends you a voice chat invite...promptly causing you to log off. Everything just integrates so seamlessly now.
No matter what you, or your mates are up to on your 360, whether it be playing other games, messing around in the marketplace, or watching DVDs, you're always in touch now. Don't worry though, it doesn't get specific about blurting out which porno DVDs you're watching. If you value your privacy that much, you can always "appear offline", or just flat out sign off, but for me being logged into that community is what makes the 360 experience so enticing. I love that no matter what I'm up to, I'm still plugged in. Still part of that network. All but a click away.
Voice comms and friends lists are pretty standard features for online gaming these days, but what Xbox 360 does is build wonderfully on these features and take them up several notches on top, in a way we've never experienced before on any platform.
At the core of these features is your Gamer Card. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, your Gamer Card is your passport to everything. It's your online identity and your avatar for all your Xbox activities. You can see a scaled down web-based version of mine somewhere towards the bottom of this very page right now.
By clicking on someone's Gamer Card within Live, you can view all their games, their achievements, and if they're playing something right now, even what level they're currently on. It's spy-ware-tastic.
Your Gamer Tag - i.e. your online name - is unified across all your Xbox 360 games and applications, and you can even bind specific options like invert aim and look sensitivity to this profile, with them used automatically across all
your 360 titles without the need to fiddle around in options screens and all the usual pap. What a stunning idea.
|The optional hard drive clips seamlessly onto the top of the unit. I use the term "optional" loosely though; you'll need it for all the bad arse features mentioned here|
Your Gamer Card also includes your Gamer Score. This is a constant tally of your accomplishments across every title in your collection. Each game on the 360 has these unlockable achievements you see; some for completing certain levels, some for finishing a lap in a certain time, some for killing x amount of bad guys, and so on. A bunch are even hidden...long lost secrets that'll take an age to uncover. As you unlock these achievements, each one improves your rating, upping your Gamer Score, and giving you a final tally to compare against your fellow gamer.
In a way, this takes us back to the old skool coin-op days of "high scores", a tradition long gone these days...until now. It's great to call up your mate's Gamer Card and see what he's been playing, how much of it he's unlocked, and what his achievements are next to yours. It's like levelling up your toon on an MMO...only this time, it's across an entire platform of games.
When entering the multiplayer arena, fellow players can also suss out what sort of a player you are via your Gamer Card. Every player is split into one of four zones you see, depending on their play style; there's the "Pro" arena for the uber bad arses, the "Recreation" zone for those who just wanna relax, along with the "Family" zone which is self explanatory, and last yet most certainly least, the "Underground" zone, full of 12 year old cocks ripping the piss outta each other.
As always, your online experience is only as good as those you play with, and while I've found myself sharing games with solid lads and lasses, I've also been bundled in with some absolute chavs. The concept of these different zones thankfully restricts this most of the time though - I rarely see myself playing against players in the underground and family zones for instance - however in the rare instance you do clash with a fellow player, the detailed feedback and rating system is there to help.
By calling up a player's Gamer Card, you can state whether you liked or disliked this player, which affects your chance of being grouped with them again in the future. More importantly, any complaints you file will affect their reputation, with the ultimate outcome of all the negatively rated players getting bundled in together, while the friendly, positively rated players thankfully avoid 'em.
In the system's infancy, most players are hovering around the same reputation levels from what I've seen so far, but as feedback and reputation is continually submitted over a more prolonged period, we should hopefully start seeing all this stuff kick in over the upcoming months. All in all it helps make the matchmaking and online play as seamless, as useful and as fun as possible.
Buy Buy Buy
Online gaming is all but a small part of the Xbox Live service though. The new marketplace is a stroke of brilliance in particular, offering a variety of downloadable content from movie trailers, to game demos, to wallpapers, to new levels and costumes for your games, all available at the touch of a button. Lots of this stuff is free, while some costs money, but we're talking pennies for the most part. Needless to say, EA is already shamelessly drowning out the marketplace with - quite literally - hundreds and hundreds of buyable items (for fuck's sake, guys...).
The real meat of this downloadable content for me though, are the "Live Arcade" games - smaller, scaled down, yet surprisingly solid titles that you can buy for under a fiver. You'll find everything from old skool classics like Gauntlet and Smash TV, to brand new indie games like Wik and the Fable of Souls. Not only are these games beautifully upgraded to high-definition for the 360 crowd, but some have been completely revamped from the ground up to include online play too. Fancy some Gauntlet co-op over Xbox Live? Right here baby.
The games industry has gotten to a point where it seems like only the biggest companies with the most popular games are able to succeed (such as the aforementioned EA), but Xbox marketplace opens up a world of opportunities to smaller independent teams, allowing them to get their titles out there without the epic manufacturing costs of a high street release. This is a wonderful thing for gaming in general, and even if put off by the idea of smaller, more intimate and simplistic games, you should still give these suckers a blast as they're amazingly addictive, beautiful to look at, and surprisingly good fun. Geometry Wars for instance, is one of the flat-out best games currently on the system...and it goes for peanuts on marketplace.
Unfortunately, you can't go off and do other things with your 360 while any of the marketplace downloads take place, you need to stay on that download screen and wait for it to finish. This isn't a big problem for a small 30mb arcade game that is yours in all but a minute, but for a 400mb FIFA Soccer demo? Forget it. It would be great to zoom away at Ridge Racer while a demo is being downloaded in the background, but without a true OS, I guess we're not quite there yet.
The Xbox Live service is simply phenomenal, but that's far from all the machine can do. The 360 dashboard (its next best thing to an OS), can also play music, view pictures and watch movies too. As mentioned, you can download these directly through your 360, but you can also stream them from a networked PC, or even pop 'em in via burnt media (the drive reads all CD and DVD formats). It even has a simply stunning full screen visualiser to whack on when blasting out music, one that's fully interactive and gorgeously hypnotic to boot. To summarise, what many had to hack and modify their Xbox 1 to do, 360 does right out of the box.
The coolest part of the lot though, is the ability to read those USB devices. Check this out; if you plug your iPod into the machine, not only can it scan and play your music, but it can also use your MP3s as the soundtrack in all of your games
. This ain't limited to MP3 players either, you can stream your soundtracks from a PC if preferred, or rip CDs directly onto the 360's hard drive. Being able to use custom soundtracks in every single title is a godsend, and increases your enjoyment of each tenfold. Not a fan of the Project Gotham background music? Chuck on some Underworld instead. You can even use the included remote control to switch tracks while you play! They really did think of everything. Heck, it even recognises my PSP.
|Wireless pads are a thing of beauty. No more clutter in the living room, and no more tripping up like a crazy spastoid|
I love the fact all this stuff is just one button click away too. The new controllers have a "dashboard" button - a giant green X that lights up - one click of which opens up a side panel in every game where you can flick through your music, as well as read and send messages, check your friends list, and much more.
It's great to have this sort of functionality - which most PC games even lack - available as standard at all times now. You've gotta hand it to Microsoft, they've really added a whole other layer of functionality and enjoyment that supersedes the machine as just another games console. It's also worth noting, that the pop up menus, sliding bars and notification icons are all exceptionally pretty - why Windows doesn't look this good is beyond me.
Negatives? Sure. All this multimedia functionality works wonderfully for pictures, music and DVDs, but if you plan on watching movie files - downloaded vids and the like - you'll need a Windows Media Center PC hooked up via your network. Popping in a CD-R with a movie on would have been a great feature, but alas it does nothing, and it's really my single biggest bummer with the entire Xbox feature set.
Another annoying, but fixable problemo is the headset. Xbox Live of course comes with voice communication as standard across all games, and as mentioned you can even chat to fellow players across separate titles - including single player ones. The problem is that, while the official bundled headset is comfy to wear, it's pretty damn useless in every other way. It's appalling in the sound quality department, with fellow players sounding like Daleks cross-bred with Sims toons, and perhaps worst of all, the damn thing is disappointingly quiet too.
I don't know about you guys, but I'm a big fan of blasting my games out at ridiculously high volumes. With the 360's custom soundtracks and stunning sounding games, now more than ever am I testing my neighbours' eardrum tolerance...yet thanks to this naff bundled headset, I can't blast stuff out at any sort of volume, as players become pretty damn impossible to hear. Needless to say, you'll wanna upgrade the standard headset to a third party pair as soon as possible.
Lastly I have to say, when running games, the 360 is pretty bloody loud too. All that power with all those cooling fans, certainly has its price. It's still not quite approaching PC noise levels, but we're sure as shit starting to get there.
That Whole HD Thang
While I've got a high definition TV on order, for review purposes I'm running my 360 on a bog standard widescreen set at present. Let's be honest, most people aren't hi-def enabled, as much as we'd all like to be. Hence you're probably wanting to know, just how does the 360 look on a standard TV? Pretty bloody stunning actually...and I mean that.
Okay, you aren't getting the higher resolutions or progressive scan options that an HDTV would afford, but most 360 games are still heavily anti-aliased remember - the process of smoothing off jagged edges in 3D graphics - and this alone makes all 360 games look a world better than those on every other console you've ever seen, much more comparable to a medium rezzed PC title. When coupled with the over abundance of power, detailed textures, complex models and stunning use of special effects that most 360 titles are bathed in, games look amazing on this thing, high def or not. Expect significantly less jaggies, blocky models and pixellated textures than you're used to seeing on your home consoles. All that stuff is a thing of the past, sir.
Of course, whack it on a hi-def TV and it's a whole other level of gorgeous on top. All the razor sharp brilliance of PC gaming, but with the bonus of a big old widescreen TV and a nice comfy sofa to relax in. It just doesn't get any better. I'll probably post more covering this specific aspect of the 360 experience further down the line.
As for which games you'll be experiencing this graphical beauty on, I've managed to get my mitts into five so far...
Project Gotham Racing 3
|Yes, it does look this good in the flesh|
Gotham is arguably the reason I got my 360 in the first place. The previous game on the first Xbox was incredible - particularly online - so the thought of that same street racing thrill bought to the next level excited me hugely. And that's exactly what you get with Gotham; a true next generation upgrade to the old classic.
Developers Bizarre Creations have painstakingly recreated four beautiful cities in miniscule detail for PGR3. I'm talking ridiculously stunning stuff here, accurate right down to individual shops and signs. Just driving around London, I could pick out specific streets, bridges and buildings instantly...all bordering on photorealistic. They claim just the Brooklyn Bridge in New York alone has more polygons in it than an entire course from the previous Gotham game, and it shows. These cities are breathtaking...even more so at night time.
Although four may sound a little meagre, the beauty is that the number of courses contained within each of them is infinite. The cities are there, but which streets you race down are completely customisable. There's tons of pre-made circuits, but even cooler is the ability to go in and create your own custom courses yourself, which you can then play alone, or with your mates. This functionality means the number of possible routes and circuits borders on thousands, even if the number of cities is relatively few. Oh, and the infamous Nürburgring is also thrown in there on top of the four cities, but trust me when I say newcomers need not apply; the word "brutal" doesn't do it justice.
|Gotham's cars are modelled with such stunning detail as to border on photorealistic at times|
Gameplay-wise, Gotham leans more towards the simulation side than your Burnouts and your Ridge Racers, but it's not a particularly tough game by any means. This incarnation focuses primarily on the upper end of the speed spectrum too, so despite more of an emphasis on realism, you'll still enjoy some ridiculously fast races over previous Gotham games.
The single player mode is nice, with a variety of different challenges to partake in, from simple races to cone challenges and the like, but let's be honest, the reason you buy Gotham is for the online play...and it never lets you down on that score.
Getting a game is easy. You pick from a choice of pre-defined game styles - my fave being the night time-centric "Dusk 'Til Dawn" - and the game does the rest. Sit back, pop open a beer, and it'll find you a game almost instantly...more often than not, with seven evenly matched players too. There's no need to scan and pick servers, lag is non existent, and your gameplay experience is just as smooth, pretty and downright playable as with the single player game...only a hundred times more fun.
|Next-gen power enables Gotham to render individual crowd members in ultra high detail, no cardboard cut-outs like we're used to seeing|
Admittedly, there's a slight randomness to the outcome of online matches; when you all fire off from that starting line and go hurtling around the first bend, it often turns into a mega huge pile-up with everyone ramming into other like a game of bumper cars. The few that make it out in one piece often dictate the eventual winners, as it can be tough to recover from just one major crash...but hey, maybe that's just the sore loser in me trying to make up for the fact I've yet to win a single race.
The online component is comprised of more than just your bog standard standalone races too. There's indepth leaderboards, a complex career mode and best of all, Gotham TV, which lets up to 30,000 fellow players spectate the best games via live feed straight to their television set. I can't imagine being under that kind of pressure myself. Luckily I won't have to, as I'm shit.
Gotham 3 is flat-out brilliant. Not only is it possibly the prettiest game on the 360, it's also the greatest online game of the bunch, and more to the point, my fave racing game currently on release. No doubts a 360 version of Forza Motorsport is in production behind closed doors, but to be honest, it'll need to step up its game big time to compete with this near faultless beauty. A racing classic.
Kameo: Elements of Power
Kameo feels pretty much like a Nintendo-style adventure game brought over to the Xbox. This isn't surprising, seeing as developers Rare began working on this game all the way back on the Gamecube. When Rare was bought out by Microsoft in 2002, Kameo became an Xbox exclusive, naturally, and more recently, was finally upgraded to a full-on 360 launch title. As a result, it's been in development for what feels like forever...most bizarre for what looks like a simplistic little cute 'n' cuddly platformer on the outside.
|Put off by Kameo's child-like art style? Your loss. This is one of the launch line-up's greatest by a mile|
Don't let your eyes fool you though, Kameo is far from a silly little kids title. This is a surprisingly rich adventure meets platformer meets beat 'em up game, one that has true universal appeal in a similar fashion to the Zelda series. If you're a fan of the adventures of Link - and I mean that in terms of look, style and atmosphere rather than just simple gameplay mechanics - Kameo is most certainly for you.
You play Kameo herself, an elvan princess battling nasty troll forces under the command of her evil sister (or something), but the interesting twist is that the majority of your play time is made up of controlling "elemental warriors" - bad arse creatures that Kameo can morph into on the fly. Each one looks, feels and plays completely differently to the last, making the game immensely inventive and varied.
Chiller for instance, is a big arse polar bear-type monster with spikes on his back. He can chuck icy spears in first person mode, or alternatively use his immense strength to simply pick up nearby foes and use 'em as a makeshift club (with stunning ragdoll physics, no less).
Then there's Major Ruin (pictured), a wee little armadillo-like fella who can roll into his shell and pelt around levels like a bowling ball. He actually controls identically to Samus in the Metroid Prime games, with the added bonus of being able to bowl over enemies and smack 'em around the environment - those awesome physics once again coming into play. Ramming trolls into lava pits is immensely satisfying in particular.
|Each of the warriors handles completely differently to the last. What's great is that you can switch between 'em any time you please|
These dudes are joined by seven others, with each one subsequently altering the gameplay experience even further. Pummel Weed for example, is your stock beat 'em up character, bopping and dragon punching foes to death with style, while Rubble is made up of rock, and can fire off bits of himself at enemies like some kinda living shotgun.
It's cool to have all this variation in gameplay, but the beauty comes in the fact you can switch between each of these bad boys any damn time you want. This means awesome combos can be thought up thanks to the wonderful environments and sandbox powers. There's a character called Deep Blue for instance, who can squirt oil from his tentacles. By covering enemies in said oil, then switching to the fire breathing dragon, Ash, you can ignite massive crowds of enemies in beautiful self-made bonfires. Good times.
Speaking of crowds of enemies, Kameo boasts some of the most on-screen enemies you'll ever see in a game. Some of the set-pieces involve gigantic Lord of the Rings-style battlefield scenes with thousands of elves and trolls squaring off for as far as the eye can see, and it really is quite a site. I doubt such scenes would have been possible back on the Gamecube.
|Kameo is right up there with PGR3 as prettiest 360 game so far. It's an interactive Pixar movie |
Needless to say, this thing is fucking beautiful to look at. For a game that was conceived three or four years back, Rare have certainly rid it of any old skool visuals. The graphics are cartoony and over the top, but certainly to its credit, baring a distant resemblance to the zany World of Warcraft universe. You could argue it's the special effects that really bring this one to life though; the heat haze coming off the lava, the beautiful ripples on the water, and the sheer volume of background characters in those epic battle scenes. Heck, on the opening level alone you'll find yourself racing atop massive castle walls with - I'm not kidding you here - hundreds upon hundreds of huge fire breathing dragons zooming around the sky above you. Wonderfully, distant characters and buildings appear blurry and out of focus too, giving the game a wonderful sense of depth that pops right outta the screen at you.
There's just so much detail crammed into this world, it has to be seen to be believed. From individual blades of grass swaying in the wind, to birds and insects chirping away in the distance, it genuinely looks like a computer generated cartoon at times. I can't wait to give it a further going over on high def to see just what else is packed into these meaty views that I'm missing.
Music is also stunning, with a phenomenally rich orchestral soundtrack that could have been plucked outta Hollywood's finest. This is one title that makes you ponder whether custom soundtracks in all games are actually a good or a bad thing; the thought of poor saps missing out on Kameo's wonderful soundtrack in favour of The Killers makes me die a little inside.
|Kameo's single biggest problem is its off-the-wall control system. It works, but it ain't particularly ideal|
Also, there's is a fun little co-op mode thrown in, ridding itself of the adventure segments and letting you plough through the more action heavy "dungeons" with a buddy. It's not particularly fully featured, and even a little tacked on, but is never the less a good laugh and a pleasant addition. Currently this is relegated to split screen only, but Rare has gone on record stating that an online patch is forthcoming for Live play.
The most disappointing thing about Kameo is really its control method to be honest. Somewhat strangely, everything is handled through the triggers, whether it be simple jumps, punching foes, or pulling off complex finishing moves, and it not only takes a little while to get used to, but actually knackers your fingers after some prolonged use. After your first hour it becomes second nature and you do settle into it, but a choice of more traditional configs would have improved things hugely for me.
Kameo is a sweet little game never the less, and it's nice to play something a little more light hearted, imaginative and colourful than the typical shooters and racers that you'd expect on an Xbox system. It's not quite perfect - some of the characters such as Kameo herself are a little bland and annoying, and the story is a wee bit dull too - but it's certainly an enjoyable and utterly gorgeous adventure game, in stark contrast to the rest of the launch line-up.
Those who enjoy the likes of Zelda and Fable will find some delightful fun in Kameo, not to mention one of the best showcases the 360's graphical power, but those seeking more serious, adult games will probably wanna give it a miss and check out something like Condemned, detailed a little further down.
Perfect Dark Zero
Deary me, this is tricky game to review, but alas here are some thoughts never the less. For those expecting the new Halo, this isn't quite it. It is however, a very nice console FPS in its own right, even if it isn't the second coming.
|PD0 also features spy gadgets, including lock picks, remote controlled drones and a crazy Predator-style vision mode. Which err, has nothing to do with this picture, I just thought you should know|
Perfect Dark Zero is the prequel to the old N64 classic from 2000. While I admit I never got around to playing that game, it's widely considered to be - along with GoldenEye - one of the most seminal console FPS games of all time. Somewhat worryingly, this new title has been in development ever since the N64 days. You once again take control of young hottie Joanna Dark, taking her further back in time to the tender age of 20, following the story of how she became a member of the Carrington Institute. Think more No One Lives Forever, than Master Chief or Gordon Freeman.
As another Rare game that's been in development for way too many years though, it unfortunately, unlike Kameo, starts to show its age at times. As a result, the visuals somehow bizarrely manage to border somewhere between a depressing disappointment, and the best damn FPS graphics of the year. Strange, but true. It's odd to see a game seemingly age five years from level to level, but sure enough, here it is.
Character models and animation for instance, are often simplistic, floaty and even a little ugly, but they have that brand spanking new X360 "next-gen" bump mapping look tossed on top to spruce them up. This kind of mish-mash between the old and the new finds itself into pretty much ever aspect of the game, from the old skool, action heavy gameplay, to the horrendously simplistic story (that really should be a heck of a lot better in this day and age).
The cut-scenes often look embarrassingly bad, making you curse the game's name, but then you'll come across a level like the Trinity Infiltration which looks simply amazing
, blowing away even the likes of Quake 4 and Half-Life 2. When Perfect Dark's showcasing these more cutting edge sites and sounds, greatness does start to appear. The guns in particular, look and feel fucking gorgeous
That all said, some tweaking in the controller settings were certainly required for me to get 'em handling up to scratch. Before you even fire the game up in fact, my advice would be to whack "fast turn" off in the options menu, turn "sensitivity" to about 60, and make sure "auto-aim" is switched on too (which is far from what it sounds like). With that out of the way, you'll be left with a control system that handles much closer to Halo than the default options, and find it a considerably more enjoyable game to boot.
It's really all about those guns at the end of the day...they are the glue that holds this somewhat tatty title together. Shiny, heavy and rock solid to fire, they retain that same wonderful sense of satisfaction that only the very best shooters can boast. In fact, I'd say Perfect Dark's shotgun is quite possibly my fave shottie to be found in any FPS right now. Blasting groups of bad guys with that sucker and watching their armour shatter and fall off with real-time physics is arguably the most satisfying feeling in the world. The same applies to every other weapon, from the gloriously sleek SMG, to the dual wield DV357 Magnums.
|The game includes stunning physics and photo-realistic explosions. Exploding barrels have seldom been so much fun|
There's also a gobsmacking motion-blur effect used in this game that has to be seen to be believed. It's often noticeable when turning quickly, bashing people in the face, or zooming in with your sniper rifle, and I can't stress enough how truly beautiful and cutting edge it looks. This effect alone makes PD0 look astonishingly fab at times, and easily boosts the visual level up to rival the very best of anything you've ever seen before. The downside is of course, that when you stop moving and the motion-blur calms down, what's left beneath it all often ain't that pretty. Odd, don't ya think? For this reason you can't really judge the visuals on screenshots, you need to see it in motion.
I guess where Kameo managed to survive the multiple system switches and graphical upgrades with aplomb, Perfect Dark falters slightly. It looks razor sharp, super shiny and packs some hella awesome explosions and physics, yet you'll also come across blurry, decade old textures and more of those awfully dodgy character models. As mentioned, the story and particularly the voice acting are also insanely tripe, making you wanna jab rusty pins in your eyes and used tampons down your ears.
All in all, Perfect Dark's cross generation development is a little jarring, which results in a single player game that doesn't particularly gel at times, is packed full of issues, and yet despite it all...still somehow manages to be immensely fun and one of the better console FPS games I've played in ages. As I said back on line one...it's one tricky arse game to talk about in that regard. I'll admit it, I'm flat out torn.
While the single player game is an odd beast though, the multiplayer fares much better. The wealth of different modes is unbelievable, the weapons work beautifully, and the maps all play superbly in my book. Similarly to Gotham, they are few in number - a mere six I believe - but they scale depending on the game mode and number of players, meaning substantially more than that in practice. Also, I'm sure additional downloadable levels will pop up in the future, given Microsoft's track record.
Whether a deathmatch junkie, or a more tactical Counter-Strike fan, PD0 certainly has a multiplayer mode for you. I've always been a sucker for the more realistic and tactical round-based stuff, so I'm all over Dark Ops mode myself. Die once, and you're out for the rest of the round, forced to spectate from the side lines, but it adds a heck of a lot more tension to the proceedings. Not content with one simple elimination mode though, there's also a territorial mode, a sabotage mode, and a hilarious "Infected" mode that has to be experienced to be appreciated. All in all, there's some major longevity to be found in the online component, whatever your tastes, and its arguably worth owning the game for that alone.
Oh and did I mention the co-op mode?
In fact, this is one of the better co-operative games around if you ask me, and unlike Halo and the like, where you simply play clones of each other in a somewhat non-sensical fashion that doesn't fit into the storyline at all, Perfect Dark's co-op mode is seamlessly integrated into the plot from the ground up. Let me give you an example;
|Perfect Dark includes an interesting "cover" mechanic as seen here, but it's unintuitive and a little fiddly to use|
On mission four - arguably the best level in the game - you're battling along futuristic skyscraper rooftops as Joanna. In the single player mode, your father starts off alongside you, but he falls down a level after a stray explosion, and is thus separated until level's end.
In co-op mode though, the second player actually takes control of him, going off on that separate route while Joanna continues along the rooftops. Joanna can actually see player two down below though, thus providing sniper cover and calling out enemy positions on the fly, which makes for some compellingly rich and beautifully hilarious fun in the process. In fact it flat out rocks.
It's great to play a co-op game that doesn't force the two of you down the same route for once - bumping into each other in cramped corridors and arguing over who gets which weapon - yet one that still remains fully team-based and co-operative never the less. Sure, not all the levels are quite this extensive, but it really does feel like a fully fleshed out co-op game that we rarely, if ever see these days.
Oh and it's worth a note, just playing split screen games in general works waaaay better on the 360 than on any previous console. Graphics remain sharp and detailed for both players, with no squinting and uglying up of the visuals to compensate. But hey, you can just play PD0's ace co-op mode over Xbox Live anyway if you want an entire screen to yourself. Wonderful, eh?
Still, Perfect Dark certainly won't be for everyone; this is a game that'll divide 'em like no other I'm sure. For a safer purchase in the FPS launch line-up, one that provides a more solid single player mode, Call of Duty 2 might be a better choice. If however, you keep your expectations in check, and fancy a far superior multiplayer game with that fab co-op mode to boot, Perfect Dark is an ace buy. Its sordid history lets it down at times, but its stunning weaponry and fab online component go a long way towards making up for it in my book.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned is a dark and mature first person adventure game. You play Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent who is framed in a murder case, thus having to track down the real killer and prove his innocence. You do this by delving into the bottom of the barrel of society, tracking down evidence and fighting for your life in a bizarre but pleasing FPS-meets-survival-horror style. It's Seven meets Manhunt meets CSI, courtesy of developers Monolith, using their recent FEAR engine at its core I do believe.
|Condemned is basically last year's semi-classic Chronicles of Riddick game, taken to new extremes|
That's where the similarities end mind you, this is no standard FPS game by any means. The game has guns, sure, but ammo is incredibly scarce you see, so you'll be whacking foes with your pistol butt more often than shooting them in the head. Guns break apart as you clobber people too, resulting in you grabbing more and more makeshift weapons from your surroundings in order to stay alive. Shovels off the floor, pipes off the wall, you name it...if you can see it, chances are you can rip it from its fittings and clobber a guy to death with it. This mother fucker's brutal.
Condemned boasts a similar first person brawler feel to Riddick in that regard, yet as good as that game looked, Condemned possesses a whole other level of graphical splendour you just ain't seen before. The style is beautifully twisted, looking like some kinda demented snuff movie at times - grainy and dirty enough to make a toilet bowel jealous - with nowt but a flashlight keeping you company as you roam the terrifyingly dark hallways. It's got that pitch-black Doom III thing going on, but thankfully works far better here, with a light source that never turns off, amplifying the tension, not causing frustration.
You'll visit everything from deserted subways to dingy crack dens throughout your investigation, each and every one more disturbing than the last. There's also awesome physics included, with boxes, barrels and light fixtures regularly getting thrown all over the place, making these locales feel pleasingly alive and interactive.
|Go in there? Fuck that, I'm playing Kameo|
As mentioned, there's a wonderful and somewhat original investigative aspect to the gameplay that I really dig. You're tracking down a serial killer after all, which results in Ethan busting out a whole host of neat gadgets and gizmos as he scours the environments for evidence and clues. Among others, these include scanners, cameras and UV lights...useful in tracking down those elusive semen stains.
Most of all though, it's Condemned's enemies that are worthy of a mention. With a mixture of homicidal killers and tweaked up junkies gunning for you around every corner of these horrifically seedy buildings and alleyways, they're horribly frightening I must admit. Condemned is definitely one to chuck on in the wee hours of the night with all the lights turned off, that's for sure, and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't excreted the odd chocolate nugget when pounced on from behind by a junkie crackwhore.
All in all I dig this game. It's stunning to look at - genuinely "next generation" stuff - and it certainly provides the most original and mature gameplay of all the titles featured here. It is however, not a very pleasant experience, truth be told, due to its style and subject matter. I enjoy playing it from a gameplay perspective, but don't particularly enjoy spending time in this disgusting and depressing world at the same time.
I also worry about lifespan, as it's essentially just a very linear, very single player orientated game that probably won't lend itself to any sort of repeated use - something to bear in mind for a title that goes for 40 odd quid. Until the day comes when I finish the sucker though, I'll be putting on my brave face and enjoying the heck out of it in the meantime.
While I had zero interest in Kong as a story and a property, I was intrigued by this title due to those who worked on it. Michael Ancel - who spearheaded Beyond Good & Evil - is the main honcho behind it, and Peter Jackson himself has apparently been heavily involved with the game from the ground up too.
|The FPS implementation could be considered unique and interesting, if Condemned hadn't beaten it to the punch|
As a movie license, this is a notch above the rest, but as an Xbox 360 game, it's rather lacking. This is a cross platform port after all, meaning there's essentially a PS2 game buried down deep beneath it all you see, and it shows. Sure, some upgrades have been thrown in for this 360 version - enhanced textures, improved architecture and anti-aliasing - but it still looks a good deal less impressive than Condemned and the like.
Gameplay-wise, King Kong is surprisingly similar to Condemned actually, but with you transported from urine stained subways to a fantasy dinosaur island. Once again it's a first person game, but also one with scarce use of guns and more of a focus on puzzles and character interactions. More interesting is its complete lacks of a hud; shooting is simply a case of raising your gun and firing, with no reticule to be seen whatsoever. You even have to rely on your character's visual disturbances to gauge how much damage and health you have left. When in trouble, your view starts to darken up for instance, turning more and more red while you pant like crazy and the life drains from your body. It's very unnerving, rather inspired and really draws you into the game in a way a 2D health bar never could.
On top of these levels, there's some Kong segments thrown in where you play the big guy himself. Stomping around, swinging from trees and bashing V-Rexes to death is good enough fun in its own right, and adds some nice variety I guess.
|The game includes some PoP-style platform/beat 'em up stages where you control Kong himself|
All in all though, while Kong is a nice little movie tie-in, one that does its best to do the source material justice, as a 360 specific offering, it's not exactly cutting edge. With variable quality graphics and cramped environments that we know the machine could quadruple in size without breaking a sweat, it fails to impress like the rest on this list. I do however, think I'd be much more receptive if I was playing this on a bog-standard Xbox or a PC.
The 360 port's also been the subject of some controversy due to shipping with a nasty bug that makes it appear overly dark on standard televisions. It seems that in an attempt to spruce the game up for high definition TV sets - where by the way it looks considerably more impressive - Ubisoft neglected to play test the bog standard version that 90% of us will be playing on our regular sets. Sure enough, the game does look overly dark in places, but this really isn't as big a deal as some would have you believe, and is fixed by a brief fiddle with your TV's brightness controls.
Kong on the 360 is certainly the best version of the game available, I think that goes without saying, but at £50 a pop I wouldn't really recommend it unless you're a particularly massive fan of the flick to be honest.
Call of Duty 2
|It's pretty much a straight toss up between the PC and 360 versions. Slightly improved visuals here offset the surprisingly lame online mode|
Okay, I admit this one's a bit of a cheat as I haven't played the 360 version extensively. I have however, played the sucker to death on the PC side, and can certainly vouch for its quality as a single player game. By all accounts, the 360 port is even better in the single player department too, boasting a beautifully smooth 60 frames per second and some improved smoke and special effects work on top. Even my top of the range PC can't pull that off.
On the multiplayer side of things though, word on the street is that the Xbox Live implementation is scaled down and lacking in comparison, so multiplayer fans might be better off seeking out the PC version if that's more your bag.
Either way, Call of Duty 2 is a huge title for the 360. Even if technically a cross-platform offering, it fares considerably better than Kong does, not settling for second rate visuals or sloppy porting. If only they'd bothered to include co-op in the single player game, I'd definitely be looking at a repurchase of this bad boy. If you don't own a beefy PC, I'd call it unmissable here on the 360.
On top of the 360's 20 odd launch titles, the machine is also backwards compatible with about 200 original Xbox games as well, with more being added to the list as the Microsoft bods tweak and patch their software. You will
need a hard drive to run any of them, as it houses all the software and patches required, but the mere fact this is even possible is an amazing achievement, considering wildly different tech between the two systems means every game has to be emulated from the bleedin' ground up.
|Halo 2 has never looked better|
As a nice bonus, all Xbox 1 games have been upscaled to use anti-aliasing and hi-def resolutions on top. To instantly find your old library suddenly looking better than ever at no extra effort is a very impressive feature. For instance I threw Halo 2 on briefly, and was pleased to see it looking much sharper and cleaner than before, even on a bog-standard TV. The smoothed out edges result in a beautifully shiny looking experience over its original incarnation, and it's even fully playable over Xbox Live against Xbox 1 players too.
Unfortunately there's still some beauties missing from the list though, namely Oddworld, Doom III, Conker, Mercenaries and Beyond Good & Evil, but more and more games are being added with each passing week so I'm guessing it'll only be a matter of time. Performance can also be variable on occasion, with the likes of Half-Life 2 apparently experiencing far worse framerate problems than its Xbox 1 counterpart.
On the whole though, I'm very pleased with the backwards compatibility. It certainly puts the likes of KOTOR and Splinter Cell more on an even footing with their higher resolution PC counterparts, and you can't complain there.
All in all, the actual Xbox 360 machine itself, is awesome. It looks far sleeker than its predecessor, the controller is the best we've ever seen, and the wealth of power it possesses is truly incomparable to any other system out there right now. For well under £300 - packed full of bonus goodies I might add - I call that a bloody good buy.
In particular the Live dashboard features are what stand out for me, whether it be the fully integrated online component, the wealth of content on Xbox marketplace, or the ability to stream media from anywhere on your network. It's not just the most powerful of consoles, but also rather charming in its richness of functionality too.
I should also mention, with all this talk of crashing consoles, overheating power supplies and all the various other crap we're hearing horror stories about, mine has worked completely flawlessly from the first second I turned it on. Do not believe the relentless cursings of the internet's most jaded.
|Will Gears of War be the 360's first "Halo"?|
As far as games go though, while the 360 has a pretty good launch line-up, it ain't quite perfect. Most consoles are plagued with rotten launch games, but usually have that one single illusive "must own" title to help kick-start their life-span among the drudge. The original Xbox had Halo, the Nintendo 64 had Mario, and so on. The Xbox 360 doesn't really have anything on that level though - one single all encompassing classic that the system will be remembered for decades down the line.
Unlike the majority of other system launches though, what it does
have is a solid line-up of decent second tier games, so even if there's no new Halo, KOTOR or Ninja Gaiden to be seen, there's at least a whole host of just plain decent titles worth owning never the less (Gotham, in particular, sticking its beak out above the pack). For that first, true must-own release, you'll probably have to wait for Oblivion due out early next year, and thus the more softcore gamer could easily hold off grabbing the system until the January sales roll around.
But hey, that ain't me, and I'm sure the six or seven titles mentioned above should keep me more than going in the meantime. Plus, unlike say, the PSP, we do have some more great stuff coming our way very soon to follow-up on these launch beauties too. I'm eyeing up Ridge Racer myself, with possibly some Dead or Alive 4 to keep it company.
Unlike Sony, with their flashy CGI renders and emphasis on hype that's never quite met, Microsoft have done the complete opposite with the 360, under-promising and more importantly, over-delivering. It's far better and more impressive than early screenshots, footage and word of mouth would have you expecting, and it currently betters a high end PC for sheer power and graphical superiority too. The mere thought of Resident Evil 5, Gears of War and of course Halo 3 running on this beast emits shocking amounts of wetness from my Jap's eye.
Whether or not it's for you though, is something I can't answer. You've heard about the amazing online functionality. The stunning graphics. The exceptional multimedia features. High def on all games. Custom soundtracks. Wireless pads. Voice chat. Project Gotham. Perfect Dark co-op. And, of course, scanning for those illusive semen stains in Condemned...but do these things truly get your blood pumping? Are you throthing at the pants right now? If not, I'd wait for the PS3, but if so, you might just be an Xbox 360 guy after all. Add "Diggler26" to that buddy list of yours and let's hit the race track together, leaving behind the rest as they struggle with their costly PC rigs and dated consoles of yester-generation.
Despite the lack of a main killer app to bring it all together, Microsoft have certainly kicked off the next-gen war in style. In fact, I'd argue that their true must-own "title" right now is Xbox Live itself - that's the one "game" that truly makes me sigh with pleasure each and every time I glance over at the 360, and like all good must-have launch titles on a brand new system, it shows us things we never even thought possible in the previous generation.
What say you to that, Sony?