SAN FRANCISCO--When invitations to a mellow showing-off of the Xbox 360 came in, GameSpot News replied "Yes!" before the sentence was even finished. With so much hype going on around the console's launch, and with so many questions still unanswered, some hands-on time with the system and near-final builds of games would be a great opportunity to see how things are coming along for the gaming's hopeful heavyweight.
In form that seemed to contradict Microsoft's recent push of the system, the event wasn't held at a nightclub, ubercool bar, or at a spring break spot. It took place at a subdued art gallery in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, located in Potrero Hill. In fact, strolling down the street, you wouldn't even know that one of the most hotly anticipated tech toys of the year was being shown nearby.
There was no velvet rope, no bouncer checking names off a list, no wristbands or hand stamps... The door was "guarded" by a Microsoft rep who recognized our group and let us up.
"Where do we go?" asked one GameSpot editor.
"Oh, sorry. Second floor," replied the rep.
It was indeed going to be a casual affair.
The event was divided in to two floors: the upstairs housing food, a bar, and about a dozen Xbox 360s, and the middle floor featuring about two-dozen systems. Each 360 was hooked up to a high-definition screen from Samsung, Microsoft's partner in the HD era. Excluding Xbox Live Arcade titles, there were 12 games on display:
Call of Duty 2 (Activision/Infinity Ward)
Condemned: Criminal Origins (Sega / Monolith)
Dead or Alive 4 (Tecmo / Team Ninja)
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2K Games / Bethesda Softworks)
Kameo: Elements of Power (Microsoft Game Studios / Rare Ltd.)
Madden NFL 06 (Electronic Arts / EA Tiburon)
NBA 2K6 (2K Sports / Visual Concepts)
NBA Live 06 (Electronic Arts / EA Canada)
Need for Speed Most Wanted (Electronic Arts / EA Canada)
Perfect Dark Zero (Microsoft Game Studios / Rare Ltd.)
Peter Jackson's King Kong (Ubisoft / Ubisoft Montreal)
Project Gotham Racing 3 (Microsoft Game Studios /Bizarre Creations)
Xbox guru J Allard was on hand to do a few interviews, talk to patrons, and give a short spiel on the state of the 360.
"Tell us what you like. Tell us what you don't like. We're by no means done," said Allard. "We want to be innovators. We want to take gaming to the next level."
Like the overall feel of the event itself, Allard's brief words contrasted the usual bravado he spouts at press shindigs. At this year's E3 and at the 360's announcement on MTV, Allard and company trumpeted the console as God's gift to gamers, but as its launch is approaching, the tune seems to have changed.
Recently, Allard has been quoted as saying that the first wave of games won't be top-quality, saying that developers cut corners and can be "sloppy" without final hardware throughout the whole development process. Of course, this goes without saying for almost every new system.
Take, for example, Bungie's Halo franchise. When the game was released with the Xbox launch in 2001, it was lauded by fans and critics for its graphics. But most would agree that Halo 2, released three years later, outshined its predecessor in looks, thanks to familiarity with the Xbox's hardware.
However, Bungie, whose employees are known for being perfectionists, got it right both in the first and last days of the Xbox's life. The games on display last night were all following in the footsteps of the original Halo--blazing trails in an uncertain market. Same stuff, different year. Right?
The decision to rush games to market must drive publishers mad. On one hand, release dates are made for a reason: to take advantage of an opportunity in the sales season, hence the overload of games during the holidays. On the other hand, gamers can easily tell when a game is rushed, and thanks to word of mouth and gaming sites, a game's reputation can be destroyed much faster than it can be built.
Using Bungie as an example again, Halo 2, which had Xbox owners frothing at the mouth, was delayed for what seemed like ages (but was actually only about a year). The decision was incredibly unpopular among gamers, who responded to the news as if their world had ended. In hindsight, it appears that the delay, for whatever reason, proved to be the right choice. Halo 2 went on to become the most successful single-day launch in entertainment, crushing sales records set even by Hollywood.
With a system launch, there's no breathing room to delay a game simply because it doesn't "feel ready." To counter this, console launch strategy merely dictates that focus and resources be spent on ensuring that each genre is adequately filled with at least one strong game, rather than rushing out games that overlap genres. The goal is to make sure that there's something for everyone who's thinking of buying a system at launch.
Microsoft has made it known that a successful launch will require a few first-person shooters in different genres (Perfect Dark Zero, Call of Duty 2), a fighting game (DOA4), an action adventure game (King Kong), a role-playing game (Oblivion), and so forth. The unfortunate part of this is that a bad game, or a game that doesn't meet expectations, in a genre may as well have left the category unfilled.
Though the Xbox 360 is a good machine with a great future ahead, it's obvious that it (and Microsoft) isn't immune to the same launch obstacles that plagued the original Xbox and, more recently, Sony's PSP.
Because much of the crowd had already played the games either the day before or at other press events, such as the recent X05 in Amsterdam, most seemed content to mingle, booze it up, or nibble on crab cakes, leaving several Xbox 360 stations open for the taking (a baffling concept, particularly given the amount of hype surrounding the system).
Immediately what jumps out is the hardware. The controller is indeed attractive and practically begs to be held. The sleek console itself is a complete 180 from its older, bulkier brother. All the 360s were propped up vertically, and they seem meant to be positioned that way. iPod white is the new black, and the console wears it well. But the hardware is unlikely to go through a redesign for a few years, as it's what's on the screen that counts the most for launch.
Prior to the event, this reporter had been told by industry insiders that the 360 was coming along very slowly and that frame rates and fluidity were off. The challenge would be for the developers to race quality games out in time for the system's launch. So how did the games fair just over a month before the 360's launch? Hit-and-miss, it turns out.
The pressure with games on new consoles almost squarely lands on graphics. Gamers are expecting Xbox 360 games to all look fantastic, so they'd better.
After having firsthand experience with several games expected to ship alongside the Xbox 360 on November 22, it's safe to say that, yes, these games look darned good, particularly on high-definition screens. But (of course there was a 'but' coming) even with eye-popping looks, some games have a long way to go.
Sports fans should be happy to know that they've never seen anything that looked as good as the three games shown, as Madden NFL 06, NBA Live 06, and NBA 2K6 looked scary-good. When Raptors point guard and journeyman Mike James (Mike James!!) is instantly recognizable on the court, it's obvious that graphics have come a long way.
But if looks determined sports success, Anna Kournikova would be a billion-time Grand Slam champ. The two EA games look finger-lickin' good, and it appears as though that was the developers' main objective. Cutscenes, intros, and even menus all look spit-shined and incredibly presentable. But once the action began on the field/court, things dip down to junior-varsity level. Each game crashed at one point, and more than once, play was chunkier than Warren Sapp. NBA 2K6, on the other hand, felt more toned down through intros and menus, but once players began hooping it up, the game dazzled because of its smooth gameplay.
Call of Duty 2, one of the games that Activision believes will make launch, seems to be a result of 2K's thinking that gameplay should take priority over graphics. COD2 was one of the few next-gen Xbox games on public display at this year's E3, which may have done more harm than good for the game. The hardware (rumored at the time to be three Apple G5s) could not keep up with the ambitions of the developer, rendering gameplay fairly useless, because characters on the screen seemed to constantly be entering temporal vortexes.
What a difference five months has made for Infinity Ward's WWII shooter. The level demoed was full of Nazi-hating action, and although the graphics weren't up to par with some of the other games (although they are well above current specs), it was the one game on display that had no fear throwing up to 30 detailed characters on the screen at once...with no noticeable slowdown.
A GameSpot editor who attended X05 in Amsterdam commented that Project Gotham Racing 3, Kameo, and Perfect Dark Zero all appeared to running much smoother than they did at X05, which was only a week earlier. Incidentally, all three happen to be Microsoft-published games. While Perfect Dark Zero did have its slipups, Kameo and PGR3 ran exceptionally well, except in PGR3's cockpit mode. Kameo, in particular, looked and played very well, but how many members of its target audience (younger children) will have $400 for an Xbox 360?
Of course, all these games still have another month or so in development, and studios haven't had the fortune of working on final hardware until recently. In this war waged on the wallets of consumers, these launch games can be equated to the first wave of soldiers set upon Normandy in 1944. They'll likely be shot down, but they'll clear the way for the real breach.
The microscope that Microsoft has been put under with the 360's launch may be more of a result of the increased media attention the industry has received. True, pressure from Sony's PlayStation 3 is forcing the issue of a strong launch to the top of everyone's list, but the fact of the matter is that the Xbox 360 will likely be around for at least the next five years. These 12 games aren't make-or-break titles for the console, and there's no assurance that the PS3 won't stumble through an equally challenging launch. Right now there's still plenty of race to be run.
Is it too early to talk about the PlayStation 3's launch?