At first we didn't think much of the invitations when we received them a couple of weeks ago. Sealed in a white circular envelope resembling a peppermint swirl was a request for our presence at the Avalon, a Hollywood nightclub, from 9pm to 1am on Thursday, May 5. It turns out this was for the taping of The Next-Generation Xbox Revealed, the Microsoft/MTV special that marked the official unveiling of the Xbox 360. We were totally there. Not knowing just what to expect, other than maybe an up-close peek at the 360 and a brush with Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood, the evening's emcee, we showed up on time and got in line.
In line were a bunch of other people, most of whom we didn't recognize as the usual gang of game-industry suspects. That's OK--this wasn't the usual game-industry event. Microsoft touted that a star-studded cast was present, including celebs ranging from Alyssa Milano to Xzibit, from Ashlee Simpson to Tony Hawk. For what it's worth, we didn't see any of them, apart from Elijah Wood and musical guests The Killers and Snow Patrol. Not that we're complaining. The live acts were nice. As for the celebrities, we figure they might have been tucked away in the ultraexclusive, upper-balcony VIP lounge, or something like that. They weren't relegated to the dance floor area like most of us folks who are resigned to putting our pants on one leg at a time every morning.
The setting of the event probably wasn't all that different from a typical night at the Avalon, albeit with more video cameras swinging around on jibs, preparing to give MTV every possible nonstatic angle on the proceedings. When we finally got inside closer to 7pm, we discovered a modest-sized crowd that grew to a peak of several hundred people at about the halfway point in the evening. The throng seemed about evenly split between men and women and looked like what you'd expect to see at a dance club on Thursday night--not at the launch of a new video game system. There was also a big circular peppermint-swirl pedestal in the middle of the dance floor, where we expected Elijah to eventually appear in a shower or brightly colored sparks.
No sign of the new Xbox was in sight, though plenty of plasma screens showed off the new globular Xbox logo and the name of the MTV feature: The Next-Generation Xbox Revealed. Eventually, an official showed up and attempted to warm up the crowd, promising that Elijah Wood, The Killers, and Snow Patrol would be ready presently. Sheepishly, he also requested that none of the attendants take any photographs or disclose any aspect of the event prior to the premiere of the MTV special, though he surely must have known that the details of the event would quickly leak out through unofficial sources. Like all the invited journalists present, we were frustrated that we were bound by a nondisclosure agreement while most of the audience surely was not. Nonetheless, we indulged in the surroundings and eagerly waited for Wood to take the stage.
And lo! Frod-, er, Elijah appeared, dressed in a T-shirt and red velvet coat. He delivered his lines off MTV's teleprompter briskly, nailing all but one on the first take. He parlayed the one hiccup into a joke for the audience's sake--possibly the one good laugh of the evening. We also got to see Wood deliver his brief bits of commentary in several small chunks during the course of the evening, punctuated by the live performances that took up most of the time.
In fact, at that point, we still hadn't seen the Xbox 360. Eventually they trotted it out--literally--in the hands of a woman who carried the thing from offstage in a duffle bag and plunked it down on the pedestal in the middle of the floor. There it was, just like the leaked photos depicted it--a sleek, white box closer in size to the original PS2 than the Xbox. Lights flashed, zooming noises blared, and a video came onscreen. It very briefly highlighted some of the system's key features--integrated community via an updated Xbox Live service, exchangeable face plates for the system, built-in USB, wireless controllers--all those rumors were true after all.
We also got to see a quick vignette featuring a few key Xbox 360 titles: Saint's Row, a GTA-inspired action game from THQ, shown in a crime-ridden full-motion video clip; Full Auto, a car racing/car combat game from Sega, which featured some high-speed road rage; Call of Duty II, the highly anticipated World War II shooter sequel from Activision; Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 3, a visually impressive follow-up to Ubisoft's tactical shooter series; Quake IV, Raven Software's update to the sci-fi-themed first-person shooter franchise created by id Software; Gears of War, a sci-fi-themed tactical shooter from Epic Games, which was the most impressive-looking demo of the bunch thanks to some incredibly detailed characters; The Darkness, a cool-looking comic-book-inspired title from Majesco and Chronicles of Riddick developer Starbreeze; and Kameo, a fantastical action adventure developed by Rare, originally planned for the Nintendo 64 before moving to the Xbox and now headed to the 360.
Unfortunately, most of the games shown in the video ran noticeably slow at a substandard frame rate that will certainly (hopefully?) be tuned in the months to come. That's the thing--while the system and its features seemed quite impressive, for the most part the games themselves honestly didn't look that special. Granted, we didn't get to see much of any of them. At least we got our hands on the Xbox 360's controller, though, and we also got up close and personal with the system itself.
It was an interesting and memorable evening, all things considered. The Killers performed a full set, which included all their hits, like "Mr. Brightside" and "Somebody Told Me," and Snow Patrol followed suit once Elijah Wood and the Xbox 360 video demonstration had finished--apparently Snow Patrol would be cut into the European version of the MTV feature, since Snow Patrol is presently bigger on that side of the pond. Market research, see?
When we headed home for the night sometime after 1am, we were struck by the sense that getting to be behind the scenes at the taping of the MTV special gave us precious little insight into the Xbox 360 and, more importantly, its lineup of games. We did learn that the on-air version of the feature would end up including a couple of additional video segments that weren't ready in time for the taping and would also include some other frills, like an appearance by MTV's Pimp My Ride crew. If nothing else, though, the event at the Avalon definitely gave us a feel for how Microsoft intends to roll out with the Xbox 360--without subtlety, sparing no expense.
For a thorough rundown on Microsoft's new console, check out GameSpot's special