The much awaited Xbox is due for sale in this country around 14 March, but will the device live up to the massive hype Microsoft and the media has given it? Will the extravagant American launch party in Times Square with Bill Gates and pro-wrestler The Rock pay off? But most importantly, will the Xbox make a dent in Sony's armour?
If playing the console itself is anything to go by, then the answer is yes. With stunning graphics, immense power (for a games console) and little quirks to give it the edge, Microsoft has not only got it right, but the Xbox might just be the start to the future of games entertainment at home. But how has a company renowned for operating systems and office applications managed to pull this off? The answer is in the detail.
Every element of the Xbox has been scrutinised--every element tinkered with to get the best performance. To achieve this, Microsoft realised from an early stage in development that it couldn't do this alone. The main Intel Pentium III 733MHz processor is the most powerful CPU of any console currently available, and the 233MHz NV2A GPU has been custom-designed by nVidia, the leading GPU manufacturer in the PC market. A tailored version of Windows 2000 is the core OS, which uses DirectX 8.0a graphics drivers. It's relatively large at 324 by 265 by 89mm though, especially considering it's a home games console that will most likely sit in a living room.
Microsoft's partnership with hardware manufacturers has resulted in a games machine that produces graphics similar to that of a PC, but on your television screen, so there's no need to play huddled around a desk in your spare room. In fact, some of the full motion video pieces included with some of the games we looked at are like something that could quite easily be included in a movie.
The majority of legacy consoles have been good at the set pieces or video sequences, but as soon as the gameplay starts you're back to large polygons, blocky graphics and poor screen visuals. Not so with the Xbox. Games like Halo: Combat Evolved (£44.99 inc. VAT) and Oddworld: Munch's Odyssey (£44.99 inc. VAT) highlight a graphical style that oozes with eye candy previously unseen. It's not only graphics that maketh the machine, and the Xbox boasts 256 audio channels as well as supporting Dolby Digital 5:1 and Dolby Surround to give you an immersed feeling to your gameplay.
Microsoft has tried hard to add extra features that it hopes will gain the edge over both its rivals, Nintendo's forthcoming GameCube (around £199.99 inc. VAT) and Sony's PlayStation 2 (£199.99 inc. VAT). The main advantage gamers will love is the inclusion of an internal Western Digital, 8GB 5,400rpm hard disk drive to store game saves, thus cutting back on the cost of buying a memory card the moment you buy the system. Microsoft does, however, sell additional Memory Units (£49.99 inc. VAT) that allow you to transfer characters and saved games between Xbox systems.
Multiple Xboxes can be linked with an optional System Link Cable (£19.99 inc. VAT), enabling multi-player head-to-head gameplay. Of course, this functionality requires System Link-compatible games. Unlike other consoles, Microsoft has included a 10/100Base-T port so that in the near future (plans are for summer/autumn this year), the company will run a broadband service and offer online multiplayer action and community shenanigans.
Externally, the console has taken a note out of Nintendo's book and provided the gamer with four controller ports--meaning no multi-taps--and gives you more buttons than ever on the joypad. Controls include one eight-way directional pad (D-pad), left and right analogue joysticks, six pressure-sensitive multicoloured analogue buttons, left and right shoulder triggers, a built-in ‘rumble' feature and dual slots for memory cards and other peripherals.
Thankfully, the controller has a long cable (2.74 metres), eliminating the need for costly cable extensions. The inclusion of a cable break mechanism attached to the controller means that if snagged, the handheld unit detaches from the main system without pulling the console across the room. Additional controllers cost (£24.99 inc. VAT).
Disapprovingly, the Xbox doesn't play DVD-Videos straight out of the box, but instead requires an optional DVD Movie Playback Kit (£29.99 inc. VAT), which comprises a snap-on module and remote control. Microsoft stated that DVD wasn't its prime focus when creating the Xbox, instead claiming it wanted to concentrate on bumping up the specifications for the rest of the machine. Even with the DVD Movie Playback Kit installed, you can't use the standard controller to adjust movie playback.
With a plethora of games set for launch including games Microsoft has developed itself, Microsoft is bringing out all the bells and whistles to make sure that the X-box quickly becomes a successful platform. What's more with over 150 game developers, including Electronic Arts (who didn't support Sega's discontinued Dreamcast console), THQ, Eidos, Activision and even Sega signing up to produce a wide range of games like Tony Hawk 3, Championship Manager and WWF Raw and Microsoft itself publishing titles like Halo, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, Project Gotham Racing and Amped: Freestyle snowboarding you can be sure that they will be plenty to play with. Better still is that Microsoft have allowed third party manufacturers to develop and make controllers and peripherals. So at launch you will have your choice of steering wheels (£39.99) and snowboards (£64.99) along side the simple controllers.
For the money, you get a complete gaming system that is not only likely to last the distance, but shape the future of home gaming. Of course, you can't do your monthly accounts or edit your home movies like with a PC, but for playing games, the Xbox offers a new generation of gaming capabilities.