Does the games console that promises the next evolution in gaming match up to the hype or should you wait another 6 months for the PlayStation 3? One week before the launch in the UK, we find out.



Microsoft have realised that in a price obsessed world, having a low price point is half the battle. With that in mind, in the hope that it can get you in early only to grab your cash later, the company has created two versions of the console to lure parents and gamers this Christmas.

A £279.99 Xbox 360 console will be distinguished by signature metallic detailing on the console itself, a 20Gb Xbox 360 Hard Drive, Xbox 360 Wireless Controller, a spare Xbox 360 Faceplate, an Xbox 360 Headset, an Xbox 360 Component HD-AV Cable, Xbox Live Silver membership and for a limited time, a Media Remote.

The £209.99 option will come with the Xbox 360 Core System a standard wired Xbox 360 Controller, Xbox 360 Faceplate and Xbox 360 Standard AV Cable.

Although on the surface you might be tempted with the cheaper offering. Don’t. If you’re hoping to get the most out of the console the additional hard drive is worth the extra cash up front. Additionally, while Microsoft promises backwards compatibility with over 200 titles such as Halo, you will need the hard drive to play them. This is because rather than include the hardware from the original console, Microsoft has emulated it with software.

Also, Xbox Live gamers will need something to store their profile on and although you can do this on a memory card, the size of the drive is far more compelling.

The console itself is a lot larger than you would expect - think VCR, rather than the diminutive hard-back novel that is the latest PlayStation 2, but its sleek design and interchangeable face plates means that it will fit into any home cinema rack under your television next to your satellite box or DVD player.

The same however can’t be said for the power pack. Roughly the size of a bottle of Coke it’s a mean looking beast that you’ll be glad to hide it away as soon as you get the chance.

The Premium Edition we tested came with the wireless controller. Although we didn’t think it would make much difference, after 10 minutes of gaming we love it. Concerns about battery life aside, it allows you to rid yourself of all potential death traps from dangling a 3-metre cable across your living room; to many times we have experienced dogs or Mrs Pocket-lint catching the cable and freezing the game, just at the good bit. The console supports up to four wireless controllers in total.

With 15 games lined up for the UK launch there is surprisingly plenty of genres to choose from including Amped 3, Call of Duty 2, Condemned: Criminal Origins, FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, GUN, Kameo: Elements of Power, Perfect Dark Zero, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Madden NFL 06, NBA Live 06, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Project Gotham Racing 3, Quake 4, Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 06, and Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland.

All bases seemed to be covered from football to racing to first-person shooters. So far we’ve tested the console with four games - see separate reviews on the site.

While gameplay will no doubt be down to personal preference, the graphics on all the games we’ve played are amazing, mostly thanks has to go to the powerhouse of a PC under the bonnet.

Inside, and the mini-PC features an IBM PowerPC based CPU with 3 symmetrical cores running at 3.2 GHz each and an ATi Graphics processor with more than 512MB.

All the games are optimised for 16:9 aspect ratio and have a High Definition Output of 720p and 1080i. The console also has three USB2.0 ports for bolting-on additional accessories (see later) and supports DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, WMA CD, MP3 CD, JPEG Photo CD disc formats.

To say that the Xbox 360 pulls out all the stops would be an understatement and in a world where television is about to become High Definition, home entertainment fans will be pleased to know the console is HD Ready (for games) as well as offering Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound to immerse you into the action.

Luckily the console will happily play on your current television - just a case of flicking a switch on the cable - and as promised, the graphics on both a standard and HD television are stunning. They are certainly the leap forward we were promised when Bill Gates unveiled the console back in May this year.

Just as Sony’s PlayStation 2 console, launched in March 2001, helped to popularise the DVD format by being able to play both games and films, so the Xbox 360 is designed to promote the concept of the “digital hub”, a device that not only plays audio CDs and DVDs (and games), but which stands at the centre of your living space and can be used to access musical or video content from a connected computer or camera (or even an Apple iPod) for playback on a TV screen or home hi-fi.

Connecting a camera directly to the console via one of the three USB sockets is very easy and the console's dashboard is easy to understand and navigate. Images can be viewed as a slide show, rotated and skipped through so you can bore friends and family to your heart's content.

The Xbox 360 also allows you to stream music from your MP3 player as well, including the iPod. But due to DRM issues users will not be able to play tracks bought through the iTunes Music Store.

Furthermore Windows Media Center users can connect the console via an ethernet cable to act as a Media Center Extender. This basically means that you can stream content from your PC, whether it's more music, images or films to the console, to watch on your television.

Verdict

With the PlayStation 3 still months away and pricing still to be confirmed the Xbox 360 will provide gamers with a chance to get their hands on the next generation of console games today rather than sometime next year.



If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you should you try and bribe and beg your way around a thousand shops just to have one under the tree for this Christmas the answer is most definitely yes.

Not because the graphics are visually amazing, or the games we tested so far enthralling (especially Condemned from Sega), but for all the other benefits the Xbox 360 adds beyond its core function of a games console.

The promise of next generation gaming wasn't a lie. Wow.

We tested the console with four games initially; Project Gotham Racing 3, Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo: Elements of Power all from Microsoft and Commended by Sega.