Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Putting the New Xbox Through Its Paces

The most interesting, and most anticipated, computer for the 2005 holiday season isn’t often thought of as a computer at all, and it isn’t made by a computer-hardware company. It’s the Xbox 360 game machine, and it’s made by the world’s biggest software company, Microsoft.

This second edition of the Xbox, which went on sale yesterday, is both more capable and more refined than the original model. In fact, the Xbox 360 is the most powerful computer ever sold specifically for gaming.

The $399.99 Xbox 360 from Microsoft
The $399.99 Xbox 360 from Microsoft

Not only that, but the Xbox 360 is meant to be a multimedia hub. Like earlier game consoles, it can play CDs and DVDs. Like the original Xbox, the new model can connect to the Internet to allow multiplayer gaming with people all over the world. But it also can play music, video clips and photos from its own hard disk or from the hard disk of another computer over a network, or stream music from an Apple iPod plugged into one of its ports.

We’ve been testing the Xbox 360, with the help of a veteran gamer, and our verdict is that its fluid, movielike graphics make it an outstanding game machine. It also performed like a champ as a multimedia hub.

But the Xbox 360 has some significant downsides that may cause casual gamers to hesitate to buy it right out of the chute. Chief among these are price and backward compatibility with games produced for the first Xbox.

There are two versions of the new machine: the $300 Xbox 360 “Core System,” or a better $400 version, simply called the Xbox 360. The trouble is that the $300 base system can’t play older games designed for the original Xbox. Only the $400 model can do so, because it includes the hard disk that’s needed to hold the special software that allows older games to run on the new design.

So, if you don’t want to lose your large investment in older games, you’ll have to shell out a whopping $400 for the Xbox 360. That’s more than double the recent price for an original Xbox or the rival Sony PlayStation 2. For the extra hundred bucks, you also get some other stuff, in addition to the detachable 20-gigabyte hard drive — a wireless controller, instead of a wired one; a headset; a remote control for playing media; and some cables.

A scene from Kameo Elements of Power.
A scene from Kameo Elements of Power.

Acquiring a library of new Xbox 360 games will cost you $50 to $60 a game.

We tested the Xbox both as a game machine and as a multimedia hub. Since neither of us is much of a game player, we enlisted the help of an avid videogame fan, Joe Carden, a 32-year-old public-relations consultant for the federal government. Joe was really excited about the new gaming device. Within an hour of starting to play on our test machine, he declared that he was ready to plunk down the cash for an Xbox 360 of his own.

Setting up this new Xbox was relatively simple. Three plugs hook into its rear panel: the power cord, AV cord and Ethernet networking cable. You may need to build an addition onto your house, however, for the monstrous electrical adapter, which is the largest we’ve ever seen.

We tested the Xbox with Wi-Fi Internet networks, so the $100 Wireless Network Adapter that Microsoft provided for our tests came in handy. We plugged this small adapter into the back of the Xbox, and in a matter of moments it was glowing green to indicate that the 360 had automatically detected our network and was capable of working online.

The 360 can stand vertically, like a sleek mini computer tower, or it can be used horizontally. Its front panel can be changed out for a more stylish faceplate — each costs $19.

We walked through a few registration steps, including setting up a “gamertag,” or nickname, and choosing the best description of our playing style from four environments — family-friendly, recreational, pro and underground.

Cars line up in Project Gotham Racing 3, a new Xbox 360 game. The cheaper version of the new machine can't play older games.
Cars line up in Project Gotham Racing 3, a new Xbox 360 game. The cheaper version of the new machine can’t play older games.

To play online, you need an Xbox Live account. A so-called Silver account comes free with the most expensive console, but this only allows users to interact online with audio and voice messages, not to actually play games with others online. An Xbox Live Gold account that includes the Silver features as well as online game tournaments can cost as much as $50 annually.

Joe got started with Call of Duty 2, a game that throws you into intense battles of World War II, starting in Moscow. He used buttons on the wireless controller to battle through the war zone with other soldiers, shooting at the enemy, throwing smoke grenades and planting explosives before standing back to watch an enemy building explode. Bursts of flame lit the screen, and bricks crumbled to the ground, causing dust to rise all around the collapsed building.

Joe noted that “the graphics are ridiculously much better” than in older Xbox and Sony consoles, and, as if to demonstrate his observation, a column of tanks, their armored sides rife with detailed dents, thundered over the snowy trench in which his soldier was ducking from the enemy. Fluffy pieces of realistic-looking snow were softly blowing all around the scene.

Soldiers hide in doorways and duck to avoid enemy fire in Call of Duty 2, a game that focuses on battles from World War II.
Soldiers hide in doorways and duck to avoid enemy fire in Call of Duty 2, a game that focuses on battles from World War II.

Joe also thought the fight scenes were more graphic and the enemies more intelligent. He echoed these sentiments while playing a game of Quake 4, where an army takes on enemies in space.

Joe tested online gaming by competing with a Microsoft employee nicknamed “Bear” in Project Gotham Racing 3. This driving game takes you through one of five cities, including London, New York and Las Vegas at night, and the streets pass by landmarks that we recognized instantly. As Joe and Bear raced through the streets, they used headsets to trash-talk one another.

Later, at the office, we played Call of Duty 2 and Project Gotham Racing 3, and even though we’re not the best gamers in the world, the graphics were so good we were hooked. We had a great time crashing our cars into barriers on the streets around the Parliament buildings in London. As each car slammed into the barriers, crowds of animated onlookers shrank back in fear.

We also tested the Xbox 360’s media capabilities. We set it up as a “Media Center Extender” — Microsoft’s term for a device that can play back content stored on a Media Center PC, even if it’s in another room. It worked great, allowing us to play back music, photos and videos stored on a Dell PC. But if you don’t have Windows Media Center running on your PC, this extender functionality won’t work.

We also played the same types of media directly off the Xbox 360’s hard drive and used two of the device’s three USB ports to attach an iPod and a portable USB drive loaded with photos. Music played easily on the Xbox, through the television speakers, and the photos were displayed quickly on our TV. Songs and playlists from the iPod showed up on the menus as if they were stored on the Xbox itself. The DVD functionality worked without a hitch, too, when we watched a few scenes of Jodie Foster in the movie “Panic Room.”

There’s little doubt that the Xbox 360’s gaming capabilities will be the biggest draw for most users. But, for some casual gamers, buying the new Xbox right away could be a mistake. For one thing, it will likely take time for the best games to emerge, because game publishers will learn more and more in coming months about how to take better advantage of the hardware. And Microsoft’s rivals, Sony and Nintendo, have new game machines coming out next year, which some folks will want to compare with the new Xbox before shelling out hundreds of dollars.

Still, if gaming is a big part of your life, and you can afford the $400 Xbox, you won’t be disappointed. This is one terrific gaming computer, and a media powerhouse to boot.

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