The Rumble For Your Rec Room
A new game machine starts the war to rule the HDTV era
Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier! Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed! Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield's ear! Each of these memorable matches pales compared with the bouts that will take place in the consumer electronics arena over the next few months. And the outcome will determine how we unwind at home for the next few years. Having proved itself a serious contender in the action video game market, Microsoft--armed with its new Xbox 360--aims to end Sony's championship reign. DVD s have already just about knocked out the videocassette market. But which of the two new, competing disk formats that can hold high-definition video--Blu-ray or HD DVD--will be left standing? And which of the fancy, flat-panel technologies--LCD or plasma--is really better for showing off the sharp, realistic images that these new devices can deliver?
When it arrives on store shelves this Tuesday, Microsoft's Xbox 360 could very well be the device that heralds the arrival of the HDTV era. The sets that have tantalized techies for years are becoming more affordable (story, Page 60). Video game machines like the new Xbox will be some of the first devices to capitalize on the high-def potential. "There's never been a period of time before when a new [TV] video standard coincided with the launch of a new video game system," says Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision, one of the leading video game software companies.
Street-level detail. The Xbox 360 does indeed add a new level of realism to interactive gaming. Guiding the heroine through Perfect Dark Zero ($50) feels less like a typical shoot-'em-up and more like watching a spy movie. Ditto for Project Gotham Racing 3 ($50): The city backgrounds are so detailed you could count the leaves on roadside trees if you weren't screeching by them so fast.
Microsoft's new device will retail in two different packages. The less expensive, basic version includes the game-playing console, a wired controller, and the standard Xbox Live online gaming service for $300. But most of the Xbox 360's early buyers are likely to opt for the premium package, which offers a wireless controller, a 20GB removable hard drive, a headset, and an Xbox Live subscription for $400. The hard disk drive alone is worth the extra money. The Internet--and its ability to connect friends and competitors across the country and around the world--will assume an ever larger role, so game machines will need to be able to download and store information such as new weapons, battlefields, and games.
A potential weak spot for the 360 could be its backward compatibility, i.e., the ability to play games that were designed for the original Xbox system. In order to play these older games, the Xbox 360 has to connect to Microsoft's website and download additional software for each title. This step could annoy gamers, who are accustomed to the PlayStation 2's built-in ability to play any game made for the original PlayStation.
The Xbox 360 will be a hot gift this holiday season: Microsoft last week announced that it expects to sell as many as 3 million of them in the first 90 days. But the question remains: Is that lead enough to help it overpower market leader Sony--whose new PlayStation 3 won't be available until next spring? (The audience for the original Xbox comes to about 11 million, versus 40 million for PS2.) Early looks at the PS3 show that Sony hasn't lost its touch. That machine delivers eye-popping graphics and will come with the built-in ability to play movies stored on high-definition Blu-ray DVD s (story, Page 62), something the Xbox 360 lacks. This is one heavyweight bout likely to last until the final round.
PLAYSTATION 3 VS. XBOX 360
Sony, the powerhouse of the current generation, won't release the PS3 until next spring.
THE GOOD: It could be the most affordable high-definition movie player, with its built-in ability to play Blu-ray disks
THE BAD: The Xbox 360's head start could siphon away the PS3's crowd.
Microsoft's new toy looks to build on the gaming credibility of the original Xbox.
THE GOOD: Great games, plus it's the only next-generation platform on sale now.
THE BAD: The plug-and-play crowd might be annoyed with the 360's Web-centered design.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.