previews\ Oct 9, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Xbox Live! - XB - Preview

Online gaming has been a staple of computer gaming ever since the internet brought the world together more than ten years ago.  It all began with MUDs, a sort of text-based D&D adventure that allowed people from all over the world to slay goblins and collect treasure in a common, albeit fantasy world.  Next were simple graphical games like Bolo, a tank shooter that spread havoc in dorm rooms all over colleges across America.  Now, games like Diablo, Unreal Tournament, and Battlefield 1942 rule the PC market, not because of amazing single-player modes, but because of their highly entertaining multiplayer gaming abilities. 


Why should PC users have all the fun?  According to console manufacturers, they shouldn’t.  Each of the big three, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have made their consoles online capable, yet only one, Sony’s Playstation 2, is currently online to the public.  Developers are counting on online console gaming to be the hottest thing since the joystick, yet only one system, Microsoft’s Xbox, appears completely ready for it. 


Microsoft knew exactly what they were doing when they put together the Xbox.  Sure, it’s cool that it has the best processor of any console available.  Sure, the graphics are phenomenal.  Sure they have signed exclusive deals with some of the top gaming developers around, Bungie and Rare, just to name two.  That said, it seemed as though the Xbox is really just a high-powered gaming machine that you can sit around and play in your living room with your friends. 


Turns out it’s going to be much more than that.  From its conception, the Xbox was designed for online gaming, and finally all the pieces are falling into place.  Just a year after its launch in November of 2001, Microsoft will make Xbox Live available to the public, and it will change home console gaming forever. 


Microsoft started the beta testing program earlier this year, and I was lucky enough to be able to participate in it (jealous?).  All I needed to do was give them a Gamertag (a universal user ID that sticks with you for all Xbox Live games) and a password. As delivery time neared, I was expecting a huge box filled with all types of sci-fi gizmos and futuristic gadgets from Microsoft.  What I got was a small, unassuming box with some pamphlets, a few CDs, and a carrying case with a memory card and a funny looking headset.  I longed for hypnotizing lights and shiny buttons, but soon found out something that made my $200 Xbox purchase even more worthwhile: The Xbox was built online ready, all I needed was a way in.


After reading the instructions for all of five or six seconds, I decided to wing it and load the Xbox Live set up CD, throw in the memory card with my subscription information, and plug in an Ethernet cord from my DSL modem to see what happened.  Surprisingly, I was online in a matter of seconds.  It’s the kind of set-up that even your grandma’s grandma could do, it’s that easy. 


Beta testers were each given an online only copy of NFL Fever 2003 and Revolt, a fast paced RC car racing game to wet their appetites.  I loaded up Revolt and immediately checked out available downloads.  Since releasing the game, Acclaim has added a few new cars to the roster, each available for free download.  I downloaded each new car in a matter of seconds to the Xbox hard drive.  It’s really at this point that I began to see the possibilities of Xbox Live.  With the spacious 10GB hard drive within the Xbox, new maps, new characters, new rosters and countless other ideas can all be downloaded directly to the Xbox to enhance games.  No need to rush out and buy thousands of memory cards just because I want to play some new multi-player maps for Halo 2, the hard drive has more than enough space to handle expansions. 


Jumping into a game on Xbox Live is easy, provided other gamers are also looking for games.  Navigating the menus to find a game is simplistic and in moments I’m in an online game’s lobby, the Limbo between games.  Other users are already in and waiting for the game to start. 


It’s time to do something I’ve feared since I knew I would be beta testing Xbox Live.  Time to put on the headset, the Xbox Live communicator.  The communicator looks like a cross between the hands-free headsets telemarketers wear and something that Captain James T. Kirk would use to order a photon torpedo assault on Klingons.  The headset plugs straight into the Xbox controller in one of the memory card slots, so there’s no need to sit close to one of the controller ports or a USB port.  I balk at the idea of putting the thing on and looking like the biggest dork in the world, but put my hesitation aside in the name of journalism.  I hear voices.  It is, at first, a very eerie feeling.  People chatting back and forth like a video gaming conference call.  Thanks to requiring a broadband connection (sorry all you dial-up dinosaurs), the chat is almost always comprehendible and has little lag to it (imagine a long distance mobile phone call). 


Somebody asks where people are from.  The answers come back quickly: San Diego, Seattle, Dallas, Florida.  The quality and speed of the chat is mind-blowing.  A few of the guys seem like they’ve known each other for years.  I guess playing for several hours straight together and on-line voice chatting is an instant recipe for camaraderie.  Some of the other players sound like robots, giggling schoolgirls, and demons from the hoary netherworld.  These altered voices come courtesy of the Xbox communicator’s voice-masking ability.  Perhaps you are a prepubescent eleven-year-old who wants some props, but are afraid your high pitched squeal won’t sound too good when taunting “Want some more!?”.  Simply select a voice worthy of the respect you deserve and other gamers will tremble in fear. 


People notice that I have chosen one of the new vehicles, the UFO, to race.  I hear “Looks like someone picked the UFO” followed by a chorus of chuckles.  Of course I have no idea what they’re talking about until the racing starts.  The handling is awful and after the second turn the opposition is so far ahead, their dust that I surely would have eaten as the saying goes has already settled.  I can hear that the competition up ahead is furious as the other racers jaw at each other with “Oh!”s and “I got you!”s.  Other cars, with their driver’s gamertags hovering above them, zoom past.  Mercifully, the race ends, and the other drivers laugh and sarcastically cheer as my UFO finally crashes across the finish line.  Xbox Live is not for the ultra-sensitive.


NFL Fever is next, and I find a game with a fellow from Dallas.  It’s truly culture shock as he chats with me in his Southern drawl.  This is a slightly different experience than Revolt, as NFL Fever is primarily one-on-one and the game is slower paced.  He chooses the Chicago Bears and I choose my Oakland Raiders.  We go back and forth about how we haven’t played this game much and prefer other football titles, our experiences on Xbox Live, and future titles that are supposed to be Xbox Live ready.  The game is close, and extremely amicable.  The cell-phone like lag in chat is fairly obvious in NFL Fever 2003 as the Texan’s shout of disgust after Charles Woodson’s second interception of the game comes into my earpiece about half a second late.  Following a Janikowski field goal, I stop a late fourth quarter drive by the Bears for my first of many online victories.


We exchange pleasantries and set off on our merry ways, probably never to hear from each other again.  Let’s ask the hypothetical question, “What if we had a blast, and wanted to continue to play online together on other games sometime in the future?”  Xbox Live is fully equipped with a juiced up Friends feature.  Simply add your new online friend’s gamertag to your friends list and you’re all set.  With the Friends feature, loneliness is a thing of the past.  Gamers can check friends’ online status, what game they are playing, even how much longer their game will last.  Because Xbox Live is run entirely from centralized servers, players can find buddies whether they are playing NFL 2K3, Halo 2, or Unreal Tournament.  They can even check to see if there are open slots in the game, send their buddies invites to a game (even when they are in the middle of another), or receive invites for frag-fests at any time.  It’s a blistering feature of Xbox Live and even more reason to stay inside losing shades of pigment while keeping those thumbs well exercised. 


Xbox Live also features player rankings, matchmaking capabilities to play a game type of your choice, and almost guarantees being able to find a game at any time.  It is by far the most well organized online gaming community out there and an absolute blast to experience.  It seems Xbox Live is the zenith of console online gaming, but truth is, it’s only the beginning. 

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