Eye-popping HD, widescreen gaming and wireless internet — Microsoft’s ambitious new game system, the XBOX 360, has it all. But for those fortunate few lucky enough to get their hands on one (it’s been backordered since its release over four months ago), the steep price of games ($59) coupled with the monster cost of an HDTV can be daunting. Don’t worry, that’s where this review comes in. I’m here to tell you what you need, and what you don’t, to get the most from your XBOX 360.
An HDTV is absolutely essential to reach DVD and video game nirvana. With five-times the video information of standard television lighting up the screen, games take on the sheen and depth of a Pixar movie. Eyestrain is virtually eliminated and the rich color palette makes even the worst visuals look sharp. DVD playback also uses HD, making movies like “The Lord of the Rings” so frighteningly clear that even the pores on Frodo’s face are visible.
But the 360 is first and foremost about the games, which all look amazing. Although the system is backwards compatible, meaning it can play original XBOX games, the intricate graphics of the new titles far outdo anything even “Halo 2” could come up with. From the battlefields of World War II to the football fields of America, these new games have done away with generic environments and almost any trace of blocky textures. Running three processor cores and a killer graphics card, the capability of the system is simply amazing.
But not all games are equal. The sports games, like “Madden,” have changed very little, hardly taking advantage of the new graphic capabilities. Worse, some games are just poorly constructed. “Quake 4,” for example, left out a local multiplayer mode, meaning that if you want to play with friends, you’re out of luck.
Another stack of games are good, but not extraordinary. Most notable among the decent titles are “Dead or Alive 4” — which has particularly great graphics, although it plays like “DoA 3” — and “Perfect Dark Zero,” a fun (albeit cartoony) shooter. “King Kong” deserves a nod as well. It is the 360’s best looking game and tries to create a more immersive, movie-like experience. But the gameplay is repetitive, and with a storyline that never deviates from the movie’s familiar plot, it gets boring quickly.
That brings us to the must-buys. Fortunately, these go easy on the wallet, as only two make the cut. Rare Ltd., the company that brought “Donkey Kong” to the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, does it again with their inspired release “Kameo: Elements of Power.” The game takes place in a mystical fairy kingdom (think “Ferngully” but infinitely more edgy). The king and queen have been kidnapped by trolls and it is up to you, valiant Kameo, to save them. The exceptionally strong gameplay is centered around Kameo’s ability to shapeshift into different forms, each of which has unique abilities. Using these forms to their advantage requires some skill, and the fun of the game lies in the ever-changing level design which challenges your mastery of switching skins.
Not only do you explore levels using shapeshifting abilities, but between zones, Kameo must return to a gigantic main battlefield and fight off the trolls. In these sequences, thousands of trolls and fairies fight on all sides while you ride your horse, hacking at enemies who go flying. These scenes are jawdropping and worth the price of the game alone. The graphics within each level are especially crisp. Notable are the snow, ice and water which reflect light uncannily well. Top it all off with a great score and awesome boss battles, and “Kameo” is the king of the 360 lineup.
The title of unruly prince, however, goes to “Amped 3.” The third game in 2K Sports’s snowboarding series, this is the most psychedelic, original delight to hit the slopes in some time. I could say a lot about the great character customization menu and the fun and forgiving control scheme, but the “awesomeness” of “Amped 3” comes from its bizarre sense of humor and trippy story mode. Levels load up with fake “Pac Man” sequences. Claymation, hand puppets, satirical commercials and anime help tell the story, creating a strange collage that will keep you entertained for hours. These clever cut-scenes are several notches above anything done in games before — they rank next to the best of Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim.” Even the in-game challenges are original, forcing you to jump through moving gondolas and to collect kitty litter. Veering sharply away from the realism of “Amped 2,” “Amped 3” is worth playing even for gamers who don’t like snowboard or sports games. The $39 price tag should be the clincher.
With a monopoly on the HD market, more great games in the pipeline and summer vacation a mere month-and-a-half away, Microsoft finds itself in a comfortable (and familiar) position. Sony, Nintendo: Game over?