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Published: Sunday, 12/11/2005

Game on!: The Xbox 360 is the latest, and greatest, step in the evolution of the home gaming console

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Just got back from the front.

Things were hairy.

Bullets flew, zinged, whizzed.

My nose was buried in snow.

It was the winter of 1941, the Russian front, and I remember everything clearly after all, this only happened a few hours ago. And frankly, I remember the details clearly because I kept getting killed as I walked around and examined those exquisitely rendered details, in full view of the German snipers, waiting for a Russian limb to pop into view.

Wow, I thought, look at that sink. (I took a round in the arm.) And wow, that destroyed library looks so real, right down to the drawers of the card catalogs. (I took a second bullet in the gut.)

So I retreated.

My comrade, a rifleman I had met five minutes before, was in the trench ahead of me; his nose was buried in the side of the trench wall, too. We were trying to make it across a courtyard and meet up with the remaining members of our company, if they were alive. Somewhere in the distance, the Nazis broadcast their propaganda: a reasonable voice with a thick accent, echoing through the streets of Stalingrad, which were clogged with crumbled edifices of blasted apartment buildings. The voice implored us to put down our guns the people of Germany want to be buddies with Russia.

I wasn t buying it.

I heard rumbling getting louder, and closer, and louder, and

Tanks! Duck! Tanks!

I poked my head out of the trench. Then ducked it back just as fast. Startled, my leg sprung out. I spilled orange juice all over the living-room floor. The treads of the Panzer passed inches from our heads. I found paper towels.

All of that, every detail of it, can be found in the new video game Call of Duty 2. I exaggerated nothing. In fact, I forgot: when your fellow riflemen breathe in the frigid Russian air, you can see their breath. And when they throw a canister of smoke as a diversionary tactic, and when you run through it, the smoke reacts to your body, wafting in and out as you pass through its clouds. The game is so lifelike, it not only appears to look like an interactive war-time documentary, it feels a lot like art your emotions kick in, your thoughts race, your intellect is engaged.

Yes, I have an Xbox 360.

Two of them, actually.

And they are so impressive, I hug them at night. ( My Xbox 360 is smarter than your honor student bumper stickers, anyone?) But their power raises questions: Will the next-generation of home video-gaming consoles finally bring gaming to the level of art? If so, why does a gaming unit with the power of an Xbox 360 (20 gigs, comparable to an iPod) have to emulate the real world? Why can t it create new worlds not just photo-realistic, but abstract, expressionistic, modernistic, or surreal. Art does this every day.

Anyway, about those 360s.

Yes, I am rubbing it in.

No, they will not be donated to charity or frazzled parents looking for this year s Cabbage Patch Doll or anyone who really really really wants one, and no, I don t care how many times you have called the video game department at Circuit City to ask if the Microsoft trucks arrived yet. Since its launch on Nov. 22, an estimated 400,000 units of the home entertainment console have been sold at $299 a pop ($399 for the premium package). It is the hot holiday gift; sales people are routinely telling customers they don t expect more to arrive until, oh, March.

(Microsoft, though, expects to sell an additional 500,000 before the Christmas season is kaput. So, my advice: remain diligent.)

Anyway, my hands are tied.

One 360, I will be giving back to Microsoft soon enough; I had to pledge my first-born to Bill Gates to get a review copy (and promise to never use Netscape). The other, I waited in line to get with everybody else, for six hours, from 2 in the morning until 8 in the morning., with two guys behind me arguing over what was the worst place on the body to be Tasered. (Apparently, being Tasered in the foot stinks.)

Besides, if my spin around the block with the Xbox 360 is any indication, you ll have one soon enough. Everyone will have one.

The evolution of the home gaming console is a relatively modest affair as far as function goes; primarily, it s been used to push frogs across the road and shoot at mutant space zombies. Recently, it s been used by gamers as a CD and DVD player, but those people often have CD and DVD players already. And yet ever since the Odyssey Home Entertainment System, the first home video game unit, was released in 1972, the industry has marketed its machines as, TV aside (for obvious reasons), the soul of the modern living room.

As a member of a family of early adapters the marketing term for suckers I tell you the industry s failure to live up to this has been heartbreaking. Some families chart their literal growth on a door frame in the kitchen, giving it a notch for every foot. My family, if you dared go into its dusty, forbidden storage spaces, would be charted by the pile of old video game systems it never got around to throwing out. We have an old Odyssey. It came with acetate TV screen overlays, poker chips, and a map of the country. After that, we owned a Sears Tele-Games version of Pong, then we had a Coleco Tele-Star, another Odyssey, an Intellivision, a Vectrex, an Atari 800, an Atari 2600, a Commodore 64, and a ColecoVision.

Not until the Xbox 360, however or this time next year, when the Sony PlayStation3 and the Nintendo Revolution are in stores has the idea of a video game system becoming the hub of the home entertainment center seemed like a practical reality. At the moment, the Xbox 360 has established a beachhead with hardcore gamers, but Microsoft s plans are to emulate the success Apple had with the iPod which began as a must-have gadget of music junkies and became as nearly ubiquitous a presence as cell phones, in a few years time.

After 30 minutes with the 360, I could see what Gates and Co. were getting at. Ease plays a big part of it. I signed onto Xbox Live in about 10 minutes; it allows you to play, chat, and interact with other gamers around the world; it s also been nicely streamlined since the original Xbox, making live multiplayer gaming an intrinsic part of every game. After five of my screen name choices were already taken, I settled on quahog which is Narragansett Indian for clam.

Ten minutes later, now wearing my headset, I was playing Project Gotham Racing 3, speeding across the Brooklyn Bridge, racing against players from around the country, and, in my left ear, being laughed at by a guy with a southern accent Dude, quahog? So, embarrassed and lousy at racing games, I poked around the Xbox 360 Dashboard, which is to the system what the desk top is to your personal computer, a sort of home base. I logged onto Xbox Live Arcade, and downloaded Gauntlet, a terrific old arcade game from 1985.

It had the same music, same graphics, same boxy game play. I downloaded a Franz Ferdinand video; it took two minutes or so. The potential was quickly obvious, the possibilities instantly exciting. Movies, videos, music, games any kind of media can be streamed into a single box on your television, for a fee (such as Gauntlet), or for free (the Franz Ferdinand promotional video).

I ducked out of the Marketplace section, flipped to the media section and burned a handful of CDs onto the hard drive. It worked without a hitch. (Though, with 20 gigs of hard-drive space, partly taken by game information and other downloads, you ll run out of room fairly quickly.) And the old Xbox could do this to an extent.

But what it couldn t, and what suggests where Microsoft is headed with this thing, is when I began streaming music from my iPod and laptop to the 360. It took a quick software update (and a wireless router) on my computer, then the songs flowed forth without a burp, like a stereo receiver that accepts video.

One caveat, and it ll be a big one for some: nearly everything I had downloaded from iTunes wouldn t stream. (It s an encryption issue, and a total bummer.)

Next, I popped in a DVD.

Worked like a charm. If you have the Windows XP Media Center on your PC, you can also stream movies into your 360, which is very cool; this part, however, I had no way of testing, since I don t have Windows Media Center. (But if you do, the comfortable 360 remote has a separate Media Center button for quick access.) And because the Xbox Live service is vastly improved, and because it s much easier to find people online you know, here s a use for the system Microsoft is not advertising: a savvy gamer will take advantage of its free long-distance service.

Those headsets are phones.

If you know how to use them.

The Xbox 360, likewise, is not a gaming unit at all it s a tool. Games are one use, and at the moment, not even its best use. The earliest Call of Duty 2, Project Gotham Racing 3 aside scratch the surface of what a system this integrated is capable of. For instance, if it can be used to create games that are works of art, what kind? A multi-media art, using MP3s, video, photographic stills? Or will the games kind of flow forth like some interactive art installation? Or, because of its ability to recreate the real world, will realism become the bar its games are judged by just as audiences think, because films have an ability to uplift, all movies should uplift?

The opening sequences of the King Kong game, for instance, are a tantalizing hint at what s to come: Your ship wrecked, you row to the island. You turn whichever way you want. Toward the cliffs, rocks break off and send walls of water into your boat. Toward open ocean, the sky is vast andsun peaks behind banks of clouds. It s a bit literary, a bit like lingering inside the folds of a stormy 17th-century painting, a lot like a movie. But it feels nothing like a video game.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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