Xbox 360 Impressions
By Matt Anderson (2005-11-19)
Recently I've been lucky enough to have gotten my hands on an XBox 360, including playable demos of Call of Duty 2, King Kong, and Kameo: Elements of Power. What follows is my assessment on the console, the games, and how I feel about both.
The first game I picked up was King Kong, based of course on the upcoming Peter Jackson remake of that classic film. Well, actually, the first thing I picked up was the controller, so I'll talk about that.
A lot of people (myself included) have issues with the Xbox controller. The thing is too big, too heavy, and never feels quite right in hand. Xbox fanatics will claim that it's a great controller, and maybe they actually believe that to be true (there must be somebody out there who likes it), but personally I never could adjust to it. No matter, banish those doubts! The 360 controller is a gorgeous little thing that improves upon the best qualities of the Xbox controller without falling victim to its faults.
Basically it's laid out the same as the Xbox controller but with some important differences. Firstly, it's smaller, which is something we can all appreciate. It also has a slightly slimmer shape, which fits much better in your hand and the weight is now comfortable. A, B, X, and Y, are all back, but gone are the black and white buttons. They have instead become shoulder buttons that are now located just above the triggers, which remain in place. The analogue sticks and directional pad are in the same configuration, as well. However, there is now a big ol' Xbox Live button in the center of the controller, between the start and back buttons (which are now centered) that, at a push, pauses whatever you're doing and calls up the Xbox Live screen. Snazzy.
Back to the game. The King Kong demo offers two levels, one which throws you into the role of the big guy himself and a second which has you playing as the filmís human star as you attempt to distract a V-rex to buy your friends time to open a door (remember, the game is both a first-person shooter and a third-person platformer). What you're doing as Kong is beating V-rexes to a pulp (to pulps?) whilst protecting Anne, who starts off in one of your huge hairy mitts. To safely combat the dinos you have to put the woman down, but she can panic, run away and get squashed. So you have to stash her somewhere safe while you pull those thunder lizards apart. The fighting was nothing spectacular, being nothing more than extended button-bashing. Really, you just wail on the things a bit before grabbing their jaws and breaking their heads in half (a move that requires you to repeatedly and rapidly push the attack button). Not much fun. However, there is some smashing of obstructions and platform jumping/pole swinging fun to be had whilst moving from the first fight against one rex to the second fight against two.
The other level is just damned frustrating. Although the lack of a visible HUD is a great feature, making the game that much more cinematic, for what you have to do in this level it is idiotic. The other two characters in your film crew are struggling to open a door and itís your job to distract the giant monster with nothing but your fist. The better route is to run away and get it to chase you, only it moves faster than you, meaning inevitable chomping occurs. You can hit it and hurt it, despite being able to comfortably fit in its mouth, but winding up under foot is a sure way to get killed. When it does bite you, your vision is obscured by a red haze and you move sluggishly, which is pretty interesting except that it only makes getting away from the dino even harder, meaning youíre doomed. I couldn't finish the level, it was that tough.
King Kong's graphics look great. You can't expect me to say any less, as the visuals have recieved more of an overhaul this generation around than any other aspect. The texturing on the dinos and especially Kong look fantastic, but Anne and the film crew look a little choppy, with some hard lines around them. The environments too look beautiful, with some very nice splashing water and fog effects, and lots of nicely destructible objects to interact with.
Still, one must remember that this demo CD was made months ago, probably without the help of the 360 design kit, and it shows. Collision detection is HORRIBLE in the Kong demo. The big ape was constantly clipping through his enemies and the environment as I moved him around. When I fell off a ledge during the platform action between fights, I fell right through the level and into blue hell! The stupid rexes also phase through the environments. Definitely did not like seeing that. Obviously you won't be seeing this kind of nonsense in the actual game, but it drew some of the fun out of the experience.
So, onwards to Kameo. A pure platformer starring Kameo, a fairy girl who learns to morph into various elemental beings in order to save the world. This game just didn't seem to be next-gen and made me feel like I was playing a better-looking Beyond Good and Evil (which is a great game, don't get me wrong, but come on!). Perhaps I was simply expecting something revolutionary from these new consoles, or perhaps this is simply a flop title, but nothing seemed new about it. I was being confronted with the same old platforming action and the same old annoying hang-ups (invisible walls, poor character control, and the like).
However, I can again gush about graphics, but on the other hand, all of these next-gen games are going to look better than those we have now, so that's not much to brag about. That said, this game is tear-jerking in its visual splendor. It is so beautiful! and itís the little things that make it so. The mapping on the floors and walls of the castle that youíre on is simply fantastic and the lighting is gorgeous. What really stands out about the visuals, though, is how smooth they are. This too was expected of the powerful 360, but it still makes a PS2er like myself stare in awe. I saw no choppiness, no sharp edges or lines, no foul-ups of any kind. From a purely superficial standpoint, I was impressed, but with almost nothing new in the gameplay department, I was also a little let down.
Then I played Call of Duty 2 and all my woes were forgotten, not because it blew me away (it did), but because of my bias for first-person shooters. Alright, so this is hardly a fair preview, but Iíll inject some objectivity into it. Yes, the gameplay is what youíd expect from a platform FPS, and is not very dissimilar to, say, Call of Duty: Finest Hour, but there are little extras that make it wonderful. Character animations are much better this time around, with their actions being far more lifelike. When you shoot someone, it looks like theyíre being shot! They fall to the ground at the right speed and act wounded when wounded (instead of hopping on one foot for a second after being shot in the knee before returning to normal). Also, just like its predecessors, firing guns in Call of Duty 2 is loads of fun. They went with the iron sights again and that helps make aiming and killing enjoyable.
Of course, it looks great too. The other characters and the weapons are both gorgeously mapped out, and the environments, though a little stale object-wise at some points, are still exceedingly nice. Really, though, what blew me away was the smoke. It looks like smoke! This is the best smoke ever to be seen in a platform game (by me, of course). Now that you have smoke grenades, you can stare at the smoke whenever you want! Really, the smoke is amazing.
Now, I havenít mentioned sound for any of the games and thatís because, well, itís sound. Yes itís good, but it depends more on the TV and less on the console. The Xbox does have digital sound (through fiber optic cables) alongside its high-definition video, but that wasnít hooked up. Instead I settled for stereo sound, which sounded great anyway, especially in Call of Duty 2. It really helps to draw you into the experience, even if it wasnít spectacular.
Beyond what you've read above there really isnít much else I can tell you. Playing the games yourself is the only way to really see all the small differences. After a spirited bout of gun slinging in Call of Duty 2, I went home and popped my copy of Call of Duty: Finest Hour into my PS2 to compare the two games. I was absolutely startled by the difference. When first I played Finest Hour I thought it looked pretty good. Now itís terrible by comparison! Even better is the fact that gamers wonít have long to wait. Time will tell how well Xbox 360 does, but the components are there for great things to be done with it. Roll on the launch date.