Next Boxes and Instant Replays

Next Boxes and Instant Replays
Gaming history has been marked almost as much by hardware as software. Now five years after the Playstation 2 ushered in the current-gen consoles, a new revolution is at hand. Well, not the revolution, Nintendo's upcoming console, or the PS3 — but the Xbox 360 should already be sold out at a store near you.

Still nursing bruises from its futile fight against Sony (22 million Xboxes vs. 96 million PS2s), Microsoft made it first out the gate in November with the 360's heavily hyped launch. Clocking in at $499.99 for the premium (with removable 20 gig hard drive, wireless controller, Xbox Live silver membership and headset) and $399.99 for a scaled-back "core" version, Microsoft is predicting three million sales in three months. But that still may not be a big enough lead, considering Sony and Nintendo's hardcore acolytes could simply sit tight.

Only the premium is backwards compatible (and only with "top-selling titles") but there's a helluva lot more power under both hoods, including one-teraflop processing speed and a trio of 3.2-gigahertz processors (no, I don't know what that means either) to deliver extra audio-visual kick.

But here's the rub — it's gonna cost you a lot more than you think to fully appreciate its capabilities. The 5.1 digital surround sound requires a proper speaker set-up and the high-definition graphics require an HD-capable television to really see.

"First and foremost this will be visually and audibly high-fidelity. It will still look great in a standard screen but is optimised for HD," Xbox Canada spokesperson Craig Tullett explains. "We recognise that that HD penetration in Canada is about 16 percent [but it] is based on content and with the 360 we are helping to drive that."

So the graphics processor is twice as powerful and those extra polygons will still be impressive on a standard set but you won't be getting the full-meal deal without HD's huge leap in screen resolution. The 360 also marks a "convergence of digital entertainment products" (it's even compatible with Apple's iPod and Sony's PSP) but will sink or swim with its games.

"There's so much more power in the console that the stories developers can tell are going to be that much more rich, that much more realistic," Tullett adds, but that remains to be seen. Many anticipated launch titles like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Saint's Row have been pushed back and there are nearly 200 in development so who knows how it's going to play out.

At the moment, the Perfect Dark: Zero prequel, kid-friendly Kameo: Elements of Power, and Project Gotham Racing 3 all look and sound spectacular; Quake 4 will be PC quality and Peter Jackson's King Kong, available on every conceivable console, is yards cooler on the 360.

But at least at launch, prettier pictures and crispier sound is all that's new. Whereas the first Playstation brought gaming into the third-dimension and the PS2's DVD capacity ushered in the sandbox era, this feels more like an upgrade.

Maybe once developers have more time to suss out its capabilities — and are spurred on by the impending even-more-powerful boxes from Nintendo and Sony — a true advancement in gameplay may occur. For now it's out of Microsoft's hands — no matter how sweet their new hardware is, technological spit'n'polish cannot create a console-defining game and the 360 still needs to find its Halo.

Instant Replay
This year PC players flocked to first-person-shooter F.E.A.R. and Civilization IV, but the real immigration was onto massive multiplayer online games. World of Warcraft attracted an unprecedented 4.5 million subscribers — nearly ten times that of Everquest II — while City of Villains provided the antidote to City of Heroes' goody-goody gameplay and Star Wars Galaxies and Matrix Online were largely abandoned. In the handheld market, Nintendo DS won with its post-Tamagotchi virtual pet Nintendogs and post-Tetris puzzle Lumines while PSP found its first must-have with GTA: Liberty City Stories' return to GTA3's Mafia-strewn city. Lacking blockbusters like Halo 2 and San Andreas, console developers avoided a current-gen holding pattern and got creative. There were licenses and sequels that didn't suck, cool niche games for discerning players and auteur titles fuelling the games-as-art debate.

1. God of War (Sony, PS2)
This early front-runner maintained its lead thanks to processor-pushing graphics, a mythology-soaked storyline and some of the best gameplay ever seen. Classic.

2. Psychonauts (Majesco, Xbox, PS2)
Weird, wild and so surreal, this addictive summer camp-set platformer takes you from a paranoid suburb to a haunted theatre to a day-glo disco all by leaping inside twisted minds.

3. Shadow of the Colossus (Sony, PS2)
Boiled down to boss battles with 16 brilliantly-designed colossi, this risky move was made more so by the built-in ambiguity that generated guilt for killing these beautiful creatures.

4. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse (Activision, multi)
This is how you do sequels — write a comic-worthy storyline, bring in Magneto and his crew as playable characters, add new set pieces and don't mess with what made the original so good.

5. Stubbs the Zombie (Aspyr, Xbox, PC)
This darkly hilarious zombie tale from Halo's creator is set in a retro-futuristic "City of Tomorrow" where cars fly, robots pump gas and your undead travelling salesman has a hankering for brains.

6. Destroy All Humans! (THQ, PS2, Xbox)
You not only get to play the invading alien, but also fly saucers, sauté small towns, inflame Cold War conspiracies and blow folks' heads up with a well-placed anal probe.

7. Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction / Ultimate Spiderman (Vivendi Universal/Activision, multi)
Ditching the movie plots of past outings gave Marvel's iconic characters room to swing. And smash. Hulk's realism added oomph while Spidey scored with cel-shaded comic stylisation.

8. The Warriors (Rockstar, PS2, Xbox)
Rocked by the "hot coffee" scandal, Rockstar simply thumbed their noses, turning out this hyper-violent brawler that successfully turned a cult film into a cult game.

9. Peter Jackson's King Kong (Ubisoft, multi)
Jackson hooked up with legendary French designer Michel Ancel to craft this precedent-setting movie-based game where you play Jack Driscoll and the monkey and toss around dinosaurs.

10. Tony Hawk American Wasteland (Activision, multi)
Sometimes you don't want to shoot cops or kill aliens. Sometimes you just want pop an ollie and grind that guardrail. With all of L.A. at your free-roaming disposal, this game is for those times.