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Xbox Experience

Last night I went to the Xbox Experience in the MAK here in Vienna with Tobe and other friends.

I must admit to having been caught up a little in the excitement around the imminent launch of the 360 here in Europe. (It was, in fact, that same excitement that made a WoW addict. I hadn't been terribly impressed with the beta but bought the game anyway.)

But in that respect the Experience was excellent. It gave me the chance to look at and play all of the Xbox 360 launch titles, and I can now sleep safely knowing I won't be buying one.

Which is pretty much what the more rational bits of my mind had told me anyway. I have never bought any console the day it came out (let alone the day before, hello Lik-Sang). My faith in the workings of the universe was restored when it became clear to me that the Xbox 360 launch is like the launch of all other consoles.

Still. Given that the major major selling point of the 360 (and the PS3) is that the graphics are really good and really high definition: boy did those games look bad.

Pretty much every game except one showed several of the following phenomena:

  • Fashionable effects applied the way a 5-year-old applies finger paint. The worst offender has to be Rare1. The normal mapping in Perfect Dark Zero is ludicrous, especially combined with the specular highlights and the occasional transparency. (The Rare games had the additional handicap of apparently not having been art directed at all.) DOA4 wasn't much better. DOA3 was visually astounding, DOA4 was just... weird. Depth of field was another over-used effect.
  • Low and / or inconstant frame rates. This was prevalent in an astonishing number of games. Let's hope it's because everyone has not gotten to grips with the hardware yet. There are some hints of proof that this is the case, and, of course, historically this always happens on new hardware.
  • Being ports of games from other platforms, or looking like it even if they weren't. There were no, I repeat no, new experiences on offer. Again, not a surprise. The Xbox 360 and the PS3 are about behemoths battling for your living room and your wallet, not about advancing interactive entertainment in any meaningful way.
  • Looking like PC games. This will probably sound very subjective, but my little pet theory goes that although there are great-looking PC games (e.g. Half-Life 2), it is very hard for developers to make a game look good on such a broad and blurry hardware base. The 'PC look' is compounded by high resolution images seen on a very precise screen from close up, which is pretty much what the setup was last night (as opposed to having a larger screen further away). So you see large polygons, blurry textures and harsh edges, instead of the optimal balance of texture resolution and mesh detail that many console games have mastered, seen through the pleasing smoothness of a CRT. Of course, I'm not a graphics expert, but it honestly felt to me as if many of these games didn't have anti-aliasing turned on, and in one case I even had the feeling I was seeing comb artifacts.

Even PGR3, where the screenshots looked great and I was expecting to be wowed by the graphics even if the game was same old same old was kind of disappointing. The flaring up of the windshield is exciting exactly once before you switch to a view where you can actually drive. The countryside somehow looked drab. The car had some strange artifacts on it that made it almost look toon-shaded. A friend of mine thought it was caused by the subtle vertical stretching they have to do to make their not-quite-HD frame buffer (which has caused a bit of discussion online, and which conveniently just fits into 10 MB of EDRAM) fit onto the HD screen. What was nice was the HDR effect in one of the city tracks, but we were basically standing around a monitor slowly driving backwards and forwards in order to analyze it.

I honestly had more fun playing the half dozen Xbox 1 games on display, despite them obviously having been connected to badly calibrated CRT TVs instead of the omnipresent Samsung LCD monitors. I may pick up Far Cry: Instincts and Prince of Persia 3 at some point.

What was the one exception? It was the only game, in a giant hall filled with what must have been up to a hundred 360s, that only ran on one station: Monolith's Condemned: Criminal Origins. I'm not sure if I can get excited about the story-line yet, but boy does this game look good. The lighting and art direction are insane. I've liked the way Monolith's games look ever since No One Lives Forever, and Condemned does not disappoint. Everything on screen looked like an integral part of a well-thought out image as opposed to the disparateness of so many of the other games. The volumetric lighting was awe-inspiring. The characters looked good - only their leather jackets looked like shiny plastic, not their faces. Textures looked realistic and had consistent resolutions. Yummy.

Now, a lot of this is the subjective ranting you'd expect from a personal blog, but I wasn't the only one in our group who was underwhelmed, and we're fairly diverse in our tastes. Even the guy who had actually pre-ordered a 360 was disappointed, and I know how much a significant investment of money can distort one's good sense. I will now do what I've done with all other consoles: wait for enough interesting titles to come out, and wait for the price to drop.

1I will slap anyone who says a bad word about Ultimate Play The Game, but apart from the freak data point of Goldeneye 007, I've never played a Rare game I liked. Which is odd as they're the same company. Also, this seems as good a time as any to point out that 'kills' should not be translated into German as 'Toden', as in PDZ.

Update: The New York Times disagrees with me. Still, interesting to read an outsider's point of view.