The machine, which Microsoft launched last November as the successor to the five-year-old Xbox, looks like a typical beige-box PC on the outside. But inside there are three separate CPUs or “cores,” each running at 3.2 gigahertz (billions of clock cycles per second), compared to the single two- or three-gigahertz CPU inside the typical PC. That’s enough to generate 1,080 lines of resolution, meaning graphics look stunning even on high-definition TVs. All that power makes the Xbox 360 the current king of the video consoles – at least until Sony releases the PlayStation 3 later this year. (The PS3 will feature a new Sony-IBM-Toshiba chip, which will have nine cores and run at more than four gigahertz.)
Games for the Xbox 360 are not harder to complete than their predecessors, nor do they require better hand-eye coordination. Indeed, at high speed, Pong is fiendishly difficult. But Xbox 360 games give the player more to look at, think about, and feel.
In the case of Call of Duty 2, there’s the blood, smoke, and bullets, which strike with an impact you can feel through the Xbox’s vibrating controller. There are the moments of pure cinema: a soldier whose gaze follows the bombers flying overhead, a multistory factory that collapses into rubble in a cloud of dust and flame. There is an obsessive level of detail, such as the inlaid wood carvings on an upended desk in a pulverized building. But most of all, there’s the continual peril of combat as you and your fellow squad members try to kill Germans before they kill you. As you guide your character through the game’s immense 3-D environments, some impressive artificial-intelligence algorithms make your fellow soldiers follow (and sometimes lead), providing covering fire and shouted warnings about snipers and grenades. If you’re stupid enough to approach the Germans at close range, you’re on your own. But by watching your brothers-in-arms, you can eventually learn how to outmaneuver the enemy – or simply stay hidden.
In fact, though I’ve watched plenty of World War II movies, I don’t think I fully appreciated before playing this game that the most important thing in a soldier’s life is finding cover. Nor did I have sufficient understanding of the pandemonium and waste marking the Allied campaigns in Europe and Africa. It may sound trite, but it’s true: I think I have a better sense for this war from having played this video game.
As affecting as Call of Duty 2 may be, however, there is another game that shows off the Xbox 360’s capabilities even more grandly. It’s Project Gotham Racing 3, a Grand Prix-style automobile racing game set on the roads of London, Las Vegas, New York, Tokyo, and Germany’s famous Nurburgring. In videoland, objects are constructed from tiny polygons; the more polygons, the smoother and less jagged an object will appear. The designers of PGR3 used up to 105,000 polygons per race car, more than 10 times the number used in Project Gotham Racing 2 for the original Xbox. Add in layer upon layer of effects such as reflections, shadows, dust, and motion blur, and the result is flabbergasting. Replays and still images from PGR3 races are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing (see www.technologyreview.com/xbox360).