XBOX 360
Several years ago, I stumbled from the darkness of my local Cineplex into the bustling halls of the adjoining shopping center. I made my way through the crowd toward the exit, poking my head into shops as I went, and finally fell into an EB Games where I first set my eyes on an Xbox in motion. The massive black console –clunky and unappealing – pumped 30 frames per-second of Splinter Cell – oppositely stunning and visually captivating – onto the small, 24-inch television at the back of the store.

Needless to say, it was love at first sight.

There's an image in that little romance that serves as the core reason why MovieWeb – a film site – is running a feature on a game console: the complex contrast between the theatre from which I stumbled and the Xbox I stumbled upon. In a time when I've seen fewer films than ever before, it's become incredibly apparent to me how effective gaming has become at delivering compelling, interactive, story-driven entertainment. Technology has finally come to a point where developers can either match or exceed the quality of Hollywood product both in content and presentation, even adding a layer of interactivity impossible with theatrical releases.

These games were not as basic as the rather cookie-cutter, button-mashers being developed by the Playstation bunch. They looked better, played better, felt better. Nor were they as rare as the occasional gem produced for the Nintendo Gamecube – a system I've owned for several years and for which I've purchased perhaps less than ten titles.

No, this unassuming, unwieldy Xbox marked the intersection of presentation, content and interactivity. And now, years later, the industry has pushed past even those accomplishments and entered the "next generation" of computer gaming...

On November 22nd, 2005, Microsoft will launch their eagerly anticipated follow-up to the original Xbox console – the Xbox 360. Hitting the market well in advance of the other next-gen systems – Sony's Playstation 3 and Nintendo's "Revolution" (both scheduled for a 2006 release) – the Xbox 360 will deliver the opening salvo in the next round of the console competition.

To do the system justice, let us here at MovieWeb practice a little mind-reading and tackle some the basic questions that even the most cynical and uninformed might ask about this new living-room addition.

XBOX 360

What's So "Next-Gen" About It?

In gamer-speak – otherwise referred to as "techno babble" – here's a quick breakdown of what the 360 can deliver:

* 3.2 GHz PowerPC processor with 3 cores

* ATI custom graphics chip

* 512MB GDDR3 Unified System Memory

* 10MB embedded DRAM

* 12X DVD drive

* 20GB Hard Drive

Which is all to say that there's a lot of horsepower operating under the hood. But in Basic English, here's what you need to know about the console's features...

The graphics power will likely be stunning, so much so that nearly all of the games available at launch will barely have scratched the surface of what the 360's three processor cores and ATI graphics chip can ultimately achieve. The system will play on both 4:3 and 16:9 televisions – in either high definition (720p or 1080i) or regular viewing (480i) – and will support full surround sound.

Progressive-scan DVD playback is also included and a wireless controller is available with a range of over 25 feet. Several USB ports will allow the console to run songs off your iPod or store images from your digital camera. The 20-gigabyte hard drive will enable backwards-compatibility, allowing gamers to continue blasting away at any original Xbox games not yet conquered. The system will also be able to interact with your Windows Media Center, if you're lucky enough to own one, and boasts several inter-changeable faceplates, in the event that you'd like to further personalize your console.

XBOX 360

Yeah, But What About Physically? How's the Controller?

Pretty sweet, actually. Wireless, lightweight, perfectly designed to fit in your hand, with every button exactly where your fingers move to find them. Similar to the Xbox S-controller, but with the black and white buttons in a better location and right and left bumpers above the triggers. The guide button at the top of the controller allows immediate and direct access to any of the 360 menu pages and can respond to any messages a gamer might receive in-game. It can also turn on the 360 wirelessly, without any physical contact with the console itself.

What?! I No Longer Have to Leave My Couch?

Only for food, water and the occasional bathroom break.

Awesome! But What Are These Menus and Messages of Which You Speak?

The 360 boasts an easy-to-navigate series of menus to help organize all your various media – including your Xbox Live profile as well as any songs and images you may have stored here. The system is essentially a very colorful file-o-fax, which you navigate with the system's controller, pulling from tabs located at the very edges of the screen. And since the 360 remains online even while you play an off-line, single-player game, you can receive messages (which appear in a small window) informing you about the online activity of your friends.

Xbox Live? I've Heard About That. What Is It Again?

Xbox offers the most fully realized online community currently available on any console, period. Millions of gamers gather every day to compete or co-op through dozens of top-shelf titles currently making use of the Xbox Live functionality. All you need to jump onboard is a membership and a broadband Internet connection.

Okay, Could Be Fun. So, How Does It Work with the 360?

The Xbox 360 offers two tiers of Xbox Live membership: Silver and Gold.

Xbox Live Silver will be free out-of-box for all users with broadband and the hard drive or memory unit. The Silver package will allow you to browse the Xbox Live Marketplace, access Marketplace downloads and Xbox Live Arcade games, create Gamertags and Gamer Profiles, utilize voice and text messaging, download additional levels and watch (not play) multiplayer match-ups. The Live system also includes a statistics system which updates as you play any 360 title, awarding you points for making certain achievements in a given game.

The Gold option, at $50 per year, affords you all of the above privledges but also allows multiplayer activity and bonus Marketplace features.

Marketplace? You Mean the Grocery Store? Maybe the Famer's Market?

No, we mean the huge online community outlet where you'll eventually download new levels and features for 360 games, such as new character models, car designs, items, weapons, costumes, spells, etc. And with Xbox Live Arcade, you'll also have access to a wide array of simple, enjoyable aracde titles, including Hexic, the new game from the creator of the dangerously-addictive Tetris.

Alright, Sounds Impressive. But What's It Gonna Cost Me?

With an eye to bring gaming into the modern era of high-definition, the 360 will launch with separate two price-points – one for the more conservative gamer and another for the all-out HD experience.

The $299 Core System will earn gamers the console, the controller, an inter-changeable faceplate and a standard AV cable – a pretty basic package for anyone looking to pick up and play straight out of the box.

For the hardcore, HD, surround-sound gamer, the $399 Premium Package includes the console, the 20 GB hard drive,a wireless controller, a faceplate, an Xbox Live headset, a component HD-AV cable, an Xbox Live Silver membership and a bonus media remote. And for anyone who thinks that four hundred bucks is a hefty fee for a new console, consider that all of the additional materials would run you over $200 if purchased separately – a savings of around $100.

Sure, Let Me Just Run to the Money Tree. Why Should I Care?

If you're a gamer, you care already, and if you're not, then perhaps it's time to come in from the cold.

With the Xbox 360, Microsoft is offering something of a living room hub – a top-quality gaming system, CD-player, DVD-player, iPod stereo, digital photograph album, and much more. Aside from the ability to simplify everything into one sleekly designed machine, the 360 also offers the first next-generation, HD game system to hit the market, setting the standard for everything to follow.

Yeah, But What About the Games?!

MovieWeb recently had a chance to sit down with several of the games slated to ship within the first few days and weeks of the system's launch. It's fair to say that most of your typical category of gamer will be happy with what's available. There's something here for everybody – action games, first-person shooters, RPG's, racing games, sports titles, etc. While the system does lack a sure-fire killer-app, there promises to be plenty to choose from between now and the release of Halo 3! And while we don't want to get into too much detail on the individual titles until we've had more time with them, here are a few highlights for the possible shopper:

First Person Shooters: Perfect Dark Zero is a visually-impressive return to the world of super spy Joanna Dark, last seen kicking-ass on the N64. With great graphics and fun gadgetry, PDZ offers a greatly enjoyable, if not exactly innovative, addition to its genre. Another must-play is the WWII shooter, Call of Duty. With its incredible sound and fury, along with its stark realism and incredibly challenging design, this title just may take the Launch Lineup FPS crown. Also worth noting is Condemned, a first-person, action-adventure thriller in the vein of the gritty Seven. In this title, you play as an investigator tracking a ruthless killer through a dark maze of villains and madmen. The graphics are stunning and the gameplay tense. The investigation element, requiring the use of forensic tools, adds an interesting twist to the larger story.

Action-Adventure: Kameo is certainly the game to beat in this category. We initially had little-to-no expectations for this title, which surprised us all by delivering a gorgeous romp through an exciting fantasy universe. Perfect for an audience of any age, Kameo highlights the shape-shifting feature of its hero to navigate complicated puzzles and battle a wide variety of enemies.

Racing: Project Gotham Racing 3 offers a playground of over 100 vehicles directly from the gate. With probably the best graphics of any 360 title in the lineup, PGR3 is a well-made, straight-forward racing game which saves you the trouble of having to "unlock" all the cars you wish you could have used in the first place. Also pick up Need of Speed for a dose of beautiful, cop dodging, racing mayhem.

Sports: Madden '06, Tiger Woods 2006, NBA Live...Take your pick. They all look and play great and have all been update from their original Xbox release. If you're a sports fan, throw ‘em all in the shopping cart. They're well worth the money.

Role-Playing: Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is this writer's personal favorite of the bunch, offering a sandbox fantasy world to live and play within, including thousands of characters, hundreds of quests and limitless hours of play. While this title was recently pushed back to early 2006, it is, to some, reason enough to purchase a 360.

Good System, Good Games, Good Online...But Isn't It Just More of the Same? What about the PS3 or the Revolution?

Here's the Big Picture: Until the industry can discover a way to completely and easily overhaul not only the games themselves, but how we play them, any improvements are going to build upon whatever framework currently exists. So, certainly, in a way, the Xbox 360 is a faster, bigger, prettier version of the original Xbox and will offer faster, bigger, prettier games. The same will certainly be true for the PS3, which, while in some senses different, is very similar to the 360 in terms of its technology. There is a ceiling here that these "next-gen" systems are beginning to run against, which brings the question down to a matter of ideology. How do these companies make games? Thusfar, to this writer, the Xbox has proven itself the perfect marriage of content and presentation, pushing the boundaries of gaming to their limits. I've never been an overwhelming fan of Playstation – if only because I've never found the games to be overly original. If you're looking for button-mashers and second-rate RPG's (with the exception of the Final Fanasty series), Playstation is the way to go. But if you're looking for a system whose developers have shown an eagerness to expand and take risks, perhaps you'll consider the 360.

Of course, I wouldn't want to dismiss Nintendo, whose effort, the Revolution, is certainly fascinating and even possibly groundbreaking. The new controller – which operates in 3-D space – could very well alter the way we currently play and interact with games. Or it could be a spectacular failure. So until the Revolution hits shelves at the end of '06, there's simply no telling.

So, This is the Part Where I Form My Own Opinion, Isn't It?

Exactly. Good luck, good gaming, and enjoy!