When I heard on the grape vine Microsoft were going to compete for top spot against the mighty PlayStation 2, I just shrugged. I had spent time with a PC and although I enjoyed the experiences, there was nothing like switching on your console with your foot, picking up a pad, throwing one at your friend and having a split screen session. Despite all the efforts of PC purists steering me towards a console free existence in the past, they failed because unlike consoles PC’s have to deal with a great deal of shit, anything from the internet, retarded users, to foreign berks with a passion for leaving the equivalent of shit stains in your computer. A PC is forever in conflict with you, itself and other bellends thousands of miles from where you’re sitting.
Invariably they fall down, computers usually, through no fault of their own, decide that it no longer likes playing your favourite game and instead hands you various screens of errors and colours which are as much fun as a kick in the groin.
Thinking of Microsoft stepping up to the plate against Sony was like finding out your granddad was going to enter sports day. No doubt he’d give it a good go, his egg and spoon technique may still be something special but his enthusiasm to keep up with the kids would be short lived as he falls to his knees during the sack race coughing and spitting, whilst the kids ride on his back like a wheezy old donkey.
The Xbox surprisingly turned out to be a great gaming companion. A friend of mine came over to my place shortly after launch, with the his new Xbox to show me a couple of games. Unfortunately for him I lived in a third story apartment and from his description over the phone, we would have to construct some sort of winch from the ground floor as the machine sounded gargantuan.
I told him to stop being such a wimp and when he arrived I buzzed him into the building. The heavy breathing and stomping of feet should have been my signal to go meet him half way and help him out but I think my curious nature got the better of me and would rather watch on, as he rounded the corner of the stairs to my front door, all red in the face.
What a cruel joke Microsoft had played, it was almost as though they purposefully designed the Xbox to be this large, so that once installed, it became a permanent fixture in the home. If you thought the 16bit machines like the Megadrive were pretty robust, the Xbox could have been used to keep bailiffs out of your home by simply placing it behind your front door, tying a rope to it and abseiling from a window.
It happened to be bit of a ‘frankenbox’ constructed by some bored engineers at Microsoft from some old Dell machines *shudder*. Nevertheless, these tech’s knew what they were doing and shortly after the release of the Playstation 2, Microsoft hit Europe hard. The Japanese didn’t take to Bill Gates gaming box as well as us, but it certainly did enough for everyone to take notice.
I’ve never really been loyal to any brand that had launched consoles, but over the years Sega had served me well in the past. Games selection is generally what draws me to a console and the Playstation had held my interest since launch, games were slightly more focused and less gimmicky and the sound was also impressive when wired through my Hi-Fi.
On paper the Xbox was packing heat, clocked at 733MHz from its proven Intel chip and with more RAM than the PS2, word on the street was that the FPS was overall better. The name was derived from the developers use of the Direct X graphics system being ran on an impressive Nvidia card. It was going to come down to the games selection in the end and if I could afford it or not.
What really did grab my interest was seeing Need For Speed Hot Pursuit 2 running on the Xbox, I knew the game very well being that it was one of my favourite titles on the PS2. The game just ran better. Before the enthusiastic team at EA ruined the series by installing every high performance vehicle with nitrous, NFS was a very original, realistic-enuff racer with great tracks and innovation. I wasn’t all that fussed by the Underground series starting the boost craze because that is exactly what that scene is about, but I find that NOS element has hung around the more recent instalments like a fart under a blanket.
The original Xbox controller felt like you were holding a massive black Cornish pasty and probably made about as much sense to a Japanese person as a Cornish pasty, because of its size in proportion to their hands.
The staggered analogue sticks didn’t make much sense at first either. The slimmer more hand held shaped PlayStation controller did feel easier to use but one feature for me stood above the rest of all controllers thus far, the triggers. The Microsoft triggers just felt right, whether you were using them to accelerate into a crowd, or empty a magazine into a boss, the triggers gave you more precision and any gamer worth their salt would know that this counts for a lot.
Not so long after buying the box, Microsoft revised the UFO shaped peripheral for a smaller, more human proportioned version with a slight alteration in button layout. These weren’t cheap and so more often than not you’d visit a friend and be handed the big pasty because buying two new slimmer controllers was difficult. The black and white buttons were useful but I don’t think I ever quite got used to the layout of them, nevertheless this was another step in the right direction of the future of gaming precision.
Halo Combat Evolved really lead the way for Microsoft and it’s Xbox, it was certainly built for the machine and no doubt the controller design was in mind when in development. My first hands on experience of Halo was when I had eventually saved enough to allow me to buy an Xbox outright and therefore keep the PS2, as the on-going battle for ‘exclusive’ games did have a hold on me.
You play the game as a kind of cybernetically enhanced ‘Space Rambo’ who has to fight members of the Covenant, a bunch of alien creatures allied by belief in a common religion. When the humans try to run from a mad bombardment of aliens, they run into what looks like a huge doughnut in space, being American they couldn’t pass the opportunity to see if it was indeed the largest doughnut ever discovered and so they landed on the thing, also using it to try and escape their pursuers. It doesn’t work and so you have to almost single handily kill them all and escape the doughnut.
If one things for sure, pistol whipping, executing and blowing up an alien race has become a very popular genre of game, Halo sold over five million copies worldwide and has had almost as many sequels as American Pie. Over time my enthusiasm has waned for the Halo series, I really enjoyed the original, the multitude of weaponry both human and alien, the varied vehicles and the enemy AI traits made for a very satisfying shooter. The smoothness of the controls, aided by the presence of a more forgiving gravity to our own, meant that some real precision could be achieved when in combat. The look and feel of the game inspired most FPS from there on. Personally though I can’t stand shooting aliens that bleed green goo. Laser weapons and plasma pistols are just not my cup of tea, I prefer hardened shooters, I come from the era of DOOM, Duke Nukem, Quake and Soldier of Fortune, so I like my shooters with some metal.
Like a combination of Rambo, Matrix and Die Hard, Black was one of the most critically acclaimed shooters on the PS2 and Xbox. As a tactical espionage operative, you are fed information via the company network and sent to carry out top secret missions to ensure global security. This usually meant going to any given location, setting your weapon to fully auto and then decimating everything and everyone that stands in your way. The game play and world physics were phenomenal, gamers have since begged for a second installment but without much joy.
Back in the 90’s my best friend and I used to go behind the scenes of the Duke Nukem 3D files and replace the audio files of the weapons with our own recorded sounds. You don’t realise how important sound is in a game until you hear a 9mm pistol go “Blam” in your own dull monotone voice, or a machine gun go ‘DAH DA DAHDADAHDA!’. As hilarious as that was, it was such a relief to be able to revert back to the originals and makes you appreciate how much work is involved in getting it right.
Black sounded brilliant through a decent set of speakers, Criterions team wanted the game to sound reminiscent of a Hollywood blockbuster, the score of music and the weapons were all tailored to blend with each other when the shit went down. Sound engineers based weapon sounds from action movies like Die Hard and True lies to give each weapon its own ‘voice’ the effect was best experienced when in a gun battle between multiple enemies, the weapons literally harmonised with each other, creating a satisfying composition. Black received the ‘Best sound’ award at the 2006 BAFTA’s video games awards and so there was always a call for a sequel. Due to differences between Criterion and EA, it never happened. If you’re interested, the spiritual successor of Black was called Body Count and can be found on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it was never quite what the publishers/designers had hoped and sadly it meant that the Guildford branch of Codemasters shut down.
That’s it for this part, this was introduction of the original Xbox and I’ll go over some of the highlights for me in the next part. Also I’ll talk about how I became a criminal mastermind whilst stoned and how my friend unlocked a haven for nostalgia with a Splinter Cell save game file.
CLICK HERE FOR PART 16!