10 years of Xbox: Why Edge swears by Microsoft’s new console

10 years of Xbox: Why Edge swears by Microsoft's new console

10 years of Xbox: Why Edge swears by Microsoft's new console

In our November 2001 issue we finally got our hands on Xbox, publishing reviews of its remarkable launch lineup (Halo: Combat Evolved, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Amped, Project Gotham Racing and more) and the following report on Microsoft’s X01 press event in Cannes, our views on the console hardware itself (“Yes it’s bulky. Yes it’s pretty ugly.”) and industry opinion around the launch.

After nearly two years of rumour and speculation, Microsoft’s Xbox finally became a reality as the system went on sale in North America on November 15. However, it’s not set to appear on these shores until March next year, when it will launch at a price of £299. As Edge goes to press it is too early to determine just how successful the launch has been, but the Xbox publicity machine finally slipped into gear in timely fashion with the X01 press junket in Cannes on October 16 and 17.

During the week of its launch, the Xbox boasted a line-up of software that consisted of five firstparty titles, 14 thirdparty titles, and the promise that a further 20 will be available by Christmas. Offering both a comprehensive choice of genre, and a handful of games that are of genuinely high quality, it’s a software line-up that compares well with the launch roster of any other console, past or present.

But with the exception of the US, where Xbox launches three days before GameCube, consumers won’t be comparing Xbox games with the launch software of other consoles. By the time the unit is released in Japan, both GameCube and PlayStation2 will have had time to establish an installed base, while in Europe, the Xbox wiil be entering the market after a potentially lucrative Christmas period for the recently price-cut PlayStation2.

Microsoft’s X01 event

Nevertheless, after a particularly slow start, and one or two setbacks at E3 and the Tokyo Game Show, the Xbox bandwagon finally got the boost it needed with the X01 press junket in Cannes. The decision to fly nearly a thousand European media guests to Pierre Cardin’s clifftop mansion, overlooking the spectacular Côte d’Azur, and to festoon the surrounding real estate with an imposing Xbox light show, was a ridiculously extravagant one, but it was a decision befitting the arrivste nature of the console in question.

But as an indication of Microsoft’s will to succeed it was an impressive performance. From the moment guests arrived at the Teletubby/Austin Powers architectural fusion of the Maison Bulles, by way of a stately open-air amphitheatre bedecked with luminous circus performers, until the end of Carl Cox’s set, it was clear that the company intends to pull out all the stops for its new console.

More impressive than the exotic location, the celebrity DJ and the scintillating lightshow, was the software that was on display throughout the Bubble house. With over 40 titles playable, and a healthy turnout from thirdparty publishers, this provided ample demonstration of what consumers can expect from Xbox – namely choice and quality. A genuinely enticing teaser trailer kicked off a formal presentation that was without doubt the most polished and slick performance that the Xbox team has so far put together – consisting of members of the Xbox management team and a broad cross-section of the European publishing and development communities detailing their strategy for Xbox.

Of course there were moments that gave pause for thought. Ed Fries, for example was perhaps a bit too keen to highlight the unprecedented realism that can be achieved with Xbox, pointing to sophisticated audio functionality, broadband connectivity, and an integral hard drive as the triumvirate of technological virtues upon which unparalleled verisimilitude can be based. Fortunately for attendees who might have been put off by such a monodynamic outlook, Smilebit was on hand with Jet Set Radio Future the following day to show that Xbox is capable of so much more.

Jet Set Radio Future

And while some speakers were weak, the ebullience of the likes of Peter Molyneux and Lorne Lanning was adequate compensation. The former gave a characteristically charismatic overview of Project Ego, while the latter outlined the importance of connectivity to his vision of anti-capitalist flatulence. There were also one or two new firstparty titles announced, including Rallisport Challenge and team-based action title, Brute Force.

After Seamus Blackley had finished promoting the work of thirdparty developers, formal proceedings were brought to an end with the announcement, by Sandy Duncan, which the assembled masses had been most keen to hear. Xbox will launch in Europe on March 14, 2002, at a price of €479 or £299, with software costing €69 or £44.99 per game. Microsoft plans to roll out 1.5 million units over the course of three months, which will be manufactured in a specialist manufacturing plant in Hungary. With the formal presentation brought to a close, attendees were free to sample Xbox software for themselves. and to mull over the implications of the pricing announcement.

It’s particularly revealing that the only real complaint was that there wasn’t enough food (there certainly couldn’t have been any complaints about a shortage of drink), though there were also gripes from certain sectors of the mainstream press, that the event was targeted too exclusively at the specialist press – presumably given Microsoft’s shocking decision to showcase actual games. But given the window of opportunity that the Xbox launch date and price point hands to PlayStation2, there were some who questioned the usefulness of a press junket in convincing consumers to wait until next year to part with their cash. But X01 was just one part of a comprehensive marketing strategy, which includes a raft of consumer-oriented promotions across the US and Europe.

Seamus Blackley, who headed up Microsoft’s Xbox team

It’s apparent that Microsoft hopes initially to target the Xbox at the core gaming demographic, and then attempt to develop its audience from there with a price cut potentially coming later in the console’s life-cycle. This is why the company has commenced a series of promotional tours to let this target audience playtest Xbox games for themselves.

The Xbox Oddysee is an appropriately boisterous 50-city tour of the US, accompanied by big name bands and competitions, while UK consumers will get a chance to catch an early glimpse of Xbox at a series of Xperience events across the country. There will also be a roll out of demo stations across the country from November.

The Xbox promotional campaign hasn’t gone entirely smoothly, however, with reports emerging of demo stations crashing as a result of bug-infested code, and the infamous dotcom financial analyst Mary Meeker predicting huge losses for Microsoft over the course of the console’s life. But with the machine finally in the hands of consumers, the time for speculation is nearing an end. X01 was Microsoft’s first impressive step towards establishing a foothold in the console market. Game on.

Hands on

Yes it’s bulky. Yes it’s pretty ugly. Yes the controllers are fat. Yes it’s from Microsoft. No it’s not available in purple. But despite Edge’s European aesthetic reservations, it’s difficult not to be captivated by Microsoft’s behemoth – largely because, as Sandy Duncan was so keen to emphasise at X01, the Xbox is all about software. It’s easy to overcome reservations about the Xbox’s bombastic exterior when it’s home to titles like Halo and Amped. Though Edge has had firsthand experience of Xbox hardware on several occasions, the arrival of an Xbox Debug kit provided the opportunity for a more leisurely examination.

The exterior of the Xbox can justifiably be described as ugly and large, especially when compared to the supercute styling of the GameCube, but the fact is that it isn’t offensively so. Nevertheless, there are genuine concerns about the western controller design – particularly face buttons that prove difficult to locate precisely even after sustained play. In its favour, the two analogue sticks, the D—pad and the trigger buttons are solid and well constructed, but it’s a shame that the prototype Japanese controllers to be found at X01 won’t be introduced as standard.

When it comes to the console itself, Xbox has enough neat tricks to compensate for dodgy exterior embellishment. It plugged smoothly into Edge’s LAN to provide the sort of networked gaming that hasn’t so far been available to console gamers, for example. The front end is fluid and smart, and the most obvious manifestation of the hard drive is seamless autosaving. Perhaps the most engaging feature, though, is the ability to rip your own music CDs for use ingame with certain titles. Via an absurdly foolproof menu system it’s possible to cater for all your gaming audio tastes. Which means that extreme sports titles will no longer be synonymous with skate punk and nu-metal.

Industry Opinion

Edge asks the industry for its first impressions of Xbox

Kuniyo Matsumoto, Sega Europe
I was excited to be at Pierre Cardin’s house overlooking the Côte D’Azur: compliments to the Xbox staff, I thought the event was a great success (well the bits I remember when I was sober). It was an excellent opportunity for us to not only show off our products but also to hear valuable feedback for the three titles that we showcased (Jet Set Radio Future, GunValkyrie and Sega GT), especially Jet Set Radio Future. As for Xbox, it’s great hardware. It has capabilities that many console developers have been hoping for and I reckon, given time, it will obtain a good share of the market in Europe – even though the European controller is a little too big for my hands! I’m looking forward to getting hold of a Japanese version. The representatives from Smilebit were very excited to be there to show everyone what they have been up to – they’ve been woring very hard re-writing the code for Jet Set Radio Future so it takes full advantage of programmable shaders and a host of other features on the Xbox.

Pete Lyle, The Face
Having a big party and inviting the right people to ensure you make the papers and the airwaves over the following week may not be console marketing’s equivalent of rocket science, but it’s the kind of thing only Sony seems to have managed in recent years. As for the price, £300 seemed the only real option, despite the wait-and-see penny-pinching approach that most massmarket UK gamers take these days – Microsoft would surely have been stuffed for a meaningful Christmas 2002 price drop if they’d launched on a par with PS2. DOA3 and JSRF were gorgeous and I can’t wait to have a proper bash at Halo. It’s nice to hear people talking about games when they launch a new console and, provided the right software arrives in time to alert people to the machine’s unique strengths, it would be great to see them pull it off. True, the box could be prettier and its aesthetic is probably more appealing to the States than Europe, but I’m sure we’ll get used to it. The real trick will be dealing with the fact that to the uninitiated, ‘PlayStation’ is synonymous with ‘game console’ like ‘Hoover’ is with ‘vacuum cleaner’.

Richard Teversham, Microsoft
X01 was a significant event for Xbox in many ways. The reaction from the UK attendees has been extremely positive not only to Xbox and the games line-up, but also to the way the event was staged – spending time playing Xbox. The sense of excitement was infectious as people realised what Xbox can deliver. The feedback on people’s favourites varied from Rallisport Championship to OddWorld. For me the games that stood out – apart from the addictive Halo and the astonishing Dead Or Alive 3 – were Wreckless and Jet Set Radio Future. What is even more exciting is knowing that Xbox has the potential to do so much more, a glimpse of what was seen in Project Ego. This is the start; the next step is to let gamers in the UK play Xbox. Roll on March 14, 2002.

Dene Carter, Big Blue Box Studios
The Cannes X01 event was the Xbox’s first credible appearance. Having suffered at E3 for a variety of reasons, Microsoft showed an impressive ability to learn from and react to criticism. The event was controlled, well conceived and very, very cool. It is almost redundant to point out the considerable odds facing Microsoft. The PS2 has established a firm foothold in households across the world. The GameCube has a ready-made fanbase, and considerable credibility due to Nintendo’s gaming history. The Xbox is ungainly and suffers from a questionable parentage. Microsoft is entirely lacking in street credibility. So what can the Xbox offer? Well, a comparatively strong launch line-up and, frankly, a great attitude. Halo is a polished, dense, deep game play experience. Dead Or Alive 3 shows evidence of the raw power of the console. Munch is a testament to Microsoft’s willingness to go out on a limb. Where’s the smug complacence? Where’s the lacklustre, technically crippled first wave of software? But Microsoft still has some way to go. Its price-point disappointed those who forget the PS2’s launch price. It’s still large enough to be declared an independent state. The big Japanese developers seem yet to be convinced of its merits. Once a few well-known franchises start appearing on the platform, providing visual, comparative evidence of the machine’s power, even the most ardent cynic should begin to see the behemoth’s merits. At the very least, Microsoft’s competitors should be receiving a wake-up call this season. And that can only be a good thing.

James Ashton-Tyler, Official Xbox Magazine
The Xbox line-up on show at Cannes is the strongest of any console launch I can remember. Halo and Dead Or Alive 3 are the obvious headliners – both more than capable of driving system sales – but Munch, Project Gotham and Jet Set Radio Future are also enormously strong. Wreckless from Activision looks fantastic and Rallisport Challenge was a pleasant Euro-centric firstparty announcement. In all, I think the Xbox can look forward to an enormously successful launch period. It has at least four headline-grabbing, box-shifting triple-As, a solid range of competent sports and racing games and just enough on the horizon to keep gamers’ enthusiasm high past month three – particularly the games offering creative use of the hard-drive such as Big Blue Box’s Project Ego and Molyneux’s BC. At 50% more expensive than the PlayStation 2, the Xbox had to prove that its games were demonstrably better – after Cannes and the US launch I don’t think this is any longer in doubt. The Xbox won’t halt sales of the PS2 and I’m not sure it will even damage GameCube. However it will comfortably establish itself in the market in 2002. 2003 will be the year of the big showdown.