Movies and TV!

Well, movies and television shows have come to the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live. It just launched today, and it looks like there is quite a bit of material in there. TV shows in plain definition run US$2 and high def at US$3. Old movies are $3 or $4.5 (SD or HD), and new movies at $4 or $6. It seems the servers are quite swamped because when I first tried it, I got a lot of errors. Now, things are working better, but are a bit slooooooow.

The prices seem kind of reasonable. $4 to rent a movie in 480p (same as a DVD), and that matches what I pay at Hollywood Video. However, I don't get the extras that most DVDs come with. I do get to rent these things without even leaving the house, which is nice, but it isn't exactly "on demand". The SD version of Unforgiven (starring Clint Eastwood... great movie!) weighs in at a 1.4 GB. And the high def version? 5.7 GB!! ... sheesh. Microsoft better come out with a storage attachment for the 360. I don't have that much space, and 5.7 GB is gonna take a while to download, too...

I love the idea, and this is a bold move by Microsoft to get into our living rooms. The whole Xbox program was designed for exactly this. They are in our workplace, and our home office. They want the living room, though. That is where untold millions of consumers are located, and are people they can sell to. You might call it Big Corporate, but I call it an awesome game playing device, and Xbox Live as a wonderful source of continuing enjoyment.

They may be onto something truly spectacular here. Let's see how it shakes out...

Hawaii Racing: Test Drive Unlimited

This one is great! It is very different from every other racer that I've played. They have mapped out Oahu in all its digital glory. Okay... well, the graphics could be tuned up to take advantage of the 360, but the game does look really good. And they have the whole island in here. It will take you at least an hour to circumnavigate the whole thing.

Test Drive: Unlimited is an attempt at an massively multiplayer online racing game ("MMORG"). There are lots of cars to unlock, houses to buy, clothes to purchase, and several hundred races and missions to perform. This is all done very well, with a good progression of gamepoints to score as you're playing the game.

What completely and totally sucks, though, is the difficulty of playing with your friends. Yeah, you read that right. This is an MMORG yet it is practically impossible to play with a friend... and I'm not talking some random Joe, but a person marked on your Xbox Live Friends List. What makes it so hard? At any given point in time, the servers select up to 8 people near you on the island and links you together in your own little pocket universe on the island. 8 random people. No preference whatsoever to the folks on your list. None. Your only hope is to go to some remote location and wait for the server to link you up. You can then do a little trick to lock in your friend so they won't suddenly disappear in a regrouping by the server. But this is hit or miss and can take a while.

But it gets worse. Now that you're all linked up, you pop open the map to see where to go. Say some remote location, or a multiplayer race so you and your buddy can race some opponents. Whoops!! Opening the map disconnects you from other players. Yeah. You spend 15 minutes trying to get sync'd up with your pal, and you cannot touch the map. Fuckin' ludicrous.

Okay... now past the suck part... this game is fun. The driving physics are working towards "realism" rather than "arcade". However, I do find that the cars can do donuts way too easily... like the programmers included angular momentum, but forgot that a tire skidding sideways is a huge source of friction and should slow the spin. In this game, if you try to drift around a corner, then you better have a really good car and be able to hold it in the proper line. The cars are beautiful looking and will they have a little bit of damage modeling. I've put some truly kickass dual-color pearlescent paint on some of my cars. There is a little bit of tunability, but nothing to the extent of the Need for Speed series.

The other night, I linked up with a couple people from the UK, and we simply hit the gas. Just started driving down the highways, with each of us taking a turn defining the lead as we zoomed about the island at high speed. Invariably, one of us would go careening around a corner, lose it, and crash in some horrendous way. The others would slow until the other caught up, and off we went again. Lots of fun with all the open space on the island.

I am hoping they will issue a game patch to fix the friends thing at some point. I just can't see how they could call this an MMORG with the current nastiness. But despite that, I do recommend this game. The openness, the unlocks, the cars, and the modeling of Hawaii... all excellent. And at just $40 for the game, this game is a bargain... it has given me lots of hours of fun.

Playing with Cops... Need for Speed: Most Wanted

NFS: Most Wanted is an "arcade" racer... physics exist, but not if they get in the way of enjoyability. Similar to Burnout, this game is about speed, sliding around corners, slamming into things, and sweet cars.

And cops. As you slam into civilian cars, or (gasp!) into cop cars, or inflict property damage... your "heat" goes up. The higher your heat, the more you will attract Mr Law Enforcement. If they spot you, then the chase is on. The cop chases are simply awesome. It ends up being a crazy, wild spin around the town, trying to shake them. Certain environment features can be collapsed onto the cops to knock them out of the chase. Or you can slam into them, send them into walls, whatever... eventually, they'll get crushed and fall out. Others will eventually come to replace them, but if you can shake them or disable them, then you move into a "cooldown" period where a timer counts down until the chase is called off. But! If you just keep flying around town without ending it, your heat will continue to get upgraded. From simple cops, to SUVs, to FBI, and eventually to helicopters. If you've seen the coppers' escalation in Grand Theft Auto, then you're familiar with this. Shaking helicopters is tough... underground parking lots work, but you also have the ground cops after you.

Seriously exhilirating.

The controls are awesome... very responsive, easy to manage, and the cars respond as you would expect. The graphics are very good, althought I think it suffers a bit of "least common denominator" since NFS: MW was ported to all platforms... In other words, it doesn't fully represent the power of the 360, but it is beyond what you'd find on the previous generation. The sound is unbelievable... tire noise, rain noise, engine noise, other cars, ... everything. The NFS series has done excellent work on the audio for a couple game generations now (starting back with Need for Speed: Underground).

The story lines and missions and progression in this game is excellent. The overall feel and attitude is spot-on for a street racer.

Now... I would highly recommend this game, but for just one thing... Need for Speed: Carbon came out just last week. If you're going to buy just one racing game, then you may want to see my review of that one first.

Wait. What? ... yup. Bonus review: I've been playing Carbon and will throw in a review of that game as part of this series.

Seriously, though... with NFS: Carbon out now, I expect NFS: MW to hit the bargain bin. I'm seeing it for $29.99 at and Amazon. This could make an excellent bargain gift for the holiday season. Great game, very much recommended!

Driving Simulation: Project Gotham Racing 3

Project Gotham Racing 3 is what I would call a "technical" racer, or a "driving simulation". The handling of the car, the stickiness to the course, weight distribution, braking and tire behavior, and more... all modeled as closely as possible to the real world. You don't hit 90 degree corners at 100 miles an hour like in an "arcade" racer. Try it, and you're gonna hose yourself.

I'm personally not a big fan of this kind of game. I want fast-paced action rather than knowing that the driving faithfully matches reality. I don't need reality. I want adrenaline. I want to smash through traffic, slide around a corner, hit my nitrous, and leave competitors inhaling my exhaust.

But! This game is a teriffic challenge. You have to be on your game. If you miss that line through the corner, then you're out. Hit a wall? Cut too sharp? Bash into another car? Don't do it. You have to draft, take the lines tight, glide thru your opponents... all necessary parts to winning the race.

Meanwhile, there is a "kudos" system scoring you for good driving. Do all the driving right, and you get big kudos bonuses. The kudos then bring on some excellent unlocks and other goods.

And the game is *beautiful* ... it really showed off the graphics of the 360 at launch time. As you fly by the buildings and crowds... all detailed. The cars are kick-ass modeled. Sound is awesome.

This game is very much recommended if you like simulations and "true" driving. It is the best out there for that sub-genre of racing.