Selling only about 16% as many units as the PS2 sold, the Xbox is seen by many as a failure in the console market. It certainly didn’t make Microsoft any money. But it did introduce Xbox Live to the world, and it was the most technically advanced console of the sixth generation.
I’ve seen some people make the mistake of claiming that the Xbox is just a PC stuffed into a black case and sold as a console. If that is true, then you could arguably make that claim for every console ever sold. It’s true that the Xbox is much closer in design to a PC than most other consoles that had come before, but it wasn’t just a stock PC. I think the addition of the hard drive – a first in console gaming – is what confuses people here. The addition of the hard drive is also what worries me about my Xbox. I just know the thing is going to crap out and die eventually. Hard drives exist in two states: dead and about to die.
And if your original Xbox ever suffers a hardware problem, good luck finding replacement parts. There were about four times as many Xbox 360s sold, and if you search for replacement parts for Xbox, you will more than likely find parts for that successor. Microsoft also really threw a wrench in the naming flow when they called their latest monstrosity the “Xbox One” (hereafter: Xbone). I only bring this up because my Xbox DVD-ROM drive appears to be dying, and soon I may no longer be able to play the small amount of games I do have for the system.
But while it lasts, I can enjoy some decent titles. Just like any console of any generation, good specs mean nothing without good game development to take advantage of them. I have games for my Xbox that look and play a lot worse than some Dreamcast games, even though the Xbox hardware is far superior. There were some big name titles released for this console that look inexcusably poor on this hardware.
My personal take on the Xbox is that it’s a neat console if you have one, but the hardware is kind of unreliable and prone to failure because of the hard drive. Most modern consoles have hard drives now. Until those hard drives are superseded by solid state drives, they will all be prone to failure and just waiting to die.
The Xbox is also the most recent console I own, not counting my PSP. The state of console gaming after that generation was something I didn’t want to partake in. The realism of modern console graphics – though impressive in many ways – is actually something that turns me off to gaming. The forced integration of online features is another element I dislike. I prefer playing games on my own, and I don’t want to hear 14 year old kids tell me about the sex life of my mother.
Integration of advertising, and intrusive outright money-grabs in gaming are also something I despise. From my outside viewpoint, the seventh and eighth generation of gaming seem less and less about actual video games and more about propping up massive corporations with software as a product that is structured and box-pressed by accountants to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
I often wonder if the rise in popularity of emulation around the turn of the century had more to do with the power of computers that could handle it, or the desire to play games that were made simply for the sake of having fun. It was certainly the latter for me.
Ned for Speed: Most Wanted (2005)
Oops.. sorry… typo.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted (2005)
If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t reviewed a Need for Speed game yet… well, here it is. I have other games from this series for my PlayStation, and as a matter of fact, “V-Rally 2” is a Need for Speed game that I reviewed for the Dreamcast under its release title on that system “Test Drive V-Rally”. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
This game plays like a racer in an open-world setting with RPG elements, and it succeeds pretty well. You play the role of a street racer, and you must work your way up the ranks while laying your own reputation and vehicle on the line and outrunning the cops.
Before I get into gameplay, I want to address the graphics. In general, they are very good, and they live up to the Xbox’s promise of better performance than the other consoles around at the time. The only graphical shortcoming I saw was that the reflections on my car were at a very low frame rate, and that looked pretty jarring when I focused on it. Other than that, and for whatever reason, some “stylistic” choices were made that make things look bad in NFSMW.
These are noticeable mainly while racing, which is a shame. The edges of the screen blur, and what I can only really call “speed lines” appear coming from behind your car when you drive fast. Do you remember when you were a kid and you used to draw fire trucks going really fast? And you used to draw speed lines to make it look like it was going fast? Well, this game draws speed lines to make you look like you’re going fast, and it looks stupid.
The way the rain looks in NFSMW is also a little different from what I’ve seen in other games, and it isn’t entirely convincing. Add to that all the gimmicky lens and focus tricks that get done to the camera during gameplay, and that takes a huge chunk out of this game’s visual attractiveness score in my books.
Those gimmicky lens tricks are a big problem, actually. They’re tied in with the game’s soundtrack, and every time you do something neat – like plow through a line of police cars or sail over a ramp into a jump – the game slows down to a crawl, changes camera angles, puts up some idiotic loud melodramatic sound through the speakers and forces you to watch in slow motion. This really breaks the flow of the game for me, and it happens here all the time.
There are three modes of gameplay: Career, Challenge Series and Quick Race. Career is where all the action is, so I’ll talk about that first.
When you start, you get to sit through some cut scenes. But these are no ordinary cut scenes. No, these are B-movie grade shit acted by graduates of the School of Douchebaggery. The plot and dialogue are juvenile and stupid enough to make your skin crawl. They are completely asinine and unbelievable. Whoever wrote this script was trying to appeal to the idiotic desires of 13 year old boys who don’t understand how real-life situations work. A little part of me died when I sat through those cut scenes.
They drone on and on too. When you finally start to race, it’s cut short just because. Exposition… repetition… blah blah blah then OH MY GOD plot twist. Another race cut short so you can watch more terrible acting by people you can’t help but feel hostility toward – even the ones ostensibly helping you. Honestly, I almost stopped playing this to review a different game instead. The cut scenes in NFSMW are so offensively stupid and puerile that I’m at a loss to understand why anyone would have wanted to include them. All they add up to are scene after scene of stupid people saying stupid things in a stupid world that could never actually exist.
But I am glad that I had the patience to stick it out, because eventually the barrage of bad plot and bad acting ceased. From a certain point on, the game’s “plot” advances through the use of text messages on your phone. These mainly come from “Mia”, an escapee from the Anorexia Clinic who decides to help a loser street racer with no car like you just because.
From there, the game takes a “free roam” approach in the open-world, where you can visit auto shops, your safe-house, and other points of interest on the map. You can enter races and start working your way up the “Black List”.
What is the “Black List”? Well, I’m glad you asked. The Black List is the fifteen top-ranked street racers, and in order to get your original car back and win the game, you need to defeat them all. When you challenge a Black List racer, you put your own vehicle on the line. If you lose the challenge, you will lose your car.
In order to get those Black List challenges, you must win a set amount of races and meet a certain number of “milestones”. These are different for each Black List member, and the game progresses in difficulty. Only first place counts in winning races.
Another factor is “Bounty”. This is a measure of respect to the racers, and to the Police, it is a measure of how much they want to see you behind bars. The more you evade the cops, the more your bounty rises.
You have a bounty meter on the screen, and if the cops catch you racing or even breaking traffic laws, they will come down hard on your ass. You then have to evade them. That is a whole game unto itself.
It was while evading the cops in this game that I forgot all about the sickening cut scenes before and began to really enjoy it. Never mind structured Point-A to Point-B 3-2-1-Go races… this is pure madness.
You really need a fast car to outrun a half dozen cop cars, and even then, you can’t do it by speed alone. There are some special zones in the city that you can drive through to cause a little destruction behind you, and if you are being chased close enough, you can bring down a gas station canopy onto a couple of cop cars. If you can get it to work, you can lose the cops that way. It’s thrilling to see it work.
Meanwhile, back in the “free roam” mode, you can use the game menu to zip back to the next race at any time – unless you’re trying to evade the Police, that is. After your first couple of races, you will really need to stick to the speed limit, stay on your side of the road and obey those traffic lights and stop signs.
When you get enough money from winning races, you can start upgrading your car. Performance parts like faster engines and nitro boosts can be upgraded to provide more speed. Eventually you will have to buy a faster car in order to beat the names higher up on the list.
Challenge Series mode is just a series of 68 single racing events that allow for quick pick-up-and-play racing with NFSMW. The first two events are unlocked, and you must work your way through them, unlocking the other 66. They range from time trial races to cop evade tests, all within the open world of the game.
Quick Race mode is broken down into three areas: Quick Play, Custom Race and Split Screen. Quick Play is just you, a car, a section of road, some other racers, and some laps.
Custom Race and Split Screen are basically the same, only the first is single-player and the second is two-player. Within Custom Race, you can race a circuit, sprint, drag race, lap knockout or speedtrap.
The first two of those are more or less usual races where you can choose where to race, how many drivers to race with and whether or not to race with traffic. You can also choose from three difficulty settings. Drag race is a sprint race that forces you to drive manual without blowing your engine, so as you can imagine, I’m terrible at it. Lap knockout is just like circuit, only with the slowest racers on each lap eliminated. Speedtrap is just a race with stoplight cameras clocking your speed.
After playing this game for a few hours, the bitter taste left by the initial graphics impression and the horrible video intro had all but disappeared. I did have a lot of fun playing NFSMW, and overall, it did impress me. But there are some things I really can’t overlook. Advertising is everywhere in this game. From billboards to in-game menus, it can’t be avoided. This isn’t a problem for most people, but for me it is.
I don’t think that will really be enough to keep me away from NFSMW. I really hope the terrible cut scenes are over for my playthrough, because they are by far the worst part of this game. The driving control is excellent, but I think that goes without saying when reviewing a Need for Speed game.
One thing I would have liked to see in NFSMW is integration with the Xbox’s music capability. The Xbox was the first game console that could rip CDs and store music digitally on its hard drive. Some games took advantage of this, and let you include your own music collection in with your game. Sadly, this game does not. The music here is average to good Hip Hop and Nu Metal, and the tracks do get repetitive after a while.
If you’re looking for a solid racing title for your original Xbox, this one might fit the bill. It definitely does things its own way, and forces you to sit through some truly awful writing and acting. But if you can get through it, there is some exciting racing to be had.
Burnout 3: Takedown (2004)
No cockamamie racer gang story or cut scenes to get in the way here. This one is all about demolition and destruction, and it’s the best demolition racing game I’ve played. The formula is straightforward: drive fast and crash into stuff as you go. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
The emphasis is definitely on the crashing, and most of the time you’re only supposed to crash into your race opponents. It reminds me of “Destruction Derby” for the Nintendo 64, but everything here is ratcheted up several notches and handled way better.
There are only two modes: Burnout 3 World Tour and Single Event. Multiplayer is another option, though most of the multiplayer functionality required Xbox Live and EA’s support, which is no longer active.
The World Tour is where it’s at, and this is where you need to start to unlock everything anyway. There are lots and lots of races in the USA, Europe, and the Far East. USA has the most amount, and a handful of these are the only ones unlocked at first.
Throughout the game, you get to listen to a fake alternative rock radio station and a cheeky alt-rock radio DJ who gives you details about each race and instructions about how to play the game the first time you do. This can be customized or turned off in the menu. Sadly, this game does not support the Xbox’s digital music playback, so you can’t add custom songs to the soundtrack as you race. There’s a list of custom soundtrack compatible Xbox games floating around the net, and Burnout 3 is on it, but this just isn’t the case.
You have a limited selection of cars when you start, but winning races will win you cars, especially if you place first in those races. The better you place, the more stuff you will win, whether it’s useful stuff like cars or novelties like snapshots for your album.
You will also be rated and scored for the amount of carnage you inflict upon your fellow racers. It’s in your interest to take them out (perform takedowns) and you not only get points that way, but you get “boost”. You can see the boost meter in the bottom left of the above screenshot. It’s literally a nitro boost, and it refills and extends when you get a takedown, or when you just drive like a jerk in general. If you start fucking up and crashing, it gets cut short.
In Burnout 3, all of those bad and evil driving habits that you can’t do in real life really pay off. Driving on the wrong side of the road and aiming for the closest of near misses with oncoming traffic will fill that boost meter right up, as will ramming and striking your opponents clear off the road.
And the crash and destruction visuals are beautiful. Again, the Xbox hardware really shines, and everything looks crisp and vibrant and beautiful. I was especially impressed by the backgrounds and the total lack of pop-in. I was also impressed by the sheer speed of the game. This is one of the fastest racers I have ever played, and it makes me wish I had a bigger, clearer TV to play it on.
One nitpick i can make about the graphics is the motion blur effect used on the edges of the screen when the speed is high. This is almost the same complaint I had with “Need for Speed: Most Wanted”, but that game’s blur was different and just looks bad. Here, it’s much less of an issue, and most people probably wouldn’t even notice it, let alone be bothered by it. Anyway, I’m not supposed to be looking at the edges of the screen while I’m racing, am I?
As you win races and start unlocking more through the game, you will get to drive some with different objectives. Some races are all about getting to the finish line first. Others are all about taking out as many opponents as you can before your own vehicle is totaled. You must choose your vehicle before most races, and the two attributes to consider are speed and weight.
One interesting feature this game has is “Impact Time”. When you crash, you can press the A button (which you’re usually pressing because it’s the boost button) and go into this mode. Time slows down and you can actually steer your crashing vehicle as it careens through the debris on the road.
This feature wasn’t included just because of it’s coolness factor. You can actually use your crashing car to take out opponents if they are close behind you. I managed to take out two other racers in one single crash just by aiming my wreck toward the middle of the road as they came driving by. It’s quite satisfying if you can pull it off.
And I know that this slow-motion time feature does have a cool factor, and that a lot of people love it, but most of the time I found it to be a hindrance to the racing aspect of the game. The majority of times I crashed, I wasn’t able to get near to any of my opponents. Either that or the camera angle didn’t let me see where they were as they went by. Not to mention that it breaks the flow of the race for me, which is something I dislike.
But this game isn’t really about pure racing. If I want that, I should load up a different game. This game is all about the destruction, and like I said before, this is where it shines.
Single Event is broken down into four areas. You can choose a Single Race, but these can only take place on those tracks that have been unlocked in the World Tour. The same goes for Time Attack, which is just you driving against the clock without opponents.
Road Rage features the sort of takedown events that the World Tour featured, the ones where you need to focus on destroying as many opponents as you can.
The unique feature of the Single Event mode is Crash. Here you can find 100 different demolition events, and for each one, you drive your car from a start point and try to cause as much damage as possible.
Damage to other vehicles will be tallied-up in dollars, and if you do enough damage, you will unlock the next event. Only one event is unlocked, and it’s harder than it sounds to do catastrophic damage to sitting duck vehicles.
“Burnout 3: Takedown” is my top choice for demolition racing games. The cathartic joy of smashing cars together sees its apex here, as far as I can play on my consoles. There is enough of a challenge in the World Tour to keep me coming back to try to beat it, and when I want to just load up a car smashing game, I can’t go wrong with this one.
You can find this game pretty cheap on ebay. The same game came out for the PlayStation 2, and the Burnout series has had a couple of games appear on the Xbox 360. I can highly recommend this if you like the smashy-smash with your drivey-fast.
Project Gotham Racing 2 (2003)
It’s not how fast you drive, it’s how you drive fast. That quote from the game sums up the title perfectly, as this game is all about skill and technique. And don’t think that it plays like a driver’s education simulator, because this is intense racing and awesome fun. (Screenshots are from GameSpot.com.)
Back in 2001, Bizarre Creations made a game for the Dreamcast called “Metropolis Street Racer“. It’s one of those amazing looking games that pushes the hardware and looks better than some PS2 games. A lot of people consider it to be the best racing game available for the Dreamcast. That game introduced a scoring system that awarded you “kudos” for your driving skill. The better you drove, the more kudos you got. Smashing your car around could bring your kudos score down, while executing drifts and overtaking opponents would bring it up.
“Project Gotham Racing 2” is a descendant of that game, with the same high quality of graphics and gameplay carried on. The kudos system is here too, as are over 100 different cars and dozens of different tracks in beautiful fully rendered cities. Those last two features are expected in racers like this from around this time, and PGR2 delivers.
The graphics are crisp, though they don’t have quite the realism that some later Xbox games would have. But they are beautiful and active, and I am pleased to report that there are no gimmicky effects like blur or speed lines to mar the presentation. When things go fast, they just go fast like they should.
The game allows you to play in single or multiplayer modes, and multiplayer is either splitscreen or Xbox Live. I doubt the Xbox Live component will work any more, but if you are interested in this series, there was a third and fourth iteration released on the Xbox 360 which may still be supported.
Single player features the Kudos World Series, Arcade Racing and Time Attack modes. The first of these is the main game, and it features fourteen different sets of races called “series”. Only the first two races in the first series are unlocked, and you must race your way through them, winning and fulfilling the objectives as you go.
The series are separated by vehicle type, and you begin with the “Compact Sports” first. Each event in this series is a little different. Some are street races with competitors, some are time-attack style races where you drive solo, some are speed tests where you need to reach a set speed at a certain point, and some are traffic cone tests where you need to snake your way through a maze of traffic cones on the road in a set time.
There are five levels of difficulty for each series/event. Novice, Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert. Winning these will get you a Steel, Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum medal. You only have a couple of vehicles unlocked when you start, but you can unlock more by winning and playing your way through.
You can also buy cars to use within a series by spending the “kudos tokens” that you earn after a set number of kudos points. These cars feature better specs than the ones you get by default, so if you get stuck in a series, you can use those tokens to get some extra muscle and break out of the rut.
After you’ve won a medal in each event in one series, you will unlock the next series. It’s a good idea to start with the Novice level races and start getting all the steel medals first, even though the game is very easy at that point. Playing through the entire game and winning all the medals will unlock lots of extras, so it’s the only way to accomplish that, for one thing. It’s also the best way to familiarize yourself with all of the tracks, and it’s the best way to unlock all of the tracks in all of the cities – which you will need to do to fully enjoy the game in Arcade Racing mode.
Each car in the game handles in a different way, and you will be shown the attributes of your chosen vehicle before you start to race in the Kudos World Series mode. It takes some time to get used to the different handling, because some cars drift around corners with ease while others do not. Learning how to control this is crucial, especially as the difficulty increases later on.
Opponent AI in this game is quite good. Your adversaries will try to knock you around a bit if you’re trying to overtake them on a corner, and this might send you spinning to face the wrong way instead of humming along in first place. You may have to sacrifice those kudos points and ram your opponents instead.
After a race, you will be shown the standings as well as the “kudos breakdown”, which shows you how you scored in that area. You can also choose to view or save replays from here.
This game supports the Xbox’s custom soundtrack feature, so if you’ve got some legitimate music CDs, you can copy songs to the Xbox hard drive and then listen to them as you race. This is something I never bothered to do when I first got my Xbox in 2003, and I spent a couple of days adding 100 songs by 100 artists to it last week.
I wish the Xbox had some volume normalizing capability because I had to exclude a whole lot of music that was too low in volume to be heard properly. I also wish it wouldn’t refuse to copy music from a CD-R. Grumble grumble.
PGR2 has a rather odd way of adding the custom music to the mix, too. When you first load the game, you can go to the audio options and check out the “custom soundtrack” feature there. Whenever I do this though, it always appears totally blank. I was at a loss until I took a hint from the instruction manual and tried the alternate method: access the audio menu from inside a race and set the audio source to CD instead of radio. Also specify which CD, and your custom soundtrack will appear as a choice there.
The music that comes with the game is decent electronic music and techno. It stands up pretty good on its own, and of course the audio levels of the music and sound effects can be fully adjusted. They can be turned all the way down to zero if you only want to hear one or the other.
Putting my own choices of music into this game – and other Xbox racing games I have that support that feature – has changed my mind a bit on music in racing games. I’ve said before many times that I prefer to race without music. I think that’s still true for early racing games, like 8-bit and 16-bit racing games. Before the advent of CD-quality music, I think I’d rather just listen to the 8-bit or 16-bit engines purr.
Driving around with an albeit limited selection of my own music is kind of fun. But we’ll see how long it takes me to get sick of these songs. Getting them onto the Xbox was time consuming, and I don’t know how much space they’re taking up, and if I can add many more.
I do find the Kudos World Series mode to be very addictive too. I think I’ve played this game longer in preparation for any review than I have any other. And I want to go back to playing it again as soon as I have this typed up. That there is how you know you have a great game on your hands.
The Arcade Racing mode is structured a little differently. Instead of mixing things up, you progress event by event through Street Racing, Timed Run, and Cone Challenge modes.
Street racing features twenty different races, each one on a different track in a different city with a car specific to that race that you must use. Playing this mode will force you to get used to the way that all of these different vehicles handle. The five medal types are awarded according to the five difficulty levels here too.
Timed Run mode is just like Street Racing mode, only instead of racing opponents, you race the clock. You must complete a certain number of laps on each track with the car provided, and there are twenty events here too.
Cone Challenge collects twenty cone racing events, where you must nimbly drive your way through the obstacle courses laid out on the streets. These are fun for me when they’re interspersed among other events, but I didn’t really enjoy playing them one after another. Someone out there fucking loves this, though.
Lastly, you have the Time Attack mode. This is basically like free racing with time compare so you can try to beat your time per lap. You can choose “Circuit Challenge”, which organizes the races by city and by track. You then choose from among the cars unlocked in the Kudos World Series so far. “Car Challenge” organizes the races by car class, with each car tied to its own track to race. Kudos points and scoring are disabled in this mode.
This is straight-up fast and fun racing, which is always a win with me. There are no gimmicks to grow old here, and the controls are solid. Even the controller rumble is perfect.
I can’t recommend this game enough if you have an original Xbox. “Project Gotham Racing 2” excels everywhere it matters, and you will come to know that as soon as you start playing. It’s got that great, fun “racing feel” that I need in a game, and it’s one of my favourites. Pick this up if you have one of the big black beasts today.