Magic box

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2002, 12:00am

THANK GOD it's gone! Every morning for the past week I have gone to bed in the wee hours, bleary-eyed, dragging myself into work half-asleep the next day, all, dear reader, for your benefit. But tonight I shall sleep well, for the Xbox is gone.

It wasn't the Xbox exactly that kept me occupied for hours on end, but the platform's flagship game, Halo, the next generation of a game called Marathon. Halo was almost five years in the making and worth the wait. But we will come back to that.

The Xbox will be officially launched in Hong Kong sometime around Christmas. You can already buy it locally at Toys R Us, but the product on sale is a parallel import from the United States. This means it requires a transformer, having been built to run on a 110-volt current, and is expensive at a hair under $2,000.

Microsoft has yet to determine the price of the Hong Kong Xbox, but it should be about $1,500. It will not require an AC adaptor and will have Chinese-language menus. The local version will also have slightly smaller controls than the American model to accommodate smaller hands.

The Xbox differs from other game consoles in that it is essentially a PC that looks like a stylised DVD player. The game discs are DVDs, so you can use the Xbox as a CD or DVD player and buy an optional remote control. But that PC-like architecture means there is a fairly standard graphics card inside, and a hard disk. The hard disk allows you to do things with Xbox games you can't do on other platforms: for example, you can copy music from your favourite CDs onto the drive and listen while playing games. The graphics card is also more powerful than those of other platforms, and the graphics are noticeably better than those on the Sony PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo GameCube.

But let's get back to Halo (right), in which you must kill aliens with rocket launchers, shotguns, snipers' rifles with night-sights, hand-grenades, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a tank and a hovercraft. (One woman at Microsoft did say, 'It's kind of a guy thing.') The game is plot-driven and requires you to complete certain tasks on successive levels.

This is the danger with plot-based games. You spend hours trying to reach the end, but once you do there is little reason to play again. Halo offers head-to-head competition if you have a friend or three to join you, but playing alone it took me five evenings and a weekend to complete the easiest level. I found it mesmerising, but I'm not sure I would play twice.

Of course, Bungie, the company that makes Halo, is already working on Halo 2.

Despite the Xbox's fast processor and graphics card, Halo's operation was not always butter smooth. The machine was clearly overtaxed in some scenes involving many characters, and its ability to play CDs while driving games won't necessarily make those games more fun. Game consoles should be about the games, not the consoles. My advice is to look at the titles on offer and buy the console that plays the most you are interested in.