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Armored Core 2
Baldur's Gate II
Blair Witch
Samba de Amigo
SSX
Street Fighter EX3
Tekken Tag Tournament
THPS 2

1995-2000
GamesFirst! Magazine

Three the Hard Way:
An Analysis of the Next-Gen Super Systems
January 5, 2001

As we move into the next arena of competing systems, 2001's HAL9000 may be a ways down the road, but there is a wide world of electronic-gaming glory in sight. While most have hopefully known the awesome perfection that is Dreamcast, it does behoove both the serious and casual gamer to look at the upcoming choices and see what each new platform has to offer them.

PS2 has already landed and GameCube and X-Box will within a year. PS2 and X-Box should both be in the $300.00 range and GameCube about $200.00. Like most other technical-equipment purchases, it all depends on what you want your new box to do. The PS2 has made a serious leap forward as a true 'Set-Top Box' offering movie-playback and the promise of serous internet capabilities. X-Box will offer these also and Nintendo's new entry will at least offer online browsing. With DVD players dropping in price everyday and nearly half the houses in the country connected to the internet, these are niceties in a console, but maybe not the prime focus.

Frosting aside, it falls next to look at the primary functions of these new powerhouses and that is gaming. Though the technology is more sophisticated and varied, the same things will apply to these new machines that did in the 32-bit, 16-bit and 8-bit console wars.

#1. Software: No matter how much style, features or snob-value a machine has, it is only as good as the software that is available and what games it lets you play.

#2. Output quality: Ever HEAR the difference between Street Fighter II on the Genesis vs. the Super NES, or SEE the difference between standard video cables and digital video?

#3. Interface: What is the controller like? Do the online networks function well (an important question since all of the above-mention competitors are planning on online gaming)?

#4. Misc: Is the hardware designed to last and take serious use? Are cool, new peripherals likely to be supported?

There are other considerations, but these are the most important. Let us take a look at the 'Big 3' under these criteria using the information currently available.

Software

Since the PS2 is here and has a decent number of titles to judge, this is a good starting point. The most curious thing to notice is the lack of even a single really new idea in the lineup. The cause appears to be an extremely complicated programming architecture. What does this mean to fighting-game fans already enjoying their gourmet version of Tekken Tag Tournament or the SSX crowd in snowboard Nirvana? These are very solid games. Companies as big as Namco, Midway or EA can easily steamroll any programming challenges if they know there is a market out there, but what about companies like DMA Design, creators of highly innovative and commonly underrated games like Wild Metal and Body Harvest? We have yet to see a Crazy Taxi or Seaman on the PS2, much less a Samba De Amigo. The difficulty is that no developer can take the chance of sinking the required money into a PS2 game unless it is certain the game will be a success. Almost analogous to the cartridge-overhead of making N64 games, only the strong will survive. Many might think this is not a problem, because the big companies like Square, Namco and Konami are generally the makers of the smash-hits anyway. Plus, one can enjoy all of their current PlayStation favorites with smoother graphics. If you are happy with your PlayStation groove, then this might be totally acceptable, but you are not likely to see much of anything that is truly new or groundbreaking.

The GameCube, at first glance, LOOKS like a kid's machine. With an almost Lego-like case and Nintendo's recent history, it is tempting to dismiss this machine without a second thought. Mario's next box however is a technical powerhouse capable of easily equaling the PS2's visuals. Bench tests have revealed that PS2's impressive polygon-counts quickly fall to somewhere between 3 and 6 million polys per/second with full effects on. This is due to the machine’s almost total lack of hardware support that makes every effect an issue of programming, and thus a drain on frame rate and overall performance. GameCube is a very different beast all together. Polygon counts between 6 and 12 million with full-effects are possible with it due to its highly sophisticated hardware rendering. Being able to render in one pass what the PS2 requires 8 separate passes to do enables it to scarcely break a sweat at full capacity. This coupled with a wonderful memory-saver called S3 texture decompression allows as much as 50 megabytes of texture-detail to be saved in as little as 8 megabytes of RAM. This allows the machine to hold infinitely more data simultaneously. So how does all this techno-babble affect software? GameCube lets developers of all different levels of resources make highly-detailed games very quickly. Moreover, the system's Open-GL architecture has been a PC-software standard since Quake I and the Cube should have a slew of perfect PC ports - something that has generally not happened often in the console world. Nintendo is still very dedicated to it's family-friendly formats, but has pledged to permit developers much more freedom than in the past. The ease of development might result in the machine's power quickly being tapped, and there could easily be a plethora of clone-games that look very similar, due to the emphasis on hardware effects, but, make no mistake, this is NOT a machine to dismiss.

X-Box easily shows the most promise from a technical standpoint. Quite possibly six times as powerful as the next guy, S3 texture decompression, built in hard-drive and developer-friendly Direct X architecture appear to offer it all. Not exactly a newcomer to videogaming, Microsoft has a decent number of franchises under its belt such as the Age of Empires series and a terrific relationship with the PC game community. But the world's most powerful software company doesn't have experience in the console industry. Is this a problem?

Many believe it could be, due to the difference in developing for console and PCs. Console-game designers have learned to debug code very effectively, since a flawed game means a returned game. With PCs, a flaw can be fixed with a downloadable-patch. But what good will the X-Box's hard-drive be if it is filled up with patches to fix program-errors that would have been tested-out of a game for another machine? Console software usually sells for far more than equivalent PC software, but there is also a big responsibility to get-it-right. Microsoft claims to be working on these issues, but only time will tell. In terms of innovation, this might be the virtual cornucopia for new ideas. Things as subtle as background music promise to be a completely new experience. Mathematical, real-time musical composition and randomizing are being integrated into the X-Box's sound system, meaning that a game might NEVER sound the same twice. Also, the machine's shear power is permitting the possibility to use fractal-geometry in ways never before possible. Rather than storing sprites or 3D-models of trees and landscape details, scenes could be "grown" in real-time using the complicated math that shapes our world in real life. Will developers take advantage of such possibilities or will we see quick and dirty ports of other console and PC games? The X-Box has the most potential, but also the least experience with such issues.

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Adam Albrec

Related Links

GF! Xbox Central
GameCube Announced
Xbox.com
Nintendo.com

 


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