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The Xbox 360 does, of course, have a function beyond looking pretty. Its first order of business--but only its first--is to play video games. It's not high praise to say the Xbox 360 is the greatest piece of gaming hardware ever created, because gaming hardware gets better all the time. But there is a wow factor to the Xbox 360 because it's the first console for which all the games will be in high definition, wide screen, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. It's like putting on a pair of glasses: everything is clearer and sharper and more vivid.
Take the old Xbox's flagship golf game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005. Put it side by side with the 2006 version, currently a work in progress. The grass in the old version looks like a green carpet; in the new version, each blade of grass is animated individually and sways to its own rhythm. In the old version, trees make crude, round, blobby shadows; in the new version, each individual leaf has its corresponding individually rendered leaf shadow. The play of light on the water hazards is not readily distinguishable from a filmed image. The fidelity is disconcerting: it gives you a vertiginous feeling, as if you were going to fall into the screen and come out in Narnia.
And fidelity is important. One reason games aren't taken seriously as art is that they don't look like art. They look like cartoons, and not fancy Pixar cartoons either. They look like lame Saturday-morning cartoons. That's going to change. Characters in the Xbox 360 game based on The Godfather have a gravitas and dramatic weight to them that we haven't seen before. Those blocky, too smooth cartoon faces are starting to fill in with wrinkles and lines and freckles. Suddenly, they emote.
But that's just the beginning. Some game developers may point out that it's not that hard to make a pretty-looking game when you have enough megahertz and gigabytes to throw at it. The real trick is expanding what is called game play: the ineffable, alchemical mixture of pace and structure and balance and story that make a game work. Consider a military fighting game like Call of Duty: Finest Hour, in which players take part in the major battles of World War II. In the old version, you're constantly bumping into invisible barriers that force you from place to place down preset trails, accomplishing a predetermined chain of tasks. Don't look too closely at the extras: they're not particularly detailed, or all that smart.
In the Xbox 360 version, Call of Duty 2, the game play is a startling leap forward. You can run around at random like the battle-panicked infantryman you are, surrounded by hundreds of your fully realized, equally panicked brothers in arms. You can accomplish your goals (or die trying) in whatever order seems expedient: no more invisible barriers. Clouds of dust and smoke float up and block the sun, interfering with the ambient light--war is finally getting its fog. The chaos is astonishingly visceral: you're Joe Grunt, playing your little part in vast events that are beyond your puny ken. This is war the way Tolstoy described it, or Stendhal, or Stephen Crane, seen from the bottom up. Suddenly video games have added a couple more octaves to their emotional register.