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An early look at Microsoft's Xbox 360

HD gaming looks impressive

Microsoft's Xbox 360 games console won't hit store shelves anywhere in the world until its US launch on 22 November, but there is one place where people can walk in off the street and get a taste of next-generation gaming.

The Xbox 360 Lounge opened in Tokyo's trendy Omotesando district on 2 November as part of Microsoft's publicity for the console ahead of its Japanese launch on 10 December. The lounge offers visitors a chance to play demos of six upcoming Xbox 360 games.

In the lounge, which includes a cafe, there are six display stands similar to those Microsoft used at the Tokyo Game Show. Each display houses an Xbox 360 console playing a different game and a HDTV (high-definition television) set. At the game show there were numerous stands showcasing 27 games.

The demo games on display at the lounge are: Ridge Racer 6, Every Party, Wrestle Kingdom, N3: Ninety Nine Nights, Kameo, Elements of Power and Shin Sangoku Musou 4 Special.

On a recent weekday morning, the lounge attracted a handful of people who were playing the games and drinking banana lattes. While only a handful of visitors might not be great for Microsoft it did make it easy to try out the games on display. And unlike the game show, where visitors got a chance to play the game once before having to make way for someone else, at the Tokyo lounge there was no such pressure to move on.

So what's next-generation gaming like? There's no doubt the Xbox 360 represents a big jump over the graphics capability of both the current Xbox console and also the Sony PlayStation 2. The jump from standard to high-definition gaming alone makes an impressive improvement on current titles; but there's also the benefits from the Xbox 360's more powerful hardware platform.

Everything about the visual aspect of the games is improved and the titles on show were very responsive and fast moving. The skin of the characters in Wrestle Kingdom looked almost life-like, reflections shone realistically off cars and objects in Ridge Racer 6 and, although in the heat of battle it's easy to miss, the screens of Ninety Nine Nights feature scores of warriors all moving independently and fighting each other.

Of course, it's much too early to compare the Xbox 360 with Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3. In pure processing terms, the Sony console is more powerful and an impressive gaming experience is also expected. But prototype systems and games have yet to be demonstrated, so it's impossible to tell if this power advantage will also translate into a better gaming experience.

It's also too early to pass a final judgement on the Xbox 360. It typically takes developers time to get to know a gaming platform and learn the tips and tricks that make for truly spectacular games. Games developed later in a console's life are more impressive than the first software.

The Xbox 360 lounge also showcases a couple of prototype consoles alongside big-screen plasma TVs in a living room environment. Here the consoles are free standing and provide a chance to glimpse the back of the device, which is hidden from view in the display stands.

It's clean - with only a power socket, a display connector and an Ethernet port. The display connector appears to provide both standard and high-definition outputs together. The plug connected to an Xbox 360 at the lounge had a switch on the side for flipping between standard and HDTV outputs.

Game players in the US will get a chance to pass their own judgement on the Xbox 360 in a week from now when it goes on sale. The European launch is scheduled for 2 December. Sony's PlayStation 3 isn't expected on the market for between three and six months from now.

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