What's it like to spend six straight hours playing the Xbox 360?
That was the opportunity offered by Microsoft in a loft in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district earlier this week when the software giant tested the endurance of the New York media with an all-you-can-play 360 buffet. The company set up dozens of flat-screen TVs and Xbox 360s, each running a single game. Those who could withstand marathon gaming on backless chairs got a good feel for the system and a slate of games that are expected to arrive at or close to the system's November 22 launch. Specific release dates for each title were not announced.
Here's what was available:
"Call of Duty 2"
MTV News playtime logged: 20 minutes
This was one of the most action-packed 360 titles in the room. The game sticks to its predecessor's roots, offering first-person action in multiple theaters of World War II hectic enough to be compared to the opening of "Saving Private Ryan." It opens in snowy, battered Russia, with players lobbing potatoes as grenades. But soon enough, battle thunders and doesn't let up.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Sand flew, smoke swirled and the warfare generally impressed.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Eliminating old-school screen clutter like a health bar and pumping next-gen visuals to the hilt makes the game seem less like a game. But glowing targets in a training session and other game-related iconography can therefore more easily shatter the illusion.
"Condemned: Criminal Origins"
MTV News playtime logged: 25 minutes
This first-person game mixes "CSI"-style forensics with first-person shooting (and first-person ax-wielding, first-person bloody pipe-swinging and other assorted brutality). The opening level involved the gadget-based investigation of a grisly murder scene and the camera-jarring violence of a sudden criminal attack.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Many developers still can't express what next-gen gameplay actually is. But they say that the new systems will surely combine the lighting, animation and immersive audio effects dabbled with in current-gen games. This 360 title does just that.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Some characters spoke without moving their mouths. As with "Call of Duty," the illusion of reality is more easily shattered, the better the graphics get.
"Dead or Alive 4"
MTV News playtime logged: eight minutes
The sequel to the signature fighting game series on the Xbox, the game is primarily known for its buxom female brawlers. The tradition continues.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: One male character dressed in an impressively reflective shiny suit.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: In a brief play test, the game looked and played similarly to its predecessors.
"Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion"
MTV News playtime logged: seven minutes
It takes a quieter room than was available Tuesday to test the appeal of a sword-and-magic role-playing game whose selling points involve more than a dozen fully explorable square miles rich with characters, quests and tens of thousands of lines of dialogue.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: The first thing to play with in this game are some chains that dangle with realistic physics. But is there a point?
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Frame rates are continuously optimized in the run-up to a game's release, but this game's was the most stuttering at the day's event.
"Kameo Elements of Power"
MTV News playtime logged: 59 minutes
Thanks to its colorful characters and chaotic, violent landscapes, the fantasy-adventure game was the most visually impressive and frenzied 360 title on display. Players control a fluttering fairy princess who fights monsters and raids castles by adopting the shapes of such strange creatures as a scrawny plant-person with boxing gloves or an ice-spear-throwing yeti who can swing his foes as clubs.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: In minute 55, Kameo mounted a horse and rushed down a hill stormed by what a Microsoft rep said were 3,000 enemy goblins and 1,000 friendly fighters. Kameo plowed through the legions as if she were shoveling light snow, until, in minute 57 a goblin stole her horse and ran off with it.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Not every crowd shot can be a crowd-pleaser. The game's developer, Rare, may have figured out how to assemble the hordes, but the nearly synchronized animation of dozens of flying dragons in the background of a castle battle looked no more alive than that of the flying toasters in old screen savers.
"NBA Live 06"
MTV News playtime logged: 15 minutes
The game plays like current-gen basketball games, but does so with a flash that comes the closest yet to resembling an NBA broadcast. At what is normally a mere menu screen, the game lets players shoot hoops solo, focusing attention on how good an individual player looks on 360.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Player flesh looks realistically beaded with sweat. Fine holes dot a jersey's mesh. One can read the tattoos on Jason Williams' arms.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Again, the heightened illusion of reality raises expectations and proves vulnerable. Despite the convincing graphics, something seemed all too wrong when a fouled Steve Nash didn't blink or in any other way drop his finely rendered poker face.
"Need for Speed: Most Wanted"
MTV News playtime logged: 20 minutes
The new edition of the franchises features arcade-style racing in which high speed head-on collisions with tractor trailers produce just a momentary drop in speed. This year's focus is on the police, who trail in hot pursuit.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: It's the physics again. Crashed cones tumble in convincing fashion.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: This 360 game looked good, but still not as good as the already-released 2005 "Burnout Revenge" on plain old Xbox.
"Perfect Dark Zero"
MTV News playtime logged: 111 minutes
The first-person shooter that just might launch with the 360, "Perfect Dark Zero" comes from the makers of the critically hailed Nintendo 64 first-person-shooters "GoldenEye" and "Perfect Dark." The strong pedigree clashed badly with the underwhelming graphics on display during the game's showing at this year's E3. The visuals have improved, and the multiplayer modes promise to be good fun when played by the maximum 32 players. Single player opened with protagonist Joanna Dark infiltrating an underwater base, shooting crawling "spiderbots" and raiding a space shuttle launching pad. All in all the gameplay through the first level proved far more pedestrian than the roof-to-lobby raid of a futuristic skyscraper that opened the original "Perfect Dark."
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: All single-player levels can be played cooperatively. None were more fun than the one that ran one player through sniper-targeted streets while the other player provided covering fire from a series of balconies connected by usable zip lines.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: The original game was bursting at the seams with extra modes like "counter-op" and the game-within-a-game "combat simulator." Both are technically gone this time, as the new game appears to sport fewer levels and far fewer modes than its predecessor.
"Project Gotham Racing 3"
MTV News playtime logged: 25 minutes
Gamers can race through tracks set in Tokyo, London, Las Vegas, New York and the German super racetrack Nürburgring.
Most Next-Gen Aspect on Display: A ticker across the bottom of the screen will announce any world records set by the planet's top "PGR3" players. It will also automatically notify players when their friends beat their records.
Least Next-Gen Aspect on Display: Racing games seldom re-invent the wheel. This one doesn't seem to be an exception.