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Last Updated: Monday, 21 November 2005, 10:31 GMT
Xbox 360 to kick off console wars
Xbox 360 production line
Microsoft has been producing as many Xbox 360s as it can

A new generation of video gaming kicks off with Microsoft's Xbox 360 going on sale in the US.

It marks the start of a new phase in the history of gaming, promising more realistic and better-looking games.

The sleek, white console goes on sale in Europe on 2 December and Japan shortly afterwards.

Sony plans to release its PlayStation 3 in the spring, with Nintendo also planning a new console for 2006, giving Microsoft a head-start over its rivals.

The Xbox 360 marks Microsoft's bid to conquer a fast-growing industry worth some $25bn globally.

"It is the first shot across the bows and Microsoft wants it to be heard around the world," said Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst at Jupiter Research.

"This is going to be a war that's going to last several years."

Power at a price

Microsoft described the 360 as the most powerful console ever seen on the planet. The machine offers processing power on par with the most high-end PCs, as well as high-definition graphics.

Xbox 360
Three custom IBM PowerPC-based 3.2 GHz cores
One teraflop overall system floating-point performance
Custom ATI graphics processor with 10MB of embedded DRAM
512MB of 700MHz GDDR3 RAM memory
Detachable 20GB hard drive (high-end system)
Built-in Ethernet port
All games supported at 16:9, 720p and 1080i, anti-aliasing
Ability to stream media from portable music devices, digital cameras and Windows XP-based PCs
Support for up to four wireless game controllers

The 360 can also be used to listen to music, view photos and watch current DVDs, signalling Microsoft's aim to make the console part of the entertainment system in the living room.

But the increased computer power comes at a price. The high-end version of the 360 costs $399 (279 in the UK) and the basic version $299 (209), while games are also expected to be more expensive.

Microsoft is looking to sell three million of the new consoles worldwide within three months, with Xboxes churning off the production line as fast as possible.

But game enthusiasts could be disappointed when they go to buy a 360. Many shops are only getting a handful of machines and these are likely to be taken by fans who have placed pre-release orders.

Some US stores are planning to open at midnight, selling their machines on a first come, first served basis.

"The supply problems are there in as much as the demand is unbelievable," said Peter Moore, the chief marketing executive for the Xbox.

But he denied production problems and dismissed theories that the company was holding back machines to build up a buzz.

Hardcore appeal

In the opening line-up are mostly shooting, racing and sports games designed to appeal to the dedicated gamer.

Screenshot of Project Gotham Racing 3
Games like Project Gotham Racing 3 offer photo-realistic graphics
Some 18 games will be available for the US launch, including three flagship titles from Microsoft - Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo and Project Gotham Racing 3.

Many of the others are 360 versions of games for other platforms, such as Quake 4 and King Kong, as well as five from game giant Electronic Arts (EA).

"We have the typical, hardcore genres being featured, no question about that," said the head of EA in Europe, Gerhard Florin.

"It is a very normal reaction to the fact that you have to start somewhere," he told the BBC News website.

"For the next year most of the 360s will end up in the hands of the hardcore gamers because they are the most eager ones. So the first wave of software will reflect that."

Battle for supremacy

The Xbox 360 represents a big gamble for Microsoft. It has spent billions of dollars on building up a presence in the games market with its original Xbox.

That console came out in 2001, a year after Sony's PlayStation 2 (PS2), and Microsoft has struggled to catch up ever since.

The software giant has sold more than 20 million of the original Xboxes compared to 90 million PS2s worldwide.

By making sure its new Xbox 360 is out months ahead of Sony's PlayStation 3, the software giant is hoping to win over the wallets and thumbs of gamers.

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