Pardon the alliteration, but color me a console convert.
For years, the PC has been my gaming platform of choice. Lately, however, I find myself increasingly drawn to the Xbox 360. Now, it's true that Microsoft's game machine isn't the most high-powered system available. That title belongs to the PlayStation 3. Nor does the Xbox 360 offer the trendy motion-control options of Nintendo's Wii.
What the Xbox 360 brings to the table is a compelling online experience, thanks to the Xbox Live service. And, in my case, it was online multiplayer gaming that kept me planted in front of my computer monitor for the better part of the last decade playing the likes of Total Annihilation, Battlefield 2 and World of Warcraft. While you won't find those titles on the Xbox 360, there are other great online-playable experiences such as the real-time strategy affair Command & Conquer 3 and Crackdown, a cops-and-robbers shoot 'em up.
Aside from retail games, players also can enjoy casual fare on Xbox Live, a major reason I've taken to hanging out there. The Xbox Live Arcade features nearly five dozen games that players can download. After sampling free demos, gamers can upgrade to the full versions by cashing in points, which must be purchased. Titles include the puzzle game Bejeweled 2, famed shooter Doom, as well as coin-op classics like Dig-Dug, Contra, and Centipede.
Lately I've been spending a lot of time with a pair of Xbox Live Arcade games, Catan and Heavy Weapon. The more leisurely Catan is the digital version of the popular strategy card game of the same name, while Heavy Weapon is a fast-moving, modern-day side-scrolling shooter (think Defender, but with awesome graphics). After checking out both, I decided to pop for the full version of Catan, created by Big Huge Games, developer of PC strategy hit Rise of Nations. This cost me 800 points, the equivalent of about $8 - well worth it since it allowed me to play against human opponents.
While the competition is great, Xbox Live also keeps players interested with "achievements," a recognition system that awards points for hitting certain milestones within a game. Points accumulate to make up one's GamerScore; acquiring them becomes a surprisingly addictive pursuit.
Players also can download premium content for certain games on Xbox Live. To be honest, though, these extras seem overpriced. What's more, it is annoying to be interrupted in mid-game - as I was while playing Crackdown - with an offer to buy additional content.
The PC flavor of C&C3 launched back in March to excellent reviews. The Xbox 360 version landed earlier this month and, frankly, I was a bit skeptical. Because of heavy reliance on keyboard controls, real-time strategy games like Command & Conquer are far from a console staple. C&C3, however, works surprisingly well. The controller is well mapped to the interface, which has been adapted somewhat from the PC version.
In the game, players control one of three factions, including two that will be instantly recognizable to C&C series veterans. The Global Defense Initiative (GDI) is a hard-hitting, but slower force, while the Brotherhood of Nod is stealthy and quick. The new kid on the block is the Scrin, an alien life form featuring its own set of units and vehicles.
As in past games, gathering the toxic mineral known as Tiberium is the key to victory. Since Tiberium fuels the creation of units and structures, its proper management is critical, and much effort will be directed to controlling and protecting one's supply.
In between missions the game's backstory is advanced by video clips featuring, most notably, the actor Billy Dee Williams. The game can be played by oneself either as a campaign or an individual mission. Online matches via Xbox Live, however, are the most fun, allowing up to four players to compete.
Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
Electronic Arts. Xbox 360. $59.99
Rating: T (13 and older)
On the Web: www.command