Microsoft is still busting out its Xbox 360, seven years after the release of this Sony-bothering console, and fans are dying for a peek at the future of gaming. I've been paddling the murky rumour waters surrounding the next-generation Xbox in my favourite frog wellies for the last few months, and now it looks like the mud is starting to sediment.
Apparently the official codename for the next Xbox is 'Durango', which is backed up by a loose-lipped developer from Crytek who tweeted from a Durango developer summit in February. The fact that he's since deleted the tweet sets off my spider sense.
Does the Durango title offer any clues? Not really. It's just the name for a city in the north of Mexico. Of course, the Kinect had the codename Natal, which is a city in Brazil, so it fits Mircrosoft's internal naming conventions. I'll stick to calling it the Xbox 720 for now.
Keen-eyed film fans might have seen Microsoft slip an Xbox 720 logo into rock 'em, sock 'em robot film Real Steel. Yes, it's a fictional setting and not a clip from the real future, but I don't see why Microsoft would advertise the 720 suffix if it didn't have serious plans for it. Then again, it could be another double bluff. Cripes! Time to don my detective hat.
The Xbox 360 can still push outstanding graphics, but they'll look medieval once the 720 launches. IGN says it will be seven times more powerful and based on the AMD 6000 series graphics, possibly the HD 6670, which supports DirectX 11 and 3D support at 1080p resolution. Not bad, but wasn't this card released a year ago?
Don't fret. It'll probably be modified in the meantime, and on top of that, the proper CPU could have 16 cores to play with. Anything that supports DX11 is going to look stunning anyway, judging by this tech demo from Crytek:
A similarly impressive demo by Epic shows a potential game called Samaritan, in which the shape-shifting anti-hero roams the streets like a dystopian Robin Hood. The city is strikingly detailed, and I love how those neon lights glow through the smog. Pollution never looked so good.
Epic has a lot of clout in the console industry -- it was its Gears of War demo that convinced Microsoft to increase the 360's RAM from 256MB to 512MB. If Epic wants games to look as good as the Samaritan trailer, Microsoft will do everything it can to make it happen.
Simulating realistic light behaviour seems to be the next big trend. Square Enix, best known for Final Fantasy, has been working on a clever system it calls the Luminous Engine, which simulates the way a real surface reflects light. The result is an astonishing level of photo realism, leaving little room for graphics to improve in the 2D realm:
Rich Hilleman, who built the EA Sports brand, decided a few years back that Microsoft and Sony would bring out an incremental update to their existing consoles before diving into the next generation, suggesting we'll see some kind of Xbox 540 first. It sounds barmy, but I reckon there's some meat to the idea -- especially after similar rumours popped up in March.
Established Xbox fanboy and wannabe detective 'MS Nerd' thinks Microsoft will unveil an 'Xbox Lite' at E3 in June, according to MCV. He says it'll take inspiration from the Apple TV, as a disc-free device that relies on downloads to keep the cost down. It might even run a modified version of Windows and include Kinect 2.
It's true that console makers make a fistful of cash when they can finally drive the list price down. If it can double as a powerful media hub, it might reel in enough non-gamers to milk the 360 cash cow for a few years longer. Perhaps an update like this will be distinctive enough to be regarded as a generation of its own.
There's just one problem -- Microsoft has insisted there won't be a new Xbox in 2012. Maybe it will get around this by saying the Xbox Lite is essentially a 360, but if you're after a real next-gen console, 2012 isn't the year to pop it on your Christmas list.
Putting the Xbox Lite rumours aside, you can be pretty confident that a real Xbox 720 won't be announced this year. It's not impossible, but the company might rather milk the 360 dry before showing its next-gen hand to Sony.
The best leak was spotted by our American cousins at ZDNet, who noticed industrial designer Ben Peterson had posted a cryptic image of some new Xbox 720 hardware to his portfolio.
Alright, I don't have a clue what it is, but the real scoop is the caption, which says this hardware is set for a 2015 launch.
Does this mean we're still three years away from owning an Xbox 720, or is Peterson working on some kind of improved Kinect controller to be released later on?
The Kinect was Microsoft's foray into using the human body as a controller and earned the company a Guinness World Record as the fastest-selling lump of kit ever.
Unlike the Nintendo Wii, it insists on using only your body rather than sharing duties with a handheld controller. It might suit your nan when she boogies to Just Dance, but most gamers prefer the precision of a proper controller to blast those aliens. Or at least something that lets you sit back on the sofa and eat hummous.
Microsoft has been busy in its research labs finding ways to step up its act with a Kinect upgrade. One idea I love is the HoloDeck, which works in a similar way to that brilliant Tupac performance at Coachella this year, and might explain why Microsoft recently hired a 3D specialist.
It uses a see-through display so players can interact with 3D objects in real time. If you move your head, it alters the image so you never lose perspective, adding a forth dimension to digital proceedings:
I'm not sure if this would suit a living room console, but it proves that Microsoft is taking its Kinect research seriously. I hear that four of the 16 processor cores will be dedicated to running the Kinect alone, so you can expect it to enable something more futuristic than barmy arm waving when it finally launches.
Microsoft played a poor hand with its disc reader on the Xbox 360. The Blu-ray and HD DVD war was still raging, and it couldn't decide which would win. Instead, it forced gamers to swap discs mid-game by sticking with the older DVD format like a tech-phobic granddad.
Will Microsoft change tack and concede Blu-ray has won, or ditch discs altogether?
There's a third option: do both. Some people think Microsoft will release two consoles. One would be a stripped-down media hub for your living room that can play downloadable games, like the aforementioned Xbox Lite. The other, a fully-featured gaming behemoth with a Blu-ray drive and backwards compatibility. Maybe the stripped-down version will just be that 360-based Xbox Lite anyway, running alongside a single hardcore Xbox 720, but this is pure speculation.
What if the 720 really does skip the Blu-ray generation? It's a tempting rig, but introduces a very real problem. If modern games weigh up to 50GB, how many can you keep on the hard drive before storage becomes a problem? It also means no backwards compatibility with 360 games -- an error Sony made with its PS3, to much criticism.
If Microsoft does stick to a classic plastic format, don't expect to trade your old games in for cash -- and that's not just because video game stores are having a hard time on the high street.
Games will probably be tied to your Xbox Live account, with the console frequently pinging to Microsoft servers to check you're the real owner. Gamers will be furious if they get kicked off just because their connection is floppy. Of course, you could say the same about today's multiplayer games, and we all get by alright. Extreme piracy protection sounds cheeky, but by eliminating the resale market, we might end up with significantly cheaper games. Swings and roundabouts, eh?
The Xbox 720 is set to achieve the wet dream of photo-realistic gaming, but seems unlikely to ditch discs for a fully fledged Xbox Live marketplace, instead upgrading to Blu-ray.
If Microsoft can offer cutting-edge Kinect technology at a sensible price before the PlayStation 4 launches, it might steal enough Sony customers to win the console war for good. Whether it can fend off competition from Apple and its march into the gaming world over the next decade remains to be seen.