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So, what’s it all about then? Well, LIVE is Microsoft’s online plan for the Xbox. Soon, the little port on the back of your console will become the key to the fast and furious world of online gaming. Xbox LIVE is an online gaming service that lets you play multiplayer Xbox games on the Internet via broadband (something like cable or DSL – dial-up isn’t fast enough). It’s only a gaming service, so there’s no internet browsing software included. To get the service, you need the starter kit (more on that later), a LIVE enabled game, and a broadband connection. But what’s so special about this Xbox LIVE then?

First off, you don’t need to upgrade your Xbox. You don’t need to convince your friends to upgrade their consoles, either. The Xbox was built from the ground up to be an online gaming system – there’s a hard drive and Ethernet port built in. Oh, and if you’ve got a chipped Xbox (modified), then you won’t be able to play on LIVE.

Sign up just once and access Xbox LIVE games with your unique name, or Gamertag. You don’t have to start over with each new game you buy. You don’t have to adjust to a different online experience with each game you play. You always join the online community with the same name and the same reputation you’ve worked hard to get. You’ll start recognising other players and making new friends. Learn from each other and you may even start climbing the rankings together.

How do you know you’re playing a real person? Listen for the taunts of victory and groans of defeat. The Xbox Live Communicator headset allows you to use your voice like never before. Shout out strategic commands to your teammates – it’s much faster than trying to type them. The Communicator slots into the top of the controller, and has its own independent volume and mute controls. The headset is comfortable and the sound quality is good; similar to that of a phone call. There’s also ‘voice masking’, which changes the sound of your voice when you speak. Most of them are annoying and you can’t you can’t understand what people are saying, so I’d steer clear of them if I were you.

Xbox LIVE allows you to add other gamers to your Friends List. If you enjoyed competing with a particular player, then you can invite them to be your friend with a couple button presses from the pause menu. It’s also easy to see if your friends are online and even what game they’re playing. If they’re already in a game, you can send them an invitation to join you. You can always delete your friends from the list if they’re not what you expected. The friends list will be very useful for clans, who need to know who’s online, and what games they’re playing.

There are two ways in which to find games in LIVE. Quick Match selects the first game which has the lowest lag. Optimatch lets you search for certain criteria for the game to fulfill, such as a certain map, difficulty level or number of players. This lets you choose the type of game you want to play. World time zones mean that there should always be a game and people to play with.

Finished a game or waiting for the sequel? Well, Xbox LIVE may ease some of that pain. You can download new content from the Microsoft servers, and a lot of it for free. You could download a new map for Unreal Championship, or maybe a new mech in Mech Assault.

The starter kit, priced at $50 or £40, contains a year’s subscription, the Communicator and the starter disc (which contains two online demos). You just insert the disc, and in a few minutes it’s all set up.

The performance is good, with little lag, even in a 16 player Unreal Championship game. The network connects quickly, but you’d expect that with broadband.

LIVE is the sort of experience that you’d never forget. The first time you connect to the system, you’ll be astounded by what a difference voice communication makes. The network can handle large and detailed games such as UC, and has plenty of well though-out and useful features. Get it if you have an Xbox and broadband; I guarantee that it’ll be worth the money. The Xbox has stormed the online arena with LIVE, and opened the door to a world of new possibilities.

Welcome to the future of gaming.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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