Microsoft Xbox 360
After waiting 14 hours in the freezing cold outside of a local Best Buy, I finally secured the highly coveted Xbox 360 premium system on launch day. With a price tag of $399, the system may seem a tad on the expensive side for casual gamers, but once you open the box and see what’s inside, I promise you that a giant smile will appear on your face. Along with the system itself - which might just be the sexiest piece of technology since the advent of the iPod - the premium bundle also includes one wireless controller, a detachable 20 GB hard drive, an Xbox Live communicator headset, all necessary HDTV hookups, an Ethernet cable and the power supply.
The console's lineup of games isn’t as impressive as the hardware itself, with a majority of the titles including revamped EA Sports titles (i.e. “Madden 06,” “NBA Live 06”) and three racing games (“Project Gotham Racing 3,” “Ridge Racer 6” and “Need for Speed”), but there are a few shining stars out of the bunch. Microsoft’s own development team was kind enough to offer two unique titles (“Perfect Dark Zero” and “Kameo: Elements of Power”), while “Call of Duty 2” looks to be the killer app for the system.
By god, it really doesn’t get any better than this. Nearly flawless in design, the 360 wins hands down as the best video game controller in the short history of the genre. First off, it's wireless, and with the Play and Charge Kit ($19.99), you can continue to game while the battery charges. The controller is light, but incredibly durable, and feels perfect resting in your hands. Four buttons from the Xbox 1 controller have been moved to more suitable positions, with the “back” and “start” buttons at the top on either side of the new “Xbox Guide” button, and the “white” and “black” buttons moved up to shoulder positions just in front of the right and left triggers. With the new placement of these four buttons, maneuvering through games is a breeze.
It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing; just one push of the new “Xbox Guide” button and you’ll be taken to the best part of the 360: the software. Presented in a series of blades (or tabs, for those who aren’t Xbox lingo savvy), the Guide is divided into four sections: Xbox Live, Games, Media, and System. Along with accessing your friends list, Xbox Marketplace (more about this later), and system controls like setting your online notification, or even turning off your console, the Guide gives you access to gamer history, downloaded content, and multimedia via USB.
Hooking up your favorite USB-connected gadget couldn’t be any easier. Using one of the two USB ports included in the front system panel, connect your Sony PSP or Apple iPod to your 360 and listen to your favorite songs in place of the designated soundtrack. You can also access photos and videos as well, with no necessary patches.
The infamous online service is now offered to all owners of the 360 for free – but it has been divided into two different memberships. Silver Live is what comes with every system (and can be accessed as long as you have a broadband connection), and offers the opportunity to purchase downloaded content, view game trailers, or even play on Xbox Live Arcade, a new addition that offers free demos of classic games like “SmashTV,” “Joust,” “Bejeweled 2,” and “Gauntlet”; full versions of every game can also be purchased as well for around $5.00 each. Gold Live costs $49.99/year and allows you full access to everything in the service, including the ability to play with other gamers across the world, and at just over $4.00/month, there’s no other online subscription-based service like it.
If you’ve heard anything about next-gen gaming, then you know a major component of the evolutionary changes is a move to HD. Games on the old Xbox ran on 480i resolution, but the 360 runs 720p visuals. This means prettier graphics that run faster and smoother. Of course, you’re going to need an HDTV to enjoy any of this, but it will be well worth it in the long run. And that’s not all: try playing one of the 200+ backwards compatible Xbox 1 games on your new 360 and you’ll experience a very noticeable difference.
Xbox Live Marketplace
I know this is part of Microsoft’s software juggernaut, Xbox Live, but it just doesn’t sit well knowing that to be able to download new content for games, I’ll have to lay down some serious cash to purchase Microsoft Points. Games on Xbox Live Arcade are currently going for around $5.00 a piece, with the lowest denomination of Microsoft Points at 500 for $6.25. While it’s nice to know that option exists for gamers to purchase new levels, maps, weapons, etc. for their favorite games, it kind of pisses me off that this isn’t being offered for free. I mean, it’s not like we’re laying down $59.99 for every new game that hits the market. Oh, wait; we are.
The other major issue with the launch of the 360 is the question of what to do with all of the games you just bought for Xbox 1. Well, backwards compatibility is available on the new system, but so far only for a handful of games. Most of the Xbox favorites like “Halo,” “Halo 2” and “Half-Life 2” have been covered, but there also exists a giant catalog of stupid games including “Shamu’s Deep Sea Adventures” and “Yourself! Fitness” that just don’t belong in place of other classics. And forget about playing your newer Xbox 1 titles either, because they’ve either been re-released in 360 format, or haven’t yet been patched to play on the new system. Microsoft urges consumers that games will continue to be added to the backwards compatibility list, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Overall, Microsoft has done an excellent job with making the next-generation of gaming a reality. The pros overcompensate for the few cons that do exist, but you can’t expect perfection from an industry that’s just begun to learn how to walk. The for-the-people design of the 360 is so unlike corporate Microsoft, which makes me believe that they really put some serious thought into the construction of the hardware. Xbox Live is better than ever, and if you don’t believe me, you can always try Gold Live free for one month. While it’s true that you may not even get your hands on one until after the holiday season - unless you’re willing to pay $500 or more on eBay – this is a must-buy item for any serious gamer, as well as most casual gamers. It’s much cheaper than the PlayStation 3 will most likely cost, and is just as powerful.
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