•• Hardware ••
Any reviewer runs the risk of diving into technical specs when writing a review of a product as technologically complex as a game console. I will avoid that unless it is necessary. Telling you that the Xbox 360 Console is capable of 6 simultaneous threads on it's 3 CPUs does nothing to tell you if it is a good gaming machine. Telling you it has 512 MB of Ram, however should be of consequence if you are at all familiar with PC gaming.
Therefore, the Xbox 360 Console does indeed contain 512 MB of Ram and 3 PowerPC CPUs each running at 3.2 GHz. What this means is that each processor can be dedicated to different chores. OK, what this really means to you as a gamer is that the developers at Microsoft have crammed as much processing power into that little white box as possible, resulting in top notch performance, graphics and sound.
Before I go on, it's important to note that the Xbox 360 Console is sold in 2 versions: the core system, and the pro system. The CPU, RAM, and console in general are identical as is the processing and graphics power. The only differences are some accessories that can be purchased separately if desired. I'll note which of these accessories is included with the pro system when I review them.
•• Graphics ••
The Xbox 360 Console has a 500MHz graphics card made by ATI. The technology is proprietary, so you won't be seeing it on an off-the-shelf PC video card. With the latest version of DirectX and other goodies such as 2x anti-aliasing (gets rid of jaggies) and unified shader (makes more realistic lighting), the graphical ability is a thing of beauty. Games such as Kameo and project Gotham Racing 3 look splendid on normal TVs and even better on HDTV. As all games must now support at least 720p, those of you with HDTVs can sit back and enjoy the finest graphics experience. I've used the Xbox 360 Console on normal 4:3 TVs and the graphics look great. Bright vivid colors, smooth animation, nice motion blur, and soft anti-aliasing. As well, I've used it on Samsung 16:9 HDTVs and the picture is absolutely stunning. The first level of Kameo: Elements of Power with 2 ogres on a dragon is truly jaw-dropping. While most games won't support it, the Xbox 360 Console is capable of a resolution up to 1080i, the max resolution universally supported by HDTVs. This support for current and future standards is a very progressive design decision by Microsoft.
The Xbox 360 Console pro version includes a component HD AV cable. The core system does not. However, it is available for purchase separately.
•• Audio ••
The Xbox 360 Console sports strong audio, but it's probably the least talked about part of the console. For me, it is one of the most important aspects of the gaming experience. The Xbox 360 Console has more channels of audio than the previous Xbox. This means lots of layered sounds. And even in launch titles such as Kameo and Project Gotham racing 3, you can hear the different ambient sounds around you. The roar the crowd, the buzzing of insects. It's all there if the developers take advantage of it. For audiophiles, both versions of the 360 have 32 bit audio processing and 5.1 digital surround sound. This is not a huge change from the original Xbox. But this was a strong feature of that console as well. The big changes come on the developer side which I won't bore you with. As a gamer, the important thing to know is that the audio side of games is as good as it gets.
Like the previous Xbox, the Xbox 360 Console can rip music from your collection of CDs. But they've gone a step further. Custom soundtracks used to be controlled by the game. Some developers allowed custom soundtracks, others didn't. In this generation of the console, that choice has been taken from the developers and given directly to the gamer. The dashboard allows you to play any ripped playlist during any game. This might annoy some developers, but most people will play the game as it was intended with the original music. It's only during multiplayer or on subsequent replays that I wanted to play my own music. I had no interest in custom soundtracks during epic games such as Kameo, simply because Kameo has a phenomenal score. Perhaps with the competition between the game's music and the ability to play my music, developers will increase the quality of the in-game music, no?
•• Storage ••
One of the big complaints with the Xbox 360 Console is the lack of a standard hard drive. Yes, the original Xbox had one, and was priced at the same point as the core Xbox 360 system. So, the argument goes, why can't they include one in the 360? Well the answer is simple: Cost. While the original Xbox had one, it also had a Pentium 733 CPU and 64 megs of Ram. The costs of adding 3 CPUs with 8 times the Ram and keeping the price point the same, something had to give. And since very few developers used the hard drive in a meaningful way, it seemed to be the obvious choice for cutting costs. Those who don't want the drive are not forced to pay an extra $100 for something they won't use. So the core system does not include a Hard Drive. If you want storage, you can either buy the hard drive or memory unit separately.
For those who are buying the Pro version that includes the Hard Drive you will be treated to several things. First, the 20 gig hard drive snaps to the top of the console. it is rather attractive looking and only adds a half inch to the overall size of the unit. It's also detachable so you can move it to your friends console to share music (but not copy it, sorry all you pirates!), load up your gamer profiles, and play saved games. Obviously Microsoft is using a notebook hard drive to save on space. The Hard drive acts as a large storage unit and will be required for Xbox Live, saved game storage, music ripping, and backward compatibility. As well, those who buy the Pro version will be treated to the game Hexic HD preinstalled. This is an upgraded, high-definition version of the super-popular game available on Zone.com and it's as an addictive a casual game as you'll find.
As mentioned, those casual gamers who don't need a hard drive, but want to store saved games, can buy individual memory units for about $40. These little buggers come in 64 Meg units and plug into the front of the console in one of 2 memory unit slots. These can be used for save games, but not music ripping. Since a whole CD can be ripped in under 64 Meg it would have been nice. But this is not a big deal.
A console is only as good as the games for it. This time around, Microsoft has more clout, so more developers are making games for it. As a result, there are many games in all genres to keep gamers happy and playing for hours on end.
For First-person shooter fans, we have Quake 4, Perfect Dark Zero, Call of Duty 2, Prey, King Kong, and a slew of other titles to satisfay the trigger-finger in every gamer. And if you think First-person shooters are only good on a PC with a mouse, then you are sorely mistaken. Advances in controllers and cotnroller programming have made console players just as competitive as their mouse and keyboard counterparts.
if you enjoy driving games, you have plenty to choose from. Project Gotham Racing 3 has nearly photo-realistic graphics and my personal favorite, Burnout Revenge is no port since it sports many features of Xbox live exclusive to the 360. Ridge Racer 6 is also available as it MotoGp, Need for Speed: Underground.
I've had a chance to personally play about half of the launch titles and thankfully even the multi-platform titles are not direct ports. King Kong looks fantastic and plays well. a very fun game. Perfect Dark Zero gives Halo 2 a run for it's money especially given the interesting gametypes and excellent Live support. My personal favorite of PDZ is infection - one person begins as a skeleton and everyone he kills becomes a skeleton too. soon you have a horde of skeletons on your team. It's great fun.
Kameo is my favorite of the adventure titles. Not an RPG, but more of an action-platformer, the graphics are stunning and the gameplay is top-notch. The levels are beautifully designed and laid out. The music score is magnificent. Of all the launch titles I've played, this is the most "next-gen".
•• Xbox Live! ••
One of the features of the original Xbox that set it apart from PS2 and even PC gaming was the advent of Xbox Live. For those who don't know about this service, keep reading. If you are already familiar with Xbox Live, then skip ahead to the next paragraph. The Xbox Live service launched 1 year after the original Xbox and allowed players to connect to a proprietary, dedicated service that matches you with other players for online play, friends lists, and chats. it was a hugely successful program, even at $50 per year, and attracted millions of subscribers.
The latest incarnation of Xbox Live improves on the predecessor in every possible way. First up is the Silver membership that comes with every console, core and Pro. If you have a broadband connection and an Xbox 360 Console, then you have Xbox Live with no fees. This allows you to create a gamer profile, log achievements, and keep a friends list. You can also buy items on the marketplace and download trailers and demos. The Silver membership requires a storage device, but not necessarily the hard drive. If you have an Xbox 360 memory unit, you can use that depending on the storage requirements of the content. As well, the Xbox Live service will be offering free play weekends to allow users to play their games online for 48 hours as if they had a gold membership.
The Gold membership is a paid membership and a free 1-month trial is included with the deluxe package. The Gold membership includes everything in the Silver and also allows for playing games online with other people from all over the world. This is the essential part of Xbox Live. Not only can you play against each other, but many games offer Cooperative play as well. So you can play the game side-by-side with your buddies. Ask anyone who's played multiplayer and they'll tell you that playing with your friends is better than against.
Included with the Pro version of the console is a headset. This plugs into the bottom of the controller and allows you to talk to other players online or do chat in the dashboard. The headset is white and grey and goes over the top of the head. No more behind the head and hooking on the ears like the first live headset. It is soft and comfortable for long periods of time. There's a mute switch in case your wife wants to yell at you because you've been playing too long. The sound quality is adequate considering everyone sounds like they're talking on the phone. Fidelity is not the goal here, comfort and usability are and they do just fine.
The performance of Xbox Live depends on the game, network traffic, weather conditions and everything else that affects your broadband on a day-to-day basis. The games I've tried online showed minimal signs of lag. It seems as if the Xbox Live team has improved the infrastructure to improve on an already stellar gameplay environment.
Of note is the new micropayments and marketplace. One of the drawbacks of Xbox Live in the past was the need for a credit card to get an account. That doesn't bode well for kids who don't have cards of their own and must rely on their parents who might not be so willing. So players can go to any game shop and get a prepaid Live membership. This alone is not new, but the ability to also buy Microsoft Points on a card is. Instead of using your credit card to buy things over the Live Marketplace, now players can use Microsoft Points from a prepaid card bought in a store. Want a new skin for your car? Simply shell out some Microsoft Points. Want a new game from Live Arcade? Spend some points. While there is no mechanism in place yet for player to player transactions, the online currency alone should make the marketplace a vibrant, interesting place with lots of content.
The Xbox Live Arcade is a whole other subset of live. Designed for the casual gamer, Arcade is built directly and seamlessly into the user interface. There is no "place" to go like a website. Simply pull up your Xbox dashboard and navigate a page or two over to the Arcade. You can see what games you have installed, what are available,
and your stats. Stats? Yes! The games over Live now have leader boards so if your friend got a higher score on Joust, you can stay up a little later trying to beat him. Most of the games available on the Arcade are classic, updated version of games you love. Hexic, Bejeweled, classic like Joust, Frogger, and PacMan. Again, this is designed for the casual gamer to just pick up a controller and go. My wife is not a gamer, but she loves being able to sit down and quickly start playing a game. And that's exactly what she did. She found it incredibly easy to start playing her favorite games. She loves it. And she never once touched my old Xbox. And my favorite? Geometry wars - A line-art game reminiscent of Asteroids, but so much better! Simple to learn and a blast to play with many unique achievements to accomplish (mor eon Achievements later).
Another nice improvement that will meet with parents approval is the advent of Gamer Zones. This setting is provided in the Xbox dashboard and tells the Live service what kind of gamer you are. Ranging from the recreation gamer to the Underground, each zone has a certain tolerance for trash-talking, profanity, etc. The idea is that you only play with those kinds of people you like to play with. While this may sound rather elitist, you'll be thankful that Junior doesn't get into a game of Perfect Dark Zero with a bunch of drunk college students. While these zones are not directly monitored, there is a mechanism to send feedback. Plus if enough people block that person, he won't find games and will be forced to go elsewhere, hopefully to the appropriate zone. So in a nutshell, this is a community monitored set of standards and usually they work. It's too early to tell how well the existing mechanisms will work, but they seem promising.
For anyone who's played Halo, they know that Bungie incorporated some pretty sophisticated matchmaking. That tradition continues and every game can now take advantage of either Ranked or Player matched games in something called TrueSkill matching. As you play the game online, you get a player rank based on your score, how much you win relative to those in your rank. When you get better than them, your rank goes up. In ranked games, you are always matched in the same skill set area as your opponents and guaranteed a competitive, but not overwhelming gaming experience. And for those who want a casual game with friends, you can use unranked player matches to join your friends online or just play a casual game. These matching systems are handled individually by most games, so your mileage may vary. Again, Perfect Dark Zero and Project Gotham racing 3 did these admirably with no problems joining friends or others with matching skill sets. Be warned, until you get in the higher echelons of rank, you might get schooled by a few people who are starting their ascent up the ranks. This is par for the course, really, and if they're that good, they'll be out of your league (so to speak) and on to bigger battles.
Project Gotham Racing 3 takes advantage of a great new feature, Spectator Mode. This has been available for PC gamers for a while and now it makes a splash on Live. This feature allows you to find races of people on your friends list or board leaders, and simply watch. This may not seem very exciting, but think about how many people watch NASCAR? Watching great drivers can be very exciting. I know I would enjoy seeing the top-rated first person shooters duking it out over Live. And this way I don't get my butt kicked in the process. So far spectator mode works beautifully, with no glitches or lag (again your mileage may vary) and as more people get online, there will be more races and fights to watch. This is a very exciting feature to keep an eye on.
One of my favorite features is Achievements. Available online and off, every game including casual games has different achievements. Get a black pearl in Hexic and you get an achievement. Get x amount of headshots in Perfect Dark Zero, you get an achievement. Finish Kameo, you get an achievement. All of these achievements are attached to your gamertag so you can compare your achievements to your friends or anyone else. And each game has several, if not dozens of achievements. With each achivement is a number of points that are added to your overall gamerscore. I didn't anticipate liking this feature much, but I found myself playing hard and differently trying to gain achievements. My wife played Hexic for hours trying to get the Black pearl achievement and when she did, she was quite proud of herself. Chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow makes me want to finish games that I wouldn't normally do. An innovative and insipred feature that I use more than I thought.
•• Xbox Dashboard ••
With the press of a button on your controller, your game will pause (except in multiplayer, usually) and sweeping in from left will be the Xbox Dashboard. The dashboard is broken up into pages. These pages hold your profile, achievements, Arcade content, Multiplayer options settings, etc. This dashboard is amazingly easy to navigate especially considering the amount of customizing you can do. And you simply access it by hitting the Xbox button on your controller. For those Xbox users, this is a marvel of engineering, because in the past, you actually had to get up, reboot your box, take the game disc out and then do whatever. Then pop the game back in, and wait for it to start back up.
Now I don't need to get my lazy butt of the couch.
•• Backwards Compatibility ••
One of the most decisive issues revolving around platforms is really only important for the first months of the console. I know many people will disagree, and that's fine. But this is my Epinion. Backwards compatibility is the technology that allows playing old games on newer equipment. But how often does this happen? More often toward the beginning of the life of the console until more games are released. This becomes less important as time goes on. Sure, you might break out the occasional old-school game of MechAssault, but is this really a big deal? I think not. You buy a new console to play new games. And if you want the best of both worlds and your game of choice is not backwards compatible, keep the old Xbox until it is. It won't suddenly stop working once you bring the new baby into the house.
The problem with the Xbox 360 Console is that the graphics system is totally different from the previous generation. So the console uses a software solution to make games backward compatible. But not all games. Currently, Microsoft has a list of more than 300 Xbox games that should work on the Xbox 360 Console. The caveat: This is a software solution which resides on the hard drive, so you'll need to deluxe bundle (or the core with a the hard drive) to make it work.
I tried some games that were supported and they played just fine. Some even got better with an improved framerate. None were graphically better looking, but none looked worse either. Those games not supported pop up a friendly message about it not being supported. This is much better than letting the user try and have a bad experience. Microsoft promises to add to the backward compatible list as time goes on, but the most popular favorites such as Halo 2 are on the list right now.
•• Controllers ••
Included with the core package is one Xbox Live controller. Those familiar with the Xbox controller will feel at home as the layout has not changed drastically. The controller does feel more comfortable and lighter than the previous controllers and there have been a few minor, yet important changes.
First is the Xbox button in the center of the unit. Not only does this bring up the dashboard, it also is surrounded by the ring of light. This ring is broken into 4 segments and the default behavior is an indicator of which player you are. If there are multiple controls attached, you will know which one you are. In theory, developers will be able to use this for some creative purpose, but right now, its something waiting to be tapped.
Most importantly in the inclusion of shoulder buttons. These are located right above the triggers and replace the impossible to reach black and white buttons on the Xbox controller. This is a nice improvement and accessing them in games feels much more natural. I don't need to look down at the controller to see which button to press.
If you are getting the pro version of the Xbox 360 Console you will be treated to one wireless version of the same controller. For most gamers, the thought of a wireless controller is shunned. Lag, delay unresponsiveness are the common maladies complained about. But with this controller those problems are not there. There is no perceptible lag. These are by far, the best wireless controllers I've used. With a distance of 100 feet and a frequency of 2.4GHz, these babies are the best of the best. And as an added benefit, they are light, even with the batteries in.
•• Accessories ••
The Xbox 360 Console has many more accessories available at launch than the original Xbox. But if you buy the pro bundle, you really won't need any. The only one that isn't included in the pro bundle is the media remote. For a few clams, you can use this wireless remote to control the multimedia functions of the console. It would have been nice to have this included, but again, not including it allows the the console to sell for a competitive price.
If you bought the core, you have an array of possible accessories. This is actually the beauty of the core system. Instead of one person shelling out $400 for the console, little Billy can create an Amazon wishlist for the core console for $299 and then add the other items a la carte. That way, his folks can afford to buy him the console, grandma can buy the hard drive and his sister can get him a wireless controller. There are many first and third party accessories including controlers, memory units, Live headsets, ad many others. There is no shortage of accessories for this generation of the console.
And coming soon, there will be an Xbox Camera so you can take pictures of yourself for your gamertag and play camera enabled games such as Uno. Or just sit in the dashboard and video-caht with your friends!
Coming soon, Microsoft will be releasing an HD-DVD player to play high definition movies. This will be an external drive and pricing as of this writing is unknown.
•• Multimedia features ••
A strong selling point for the Xbox 360 Console is the multimedia features. The previous version of Xbox allowed you to trip music the hard drive. As well, you can do that with this incarnation of the console, but it goes one step further. Plug your iPod or other MP3 player into one of the front USB jacks and you can stream music through the console and into your stereo system. The dashboard recognizes the device and displays tracks, playlists etc in the dash. It's as if the device was made by Microsoft for the console. Keep in mind that you can't copy music back and forth, but that's for copy protection reasons. I tried the console with a Creative Labs Zen Sleek, an iPod Mini, a generic thumb drive, and a Rio Carbon. All connected flawlessly and played music as if it was native. What was especially cool is that it shows up as another device with the proper name. The Zen Sleek is a brand new player and it recognized it and showed perfectly. I could then access my playlists on the player. My wife was playing holiday music while playing Hexic and she loved it. The only slight drawback is that the music cuts out when switching games. Once a new game is started, you have to restart the music. Not a huge deal, but could affect those who like to bounce around from game to game and don't want their music interrupted.
To go one step further, you can download a small utility to connect your XP based computer to your Xbox 360 Console wirelessly. This assumes you have a wireless network with both the PC and Xbox 360 Console connected to the network. Once that's done, you can play music from your PC wirelessly through your Xbox 360 Console without having to re-rip your collection. This works especially well with PCs running Media Center. Slideshow pictures, show movies, you name it. The Xbox 360 Console can expand your media Center PC into other rooms of the house.
If your console is going to be a DVD player as well, you're in luck, because they put in a rather good drive. Aside from supporting hi-res output, the drive is also Progressive scan. Every disk, I tried worked perfectly as expected, particularly with the Digital 5.1 sound output. This will no doubt replace my aging DVD player. It should be noted that game invites, chatting and other Xbox Live features can be done while you watch movies. Or they can suppressed if you don't want to be interrupted. You are in charge of the experience.
Oh, and did I mention the best feature? You can turn off the console with the controller! Xbox owners rejoice! Simply hold down the Xbox button and you can shut it off or turn it on. Or you can choose to shut off only the controller. This is to save batteries if you want to use the controller for DVD playback. My wife and I love this feature.
•• Conclusion ••
If you are a gamer, this is an obvious must-have. The best gaming experience and online and off. Multimedia features galore. Wonderful attention to every detail. The next generation of gaming and entertainment is here.
What did you think of this review?