Thursday, December 29, 2005

Thoughts on the Xbox 360

This article originally in the paper ran 2 Sundays ago, but I was, you know, on vacation, so you're getting it now.

As a side note, the high point of doing this piece was easily the angry message left on my phone who felt I must be "smoking crack" to have anything less than effusive to say about this console. Thanks and I love you too.

Let’s skip all the lengthy introductions and boil this down rather quickly. Should you buy an Xbox 360?

No. Or at least, not yet.

Let me equivocate. The Xbox 360 is an impressive, state-of-the-art piece of machinery. With a reasonably strong initial lineup of games, a beefed-up online presence and improved graphics, there’s no doubt that Microsoft’s newest console has the power to turn heads.

Yet despite all this, there’s just not enough meat on its bones yet to justify the hefty purchase. If you’ve been eyeing the console but unable to find one in stores, my advice would be to wait. You’re not missing anything if you hold out for a few more months.

Certainly, the 360 boasts a much sleeker, more attractive design than the first Xbox. It’s sharp concave shape and smart white and green colors are a considerable improvement over the behemoth that was the first Xbox. That beauty is somewhat offset, however, by the rather large brick of a power supply that it plugs into. You could kill a horse with this thing.

Hooking the system up and turning it on is a piece of proverbial cake. After plugging in the wires, simply press the start button on your wireless controller and you’re good to go. It’s the sort of genius idea that makes you slap your head and wonder why other developers hadn’t thought of this first.

One of the most attractive things about the 360 is its menu interface. From the main "dashboard," it’s easy to go online, check your statistics (the console keeps track of all your various achievements in your games), copy a CD or connect to your PC.

Billing itself as a multimedia machine that just happens to also play games, the 360 can handle a variety of electronic devices. I was able to plug in my digital camera and iPod without any trouble. And, as with the first Xbox, the console also was able to play DVDs and music CDs easily.

Of course the 360’s graphics power is what has been driving the marketing blitz so far. Even on my considerably-less-than-HD television, there’s no denying the pictorial prowess of this new system. Playing a game such as "Call of Duty 2" or "Kameo," you’re aware of every blade of grass. It’s hard not to be awed, at least initially.

And with that introduction, let’s take a quick look at some of the console’s launch titles:

"Kameo: Elements of Power," Microsoft, rated T for Teen (animated blood, violence), 49.99.
A surprisingly beautiful and entertaining platform game, considering it was originally supposed to come out for the Nintendo 64 more than five years ago. In "Kameo," you play a winsome elf princess with the ability to transform into a variety of fearsome monsters, each with its own special abilities. A much deeper and richer game than you’d expect at first glance.

"Perfect Dark Zero," Microsoft, rated M for Mature (blood, language, violence), $49.99.
A futuristic, James Bond-style first-person shooter involving secret agent Joanna Dark tackling an endless array of corruption and heavily armed bad guys. The single-player mode is enjoyable, if rather unexceptional. With the ability to support up to 32 players online, however, it’s in multiplayer mode where this game will shine.

"Project Gotham Racing 3," Microsoft, rated E10+ for Everyone age 10 and up (mild lyrics), $49.99.
This latest sequel rewards drivers not just for coming in first, but for flashy driving as well. It’s a gorgeous game that takes full advantage of the 360’s capabilities and one that racing fans will enjoy.

"Ridge Racer 6," Namco, rated E, 59.99.
A more arcadish (i.e. less realistic) racing game than "Project Gotham," "Ridge Racer" is nevertheless fun, if a significantly shallower experience. Good for those who’ve finished "PGR 3" and want to move on to something else.

"Call of Duty 2," Activision, rated T (blood, mild language, violence), $59.99.
"Call of Duty 2" has you fighting Nazis on a variety of fronts. The stunning graphics add to the game’s realism, giving you a real "you are there" feel that, up till now, could only be created on a PC. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s easily the best 360 title out of ones I sampled.

"Quake 4," Activision, rated M (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language), $59.99.
Yet another futuristic first-person shooter, with gruesome monsters popping out of dark, dank corridors and so on. It looks good, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen a million times before.

"Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland," Activision, rated T (blood, crude humor, language, suggestive themes, violence), $59.99.
"Gun" Activision, rated M (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol), $59.99.

There is absolutely no reason to own either of these games if you have an older PS2 or Xbox at home. Both show little or no graphical improvement on the 360, and neither version offers any extra incentive over the older console versions. The $10 price hike only adds insult to injury.

Certainly, the 360’s initial lineup is wide and varied enough that hardcore gamers should be able to find something tailor-made to their tastes. Yet playing these games, I had a distinct sense of deja vu. Hadn’t I played most of these games, albeit in slightly less pretty form, before?

As good as titles like "Kameo" and "Call of Duty 2" are, they aren’t anything that cries out "play me now!" Perhaps I’m being persnickety here, but shouldn’t a next-generation video game console feature truly revolutionary, next-generation games?

Which is not to say that they aren’t coming. A quick look at next year’s calendar shows the arrival of games like "Gears of War" and "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" — titles that might well offer a "must-have" experience.

Mention should, of course, be made to the 360’s online capabilities. Assuming you’ve got a broadband Internet connection, and that your television is in relatively close proximity to your cable modem or router, you shouldn’t have any problem getting online.

The one aspect of the new Xbox Live that is most promising is the Marketplace. From here you can not only download movie trailers and pictures, but also upgrade to such games as "Perfect Dark Zero." Better yet, you can purchase classic games like "Joust" and new puzzle games like "Bejewelled."

These smaller, less complex titles have the potential of reaching a much broader, more casual audience than titles such as "Call of Duty," and may go a long way toward attracting consumers. I know I had more fun goofing around with five-minute games like "Zuma" than I did with "Quake IV."

If you already own an HDTV, and have the other technological capabilities necessary to take full advantage of the 360, then this is a worthwhile purchase. Everyone else should just sit on their hands for a while and see what games appear next year. For all of its technological brilliance and multimedia capabilities, the Xbox 360 remains a big shiny brick without the software to back it up.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005


At 4:45 PM, Blogger MegoSteve said...

Just wanted to post that I really enjoyed your review. I've been semi-frustrated at missing out on the 360 because of the shortage, but my wallet is thankful. I'll probably end up picking it up (hopefully, I can hold out until one or two price drops like I did with the original Xbox), but for now none of the titles screams "BUY ME!"

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Thanks for the kind words Steve. By the way, are you the same Steve that used to do the "All-Steve" mini comics way back when?

If Microsoft is smart, they'll drop the 360 price when Halo 3 comes out. I honestly don't know if they can afford to do that though.

At 12:12 AM, Blogger MegoSteve said...

Yeah, I'm the All Steve guy. Last one I did was in 1993... for some odd reason, friends of mine recently started pressuring me to do another one. I haven't done much drawing since I bought my first computer, actually.

It should be interesting to see how the next round of the console wars shape up. I think there's some resentment against Microsoft for the shortages on the 360, or else I'd say they'll pick up substantial marketshare this time around.


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