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Adam Creighton, Computer and Video Gaming (Subscribe)

Thursday, November 24, 2005

It's an event; not the 2nd coming

I picked up an Xbox 360 yesterday morning. By "picked" up, I mean I relived college midnight madness, uh ... madness.

A buddy left me a voice mail yesterday saying that I can't get an Xbox 360, and not respond to voice mail and text messages. I actually think getting an Xbox 360 is an excellent reason to ignore voice mail, text messages, bodily needs, etc.

But I digress.

The blow-by-blow of my "Quest for a 360" is below (in reverse order), followed by my initial impressions of the system.
And in this post, Xbox 360 impressions:
  1. General impressions/analysis
  2. The launch
  3. The hardware and accessories
  4. The games
  5. The services

Xbox 360 impressions:

1. General impressions/analysis

Let me say that I'm freaking glad I got an Xbox 360. Despite the (mostly unsubstantive) bombastic diatribe between Sony, Nintendo, and Xbox (interestingly, not Microsoft) poster employees and fanboys, the next generation of gaming has begun, and the Xbox 360 is leading the charge.

Who's going to win this round?

In my mind, it's not going to be the company who dominates, but the company who realizes the most profit for their company. Sony (and their acolytes) are big on saying the PS3 will blow away the Xbox 360. Maybe, but what does that mean if developers say it's easier to develop for the 360? What does it mean if both manufacturers are losing money on each console made, but Microsoft realizes economies of scales sooner, so their per-console loss is less, and maybe they even realize a profit-per-'box. What does it mean if Sony's per-console loss is greater than M$, and they see the industry analysts' projected $1 to 1.5 billion loss in the first full year of the console's release? Recent restructuring over at Sony makes me think this wouldn't be well tolerated.

Who's going to win this round?

Probably the console maker with the best mix of tech and games and services. I say "best mix", because they don't necessarily need to "the best" graphics, "the best" console exclusives, AND "the best" services -- they just need the best mix. (Look at the Treo 600 -- sucky phone, middling PDA, and owned (and arguably created) the first part of this smart phone market, and was the "must-have gadget" for the holiday season 2 years ago.)

Best mix so far? Obviously, Microsoft's got the first console out the door, it is waaay ahead of the current gen, and what they've done with the Xbox Dashboard, media connectivity, and services integration (Xbox Live, Xbox Live MarketPlace, Xbox Live Arcade, etc.) is amazing.

Enough. On with it ...

2. The launch

The title of this post is a little harsh, but let me put it in perspective.

I mentioned Microsoft's Peter Moore has been defending the current console shortage, and we'll likely need history to show whether it was the right decision or a cluster**** (I'm grumpy, so I'm going with the latter). You can see from my posts referenced above, though, that consumers were hurt. I also talked to a lot of store and departmental managers who were put in a very bad place, not knowing what their inventory was until the Nth hour, and didn't know their inventory break out of Core and Premium packages.

Worse, Microsoft put high school and young college kids manning midnight sales events in a tough place. I talked to one kid at a Hastings at 10 p.m. before the launch hour, and he was nervous as hell about the midnight sale, because they had reserved a bunch of promised consoles for people, and got ... three. And they didn't get their Xbox 360 games for sale or rent.

What does this mean for this Black Friday? If Microsoft and retailers are telling the truth, the biggest shopping day of the year won't include (if Microsoft has their way) the biggest "must-have" gadget of Holiday 2005. This hurts retailers, consumers, and ... Microsoft (and all of its hardware and software vendors). Arguably hurts the economy, too (look at what happened with PS2 shortages last year).

I understand the business justification for a multi-region launch, and a slow-ramp up on the per-console loss in the first quarter of the fiscal year for the Home and Entertainment division, but ...

Oh, and if a ton of Xbox 360s mysteriously appear this weekend, I'm going to rip Microsoft a new hole. I'm not saying literally, and I'm not say where, but I shall rip them a new hole. Oh yes I shall.

3. The hardware and accessories

The Xbox 360 console itself is sleek (I dare say, sexy), for the most part well-designed, can be used vertically or horizontally, feels solid, is well packaged (I got a Sam's Club Premium bundle), and easy to set up.

I say "for the most part well-designed", because there are a few flaws, mostly minor, but one egregious. The top part of the included removable hard drive is a thin strip of aluminum. On my box, that strip is loose and raised up, making an otherwise solid-looking machine seem a little cheap. Not worth it for me to return it (mainly because it's Sam's Club, and I'd likely have to swap out the entire thing, and not just the hard drive (on which places like Best Buy and Circuit City are much more workable).

I had a brief hiccup with the first-party wireless adapter, because the USB port on the back of the unit is right next the ethernet port, and the same height. Reaching behind the unit, I thought I heard the adapter click snugly into a port, and it was only when the Xbox Dashboard didn't show the adapter that I flipped the thing around and corrected my mistake.

Far and away the biggest (and to me, unforgivable) problem is the fan/innards sound. This thing sounds like a freaking plane taking off. The Xbox 360 is supposed to serve as the center piece of your high-definition home entertainment system, and with this sound, it can't.

I currently only have first-party accessories. With one exception, they are amazing. I haven't seen this kind of quality and attention to detail before in the console space.

The cables (included power, video, additional VGA cable, etc.) are high-quality, have a soft and solid feel, and have everything you need to get gaming. Take the VGA cable, for example. It even includes a VGA gender changer adapter if you need it. Not only does the cable include RCA audio, but it includes an RCA to mini stereo adapter, in the same gray color as the cable. Even the twist-ties on the cables are the same gray color. Nice touch. (And VGA output is hi-def amazing.)

The wireless controller is lighter, better balanced, and more solid feeling (and responsive) than the current Xbox Controller S. Plus, it's versatile -- you can use standard batters (looks like Microsoft wrangled a deal with Energizer to include batteries with all 360 accessories needing them), rechargeables, or proprietary rechargeable (and charge-and-play) packs.

The only downsides to the controller are the triggers are more like buttons (not analog triggers), they're too close to the new shoulder buttons (replacing the Controller S black/white buttons), and the "Start" button is too close to the "X" button. Mad Catz seems to have fixed all of these on their wired controllers, at the expense of a poorly designed D-Pad (which is going to suck for fighting games). I hope they come up with a wireless version, and fix the D-Pad. (Check out TeamXbox reviews of the first-party wireless here, and the Mad Catz controller here.)

The one abysmal failure is the included "bonus media remote" that comes (for a limited time) with the Premium package. The thing is solidly made, but is not the full media remote they sell separately. This smaller remote doesn't have volume or mute buttons, which makes the remote functionaly useless. This is so piss-poor, I have no words (other than the previous).

4. The games

The only game I picked up is Perfect Dark Zero, because I wanted to have an console-exclusive game with decent single-player and multi-player. I'm early yet (check out my initial thoughts here), but so far I'm not real impressed.

The included Xbox 360 Live Arcade game from Alexy Pajitnov (the creator of Tetris), HexicHD, is included on the hard drive, and is a genuinely great little puzzler.

I mentioned in another column (here) Microsoft said there would be a number of demos available on launch day. Turns out they're not yet, with just Kameo and NBA Live '06 available for download. Kameo's a lot of fun so far, but it's the same demo I've played through at the in-store kiosks.

I can't wait for Dead or Alive 4 and Oblivion.

The only current-gen title I've played on the 360 is Halo 2. After downloading the Xbox Live component of the backwards compatibility emulator, and each of the map packs (only the offline emulator is included on the hard drive; come on, Microsoft, put both components and the maps on the drive), I finally got to play.

The game looks and plays slick, except for the proportion being off. It's like the title doesn't get the VGA settings from the console, so I'm hoping I can fix that.

And the play experience last night wasn't that good, because I kept getting killed as I fumbled for the shoulder buttons in place of the black button (for switching grenades) and the white button (for team chat). Also, the Gamer Zone setting (I'm "Recreation") doesn't apply to current-gen games, so there were some a$$wipes that were out to verbally abuse, and their guys on our teams were capping us from behind. People of low character will be jerks and griefers no matter the technology or services.

5. The services

Speaking of services, this is where Microsoft excels.

The new Xbox 360 Live service is slick, well integrated (with the Microsoft Passport services), and intuitive.

The downloads section -- where you can get game and movie trailers, demos, Gamer tag art, themes, etc. -- is pretty robust. Microsoft has done a good job with the points/micropayments implementation, and the credit card and peer-to-peer payments companies really screwed up with not providing this for the new Xbox.

The integration of the Gamer Card with the "rest of the world" is fantastic -- see my card to the right? See my reputation growing? See what next-gen games I've been playing? Nice. Can't wait until Halo 3 shows up on that card (I'm guessing 2007).

Oh, and a word of warning: downloads take freaking forever, and they're serial, and one has to complete downloading before you can set up to download another. This thing's a workhorse, and it can't do multiple downloads like my single-core, single processor computer can do? I want to be able to set up my 360 to download a ton of stuff overnight, or download while I'm playing (even HexicHD) and I can't.

A really slick integration piece is the tie between an Xbox 360 and a PC -- especially a Windows XP Media Center PC. You can go to and stream your audio and video library to your Xbox 360. I have a Media Center PC, and I'm able to use the guide, and run my PC from another room over wireless, as if it were in the room, and people can still use the computer. There's a more than slight delay between key presses (from the sucky remote) and menu refreshes, but the audio, video, and even live TV play without a hitch. (Wish I had a volume button!)

Again, great system overall, and I'm guessing their will be patches or iterations that update some of the shortcomings; or, they may just nickel and dime us as long as they can, and as long as we let them.

Back to it...

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SOURCES:,,,, IGN, GameInformer, Official XBox Magazine, CNN,, and others.


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