It’s strange to think that the Microsoft Xbox 360 has been out for more than three years now. Its December 2005 release saw it declared as a marvel of next generation graphics and technology. Being a PlayStation fan and someone who had already been sold on promised PlayStation 3 gems, like Heavenly Sword, Ratchet & Clank Future, MGS4 and, Naughty Dog’s then unnamed, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I held off buying the console. Once I finally got my PS3 the thought of spending even more money to purchase a half-baked console that’s prone to failure became even further from my mind.
And so we come to the present. Last month, April 2009, I bit the bullet and picked up one of the old entertainment boxes. Personal views aside, I’ve been sure to stay up to date with Xbox 360 and Wii news, since it’s my goal to work in the games media industry. Also, from a work perspective, having two consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360) now means that I’m more equipped for the task of reviewing multi-format games – a relief in more ways than one. I’ve had the system active for two weeks now and in this post I’m going to let off some steam about Xbox 360 and its games. Without further ado let’s jump in.
Evading Microsoft’s shifty hardware packages, I waited some time and till the price-point was sufficiently discounted before deciding to purchase an Xbox 360 Elite. Once I unpacked the concave shaped home entertainment system there was the inevitable pile of wires and connects to deal with. After some fifteen minutes of wrestling with the HDMI cable and humongous power brick, I managed to turn the thing on and eureka! For the next hour I explored the original Dashboard blades and then began the somewhat complicated process of updating to the NXE (using the software on a demo disc I had recently bought).
It may have been a complete rip-off, but the new Avatar creation page was a refreshing way to begin using my console once it had finished changing its stripes. Although I have an Xbox Live silver account (needed to register the system for the ‘essential’ warranty) it’s not actually linked to my console. This means that practically every screen I visit and trial game I play is screaming at me to ‘join Xbox LIVE’. When you play trial games, they even have the audacity to prompt you to ‘unlock [the] full game’ when you accomplish would-be achievements. Since technical difficulties prevent me from connecting to the service currently it’s utterly pointless for me to worry about achievements and community features. It’s almost as if half the console is missing without a gold subscription and the system won’t let you forget it.
Games-wise the box is fairing a little better (thank goodness). Since the Xbox 360 has been out so long it’s not too hard to find pre-owned games going right back to its launch titles. Being a racing aficionado Bizarre Creation’s Project Gotham Racing 3 was the first game I played. Although it feels quite dated now (especially next to Burnout Paradise and, its sister title, PGR4) I’ve had a good time with it so far. Driving in Project Gotham is all about smooth corning and risky overtakes. For casual players I’d almost say PlayStation 3’s launch racer, MotorStorm, holds up better today, as PGR3’s arrangement of career challenges, soundtrack and aesthetic style seem to lack that certain ‘new hardware’ sparkle.
Rare produced two titles for the 360 launch, Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo: Elements of Power. The former was left at home but I did bring Kameo with me and this is also the title that’s grown on me the most in this time. If I’m critical, it’s a lot like a shiner, less cool Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy, but once you escape the rather poor opening level it actually gets pretty good. Rare has a knack for creating beautiful 3D worlds filled with weird creatures. The controls are also intuitive once you’ve wrapped you head around them. Sprite princess, Kameo, can transform into a number of element forms and the triggers allow you to use each of their powers. I’m not finish yet, but if it can keep up the pace it’s worthy of being called one of Xbox 360’s top character action games. Also tried a little Dead or Alive 4 – *ahem* nothing to say about that, except that I prefer Soulcalibur and Street Fighter, and I absolutely despise the 360 controller’s D-pad.
In the wake of Killzone 2 and every other slime-ball-alien-purging-fest I’ve almost had it with shooters. Yet that still hasn’t stopped me from picking up both Gears of War and Halo 3 on the cheap. Regardless of the self-serving fan hype, both of these titles are definitely two of the most polished under the Microsoft Game Studios label. I’m familiar with Halo 3 (as my erstwhile high school friend introduced me to the series on the original Xbox and we’ve completed the entire trilogy together), which is an anticlimactic end to the series in some ways, but on the flip side the enemy AI and vast battlefield skirmishes make it great fun in co-op. Forge – a mode that allows you to tweaking the multiplayer maps with a huge range of weapons, vehicles and objects – is somehow fun even when you’ve got nobody to play against online, so that’s pleasing.
Gears of War, on the other hand, I’ve only had brief contact with. Man, people were right about the story – you only get the bare bones to go with and the rest is just heaps and heaps of blood, guts and chainsaws. There’s a startling visual quality to the game that feels like surveying a desolate and decaying Roman city with a handheld camera. I certainly give props to both the art direction and the action, which is a blur of stop-n’-pop gameplay. However, as much as I love John DiMaggio and have lost faith in shooter narratives, Epic have got to sort out this story. It’s thinner than Lindsey Lohan’s prom dress right now. Perhaps the sequel will have a tad more depth than “shoot those guys” and “quick, run this way”. Though hardcore fans would object, I could most certainly do without the sight of seeing meaty alien brutes sawn in half and splattered across my TV screen. Enjoyable it may be, but this game isn’t one to play just before lunch (or after it for that matter).
So far I’ve have only bought Xbox 360 exclusives, preferring to save my money to get multi-format games on PS3. It’s a strange sensation now having the option to buy multi-format games on either console. I may pick up a couple titles here and there in the future, and I will of course be using the system for review purposes. Overall my experience with several of Xbox 360’s launch titles and platform exclusives has changed my option of its first-party titles, but it hasn’t changed my opinion of the console in comparison to PS3. I’m still extremely pleased I decided to wait and next I’m about to share some of the console’s most damning usability flaws.
I could practically write a laundry list of things that I’ve found overly complex, things that PS3 does better, or things that just are just plain out of order. Let’s start with the controller battery packs and chargers. Not only does Microsoft have the nerve to sell the controller battery packs and cables separately, but I almost broke the wretched thing removing the cable once it had finished charging. Other peripherals, such as the wireless network adaptor, vision camera and memory units, are also ridiculously overpriced. And that’s not the half of it. Despite running the console via HDMI to my sleek mini HDTV, Microsoft has once again handicapped its own software. The long and short of it is that connecting the console to the TV in this fashion removes one of the crucial options in the system’s display menu. This option effectively means I can’t set the console to ‘PAL-60’ to play ‘60Hz only’ Xbox 360 games. I’ve been able to play most games without incident, but one or two downloadable games have failed to start.
I don’t wish to close out this post on a console-bashing downer though, so I’ve left one of the console’s most redeeming features, Xbox Live Arcade, till last. The console came pre-loaded with about nineteen free trial games and the full game, Hexic HD. Honestly, just this small selection of arcade rebirths – Pac-Man, Dig Dug – and new creations – Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Braid – have opened my eyes to the limitless potential downloadable games have to keep old games alive. Don’t get me wrong, PSN has been doing very well with its custom made indie games, but I’m afraid Xbox 360 has currently cornered the market for third-party support online. Alien Hominid HD, Banjo-Kazooie, Bejeweled 2, Frogger, Rez HD, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Soulcalibur, Worms, Zuma – short of PlayStation or Nintendo classics, you name it, XBLA has got it. Spurred on by the fact that I won my first game of Uno without even knowing how to play, I’ve been hugely impressed by the digital content Xbox 360 offers.
In retrospect I’m pleased to have acquired an Xbox 360. It’s by no means perfect and further still from what my idea is of a true media hub, but that isn’t to say it’s without merit. The exclusives I’ve played are fun and can indeed hold their own against other console exclusives. Copying games to the HDD is also another feature that I quite like – if anything it silences the noisy rotary engine that is the 360’s DVD drive. There’s tons of potential with XBLA and it’s my hope that eventually many of the third-party titles will end up on PSN someday. This summer I’m setting my sights on playing through a bit of Lost Odyssey, Fable II and Halo Wars. I’m interested to see what Microsoft has in store at E3 since they’re first-party line-up is shamefully slim this year. So it seems my resistance to the console has at last come full circle. How inadequate then that I must play in fear of the notorious ‘red ring of death’. Flying close to the sun? Yes, but at least for now it’s fun.