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System Analysis: Xbox 360

Mark Bemenderfer | Monday, February 6, 2006

The future is here. At least, that is what Microsoft would lead gamers to believe. On Nov. 22, they released the latest generation of video game consoles, the X-Box 360.

Released to some fanfare, the system sold out almost immediately at most retailers. For a while, the only way to purchase the system was over online auctions, with prices reaching upwards of a thousand dollars. Certainly a great degree of hype led to this system frenzy. But now that the initial rush has passed, many questions as to the system’s merits are rising.

From a technology standpoint, the 360 doesn’t represent the leap that was evident in the previous console generations. Like the previous X-Box, it comes with a dual-layer DVD player. While an effective vehicle for data storage at this time, games are quickly becoming larger, multi-million dollar enterprises. More recent technologies, such as Blu-Ray disks, would have been a better choice.

As it is, many games will either have to span multiple disks, or make extensive use of the hard-drive. However, the hard-drive only comes with the more expensive bundle at this point in time.

Releasing two different bundles in this fashion may prove to be a mistake on Microsoft’s part. Despite the fact that the lesser of the bundles is more economically feasible, it’s a poor choice in the long run for most gamers. Some games require the hard-drive to function, and the demos obtainable over X-Box Live won’t work without it.

Like the PlayStation 2, the 360 is backwards compatible, meaning that it will play games from the original X-Box. However, the compatibility is limited, and only works with a limited library of games. It also requires the hard-drive, and access to Live to download the necessary patches to run properly.

Graphically, the system does represent a leap over the current generation of games. Multi-platform games, such as “Peter Jackon’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie” and “Gun,” are noticeably improved on the X-Box 360. The graphics are sharper, with less obvious slowdown during the hardware intensive moments.

The graphics don’t seem to be a major leap however. Some games, such as “Doom III” and “Resident Evil 4,” don’t seem that far off from the games showcased on the 360. Computer gaming has been operating at the same level of the 360 for some time now as well, with examples being “Half-Life 2” and “F.E.A.R.”

When the Nintendo 64 was released, and the Dreamcast in the following generation, there was an obvious leap in content and abilities. The leap isn’t quite as sharp this time around.

That doesn’t seem to be Microsoft’s focus however. With the 360, their focus has been heavily placed upon online gaming. There are two different methods of getting online for gamers. There is the Silver Membership, which allows gamers to get online for free, but they are unable to access most of the features available.

Most gamers will find the Gold Membership to be a better choice. Despite costing more, online gamers can download demos of future games for free, play online only games and join in on more of the Live community features. Players can customize their profile as they want, and Live is much more versatile in its 360 incarnation.

Microsoft is also placing a lot more emphasis on a personalized gaming experience that extends beyond the Live community. The 360 has an interchangeable faceplate that can be customized in a variety of ways.

The controller was left relatively untouched from its previous iteration. Microsoft kept the format of the Controller S, the smaller of the two first-party controllers. This helps keep gamers from being alienated by a new control scheme, and lowers the learning curve.

It should be noted that, like the first release of every console system so far, the 360 release was hampered by a number of defective units. A number of units suffered from freezing issues, or they would simply stop working outright. A number of complaints arose from disk scratching issues. The limited supply of 360’s meant that most people who purchased one would have to wait a significant amount of time for a replacement. Some people who purchased a system in the initial batch are still waiting.

Also, the 360 can either be played with it standing vertically, or lying horizontally. However, some gamers thought that this meant that they could shift the system while it was running. The same thing was thought of the PS2 upon its release. This is generally a bad idea however, as moving either system will scratch the disk, so most of the disk-scratching incidents could have been avoided.

Despite all of this, there is still the question of the bottom-line. The 360, as it stands, is not worth the 400 dollars for the premium package. Until a wider selection of games are released that utilize the 360’s capabilities, and the bugs are smoothed out, it would be wise to hold out on purchasing the unit.

The Future

Now that the initial rush is over, the flow of 360 games has slowed to a trickle. While the launch-titles were a diverse and solid bunch, the games that followed were few and far between, and did relatively little to complement the library as a whole.

The notable exception is the recently released “Dead or Alive 4.” Being the 360’s sole game in the fighting genre, it helps to flesh out the library and should find a welcome spot in most gamer’s library. Featuring a solid fighting system, some new characters, and a surprise combatant from the “Halo” series of games, it’s a great addition to the pre-existing library.

However, there have been relatively few, if any, worthwhile games that have come out in the two months since its release. The scheduled release dates don’t show too many games on the horizon, with only a handful planned for the few months.

This is typical of any new console release however. The PlayStation 2 had few must-have titles for the first year of its life-cycle, as did the X-Box. This should not come as a surprise to most gamers, as they are used to the famine that follows the initial feast of games.

A game that promises explosive automobile combat is scheduled to hit consumers in a matter of weeks. “Full Auto,” developed by Pseudo Interactive and distributed by Sega, features full automobile contact, the likes of which can be seen in the “Twisted Metal” and “Carmaggedon” franchises. Boasting fully destructible environments, powerful weaponry, detailed graphics and an excellent Live experience, “Full Auto” bears watching.

The next worthwhile game is the latest in Electronic Art’s established franchise, “Fight Night Round 3.” The preliminary screenshots for the game have revealed solid graphics that are near photo-realistic, and the developers have promised the most robust boxing experience to date. Previous games in the “Fight Night” series were solid efforts, and video game tradition holds that this latest iteration will follow suit.

The two main draws of the fledgling system, “Gears of War” and “Halo 3” do not have specific release dates at this moment. The main draws of the original Xbox were the action titles that could be played online, and the same looks to be true for the 360.

“Gears of War” features a post-apocalyptic setting in which the human race is a shadow of what it used to be. Monsters have appeared out of the Earth, and only a few places on the planet are safe. The player assumes the role of an elite commando in a squad of humans. It’s a heavily cooperative game, as the early reports tell that the gamer will have to heavily rely upon teamwork and tactics to survive. Due to this, it will feature a cooperative mode between two or more gamers but exact details are unknown.

The ace in Microsoft’s hole, the “Halo” franchise, also has no set release date. Early reports are still vague, with rumors and myths far outweighing any factual information at this time. Videos have been leaked, but most have been proven to frauds. The rumored release date is said to coincide with the release of the PlayStation 3, but no official solid promises have been made. In any case, this showdown promises plenty of drama.