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Xbox360: First Impressions

Xbox 360 on the shelf

Having spent an (admittedly inordinate) amount of time with my new Xbox360, I decided to venture back to the PC world long enough to post my impressions of the console and the first five games I’ve played on it. In short, this thing is brilliant. For the first time, I’m seeing 1080i high definition content on my widescreen TV, and let me tell you, it’s like having a computer monitor that’s 57 inches wide!

What with all the hype, I figured there was no way the X360 could live up to everyone’s lofty expectations. And indeed, some people have claimed that it’s not what they thought it would be. I don’t know whether these people have macular degeneration, are from thirty years in the future, or what. But these are the most beautiful graphics I have seen on a console — and yes, in some cases, on a PC — ever. And these first-generation games are utilizing only a fraction of the X360’s processing power. By the way, for those who claim you shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction, eat it. That is all.

Ergonomically, as you can see by the picture above, I laid the Xbox flat, on the shelf right above my old Xbox (which is still hooked up). Yes, it looks cooler standing vertically. But I don’t have the room, plus I believe it sucks cool air in through both sides and exhausts it out the back, indicating the the console would probably run cooler if laid horizontally. And lastly, I just hate having to fiddle with clips to keep a DVD from falling out of a vertically oriented tray. This does not take away from the design in my opinion, which is quite sleek and attractive. The wireless controllers (which use RF technology instead of infra-red) are wonderful. It’s nice to not have your feet getting tangled up in the overlong wires I normally have to mess with when playing game consoles.

Also in the photo, you may notice the little antenna sticking up from the back. That’s the USB2 wireless Ethernet adapter accessory, which neatly clips onto the back of the console and had me connected to my home LAN in mere seconds. What’s great about this is that I can view pictures on any of the computers on my home network, and, best of all, stream my MP3s directly to the console — while I’m playing a game. All X360 games support this, so if you don’t like the game’s soundtrack, you can either play albums that you’ve ripped to your Xbox hard drive, or stream them off other computers. It’s great.

Speaking of music ripping, Microsoft decided not to be so anal about it this time around. You can slap any regular old CD-R into the X360 and rip its tracks to your hard drive, and it does so much more quickly than the old black box, which means no more fumbling for a certain brand of CD-RWs and then having a meal, dessert and coffee while your console slaves away at it. Of course, the streaming MP3 capability almost renders CD ripping obsolete, but rest assured it’s all there for you.

The Xbox Dashboard, which is basically like the operating system, is extremely well done, easy to use and attractive. It’s split into a series of “blades” which are basically like pages, each of which containing a different type of content: Xbox Live, Games, Media, System Settings, etc. There’s a staggering array of customization — for instance, the entire dashboard can be skinned with themes of your choice — and the seamlessly integrated Xbox Live content is great. Each Xbox360 owner gets Xbox Live Silver for free, which allows you to buy arcade minigames (even old favorites like Gauntlet and Joust), download game patches and extra content, view your achievements over the Web and everything else except play online against other humans.

For the latter, you need Xbox Live Gold, which costs about $50 per year. What’s nice is that you can buy “Xbox Live Cards” in any retail store which give you a year’s worth of gameplay for a flat fifty bucks; no credit cards or monthly fees needed. Plus, Xbox360 owners can play old Xbox games (like Halo 2) online with players who are still using classic Xboxes. When you play online, there’s a new Reputation system that gives you a star rating from 1 to 5. Other gamers can leave negative feedback for you if you’re a jackass online, so in this way, you can see the reps of anyone else you might want to play with and steer clear of the griefers and TKers out there.

The Xbox Live experience is also integrated with the Web. Meaning, you can check out the Xbox website to view your “Gamer Card” and your achievements online. People can drop by your page and see what game you’re playing right now, or what game you last played, and how much progress you’ve made in each. (Only problem is, you have to have a Microsoft Passport account to even see it.) You can also include your gamer card on your website, like this (yeah, my nickname is Pontiaction):

And now for the games. ūüôā

Kameo: Elements of Power
This is a Medievel fantasy adventure title similar in gameplay to something like the PS2’s Jak & Daxter, except instead of guns, you’ve got elemental powers. These powers allow your character to transform into different creatures, each with its own abilities and attacks, so as to better handle any challenges the environment throws at you. As you can imagine, the level design intentionally forces you to use your different creature forms to overcome obstacles and defeat enemies, sometimes even requiring you to, say, jump across a chasm as one character, and in mid-air switch to another so you can grab the wall on the other side.

The graphics are done in a cartoon-like style, and the game is pretty appropriate for younger players, so initially I thought it wasn’t going to be that fun. But actually, it’s pretty fun after all. And gorgeous. The gameplay is epic, the visuals are ultra-detailed and extraordinarily crisp. Sound is good too. Definitely a title you can pick up and play at any time, requiring only that you think tactically from time to time about how to approach each new situation. And hey, even co-op mode is fun with two players on the same console.

Perfect Dark Zero
You may remember the original Perfect Dark, based on the Goldeneye engine, on the N64 console. I don’t. I never played it. But the gameplay on the X360 version is extremely Goldeneye-like, to the point where all your memories of that old Bond adventure come flooding back. PDZ is a first person shooter that casts you in the role of Joanna Dark, a young secret agent of some sort who goes around saving the world with her father and her annoyingly-voiced gadget-master sidekick. This is one of the best looking games on the X360 right now, with incredible bump mapping on high res textures, a huge variety of excellently modeled firearms, and some sweet gunplay. The missions themselves are a bit annoying in that classic N64 “do it over and over until you get it right” fashion, and sometimes it won’t be immediately clear what the hell is going on, while stuff around you happens too quickly. It’s occasionally like a big Uwe Boll movie on overload. But it’s still fun, and I’m sure the multiplayer is a blast to play, just like it was on N64’s Goldeneye.

Project Gotham Racing 3
This is the racer to end all racers. Seriously, this puts all previous driving simulators to shame. Climb behind the fully-modeled, 40,000-polygon cockpit of any of 80 exotic sports cars and take them around gorgeous tracks, with visuals even more real than anything you could find on the Speed channel. This is like the original Need For Speed when you actually had a dashboard view, except you can actually look around the cockpit, all of your instruments work, and you can see realistic lighting and reflections on the inside of your windshield glass! A huge bevy of the world’s most expensive cars are represented; everything from the Lamborghini Murcielago and McLaren F1 to the Shelby Cobra GT-500 (both the 1968 and the 2007 versions) and Lotus Esprit, even classic ’80s sports cars like the Ferrari Testarossa and F-40. Each with its own handling characteristics, cockpit view and sweet engine sound.

What’s really cool is a feature called Gotham TV. With this, you can go online and join a crowd of up to 30,000 spectators watching other human players racing live from the comfort of their own respective living rooms. The “Heroes Channel” picks out the world’s best PGR3 players and shows you the races they’re participating in. You can switch to any car, and any camera view as the race goes on, watch how the pros handle the tracks, or watch casual gamers hit the wall and spin out over and over, then drive backwards on the track. (Fortunately, if you drive the wrong way, your car turns semitransparent and other cars can pass through you, making it impossible to be a griefer and ruin everyone else’s race.)

Taking the Ariel Atom out on the track, I thought of Jeremy Clarkson’s face getting contorted by the G-forces on Top Gear whilst speed testing the same car. This game is way too fun.

Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Another racer, this time of the arcade variety. The latest installment in the NFS series boasts the return of police chases — and they’re better than ever before, with realistic cop chatter on the radio, vehicle damage and tons of Hollywood-grade sound effects. The visuals are beautiful, but no more fantastic than you would see on a PC — after all, this game is also out on every other console and PC platform in existence, so each version looks pretty much like the rest. Still, it is in 1080i on a 57″ TV, so I think getting the X360 version was worth it.

As per the usual, what’s so great about this NFS game is the way it sounds. I have never heard car engines sound so real, so in your face awesome. Plus, switch the camera to the in-car (sadly without a dashboard) view, and the engine roar is so loud and raucous that you’ll think you’re actually sitting in that Pontiac GTO or Porsche Cayman S. (Plus, the gearshift sound is back!) It doesn’t take much skill to excel at this game, but that’s great for when you just want a casual gaming session. Plus, running from the cops has never been so much fun.

Call of Duty 2
After mis-packing my bundle and leaving this game out by mistake, EB Games was nice enough to overnight a copy to me, so I received it before the holiday weekend. This is another game which isn’t much better, visually, than its PC counterpart — in fact, it’s probably the least impressive X360 game I’ve played in the visuals department. But the gameplay is epic. With a TV this size, and a decent sound system, you feel like you’re in the midst of the second World War, lying prone on the battlefield while shells explode all around you. It’s the experience that’s important here, and it’s what kept me from turning off COD for hours after I first put it in. It really sucks you in and keeps you immersed, and that’s worth more than any fancy graphics could ever be.

Halo 2
No, it’s not a new game, but the presentation on the Xbox360 is so fresh and new, I thought it worth mentioning. Bit of a reveal here: I never finished Halo 2’s singleplayer campaign, after getting bored with it much quicker than the original Halo. But the updated presentation on the X360, plus the correction of a few bugs, made the game much more enjoyable. For starters, the graphics are upconverted to 720p, which I then have the console upconvert to my TV’s native resolution of 1080i. Additionally, full screen anti-aliasing is applied, reducing the jaggies significantly. And now that they’ve fixed the game so that you can actually hear the damn dialog being spoken throughout, it plays like the movie it’s meant to feel like. I’m hooked. And this time, I’ll play it through to completion.

So there you have it: The Chief Oddball’s complete Xbox 360 impressions. A final note: That “three-quarter red LED error” I mentioned still seems to occur the first time I start up the console each day, but after a reboot, all is well. I don’t know what’s going on there, but I’ve heard that a lot of people are having similar problems, although I seem to be a lucky one because most of them can’t play for more than a few minutes without their X360 crashing. (Yep, a Microsoft console that crashes — don’t act so surprised!) Since MS is swamped with reports of this right now, and AFAIK doesn’t have a clear answer to it, I figure I’ll just buy the $50 extended warranty direct from the manufacturer and call it in if my symptoms get worse. No biggie.