Review by FalloutX

Reviewed: 01/02/07

One Year Later - How Does it Stack Up?

One Year Later

If you’re any kind of a gamer, you already know that a system is very difficult to judge within the first few months to a year of its lifespan. In that time, developers are still discovering what the system is truly capable of and the system itself is still having major or minor tweaks worked out of it. Because of that, I’m providing this review to all prospective next-generation console buyers out there to determine if the Xbox 360 is the right system for you.

This is, by no means, a buying guide. I will point out some differences between the Pro and Core versions, however, since they are very important to know if you don’t have a 360 yet. Unlike my typical reviews, where I highlight graphics, audio, gameplay, etc., I’ll have to modify the approach a bit. I’ll do my best to compare the 360 with the current status (as of December 2006) of the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii, to provide a little bit of guidance between the systems as you go into buying a next-gen console.

I’ll make this quick. The Xbox 360 comes in two flavors: Pro and Core. The Pro version, typically US$100 more includes a 20 GB hard drive, wireless controller, Xbox Live Headset, Ethernet cable, and Component HD AV cable for the cost, which more than justifies the price difference. The Core version has a Composite AV cable and Wired controller. The 360, in either color box, is capable of supporting wireless controllers, broadband connectivity, and high-def gaming up to 1080p.

The 360’s most direct competition is the PS3 from Sony, which includes many of the aforementioned features and also has a more powerful hardware platform. Though only time will tell if it is definitely a better system, the 360 does take the edge on price, coming in at US$100-200 less than either version of the PS3. The Wii, while technically a next-gen contender, is targeted toward a different market. Games on the Wii will be very exclusive to the design of the console and controller and should not impact your decision between a 360 or PS3, even if the price is considerably lower, retailing for US$250.

With all of this in mind, the 360 is the only established next-gen contender on the market, in terms of user base and software library, and may prove to be the best option at this time.

In the gaming market, only two devices can put together images the way the Xbox 360 can: the PS3 and a gaming PC. Aside from that, you won’t see any visuals that are as impressive as what the 360 can put out. While early games struggled to showcase this, newer titles such as Gears of War and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion capture the power of the 360 substantially. And while it is still early in the system’s life, it’s a very good sign of things to come.

When it comes to an overall library of titles available to a console, you have to measure up the flexibility of what it offers. There are many different types of gamers out there, from the intense, hardcore gamer to the very occasional casual gamer. A library that can appeal to all of these diverse breeds of gamer is difficult to deliver, but the 360 manages to pull it off.

In terms of the physical, retail library of titles available for purchase, the 360’s selection has expanded rapidly over the past year. Gamers who are fans of multiplayer shooter titles will find their fix in titles like Gears of War, Rainbow Six Vegas, and Call of Duty 3, sports fans have the usual annual selection provided by EA Sports and 2K Sports, and even casual gamers or kid gamers will have a great deal of fun with games like Viva Pinata, and Rockstar’s Table Tennis.

In addition to the expansive retail library, the 360 also has the expansive catalog of games available via Xbox Live Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade. Marketplace allows users to download demos of many upcoming and available titles while Live Arcade makes all variety of simple, fun, potentially time-consuming games available for free trial or download, all using a Microsoft Point system where you can buy points to spend on full versions of Live Arcade games or spend them on additional content for games you already own, such as new expansion content for Oblivion, new outfit selections for Saints Row, and more.

And finally, backwards compatibility. As of right now, a good portion of the XBOX’s original game lineup is functional on the Xbox 360, even though you will need to get the update (for free) through Xbox Live or alternate means for some games. While Microsoft had anticipated to make the entire XBOX lineup available for the 360, they have recently stated they may not be able to meet that goal. Fortunately, most of the common and popular titles are either functional out of the box or an update will patch the emulator accordingly. So with these titles, all of the new 360 games, the Marketplace demos and Live Arcade selection, there is no reason to be bored with this system – period.

The popular focus of game consoles in this generation is the full home entertainment value these units can provide. Out of the box, the 360 has a good selection of alternate entertainment features. In addition to a standard DVD player, the Xbox 360 can also be networked with Windows-based PCs to allow the access of digital media files from the 360 Dashboard, as well as additional integration with Media Center 2005 PCs. Unfortunately, this does limit the additional features available to Mac, Linux, or other alternative operating system users.

The 360 is also prepared to allow you to watch movies in high-definition with the addition of the HD-DVD Player add-on. However, for both the HD-DVD Player and Xbox 360 Pro Console, the end cost is comparable to that of a PS3, which features a Blu-ray DVD player standard. Something that the 360 does offer out of the box which the PS3 is also planning to feature in a similar variety is downloadable entertainment options.

From the Xbox Live Marketplace, users can use their Microsoft Points to download full movies in standard or HD, in addition to TV shows, music videos, and more. Finally taking full advantage of the hard drive, the 360 is becoming more and more of a full entertainment machine day in and day out, but the restriction of some of the networking capabilities to non-PC users prevent this from being a perfect option.

Visually, the Xbox 360 console – with or without the fancy platinum decorations – is beautiful. The shift from classic black to a smooth white with this new iteration is more than welcome. The console itself has concave panels that allow it to look good whether vertically or horizontally displayed. The face of the console is very clean, featuring only the disc tray, two memory card slots, a wireless sync button and a USB port housing, all which are flush to the face of the unit. However, the only significant problem comes with the power. Unlike the PS3, which has the transformer built into the console, the 360 comes with a large power block that either needs to be hidden well enough to not get in the way, but ventilated enough to not overheat and become hazardous.

But, on the plus side, a small but noteworthy change was made to the Component HD AV Cable. Instead of requiring a large block, the Component cable runs directly from the console plug. Another positive is the fact that composite (or red/white/yellow) connections are also included on this cable.

A big plus to the design of the console comes in user customization. The front faceplate of the console can be replaced with a large repertoire of third party faceplates or even custom designed ones. This is an option that no system before the 360 has provided as a standard option, and allows everyone to design their 360 to their own personal tastes, whether it’s their favorite sports team, band, color… anything!

Another small design upgrade the Xbox 360 has seen has been with the controllers. While still essentially the same, the new controllers are now slightly smaller and tapered better to fit your hands. There are now two new shoulder bumper buttons in addition to the triggers, Xbox logo key, and connection points for the Xbox Live Headset and Plug and Charge kit. Overall, the new shape of the controller begins to give it a look very similar to a hybrid of the old XBOX Controller S and the Dual Shock PlayStation controller, as it is much thinner and – as previously mentioned – tapered in certain places. This is all for the better, however. All in all, the unit looks great and would probably win as best looking console on the market if it lacked the massive power block and perhaps integrated a slot-loading interface instead of disc tray, though the former is prone to more potential mechanical problems.

Finally, we’ll talk about the online capabilities of the 360. Microsoft reinvented online console gaming when they introduced XBOX Live for the original XBOX in 2002, about a year after the launch of the console. XBOX Live revolutionized how you play games online, with a standard broadband backbone for developers to use. In the current version, Xbox Live explodes with a tremendous amount of new features that take full advantage of the 360’s hardware.

In addition to operating now under the full support of basically every developer, Xbox Live now expands into two tiers of subscriptions. The first, dubbed Xbox Live Silver, is free with any Xbox 360. This version of Xbox Live allows users to access the Marketplace, participate in the Xbox Live community, and essentially use every Xbox Live feature – except one – for free. When upgrading to an Xbox Live Gold account, which is still the same cost as before for an annual subscription, gamers can now take advantage of the online multiplayer capabilities of Xbox Live, which means playing games like Gears of War, Madden 07, Halo 3, Call of Duty 3 and more against players the world over.

The Xbox Live Marketplace is also a great addition, allowing gamers to download demos, trailers, screen shots, custom Dashboards, movies, TV shows, music, and more to the hard drive with the use of Microsoft Points, available for purchase through Xbox Live or from retail point cards. The only disadvantage Xbox Live has comes in its competition. The PS3 will feature built-in online gaming which does not require any additional charge, but only time will tell how much of a competition this will be for Xbox Live. In the meantime, Xbox Live is your best choice for online console gaming and entertainment.

The Xbox 360 stands as the best contender of the next generation at this time. The software lineup, graphic power, online capabilities and entertainment value make it the perfect choice for nearly any gamer out there. I’ve been happy with my 360 ever since I purchased it and anyone who really wants to get the most out of their games will be just as happy with it, whether you play in high def or standard definition. Save for a few minor issues, the 360 is the best console I can recommend – at this time – for the next generation of gaming. Period.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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