Wednesday, November 23, 2005

First Impressions: The XBox 360 itself

The XBox 360 lives up to the hype. The new games, even these first releases that were done on a fast timetable, are a noticeable improvement over the prior generation, and bode well for future games that will be made once developers are familiar with the system and learn to better exploit its power. The 'minor' features such as the options for communicating with friends, the low cost arcade/puzzle games for online purchase, and the media integration capabilities proved more compelling than I expected.

I got my 360 at 8am yesterday morning when the EB I'd preordered at had opened. It's the complete version, with wireless controller, remote control, hard drive, and high-def cables. The 360 is surprisingly heavy, and almost as big as the current XBox. However, it is very cleverly designed to minimize this fact, and gives the impression of being smaller than it is due to its light color and inward-curving surfaces.

The new controller felt excellent, with the two analog sticks having small indentations in the center and a ring of slight ridges around the outside. They've acknowledged that Sony's and Nintendo's design of having Left/Right shoulder buttons and triggers was better by adopting it themselves and got rid of the black/white buttons.

The 360 itself had a good solid feel: less like a toy, and more like a substantial component. Set-up was straight forward. A couple minor points if you don't want to read the instructions: if you get the HD cable, make sure you set the sliding switch so it uses the HD cables instead of the regular connections (it's an "all in one" cable), and the 360 will start out at 480i, so you won't be seeing it at its best until you boost it to 720p or 1080i in the options menu.

Menus are brightly colored, well thought out, and easy to use. I quickly grew to appreciate the capabilities offered for keeping in touch with your friends. After they've accepted your friend request, you can see if each other is on when you start up your XBox, and also see what each other is playing. If they aren't initially on when you are, you will see a small notification when they start playing on their 360. You can send text or (brief) voice messages as well as establish a chat session with each other that can continue while you each play your games (whether the same or not). One note: to avoid annoying feedback be sure you each turn your headset volume to something less than full, otherwise you can hear double or even triple echoes of whatever you say.

The included puzzle game Hexic is lots of fun, with a great techno soundtrack (if you like that sort of thing) and the usual addictive gameplay typical of these types of games when well-designed. I also bought Bejewelled 2 via the marketplace feature. I did hit my one hitch while doing this: After downloading the feature-limited trial version I purchased the full version license, which I assume just downloaded a small additional license file, but upon returning to my in-progress game the 360 froze, and had to be manually restarted. When I next returned to the game it recognized the save game file on the hard drive was corrupt, and replaced it. All has been fine since then, and I played for an embarrasingly long period of time before I even cracked open my new games (Kameo and Condemned). After a particularly good game I managed to get to 8th on the leaderboard, which I was very proud of since I'm not a very capable gamer in general. (I wonder how often those are cleared, and if they will be nation/continent specific?)

Since I'm not a particularly talented gamer, I appreciate the new zones you can use to indicate your general playing attitude/style. I chose the 'Recreation' zone, and you can also choose more competitive and/or family friendly zones as well. In addition, the 360 will use your achievements in playing games to further rate you and match you against other opponents. This is great for those of us with less talent (or is it obsessive persistence?) than most when it comes to gaming competition chops.

I've heard some people are having trouble getting the 360 to work with their PCs (Media Center edition or otherwise). I'll be trying that side of things out Friday, and will relay my experiences then.

In the meantime, my tag is 'Twilight Sky'. Feel free to say 'hi' if you feel like it!

Overall, I'm quite impressed so far with the 360, and very happy to have reserved in time to get one on launch day (In case you're wondering I reserved it back in May). Big hint to those looking forward to the PS3: Reserve one AS SOON AS your local EB/Gamestop will let you to ensure you get one of those on day one. Getting a hot new console on opening day is tremendous fun, especially when it delivers like this!

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