Video Game Rentals Delivered

Xbox 360

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-02-12 10:03:01

Xbox 360 - Rank B (would be an A without the excessive rate of hardware failure), YFKM Award

[Updated Nov. 24, 2008; The opening phrase of significant updates are denoted in blue font.]

The Xbox 360 continues to be my videogame system of choice. It's not without its significant problems, but it gives me far more of what I want than the PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii does. If you take away the tiny smattering of first party Nintendo games, the Wii is a steaming pile of dooky. With them, the Wii is a steaming pile of dooky with chocolate chips. The PlayStation 3 is like an uber-baby cloned in a bacta tank, genetically engineered to make Rocky Balboa cry out, "You're my daddy!" It's finally beginning to deliver on some of its potential, but is still a squalling infant, incapable of producing much more than steaming piles of chocolate chip dooky. If you're a videogamer looking to buy a system right now, the Xbox 360 is the clear cut choice.

The first major reason is the Xbox 360's library of titles. It has significantly more quality exclusives than the PlayStation 3 (I'm not even going to discuss the semi-retarded Wii from this point on). Even with cross-platform titles, the 360 versions almost always trump their PS3 counterparts. 360 versions generally have better framerates and more features; some early PS3 games don't even provide online functionality. (I do have to note that this is beginning to change, as the better development teams are finally starting to get a handle on the PS3 hardware.) For now, Xbox Live Marketplace is better stocked than the PSN store. Also, remarkably, after an atrocious beginning, the 360 has exceeded the PS3's backward compatibility. Microsoft has engineered the majority of quality original Xbox titles to run on the 360, whereas Sony eliminated PlayStation 2 support from the PS3 entirely.

Secondly, the Xbox Live online service is undeniably superior to PlayStation Network. The original intuitive blade navigation was recently replaced by NXE, "The New Xbox Experience". (For those of you, like me, who prefer the blade functionality, it's still there. It's just been condensed into the "Xbox Guide" which is accessed through the large central Xbox logo button.) Oddly enough, the new menu system functions identically to the PlayStation's XMB (Cross Media Bar), but the update thankfully retained and even improved on all of the terrific Xbox Live functionality. From the copious amount of content in the Marketplace, to the way messaging and inviting your friends is seamlessly integrated into every function, Live's sheer robustness puts PSN's emaciated clumsiness to shame. NXE implemented a party system for chatting with groups of friends and facilitating joining games together. This continues to be a major talking point of the upcoming, continuously-delayed PlayStation Home service, but Microsoft has meanwhile quietly provided this functionality for Xbox users in a practical fashion.

The problem with Live is that it costs $50 annually for the "gold" service that allows you to play online. Hopefully, Sony can develop their (free) PSN into a worthy competitor, forcing Microsoft to stop charging for Live, just like Steam did to the PC version of Live. As it stands, it's an extremely lucrative product for Microsoft. They're making money hand over fist off of subscriptions, and it'll take some serious competition to force them to offer it without charge. The service is so good that I actually don't mind the fee, but I do find it obnoxious to be additionally exposed to advertisements. One or the other, Microsoft. Even more repugnant is the fact that the NXE was organized to more effectively bombard us with advertisements, as opposed to improving navigation to practical functions.

As I mentioned above, the 360's new dashboard is similar to the PlayStation XMB. Here, major categories are browsed through vertically, while sub-menus are explored along the horizontal axis. It's functional, although it may take some time to acclimate to navigating quickly through the myriad of options, particularly if you were a long time user of the old system of menu blades.

The "My Xbox" category gives you access to launching games, handling your profile, adjusting system settings, and playing media (music, pictures, and video) on the 360's hard drive, an external device (such as an mp3 player), or streamed from your computer. Music files from any of these sources can be used as a custom soundtrack for any game. This is also where you can gloat over your Achievement Points. These insidiously meaningless awards are narcotically addictive, and encourage you to play and enjoy (or suffer) games more thoroughly. You get points for satisfying the conditions of an Achievement, and they visibly pile up as a sort of numerical gamer cred for everyone to see online. The very concept of Achievements is one of the most brilliant ideas Microsoft implemented into the Xbox 360. The system has been imitated throughout the industry, even showing up in World of Warcraft. I've known people to cite Achievements as the determining reason why they purchased the 360 version of a game over the PS3 counterpart. (To counter, Sony introduced a system of "trophies", but support for this feature has been spotty.)

The "Friends" category allows you to communicate online, and is an elegant system of coordinating with fellow gamers. At any time, you can check out what your friends are playing, and just hop in and join them, or send them an invite to which they can respond by hopping into whatever you're playing. The party chats can be set up to accommodate up to eight people, even if they're playing different games or viewing media. It makes Xbox Live a significant online social hub.

The Marketplace has now been divided into separate Game and Video content categories. Both are a smorgasbord of shopping opportunities. You can purchase Live Arcade games, Xbox Originals (emulated Xbox 1 games), and supplemental downloadable content for retail games you own.

As for the Video Marketplace, look at this paragraph I wrote from the February 2008 update:

You can buy or rent high definition music videos, TV shows, and feature films. Microsoft is continually wheeling and dealing with studios to provide an ever-growing selection of video content. While Sony mucks around with Blu-Ray, it appears that Microsoft is banking on downloadable media as the future. I think they're right. Even companies like Netflix now offer downloadable rentals, and are working on set top boxes capable of delivering media in this fashion. It may still be away down the line, but the days of purchasing a physical disc to play media are numbered.

Well, now the Xbox 360 is a Netflix set top box. Subscribers to both services have instant access to streamed movies and television programming, including high definition content. Frankly, this is an astonishing turn of events, and I am absolutely enamored with my 360's Netflix functionality. I'm looking at all the DVDs in my collection that are now duplicated by this service, and regret my rampant consumerism. The service is still in its infancy, and the viewable selection is limited, but steadily growing. You'll also want a solid internet connection; I'm not sure if the lower grade DSL can handle high definition. I'm nursing a tremendous amount of hope for the future of this service. Annoyingly, Sony has blocked their feature films from being viewed on the Xbox 360. This is simply asinine, and is yet another niggling manner in which Sony continues to earn my ill will. It's like if Microsoft decided to disable Windows on Sony VAIO laptops. Whatever - I can survive without Spider-Man 3. There are already ten shitloads of quality movies and programs to watch on the service. Check out the awesome stuff currently in my queue:

The Xbox 360 controller is also my favorite of all time. The analog sticks are crisp and responsive, with sufficient resistance for tactile feedback. The triggers have a good range of give, making shooters and racers feel terrific on the Xbox 360. The controller also offers the most satisfying rumble feedback and lengthiest battery life. The only problem is the d-pad. The well housing it actually interferes with its function, preventing it from fully extending. This results in missed or erroneous presses. It's not a big issue, since modern games don't assign critical functions to the d-pad, but it's nonetheless annoying to turn on your nightvision instead of grabbing your C4 in Call of Duty 4, or selecting the wrong spell in Oblivion. There is a simple fix, however: slide in some sandpaper to grind down the d-pad housing. (I talk about this more in my Retrogaming column, since I suggest using the 360 controller as the input device for emulators.) The 360 controller also works well on the increasing number of PC titles that support it.

All right, I've fellated Microsoft enough. Let's talk about the Xbox 360's problems. The most glaring one is its history of hardware failure. Up to 30% of the original design models have "red ringed", necessitating a repair order. This is clearly an issue with overheating, and fingers have been pointed at everything from substandard thermal paste to shoddy design in placing hot electronic components in close proximity. Microsoft has since responded by spending one billion dollars to extend the 360 warranty to three full years, repairing red ringed 360's without charge. In any case, I highly recommend that you place your 360 in an open space with plenty of circulation. (Also, many consumers have panicked and sent in their 360's for repairs because it flashed a full red ring. That just means your audio/video cable is loose and all you need to do is plug it back in. The "red ring of death" is actually just three of the four lights flashing.) If you're considering purchasing a 360 now, you most likely never have to worry about this issue. By now, the 360s available in the retail channel should all be the new "Falcon" models, with smaller chips that run much cooler. It seems unlikely that Microsoft fucked these up as well, after spending so much money to rectify previous failures.

HahahaHAHHAAHAH! Ignore those last few sentences. My "Falcon" unit red ringed a few weeks ago. Maybe the upcoming "Jasper" redesign will fare better, I write, with unwarranted optimism. Fed up, and unwilling to wait for the repair turnaround, I went out and bought an Xbox 360 Elite (my fourth 360) along with the in-store extended warranty. When this unit fails, I want to be able to simply walk in and out with a newer "Jasper" or "Valhalla" model. (Like every electronics manufacturer, Microsoft is continually iterating on the design, with smaller and thus cooler/power efficient components.)

The 360's DVD playback could be better, and is the substandard weak link in an otherwise excellent media hub device. The video quality is on par with $20 Walmart players. It's also ridiculously fast, but this also makes it loud as fuck. The victory of the Blu-Ray format also gives the PlayStation 3 a major advantage over the Xbox 360 as a media player. Fortunately, this is increasingly mitigated by the growing availability of high quality downloadable media (one more time, yay Netflix!) and also NXE's new ability to install games onto the hard drive. This not only reduces a tremendous amount of noise, but also saves wear and tear on the DVD drive. (Another problematic issue with the Xbox 360 is the DVD drive's penchant for read failures and disc scratches in many units.)

The Xbox 360 also lacks built in wireless networking; an external Wi-Fi accessory costs $99! That earns a Direman Press YFKM (You're Fucking Kidding Me) award. Even the handheld Nintendo DS has Wi-Fi built in. I personally always prefer a hard line, but I can appreciate the frustration of users forced to choose between spending an extra Benjamin or dealing with the logistics and aesthetics of laying ethernet cables down their hallway.

I used to warn people against purchasing the "Arcade" package, because it lacks a hard drive. The Xbox 360 is essentially lobotomized without one. However, the price of the base Xbox 360 has dropped down to the magical $199.99 price point, fifty dollars less than the lackluster Nintendo Wii. I can understand picking this up if you're short on money or giving it as a gift, with the intent to grab a hard drive at a later time. In fact, the combined cost of the "Arcade" unit plus the 120GB hard drive is actually cheaper now than the so-called "Elite" unit. Here's a breakdown of the currently available SKUs:

Arcade Holiday Bundle - This is the entry level package which includes several (largely throwaway) Xbox Live arcade games. The only included game of note is Pac-Man Championship Edition and possibly Uno if that tickles your fancy. Instead of a hard drive, it comes with a piddling 256MB memory card. It also lacks the headset, Ethernet, and high definition cables available in the other packages. You'll have to buy those separately. However, at $200, this gives you the option of pacing your purchases. In addition to the Arcade Holiday Bundle, I've linked the headset, component cables, HDMI cables, and VGA cables below. I'm perfectly content with the component cables combined with an optical audio cable. The supposed HDMI superiority is severely over-touted. The VGA cables are an excellent budget-conscious alternative for those who want to use their computer monitor in lieu of springing for an expensive high-definition television. The NXE even added support for common computer resolutions.

Pro Holiday Bundle - For an extra hundred dollars, this package throws in the headset, Ethernet, and component cables, as well as the all-important hard drive. Make sure this is the new 60GB hard drive, as opposed to the 20GB model included with previous "Pro" bundles. Instead of the XBLA games, this packs in copies of LEGO Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda, both passably decent kid-orientated games. This is the package that I used to recommend, but now that prices have fallen across the board, you may want to make more specific mix-and-match decisions now.

Elite Holiday Bundle - At twice the cost of the "Arcade", this bundle includes the headset, Ethernet, component, and HDMI cables, in addition to a comfortable 120GB hard drive. And as trivial as this factor may be, it's black. It fits the grey/black decor of typical audio/video components, instead of garishly standing out in iPod white. (Curse you Apple, for making white the new black!) Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda are also included here. (I'm not sure I understand this kid-centric inclusion in a package clearly intended for the higher-end technophile crowd.)

I cannot overstate the importance of a hard drive to the functionality of an Xbox 360. Even the original 20GB drives are proving too cramped to comfortably handle the slew of downloadable content and game installs. A new 60GB drive is now available for "Arcade" purchasers, or simply Xbox 360 owners looking to triple their storage capacity for $100. The separate 120GB unit has dropped down to a less unreasonable $135, and is clearly the better value. That 60GB package does also include a headset and an Ethernet cable, however.

You'll also probably want extra controllers at some point. The links will take you to color options for the controllers as well. Next to that are links for rechargeable batteries.

Finally, if you can't find any way to run an Ethernet cable to your Xbox 360, here's the preposterously overpriced wireless adaptor.

It used to be a lot simpler when there was just one type of Nintendo Entertainment System and one way to hook it up. If anyone has any questions, including those regarding televisions or surround sound setups, feel free to email me at contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com.

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