The Xbox was a bit of a surprise to many. The initial announcement of its existence was largely met with ridicule: here was Microsoft doing what it does best ‘ jumping on a lucrative bandwagon that it had yet to exploit. The big joke was that it would inevitably attempt to do too many things at once and so suffer PC gaming’s age-old curse, the Blue Screen of Death.
In those early months, one thing in particular saved the idea of a Microsoft videogames console from total derision: the passion of Seamus Blackley. One of the two main heads of the Xbox project, Blackley was bullish, confident and – to an extent – reassuring. He had no intention of allowing his Xbox to become a set-top media centre. He had, it was claimed, told Bill Gates that it was his way or the highway. His machine would only play games and it would never be a means for Microsoft to get its dream of a standardised media hub into people’s living rooms by stealth.
It turned out just fine in the end. Though the Xbox’s poor sales in Japan are a constant source of embarrassment, elsewhere it has managed to carve out a devoted fan base for itself. More than this, with Xbox Live it managed to do what others either failed to do or didn’t even have the confidence to attempt: to make playing videogames online simple and painless, extending the culture and feel of Internet message board communities into the realm of real-time, vocalised communication.
That was the Xbox. Turn on the Xbox 360 and one thing is immediately obvious – Seamus Blackley had nothing to do with it. Without a game in the drive, the 360 is the media hub that he was so determined its predecessor would not be.
Basics first. The console ‘ the physical artefact ‘ looks nice, much nicer than last time around. It is, in fact, an inversion of the design of the Xbox. What was black, bulging and horizontal is now white, sucked inwards and upright (while it can be laid down, it’s plainly been designed to be seen stood up). What was previously a hulking, ugly slab of plastic is now sleek and graceful.
The controller is an evolution of the previous machine’s S-pad and, as a result, is a delight to hold. The analogue sticks are, if anything, even more precise, with the pleasingly tight springiness to their movement a world away from the loose, floppy inaccuracy of Sony’s Dual Shock. Analogue shoulder triggers now have less travel in them, which initially feels like a step backwards in terms of the degree of control you’re offered, but soon makes sense in terms of comfort ‘ holding them all the way down for prolonged periods of time is now less tiring. The replacement of the old black and white buttons by two additional (digital) shoulder buttons makes perfect sense in most games, but will present problems when it comes to others (the Street Fighter family demands the presence of six facia buttons, for example, meaning that purchase of a proper, full-on arcade joystick may be more of a necessity than it was on the Xbox). The d-pad ‘ while unlikely to be used in many games for much other than menu navigation ‘ is gorgeous, being larger and lying looser in the pad’s body than the S-pad’s, uncomfortable, rigid equivalent.
Much has been made of the 360’s compatibility with high definition television sets ‘ Microsoft have even gone so far as to promote a certain set as being the ideal partner for the console. Does it make much difference? Buy me an HDTV set and I’ll tell you. What I can say is that even on a standard definition set (and not even a nice widescreen one), there’s a definite increase in visual clarity. Of the games that I’ve played to date, this is most clear in Ridge Racer 6, where everything looks sparkly and scalpel-sharp. Project Gotham Racing 3 puts the technology to use in a different manner, forgoing RR6’s super-smooth frame rate in favour of an increase in trackside detail. Amped 3 does something different again, looking little different from the previous two games in the series in most respects, but widening out the viewable distance, presenting you with mountains that look and feel like mountains, rather than just big hills. None of these games do anything particularly new when it comes to how they play, but the visual improvements do have a knock-on effect in the atmosphere they create ‘ which, in turn, affects how you feel while playing them.
While these graphical charms are obvious, the most significant thing about the 360 is, in fact, its dashboard. This is clearly Microsoft’s big idea for the console: that the dashboard is always accessible (a dedicated button on the pad returns you to it from within any game) and that, where common options are concerned, it provides a centralised menu system for every 360 game. So, no longer are you asked to create a new profile whenever you play a game for the first time ‘ instead, you create a single account within the dashboard that is applied to all your games. It works well and means that some of the small hassle associated with offline multiplayer games is removed. If your friends have played any multiplayer game on your console previously, you’ll no longer have to muck about putting all their details in for each and every new game you buy ‘ set them up with a profile for one game and you can then transfer it across all of them. This cross-game functionality extends to other areas. If you generally like to play racing titles from the bonnet camera, for example, you can tell the dash and it’ll automatically default all racing games to that view for you.
This is great, clearly, but having the dashboard handle so much of a game’s functionality ultimately leads to a fractured gaming experience. Say you’re playing a game and want to see which members of your friends list are currently online. Whereas this would previously have been handled within that game’s interface ‘ with menus that were designed to fit with its style ‘ now you have to bring the dashboard up, suddenly and rather rudely jerking you out of the world you were wrapped up in. A minor thing? Perhaps, but still damaging. This step forwards in usability is a step back when it comes to our sense of immersion in a gameworld.
A similar but more disappointing issue is how custom soundtracks are now incorporated into games. Or, more accurately, aren’t. The custom soundtrack has become a godsend for those unwilling to accept the often-questionable nature of officially licensed music. Xbox games like Forza Motorsport were saddled with the devil’s own poodle rock, but became infinitely more enjoyable when the music was replaced with something that the player considered more suitable.
Not all Xbox titles provided this option, however, and so the custom soundtrack has become another element that Microsoft have decided to have the dashboard cover, with largely the same negative consequences as the new implementation of the friends list. As the system is now standardised across all titles, there’s no way of setting game-specific options for its use. No longer can you decide to have certain tracks associated with menus and others with the gameplay, for example. In fact, you may as well just mute the music in-game and stick something on your CD player.
Where the dashboard really works wonders, without any drawbacks, is with the new Live Arcade. Most Xbox owners missed out on Live Arcade unless they happened to pick up the single issue of an official magazine that gave it away as a coverdisc. Here it’s implemented fully, right from the off. The idea is simple ‘ for a small fee you can download games and store them on the hard drive or memory card. A nice variety is available already. The usual Windows suspects are present and correct ‘ hello again, Hearts ‘ but the service has more to offer than just barely reheated card games. ‘Classics’ are represented by a foursome of titles from the glory days of Williams ‘ Robotron 2084, Joust, Gauntlet and Smash TV ‘ and, wonderfully, Street Fighter 2 has just been announced for release in the near future. Also included are games created specifically for the Arcade. Some are tatty, some are great (Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is proving to be a popular favourite, although Mutant Storm Reloaded is, for my money, the more complete package, offering a similar style of game with a greatly enhanced array of options and score-building tactics).
Live Arcade has magnificent potential. Whether it fulfils that potential remains to be seen. Personally, I’d like to see Microsoft approach heroes of the homebrew PC shoot ’em up scene, rather than stick with the safe bets (Kenta Cho is a must, and they’d be fools to pass over Jeff Minter when he’s already provided the console with the dreamy visualisations in its music player). Take some risks. Give us the abstract, original experiments that mainstream publishers wouldn’t have the courage to take a risk on. The benefits of opening up the Live Arcade model are clear ‘ here is an opportunity to combat the stale, defensive practices of most publishers, to bring some real excitement back to the form, to widen its appeal to those as yet unaffected by videogaming’s output. With Live Arcade, there’s a chance for gamers to experience something different to the unending barrage of bland mush that is offered through traditional console games publishing systems ‘ something alternative to the millions of games that are focus-tested to death, innovation sacrificed in favour of churning out barely-disguised clones of proven concepts. The ball is in Microsoft’s court here. We can only hope that they don’t flush this potential down the toilet.
And so on to backwards compatibility with Xbox games. It’s a bit rubbish, unfortunately. Because the 360 is technically very different to the Xbox, it can only run its games through an emulator, software that fools it into thinking that it’s actually its predecessor. While spokespeople have been promising that they’re aiming to have all Xbox games work on the 360, the current list is depressingly short and commercially suspect. For instance, Amped is present but the sequel, which worked online, is missing. Are the two games really that different that Microsoft could get the one game working but not the other, or is it more likely that they’ve purposefully ignored Amped 2 because they have a brand new entry to the series to sell?
Those games that do work are given a small amount of spit and polish ‘ the clean lines provided by displaying in progressive scan, rather than the blurry indistinction of an interlaced image, will be noticeable to all. The price to be paid for this improvement is that the graphical shortcuts taken by those games’ artists are made more noticeable ‘ you’re likely to be shocked by how scruffy Halo’s textures look, how angular its characters are.
The rush to market to be the first next-gen console, coupled with a hugely ambitious near-simultaneous worldwide release, has done Microsoft few favours. While the company would deny it, the 360 launch has been blighted with problems. Jump into any gaming message board and chances are that you’ll find somebody complaining about having to send their console back and get a replacement. More likely, you’ll find entire threads dedicated to the subject.
Just two months after the machine hit shop shelves, an automatic, forced-download update was released over Xbox Live in an attempt to stop the frequent crashes that a large number of users had been experiencing when exiting to the dashboard from within certain games. And a week on from the update (at time of writing) people are still having problems ‘ I’ve had all three of the 360 titles I currently own crash on me in different circumstances. Some have clearly been the result of jumping into the dash directly from a game, the very fault that the patch was supposed to fix (tellingly, you quickly develop a sort of precognisance with regards to software crashes, being able to predict with some measure of accuracy when your actions will lead to a freeze). Others have looked worryingly like hardware issues ‘ the disc stopping spinning in the drive mid-load, that sort of thing. Seamus Blackley would have baulked at all of this, and rightly so, because patches begat laziness and, aside from the rush to get it to market, it’s the 360’s nature as a multi-media player ‘ the thing Blackley demanded the original Xbox not be turned into, remember ‘ that’s to blame for these faults.
As such, the 360 is difficult to recommend wholeheartedly to anybody at this point in its life. Some of the games are excellent, but none of them does anything ‘ bar tarted-up graphics ‘ that couldn’t be done on the original Xbox. Whether developers can use the improved tech for anything other than snazzy visual effects remains to be seen, but it’s already looking doubtful. Where are the new experiences? Where is the launch title that clearly introduces new gaming concepts that weren’t possible during the last generation? Missing in action, it seems.
But one thing is for sure: Xbox Live on the 360 is a superb service. It allows for the segregation of players who consider themselves ‘pros’ (gag) from those who play games for purely recreational purposes, you can download playable demos of the latest games for free and there are also the hugely addictive boasting rights of badges of achievement for accomplishing certain tasks in every game. And if you’re unlikely to take the console online, then you may as well spend your money on something else, Live being such an integral part of the package.
If you must have a 360 then nothing said here will make any difference to your decision. Make sure to get the Premium pack, though ‘ the inclusion of the hard drive, high definition TV cable, headset and wireless controller means that it works out cheaper than the bare-bones Core pack. The hard drive, in particular, is an absolute necessity.
Those who are less convinced, however, would be recommended to wait for a while to see if Microsoft can sort out the damaging technical issues. The ‘300 price tag (for that essential Premium pack) coupled with the risk of it going wrong is a bit much for many. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a console that I’m so scared of turning on for fear of finding out that it’s randomly decided to give up the ghost. You may also be better off waiting for a more convincing line-up of software. There are great titles already available, but there’s at least an equal number of deeply mediocre ones. Does the software library really benefit from having a barely-improved version of Gun included? Quake 4 may look nice in still images, but suffers from an inconsistent frame rate and gameplay that hasn’t changed in the decade since Quake 2 – and yes, in this case that is a bad thing.
Ultimately, of course, the most accurate appraisal of the console will only be made once it has a full and complete library of software. Just as it’s coming to the end of its life, then. Peculiar business, videogames.