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Thursday, September 14, 2006

This just in: Xbox 360 is cool.

Okay, by "cool," I don't mean "iPod" cool. Not cool in the "cool kids at school" sense of the word. But cool to a gaming nerd like me who was kind of skeptical of Microsoft in the whole video game console enterprise.

Some background: I had an Xbox, modded with a 120 GB hard drive. It was pretty sweet. I lost it in the fire that trashed my former apartment. I always liked it, but it didn't hold the same place in my heart as the Dreamcast or my Gamecube. The Cube was the first system I repurchased (my games survived the carnage with a little cleaning).

Xbox always seemed to be sort of the hottest car in DuBuque, Iowa. A great ride, but nowhere to go. It was certainly the most powerful of the last-gen consoles. When you found compelling software to run on it (like DOA3 or Ninja Gaiden), it could blow the doors off its competition in terms of graphics. However, it was always kind of lacking in terms of variety and original titles. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was cool, but kind of just a watered-down PC game, really. I never liked Halo, as I think FPS games for the most part are a silly exercise in controller-wrestling on a console. There has not been one console FPS which has bested the mouse-keyboard combo. Everything else worthwhile on the Box was just a port. Grand Theft Auto never looked or played better, but it could be had on PS2. Same for games like SSX, Midnight Club, Burnout, etc.

But, as I've rebuilt my life and finances after losing a lot, I had some free dough to drop, and wanted to finish GTA:San Andreas and KOTOR2. So I got the 360, since it emulates original Xbox games in software. I bought the Premium console used on EBay, with the hard drive and wireless controller. To round it out, I got Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion and DOA4 to test out the new hardware, too.

And you know what? I love the darn thing.

First off, I think the most important 'cool' aspect of the 360 is HD gaming. Pure and simple - once you play in widescreen 720p, it's hard to see much of a point in playing any way else. Of course, I still love my Cube games like Pikmin and Metroid Prime, but I always played them in stretch mode on my widescreen LCD anyway. Having games run in 720p natively is the way it ought to be. Text is clear and crisp, resolution and alaising are things of the past, it just kicks ass.

The wireless controllers are neat, too. The 360's standard wireless pad feels great (an improvement on the Xbox's "S" controller, which was pretty great to begin with), and works well wirelessly. It recharges its NiMH battery via USB - I've never played long enough to test the battery life. What this really does is free you up in terms of console placement and seating. I have my console above my LCD monitor - which would be impossible with a cord dangling down.

Xbox Live is integrated right into the dashboard of the console, and really feels like an integrated, well thought out part of the experience, not just a pointless add-on. The OS on the 360 is elegant. I never thought I'd say such a thing about a Microsoft OS. It's clearly laid out, simple, but gives you a lot of options. Game demos are downloadable for free, and add-on packs can be purchased with credit card. Arcade games can also be downloaded for about $5. When it comes down to it, it really is another level of content and service, which hasn't really existed in consoles before - even if you never play against someone else online, which I haven't yet.

So far, the horsepower of the console impresses, as well. Apparently, it has a three-CPU core, with three processors running at 3.2 Ghz apiece, along with an ATI graphics chip, and 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM shared between the two. If you aren't hip to the techno babble, this makes the Xbox360 nearly as powerful as a high-end gaming PC which would run you $2000 or more. To me, this is an extremely attractive aspect of the console - you essentially get a kick-ass gaming machine for $400, which you don't have to upgrade at all and can run all the current games in their full visual glory with no compatibility issues. Previous consoles were always 2 or 3 years behind the cutting edge of PC gaming - 2000's PS2 had a 294 Mhz processor and 32 MB of system RAM, for instance - specs that were already sorely dated in the PC world by1998.

This horsepower is evident in the games, as well. ES4:Oblivion is a deep, complex, "Lord of the Rings"-style RPG with graphics that rival the best PC games on the market today and gameplay complexity to match. DOA4, on the other hand, is a refinement of the console fighting game with the best graphics yet seen, matched with typically fluid control. That said, though, it's not as though there has been anything utterly mind-blowing graphically. It's just that consoles have finally caught up with PCs, and can run it on an HD set.

All in all, I'm stoked about the system's potential. While the original Xbox didn't have a ton of exclusive titles, it did have every cross-platform title out there, and usually the best version graphically. If the 360 even achieves this, it will be gaming bliss. I get the feeling, though, given the PS3's delays and pricing woes ($600!), and the Wii's essential uniqueness, that the 360 is positioned to have the best slate of games for the foreseeable future.


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