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Microsoft's attempt at bringing together media and games may be questionable, however there's little doubt the 360 is a classy videogame console...
Microsoftâ??s first attempt at targeting the kids and not the collars didnâ??t go as badly as many first predicted prior to the North American launch of the Xbox in 2001. In a strange twist of fate Microsoft and Xbox managed to sell itself to a stable hardcore audience, whilst riding on the ripple of the Dreamcastâ??s recent demise. Expanding upon SEGAâ??s design to bring online gaming to a console audience, the belated arrival of Xbox Live has done much to bring gamers together, although the execs at Seattle will be the first to admit thereâ??s still plenty more to do. The inclusion of a hard-drive within the console was rarely taken advantage of from a gameâ??s design, however it did consign memory cards to the past and bring Xbox Live to life â?“ along with the numerous updates and premium content that followed.
Not that Microsoft succeeded at everything it tried, itâ??s first attempt at a joypad met with universal disdain (bar one solitary individual), however the US giant quickly responded bringing the remodelled Controller-S to the market that maintained its predecessors strengths with racers and first-person-shooters but doesnâ??t require gigantism to enjoy. The widespread failure to interest Japanese gamers was also cause for concern, admittedly the Japanese videogame market may be shrinking but the support of Japanâ??s many developers cannot be understated.
With Xbox 360 Microsoft hopes to expand upon its predecessor, targeting a casual audience as the means to getting into more homes. The entire strategy behind Xbox 360, from its MTV unveiling to the two-tiered pricing structure, has been designed around this, but often at the cost of the hardcore â??bread and butterâ? gamers. So with the first stage of the worldwide launch about to commence can the Xbox 360 bridge the gap between hardcore and casual, expand upon its predecessors legacy and make the most of its headstart.
Sleek, Sexy But What The Hell Is That???
Despite its deceptive curves the Xbox 360 shares a similar stature to its bulky predecessor, particularly when youâ??ve got a hulking AC Adaptor to find somewhere to hide. Although the 360 has some of the most durable power and a/v cables youâ??re likely to see outside of a construction site itâ??s a relief to find other wires consigned to the box, with the introduction of wireless joypads, remote controllers and Wi-Fi adaptors. Admittedly Microsoft cannot lay claim to being the first, however theyâ??ve taken it to the next level and generally to good effect. Powered by two AA batteries or a rechargeable lithium battery pack, playing without wires is not entirely new but itâ??s nonetheless welcome and achieved to great effect.
A lot has already been made of Faceplates and the Removable HDD, youâ??ll live in fear the first moment you take a Faceplate from the 360, worrying that the brittle clips will soon snap however the HDD slides on and off with ease and feels satisfactorily snug â?“ not that youâ??ll be doing this a lot. The optional nature of the HDD is of some continued concern and it will be interesting to see how developers fare in the years to come; more significantly Microsoftâ??s intentions will be important, will larger HDD that facilitate full game downloads be too far away?
Much like the console, the pad is sleek, streamlined and white â?“ so about as far removed from the original Xbox as you could imagine. Microsoftâ??s designers have stripped away the remaining bulk from the Controller-S redesign, expanded the curves and replaced unwieldy black & white buttons with PS2 styled right and left bumper buttons. It may offer little revolution to the way we play games but it most certainly feels comfortable, which is all you want when getting stuck into a 9-hour romp of Perfect Dark Zero.
The Xbox 360 marks a significant point in Microsoftâ??s strategy towards moving out of the study and into the living room. The dashboard offers far more in terms of console interfaces then anything seen before it and owes much to the design of Windows Media Center. Housing Microsoftâ??s latest source of revenue in the Xbox Live Marketplace (remember to bring your wallet full of Microsoft Points), Xbox Live Arcade, streaming Media capabilities and placing the emphasis on gamers creating their online identities.
Split into four different sections Xbox 360 presents an encompassing experience even before a game has been put in the drive, the dashboard features a sensible and attractive design that masks a wealth of different features.
Importantly the Xbox Live tab allows newcomers to sign up immediately to the online service or take advantage of the free Silver package, whilst veterans can effortlessly transfer GamerTagâ??s and accounts onto the 360 via a quick authentication process. Thereâ??s much more to being an Xbox Live gamer then just a GamerTag with the 360; Profile Pictures provide the type of customisation favoured by forums for the last six years; Mottos the means to sharing some wise words and Rep which is earned and lost on the gaming battlegrounds based upon other gamerâ??s feedback. GamerScore is one of the most exciting introductions to the Xbox 360, pitting various challenges before the player in 360 and Xbox Live Arcade titles to earn Achievement awards and scores. Based upon this the 360 dash also allows you to compare your GamerScore on particularly titles with other gamers, putting an end to the debates as to whoâ??s better on PGR3 or PDZ before theyâ??ve even started.
The biggest addition however is the inclusion of Xbox Live Marketplace, an area for the conglomerate to make even more money but one that serves a worthwhile purpose. Tapping once again into the concept of customisation Xbox Live Marketplace provides a spot to offer a constant supply of Gamer Pictures and Themes to customise the dashboard with, sometimes free of charge often at a nominal fee. More substantially the Marketplace provides the chance to try out new games before a purchase thanks to the Demo and Trailer downloads, along with the ability to download new content for 360 titles such as themed packs for Kameo.
More significantly the Marketplace expands upon the possibilities of Xbox Live Arcade after an ill-fated attempt on the Xbox. Provided the momentum continues Xbox Live Arcade provides the place for indie developers and publishers with rich back catalogues alike to bring their games to you. Initially housing such classics as Midwayâ??s Gauntlet and Joust to GarageGames maddeningly addictive Marble Blast, itâ??s hardly the reason to invest in a 360 but it does provide a new layer to what the console brings. Tied into the concept of Achievements and GamerScores, playing Gauntlet whilst listening to Radioheadâ??s Kid A album proves to be quite a surreal bout of nostalgia and given the catalogue expanding nature could create something very worthwhile to the ageing gamer out there. The level of support for the early titles is surprisingly strong with online multiplayer support, leaderboards and occasionally enhanced visuals. A free trial version lacks the ability to receive Achievement awards, upload scores and other restrictions, however the ability to largely play without the perks for free is a welcoming idea that elevates the service to its true potential â?“ lets just have more Retro classics as soon as possible.
Money, Money, Moneyâ?¦
Attempting to bring an end to the credit card requirements of Xbox Live and streamline the process of emptying out your bank account, Microsoft has invented the concept of the originally titled Microsoft Point â?“ a notion it claims as being â??the new coin of the Xbox Live Marketplace realmâ?. You get quite a lot of Microsoft Points to your money, with charges going straight to a Credit Card account or by purchasing and redeeming vouchers at participating retailers. At the time of writing 500 Microsoft Points costs £4.25; 1000 for £8.50; 2000 for £17.00 and an almighty 5000 Points for £42.50 although thereâ??s little incentive to go for the larger packs; typically Xbox Live Arcade titles cost in the region of 400 â?“ 800 points (approximately £3.40 - £6.80), whilst Themes for the desktop cost 150 Microsoft Points (£1.28) and Gamer Pictures vary from 20, 40 to 80 Points dependant upon complexity. Currently the only downloadable content available via the Marketplace is a Winter Warrior Pack for Kameo, which brings a festive style to the characters attire for 200 Microsoft Points (£1.70).
Thereâ??s little denying the ability to expand upon your favourite game is worth the cost, however whether Microsoftâ??s original vision of user-to-user transactions ever materialises remains slightly more questionable then before.
Music, Games & Videosâ?¦
The various little touches to appeal to gamers are worthwhile and a smart move so itâ??s a little disappointing to find the Media capabilities somewhat restricted unless youâ??re willing to invest in Windows Media Center technology. Split into Music, Photos and Video, if youâ??re an owner of XP and an upgrade to SP2 youâ??ll be able to stream music tracks and photos from a computer on the network and a relatively quick download. To make the most and watch/record analog and HD-TV on the 360 you will however have to own a Windows Media Center PC; a product hanging in the shadows until a penetration surge buoyed by recent Microsoft concessions. Whether or not Microsoftâ??s future vision of entertainment develops along with the penetration of Windows Media Center PCs and later with the release of Windows Vista will be interesting to see, particularly so given the rich claims that occasionally urge forth from Sonyâ??s camp.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the 360â??s media capabilities so far is Jeff Minterâ??s interactive, trip-inducing visualizer, which allows you to have a certain degree of control over a near limitless number of variations â?“ in the right conditions and setup itâ??s unbelievably mesmerising and without doubt the greatest playback on a console to date.
Connecting iPodâ??s, Digital Cameras and PSPs is an effortless task thanks to the three USB ports and wide recognition, whilst the ability to play your own music in videogames is a smart touch enhanced by the introduction of The Guide.
Popping up as a sidebar whenever the Guide button surrounded by the magical Ring of Light is pressed, The Guide brings essential actions to the player regardless of whether youâ??re playing Project Gotham Racing 3 or watching a DVD, keeping you in touch with Xbox Live
Iâ??ll leave comments about the 360â??s ability to deliver what we expect from next-gen games to the reviews themselves, however thereâ??s little doubt it manages to bring enough of a difference in the 6+ months it will take for the competition, particularly so if youâ??re willing to invest in a HD setup. Rest assured if youâ??ve yet to take the plunge 360 titles still inspire awe, visualising touches such as individual beads of sweat and parallax mapping aplenty. More to the point, the well documented intensity of developers to get titles ready and the alleged dev-kit issues should ensure that 360 titles only look better and better for a while to come.
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