Sometimes you just have to hand it to Microsoft – this is a hard review to write because quite honestly, Microsoft is about to revolutionize the way you play games online, and this is not hyperbole.
I’ve been beta testing Xbox Live since August with a tens of thousands of other subscribers. I’ve been thoroughly impressed at the lack of lag, the clarity of voice response and the top notch gameplay.
First, let’s take a look at what came with my kit:
Keep in mind that this was a beta kit – your retail kit will look slightly different. Specifically, your retail kit will only have one CD ( a bonus NFL Fever Live Edition
CD was included in the beta) and you won’t have your GamerTag engraved on the headset, nor will you receive the memory card.
Here’s what’s in the retail package:
Xbox Live CD with Moto GP, Whacked and movies of Xbox Live games NFL Fever & MechAssault as well as an Xbox Live movie showing a guy getting his butt kicked in NFL Fever.
The headset plugs into a nifty looking card that fits in your Xbox controller. The nifty looking card has a button and a volume control. The button will make an LED change color from red to green on the nifty card. Red means your voice is muted (no one can hear you online), and green means you’re talking to the world. No other power input is necessary – you’ll be using the Xbox’s electrical power for the headset.
Because I was provided a press account for Xbox live, I didn’t partake in the setup of my account. I am told that you’ll need a credit card and a gamertag of your choosing to sign up. BE CAREFUL when choosing a GamerTag – you’ll be committed to that for life (unless you purchase a new starter kit), so if you’re an idiot and say, choose a GamerTag that has the name of a now defunct website that you ran, you are stuck with it. Oh well.
Even though you did purchase the Xbox Live system for $50 which included one year of service, you’ll still need to enter a valid credit card upon sign up. Sorry, that’s the breaks. Also, you’ll need to enter your Xbox Live subscription code, which is reminiscent of one of those CD Keys and is a real pain to enter when you don’t have a keyboard.
Once you put the disc in the drive and sign up, the Xbox Live beta disc will update your Xbox console adding a new tab on the dashboard, called “Xbox Live” interestingly enough. When you select this tab, you can edit any of your IP settings and make sure that Xbox Live is online and working. Personally, I recommend using a router especially if your PC is next to your Xbox so you aren’t flipping connections back and forth. Router setup is very easy – setting up my Xbox online was a lot easier than setting up my PS2 – at least that’s the way it felt to me.
You can always check the official Xbox site
for additional network setup instructions.
Once you’re signed up, go ahead and put on the funky headset. When I say funky, it’s because it doesn’t go ‘over’ your head as traditional headphones do – check this out
and you’ll see what I mean. All set. Phew. Now it's time to play games.
If you don't have any games that are already Xbox Live enabled, you can play the two demo games that are included with the kit: Moto GP and Whacked. Acclaim's Re-Volt was included in the original beta, but Microsoft had stated it was for the beta only and now is nowhere to be found (which is too bad -- I'd rather play Re-Volt online than Whacked any day).
MotoGP is a motorcycle racing game that was released by THQ in the Spring. The demo version offers only a few tracks but does allow up to 16 racers on the track which is very cool. If you have the original Moto GP, you'll be able to play on any track -- the retail version effectively 'unlocks' all the tracks for Xbox live. Can you say "clever marketing tool"? I knew you could. The offline game of Moto GP was very good and online, it's even better. The fact that not only can you race pretty much lag free is complimented by being able to trash talk your opponents as you cross the finish line. It's all good.
On the other hand we have Whacked! which is a cute attempt at a game show but is actually more like a revamped Cel Damage game. Basically it's a game where you're beating up your opponents to capture the flag or stay king of the hill or get the most tokens or whatever. It's been done before and there's not much depth here. Personally, I'd rather have seen Re-Volt than Whacked! here because I still enjoy the Dreamcast game from a few years back, so Whacked! is getting my venting here. It's not a horrible game, it does have it's moments, but it's no Re-Volt.
After playing online for a while, you'll find some regulars. One of the great features of Xbox live is that you don't have to remember GamerTags -- various menus within each XBL game will show both a 'friends' list which is a list of people (similar to MSN Messenger) that you have added. You'll also see a list of people you've recently played games with -- which comes in very handy if you want to leave feedback on that dolt who just disconnected midway through NFL Fever. Just like eBay, Xbox Live allows you to post feedback on gamers -- so not only will you know if they disconnected -- you'll also know if they are viewed unfavorably by other gamers. (Feedback is limited -- you can't type anything you want, you'll have a few standard feedback messages). You can ask one of your fellow gamers that you've recently played to become a friend as well, which is very cool. Once you have a gamer added to your friend list, you'll be able to see if they are logged on and what game they are playing, even if you're playing a different game.
If you have actual human friends over to play on your Xbox (and extra contollers, natch) they can play online as well -- even if they don't have their own XBL account. You can set them up as 'guests' and although their scores/gameplay won't affect rankings and they may not have voice capability, a 4 on 4 game is still pretty fun online. 4 on 1 is a lot of fun :). Now, if you're 'actual' friends have XBL accounts too, they can bring over a memory card from their house to yours with their gamertag and they can also bring over their headset and voila they can use their account on your Xbox. Neat, huh?
Once you have a gamer added to your friend list, you'll be able to see if they are logged on and what game they are playing, even if you're playing a different game. Prior to the formal launch of Xbox Live, I did have an opportunity to play Xbox Live enabled full version games. Here's my quick reviews:
NFL Fever 2003 (Microsoft): In our beta kit, we were able to play a crippled (online only) version of NFL Fever. We did encounter a stutter or two here and there but the gameplay itself wasn't affected -- I could kick fine, for example. This is a very 'arcade' football game, which can be a lot of fun online -- even a 38-7 blow out can turn into a tie game very fast as I soon found out. Most stores are selling this game at a modest $29.99 now, so based on that price point and the online features I'd give it a marginal buy rating for Xbox Live.
NBA 2K3 (Sega): Buy this now. NOW. If you're a sports fan, you need to buy this game. First off, it's NBA 2K3. It's hands down the best basketball game going. Next add the ESPN interface and the online play -- which is fantastic. After playing this game with the Xbox Communicator, you'll see why the experience is so worth it. One game I played as the Celtics vs. the despised Lakers. Unfortunately I did lose the game, but not before I was able to block a few shots and boy did my gamer friend and I have a good 'in your face' laugh at that. We both agreed that this is probably one of the best multiplayer experiences we've had.
NFL 2K3 (Sega): At the onset of the beta test, getting this game to work was very difficult. Fortunately for us, as we got closer to the live date, we were able to sign on with ease and play the game. Again, there's something special about laughing in your opponent's ear when you get that wide open pass downfield. I still don't like the "reticule play targeting" system of NFL 2K3, but the game is a lot of fun and absolutely makes you forget about Madden when playing online. Again, if you like a 'simulation' of 'real' football, this game is another recommended buy.
MechAssault (Microsoft) - Right before the launch we received our retail copy of MechAssault and were able to play online for a few hours before the official launch. If you're not into sports games and are into blowing stuff up, this is definitely the game for you. Every game was a blast in more ways than one. You have up to eight players online in a game and my favorite is Team Destruction where you have to kill more of your opponent then they do you up to a kill limit of course. Gameplay was easily the smoothest online I've seen on Xbox Live. Very easy to get into and the graphics are amazing. If you've played Mech games before, no doubt you'll enjoy this one.
Just like the sports games, there are killboard rankings which is a nice touch. As of the day before the official launch there are already people with over 500 kills. I hope they are programmers and do this for a living, otherwise you'd wonder what these people are doing all day :).
Other games such as Unreal Tournament and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon are scheduled to be released at Xbox Live launch, but we were unable to procure copies ahead of time for testing.
Occasionally on every game I'd run into a little bump here and there -- maybe a stuck animation on an inbounds pass in NBA or a stutter on a running play in NFL Fever. Interestingly enough, during this little stutter I'd still have a clear voice conversation, so we could both say we were experiencing lag in the games but not on voice -- makes you wonder if voice is run under a separate layer in Xbox Live.
Using the voice communicator is very easy -- if you can speak into a microphone, you can handle it. Just make sure to hit the mute button unless you actually want to say something to your opponent, otherwise he or she will find out how whipped you are when you have to say "okay honey, I'll take the dog out and set the table now" -- definitely a big no no when playing online.
If you have concerns about your voice not being too 'guy' enough, you can mask your voice with numerous options (depending on the game) -- you can sound like a robot, a 'cheerleader', or turn off masking altogether. It's a nice idea for protecting the youngsters and/or protecting the adults. Another feature of Xbox Live will be downloadable content. Games like NFL Fever will have roster updates and others such as Splinter Cell and Toe Jam & Earl 3 will have optional downloadable content including new levels and what not. During the beta, we couldn't find new Toe Jam content, but we have seen new rosters for Sega's NFL2K3. According to the Xbox live website, some material will be pay per download, but you'll always be notified that there will be a fee associated with this ahead of time (hence the reason you have to supply a credit card at sign up).
For me personally, I think that Xbox live will be a deciding factor when I'm at my local gamestore to see which game I'll buy -- especially in those genres where there are multiple games (football comes to mind -- are you reading this EA?). The one solution and the one backbone of Xbox Live really work to the benefit of all users of the service as you know Microsoft will support it and every game will have pretty much the same user interface to login.
The bottom line is that if you own and Xbox and have broadband (ie cable modem, DSL) internet access, you absolutely positively must get Xbox Live. Xbox Live does not support dial up as Microsoft chose to build their broadband gaming network from the ground up and make it an all or nothing proposition for the high speed gamers, which makes sense considering that Xbox seems to be marketed to the more 'hardcore' fan(read: gamers who don't normally buy Shrek).
I hope to see you online! Feel free to add me to your list and whip my butt in football like everyone else seems to be doing. My GamerTag is GamePenDan (boy I'll never live that one down)....