Editors Note: This article was originally going to go up last week on the actual anniversary of the Xbox 360 launch but holiday travel and tryptophan prevented it from getting completed on time.
The Xbox 360 is officially one year old and one week old which in console years means it is just over 20 years old (assuming a four or five year life console lifecycle). Just think by December it’s going to be legal for the Xbox 360 to buy alcohol without using a fake Gamertag. This time last year people were getting home, plugging in their high definition consoles, and firing up Call of Duty 2, Project Dark Zero, Kameo, or one of several other launch titles. Some of those people even took their console online and downloaded an amazingly addictive game called Geometry Wars Evolved (a few sites called this game the best reason to get the console). Who am I kidding, let's be brutally honest here. This time last year most people were either freezing their asses off in line to get one or trying to buy one on eBay.
Outside of hardware shortages the the Xbox 360 launch wasn't perfect as a couple of key titles slipped. Dead or Alive 4 shipped a month later and the amazing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion slipped until the end of the first quarter of 2006. Still the system launched with 18 retail titles and the lineup really didn't suck that badly as far as launch lineups go. Sure you had a few crummy ports like Gun and Tony Hawk but there were still a decent core of exclusive games that showed off what the system could do. Project Gotham Racing 3 featured jaw dropping visuals and a lot of cool online modes while Rare's Kameo wasn't nearly as bad as most people expected it to be(except for the damn water boss, I still get pissed off thinking about that nearly a year later).
One thing that gamers noticed quickly was that Microsoft's new white console wasn't exactly the quietist thing in the world and while most people didn't notice this while killing Nazi's or saving magical kingdoms, the noise was quite noticeable when playing quieter games like Sega's Condemned: Criminal Origins. Under high loads the roar of the fans and the rumble of the DVD player made the device hard to ignore, even from across a living room.
As with a lot of new hardware, the first few batches off the assembly line proved to have more than their share of "quirks". Early on there were a lot of problems and the "ring of death" as the systems overheated. Microsoft was pretty classy about the whole thing and had a pretty good replacement policy in place and even copped to the defects earlier this year and refunded costs for the early adopters. Thankfully I have never had any problems with my unit (knock on wood).
After learning their lesson with the enormous "Duke" controller Microsoft provided gamers with one of the best controllers on the market. Hands down Microsoft came up with a controller that feels right,has a decent rumble and long battery life. Microsoft's mechanism of allowing you to sync the device with the console is easily the best of the three next generation consoles as you just have to push a button on the top of the controller to sync controller with console. The only real limitation here is that the console is limited to four controllers but that seems to be the industry standard right now. .
Besides the excellent new controller Microsoft has rolled out some pretty kick ass accessories for the 360. I’m a big fan of the VGA cable which has helped my relationship with my girlfriend out tremendously by allowing me to go upstairs and play games on my Dell monitor and not interrupt her while she watches her stories on the big screen TV.
Microsoft has also recently released a new wireless headset, steering wheel, and HD DVD player and while I haven’t had a chance to try these out in person the reviews around the internet have been fairly positive.
The only thing that’s really lacking from the 360 hardware portfolio right now is a bigger hard drive. Users have had to deal with a 20 gigabyte ceiling (assuming they have a premium or purchased the add on drive) and they can really only access about 13 of so of that due to overhead for the system. With Microsoft now releasing bigger and bigger demos and high definition content (TV and movies), the 13 gigabytes isn’t a lot of head room.
One final peeve about Microsoft’s accessory line is that they are not sharing the wireless protocol they are using for their devices. This means that no other company can manufacture wireless devices for the system. Companies like Red Octane who will not be able to produce a wireless guitar controller when Guitar Hero ships for the 360 next year. I get that you want to keep some things to yourself but it seems a bit much when you can get a wireless controller for a last gen system like the PS2 but not one for the Xbox 360.
We've come a long way since the system first graced entertainment centers around the world and “Gamerscores” and “Achievements” have become a common discussion point when talking about your progress in a game. In some cases the discussion isn't necessarily about where you are in a game but what achievements you've gotten so far. I know I've checked out the achievements of friends to see where they are. Hell, I have to admit a bit of Gamerscore envy when checking out friends with a Gamerscore in the five digit range. It's hard to play any game now without expecting to see the little "Achievement Unlocked" window popping up at some point even when playing games on other systems. It's hard not to be disappointed when you complete a level or discover a secret alcove somewhere and not get rewarded for it. I'm pretty stoked that Microsoft will be porting this over to the PC side next year with their Live Anywhere program as I may finally catch up to Dan.
Backwards compatibility is something of a sore spot with 360 owners as well. Microsoft promised the moon and delivered Apollo 13. While a lot of major titles now have backwards compatibility patches, there are still a lot of popular games out there that have yet to receive their call to fame and like the astronauts they can see the goodness that is backwards compatibility in the Nintendo Wii and PS3 but can't quite touch it. I realize this is mostly a technical issue and a lot of developers did some cool programming tricks to get their game running on the old system, tricks that make it exceedingly difficult to port to the next generation system but it's still a bit of a sore spot and it seems to have completely slipped off Microsoft's radar.
Going into the launch we knew that Microsoft's Xbox Live service was going to be rock solid Microsoft hasn't let anyone down. With easy to use friends lists, leader boards, and easy communication between users Xbox Live is still the best online service of any next gen system. Not only can you send and receive messages through the console but you can also access a lot of the tools through Xbox.com. This might not sound like a lot but for those who hate using on screen keyboards to send messages, this is a real bonus. Plus it's nice to be able to check who's online before logging in so you can see if there's anyone you want to frag before you turn on your console.
With the 360 Xbox Live added two new major areas of functionality, Xbox Live Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade. Xbox Live Marketplace was touted as the major harbinger of Micro transactions, a way to buy small bits of content without having to fork over a ton of dough. For the most part this is still an on going experiment as publishers are still feeling there way around what is and isn't going to sell. A good example of this is Bethesda's ongoing content packs for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The first release of decorative armor for the system was widely ridiculed as a waste of time and money and even something that maybe should have been included with the game but since then Bethesda has come out with better content at better price points. Their latest Knights of the Nine patch included a ton of new content along with all the old content for $10 and I think that feels about right. I expect another year or so of this feeling out process until the supply and the demand lines find a nice place to cross.
Any discussions about micro transactions wouldn't be complete without talking about what Electronic Arts is doing with their recent releases for the 360. Electronic Arts has started offering gamers the ability to buy cheat codes and shortcuts through Xbox Live Marketplace. This is nothing new except for the fact that these codes are available for free on the the previous gen versions of the game.. I'd like to think that EA is also just experimenting with the new technology as well but it doesn't necessarily feel as innocent as what Bethesda has been going through. This feels a little worse and even exploitive but that might just be some of my pre-conceived notions of EA seeping in. Time will tell how well this will add to the system as future games are already working on jacking into the system with upcoming games like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto IV promising to release new content after the launch of the system through XBLM.
Xbox Live Arcade was the other big promise of online goodness from Microsoft. What started as a collection of titles at retail on the Xbox turned into a wonderful place for niche and retro games on the Xbox 360. It was a little rough at the start as new content was few and far between but with Microsoft releasing new games on a weekly basis the service has finally gotten into a rhythm. Outside of Geometry Wars Evolved there really hasn't been one ginormous hit or the service. Sure there have been a few good titles (including the excellent port of Doom) but there really hasn't been that one game that creates a monster buzz about the service. That looks to change with some of the upcoming games such as Roboblitz and Castle Crashers.
Of course one of the big knocks against Microsoft’s Xbox Live service is that you have to pay a fee to play against people online and that was about it in terms of benefits. Microsoft recently added the benefit of allowing their premium members first access to demos and some content and while it’s a nice start and I’m hoping that Microsoft has a more things up their sleeves. It would be nice to get just a little bit more for my annual fee such as a few free MS points or a free Xbox Live game when I renew my membership
OK so we’re on the third page of this article and I haven’t talked about the games yet. Well now you know how most Xbox 360 owners felt as it took a while for the really good games to come out. After a somewhat slow the really next gen games started to become available. Games like Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Dead Rising, and most recently Gears of War finally showed what the unit was capable of.
There is one area where Microsoft has absolutely outclassed the competition and that is their community support. It’s very apparent that Microsoft is listening to their customers in what information they provide online and the patches they release for the console. Currently Microsoft is committed to two major patches for the system a year. The first patch added the mostly commonly sought feature of the 360, the ability to queue downloads and download items in the background while the second re-organized the systems user interface making it easier to find and download new content.
Microsoft’s real ace though is their growing brigade of bloggers who are a wealth of information about what’s going on within the halls up in Redmond. You have jean short hating Xbox Live editor Trixie
, the PR folk over at the Gamerscore
blog, and the alpha blogger Major Nelson
. These folks tirelessly let people know what’s going on with the system and what they can expect. I think the military is taking skin samples from Major Nelson for development in next generation tanks as the guys skin has been hardened from the blasts of fanboys over the last two years. It’s great to get such inside vision into a company and know that there are such good people working tirelessly to help make sure we have the best experience possible with our expensive little systems.
What does the next year have in store? Well obviously digital content such as TV and movies are going to be a big deal (assuming Microsoft can get those servers running smoothly and release bigger hard drives). I know I can stream it from my PC but I’d love to have Major Nelsons’ podcast automatically downloaded to my 360 every week. I’d also like to see Microsoft resist the temptation to cram a browser into the system as I know they are going to get pressure to do so with the Wii and the PS3 having that built in. Instead I’d love to have a simple, easy to use RSS reader that can stream headlines along the bottom of the screen when I’m in the dashboard.
Game wise I think Microsoft has an amazing lineup of games coming up with Alan Wake, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto IV, and that one game with the guy in the funny armor and the ringed worlds. So yeah, it should be a hell of a year now that we’ve gotten past a few of the first year bumps.