First Look at the Xbox 360

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Xbox 360
After months of contrived viral marketing campaigns and fluffy monologues from James Allard, the Xbox 360 launch has finally occurred. If you are among those who preordered months ago or if you endured a long wait at a Wal-Mart to snap up a unit the moment it arrived, the question of buying is irrelevant. For many others, the big question lingers: Is the $300 investment worth every cent? (For more of GamePro's coverage of the Xbox 360, go here.)

Microsoft's much-touted backward-compatibility is far from universal with the Xbox 360. For one thing, a slew of major franchises are missing from its list of compatible titles: Dead or Alive 3 is compatible but its sequel, Dead or Alive Ultimate, isn't. Splinter Cell, Burnout, and Soul Calibur II don't make the list at all. And you need to download a patch to play Halo 2 online.

Major shortcomings aside, the Xbox 360 does play compatible titles smoothly. Though Microsoft claims to enhance Xbox games with 4x anti-aliasing and 720p resolution, our prepatched Halo 2 shows a negligible visual upgrade. This, of course, is set to change with the console launch, with Microsoft offering a massive download intended to improve the look of games--and hopefully extend that inadequate compatibility list to include more high-profile games.

Thankfully, none of Halo 2's sharp controls get lost to the Xbox 360 controller, meaning games will feel the same as they do with the original Xbox.

Pleasing the Parents

The violent-content blame game could end with the Xbox 360 because the console integrates a robust control system that gives parents control over the games their kids can play. The Family Setting locks out content based on regional ratings systems for both games and movies, and regulates access to Xbox Live.

The password-protected system even allows parents to control access to specific Xbox Live areas such as downloadable content, friends lists, and online status. Microsoft has delivered by far the most versatile parental control system in a console to date.

Unifying the Online Front

The one area where the Xbox 360 could trump the PlayStation 3 is in the online experience. The best word to describe the online infrastructure? Organized.

The Xbox 360 features a convenient profile button (located on the center of the controller) that's accessible anytime--even when a game is loading. Profiles are divided into two subcategories: offline profiles and online Gamertags. The same profile can be used for every game, significantly simplifying save-game management. Xbox Live-enabled profiles have an easily accessible friends list and message box to allow users to communicate with each other even in the middle of a single-player campaign.

As with the original Xbox, you'll be able to send voice messages to your friends; as a result, coordinating online sessions is a lot easier than with a PlayStation 2. Still, don't expect an iPod-like user interface. The multitude of menus and dashboards can be cumbersome to navigate.

The main drawback of the online experience with the Xbox 360 is that you have to spring for the $400 premium pack to access anything worthwhile. Given that, realistically, you need a $40 memory card to play anything on the $300 version, Microsoft's two-model concept seems like a waste. It's especially aggravating when you see that in Japan the Xbox 360 bundle--which includes a hard drive--retails for about $330. If you want the most out of online, you have to opt for the $400 version.

Customize--But Don't Mod

Microsoft seems to have misunderstood the allure of customizing the Xbox--instead of mods for larger hard drives, the only options you get involve cosmetic changes. And changing faceplates is an unnerving experience.

To remove the stock fascia, you have to rip it away from a gap on the top of the console. The snapping sounds and the significant resistance from the plate are disturbing, but the result is a tight and consistent fit. Fortunately, the tabs on the faceplate's tabs are durable, and we haven't noticed any signs of wear on them after pulling the plate off a couple dozen times.

The Whole Package

So the $300 version is underwhelming--but how's the premium pack? Having been spoiled by the standard hard drive on the Xbox, we're hardly blown away by the $400 version. The Xbox 360 is undoubtedly cutting-edge, but it doesn't feel too far ahead of the curve compared to the lush HDR visuals in PC gaming.

The power comes at a cost to elegance, too. Though the pleasant platinum white exterior seemingly hides the brute-force internals of the hardware, the enormous AC adapter and the tray-loaded drive pale in sophistication next to the slot-loaded drives of the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution. And just imagine how big the console would be had the power brick been integrated.

Can the Xbox 360's shortcomings be remedied by the release of another console or by Microsoft's finally delivering a Halo 3? The final verdict must await the trials of coming years--the console wars have only begun.

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