Xbox 360 – why you should be looking at this and not the PS3

It’s the quintessence of gaming technology designed for all gaming enthusiasts and the casual gamer. Packing state of the art in high definition technology, online broadband connectivity, pure adrenaline pumped gaming action and some of the most recognised gaming titles that exist on the market today, yes, I’m talking about the Xbox 360.

Whilst I’m perhaps a little bit late in the game for posting this review, I only joined the 360 community last Christmas. Having played games on the original Xbox and of course my old PC, my expectations of the 360 were very high having drooled over the specs and game demos for a year. Let me tell you now. I was not prepared for what I saw and experienced.

If you’re looking to get either a PS3 or 360 and you’re in two minds about which one to get, then this review is definitely worth a read because I’m convinced that this is the winning platform and here are the reasons why…

Specification

Microsoft has gone for a proprietary chip for the 360 and employed IBMs help to create a 3 core chip running at 3.2GHz each and with 1MB of shared L2 cache. ATi/AMD have provided the graphics chip this time with a custom GPU that is capable of pumping out 500 million triangles per second and using 4x MSAA (Multi Sample Anti Aliasing). Both the graphics processor and CPU are supported with 512MB of GDDR3 RAM that is dynamically allocated to each part of the system, which combines to create 1 teraflop of system floating-point performance.

High definition support is what makes the latest generation of consoles that little bit more special. Both Microsoft and Sony are battling it out for the best platform for this type of gaming whilst Nintendo have gone down the gameplay route. The 360 is able to support HD resolutions of 720p or 1080i and with 1080p support coming along with the ‘Elite’ 360. At 720p or even 1080i, the quality of the graphics is more than enough to impress

Those are amazing figures in comparison to consoles of the previous generation and what it means for us, the gamers is some really incredible lighting effects, realistic physics and pure eye candy.

Controllers

The 360 can support up to 4 wireless controllers or alternatively you can connect via the USB ports on the front, but this limits you to just two controllers. The Core console pack comes with one wired controller whereas the Premium pack comes with one wireless controller, however the Play and Charge kit doesn’t come with it so you’ve either got to fork out for the batteries (lasting about 30 hours) or buy the Play and Charge kit which includes a set of rechargeable batteries and the cord for connecting to the USB port for charging and playing at the same time.

Rechargeable batteries are stated to last about 25 hours before they need topping up again, but since they’re nothing more special than a set of 2 NiMh batteries, you can buy these from anywhere, just make sure you get ones with decent capacity of 2500 mAh or more.

The white controller is lightweight and features rumble, something the PS3 lacks. A comfortable size and good placing of the buttons means you can play literally for a whole day without your hands getting tired.

Storage

Storage is done with a couple of options, first of all if you’ve gone for the Premium package you will get the 20GB hard drive in the box, Core console owners will have to make do with an optional purchase of a memory card. A third option is on the way in April with the ‘Elite’ 360 in black and comes with HDMI and a 120GB hard drive. Premium and Core 360 owners will be happy to know that they will be able to purchase the 120GB drive separately, which will include the cable for transferring the contents of your old drive on to the new one.

Game medium

Internally, the Xbox developers have gone for the safe route of putting in a Dual Layer DVD-ROM drive running at 12x. They’ve foregone putting an HD DVD or Blu-Ray drive inside and personally I don’t think they’ve regretted that decision nor suffered from it either, since the games speak for themselves. A separate HD DVD drive is available for purchase as an optional add-on for about £130 and launched last November and although there’s no talk of it at the moment, I can see the possibility of a Blu-Ray drive add-on coming down the line, especially since there’s now an HDMI port on at least one of the 360 models.

Networking

Wireless is also an optional facility, quite an expensive one bearing in mind. This 802.11a/b/g wireless adapter comes in at a shocking RRP of £59.99, now considering you can buy a USB adapter for your PC for about £20, that’s a considerable markup. Luckily, my 360 is situated next to my router so I use the faster option of an ethernet cable, which Microsoft includes a generous length CAT 5 cable in the box to hook up to Xbox Live. Using the network connection you can also connect to any Windows XP Media Center 2005 or Vista Home Premium and Ultimate to share content from your computer. For non Media Center and Vista owners out there I do believe there is third party work around and even a solution for the Mac to stream high-def content over to your big screen.

Accessories

Xbox Live Vision camera

Video chat and ‘face in game’ technology is what this accessory is all about. It’s not one that I have personally bought although there have been some really good deals knocking about on online retailers in hope to shift some of these cameras. If you’ve got other buddies that have a 360 and you want to do video chat rather than just voice conferencing then this is an ideal add on for you but if you’re buying it in hope of using it on games then you’ll be a little bit disappointed because for starters you wont find that many games support it.

A quick search on Google found that there’s really only a handful of games that have any true integration and a lot of these are the Xbox Live Arcade games such as Pinball, Uno and Spades. Ones that use face mapping are Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas, Football Manager 2007 and World Series of Poker. Hardly an inspiring list of games to choose from.

Games that take the concept introduced by Sony with the EyeToy camera and series of mini-games are available but again in a limited fashion with games like Rayman Raving Rabbids (much more fun on the Wii), Pinball FX and TotemBall. These games involve you moving about on camera and utilising the camera as a controller to interact with the gaming environment.

Overall a bit of a disappointment so far and I think it’s something that Microsoft Game Studios hasn’t really got behind. One nice thing I do have to say about it is that it has a 1.3 Megapixel resolution and video of 640 x 480 at 30 frames per second.

Wireless Headset

Perfect for the multiplayer online gamer, this mini headset pairs up with the 360 using nothing more than the existing wireless frequency that your controller already uses and allows you to speak to your allies or foes whilst playing online. This headset is more of a replacement for the wired-one that comes with the Premium 360 package and follows the same design stylings of the 360 and related peripherals with a mixture of white and grey plastics.

You can have up to 4 of these connected wirelessly to the 360 if you’re in to that kind of four way intense multiplayer action as well as use it for performing certain actions and commands in games.

Expect up to 8 hours of battery life and 30 feet range which is more than adequate for even the longest of gaming sessions.

Wireless Racing Wheel

I got the wireless racing wheel at Christmas at the same time as I got the 360 and it comes with a special optimised edition of Project Gotham Racing 3. The set comes complete with the wheel and pedals and is powered by a standard 3 pin socket. An RJ-type cable connection attaches the pedals to the main steering wheel unit where you can also plug in a set of headphones.

Pairing up with the 360 was relatively straightforward and operates in the same fashion as the normal wireless controller does. In the middle you have the buttons you normally find on your control pad minus the joysticks. The D-pad, X button, Select, Start and three coloured buttons are all present.

A table clamp is included to ensure that the whole thing stays down whilst your playing because if you don’t you end all over the room. My table wouldn’t allow me to clamp the wheel down so I had to put up with the struggle at first and it’s definitely a battle when the vibration in the wheel starts to kick in. I wouldn’t recommend getting this unless the table you are clamping it to is free of any lips on the underneath because the clamp isn’t designed to work with tables like this.

Testing the wheel on a table that did allow m to clamp the wheel down helped improved things drastically as I was now actually able to gain some control over the cars I was driving. Project Gotham Racing 3 works flawlessly with the wheel but it does take some getting used to.

First of all it isn’t like driving a real car. Of course when you turn left the car turns left but when you want to correct and turn right you have to turn the wheel all the way around or at least past the half way point. You can’t just make minor correct to the driving wheel because it doesn’t do anything! That was one thing that partly ruined the experience for me because I thought it would operate like you would expect it to.

The Xbox site states that PGR3, Need for Speed Carbon, Forza 2 and Test Drive Unlimited have full Force Feedback support for the racing wheel with authentic vibrating feedback that is designed to replicate real world driving conditions when you’re on the track.

This is for the hardcore racing gamers out there that want the true immersive racing experience and although the £80 is a steep price to pay for an accessory, it does come with a copy of Project Gotham Racing 3, which on its own is worth about £30-£40 so all in all it isn’t that bad.

HD DVD Player

Microsoft officially supports the HD DVD camp at the moment but never say never when it comes to Blu-Ray in the future because they’re definitely keeping their options open right now. This £130 add-on to the 360 allows you to play High Def movies that are on the HD DVD discs boasting true high definition quality.

Connect this drive up to your 360 using a mini USB to USB cable to the back and you will also find a 2 port USB hub on the rear of the HD DVD drive. The drive does require a mains adapter to be powered up. I guess we’re not quite at that stage where the drive runs small and cool enough to be bus powered on its own, because that would have been nice to have.

HD DVD titles range from £14.99 to £23.99 with the majority of them being £14.99 and £17.99. Premium titles that are major blockbusters like Mission Impossible 3 and Superman Returns come in at £23.99 on Play.com

If you’re not looking to invest in a dedicated HD DVD player for your HD TV then this isn’t a bad alternative that undercuts all other competitors.

The issue that does stand with this solution is the fact that the noise from the 360 isn’t exactly discreet and although you’ll probably be watching your movies with the speakers turned up

Xbox Live Marketplace

Xbox Live has got to be one of the biggest features and advantages of getting the 360 over any of the other current gen consoles. With a unified system that all games developers work from you can get access to a vast range of content through your broadband connection and a lot of it is free or on a trial basis.

I love watching game trailers for upcoming titles and this is something that Live is really good at, especially with the option to download in standard or high definition. These video clips are free and showcase current and upcoming titles and are a great way to show of the quality of your TV set.

There are options to purchase video content such as music videos and that can be done by purchasing points. In the U.S they have the ability to download HD movie and TV content, it’s basically an iTunes for the 360 and initial estimates show that this has shown some limited success in the short period of time it’s been running for. Rumour has it that a European launch for a video on demand service will be coming with the launch of the larger 120GB hard drive add on.

Other than videos, you can download little extras such as gamer pics, Dashboard themes and bonus unlocks in certain games.

You no longer have to wait for monthly editions of demo discs to arrive in the shops since you can now download the game demos straight to your hard drive. This has been a great feature for testing out games before you go out and buy them and they hit the market place as soon as they become available. I’m looking forward to playing a demo of Forza 2 which is meant to arrive sometimes in April. Game demos do vary in size from a few hundred megabytes to as much as one gigabyte. Fortunately, the Dashboard system works so well that it has the ability to pause downloads when you switch off the 360 as well as download in the background whilst your playing.

Xbox Live Arcade

Part of the Xbox Live Marketplace is the Arcade section where you can download arcade-type games using your Microsoft Points. Here are just some of the titles you can expect to se on there:

Worms
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
Pac Man
Street Fighter 2
Doom
Bejeweled
Contra

There’s loads of classic games on there, some of which are on the list above that you will recognise straight away. You can download a trial of all of these games completely free to try out and play a couple of the levels before you buy. A recent favourite of mine has to be Worms since it was one of the first PC games I ever played.

Old titles such as Doom have been remade to work on the 360 but retains the exact look and feel of the original but also includes modern amenities such as 1080i support, 5.1 surround sound and even Xbox Live 4 player mode!

Games such as Bejeweled are great fun and highly addictive and again has had the same HD treatment done to it with some cool backgrounds and a touch of special effects here and there.

The Live Arcade games adds to the fun factor of the 360 and further proves that it is not only great for hardcore 3D action, it’s also brilliant for when you want to just have a bit of light fun.

Coming soon…

The biggest news that has hit the web recently is the announcement from Microsoft that there would be a new edition added to the 360 console family with a third rendition. The new model will feature a black chassis and matching accessories with the major changes being the addition of a 120GB hard drive and an HDMI connection now finally available to support a true digital HD experience.

The sleek black edition called the ‘Elite’ is due for launch this Spring in the US at first with dates for the rest of the world yet to be announced. My ears will certainly be glued to the floor to see what sort of pricing strategy Microsoft will take with this, given that the Xbox is now over a a year and a half old with the pricing staying pretty much the same.

If you’ve not yet got a 360 yet, then the Elite model will definitely be worth waiting for but for existing owners I don’t think theirs much incentive to upgrade since the 120GB hard drive will be available as a separate purchase. There will no doubt be those who desire the best or the latest and will either have two 360’s or exchange their old one for a nice black Dell-lookalike.

A transfer cable will ship with all new 120GB drives and with the Elite 360 so you can take your existing content from your 20GB hard drive and transfer it to your new drive. Apparently there will be some restrictions to this in that old content is deleted from the original drive once it’s been transferred, data can not be transferred from the 120GB drive to the 20GB drive and they’ve yet to work out the DRM issues. However, expect that issue to be resolved by the time they launch it.

As stated before, an updated Live Marketplace is expected to hit our 360’s when the Elite edition/120GB hard drive launches so that we actually have enough room to store all of this content since just one of these HD movies will take up as much as 7GB of room. That’s pretty much half of the 20GB drive disappearing with one movie, fortunately they do allow you to delete content and download it again at a later date.

The new dashboard update that has recently been announced and is due for release on May 7th has a few polished tricks up its sleeves. This includes integration and support for Windows Live Messenger, so you can now log in and chat to your friends using IM, this update has been begging to be released for a while now and is a definite bonus for 360 users. You can IM whilst playing games or watching a movie with a transparent window popping up when you get a message.

Updates for the power management of the 360 will also make it in to the release with a new low-power download mode that allows you to keep your 360 on for downloading new content in a low power state, which hopefully will reduce cut the amount of energy used as well as shut off all fans! You can also set the 360 to shut off automatically after completing its downloads, which is handy if you like to leave it on overnight.

Xbox Live Marketplace will get its own blade within the Dashboard making it quicker and easier to access and download new online content. The Live Arcade section will be updated so that you can see what your friends are playing on your Friends List. Improvements in video streaming/downloading are also going to appear with the ability to play your videos as they download as well as provide fast-forward, rewind and pause/resume functionality.

One of the coolest updates I have to admit is the integration of Windows Live Messenger but not one to let that take the spotlight, they have also been working on a keyboard attachment that plugs in to the bottom of your 360 controller. This full QWERTY keyboard will allow you to use the controller as a wireless keyboard to IM your friends over Live. Not only does it look awesome it also has back-lit keys! I definitely can’t wait to get this attachment and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is excited about it.

Roundup

So those are my thoughts on the 360, I’ve tried to cover as many aspects of it as I can but there are of course bits I’ve missed out like the new 512MB memory cards and the cool games that are out for it but hopefully this review will allow those who are undecided as to which console to get, Wii, 360 or PS3 can now see what exactly the 360 has to offer and I can guarantee you that Microsoft have delivered on one hell of a package with more to come in the near future.

With all these new features set to arrive soon, the decision is even more difficult for those that are set on a PS3, the inclusion of a bigger hard drive and more content to download as well as the HDMi port now leaves less reasons to get a PS3 and with some award winning games titles available to play right now, the 360 package is a killer combination and one that I think the SCE guys will find to be difficult to beat.

My favourite titles on the 360 at the moment are PGR3 and Gears of War and on odd occasions I do find myself popping in my Halo 2 disc. Did I mention that Halo 2 is upscaled to HD on the 360? Graphics look gorgeous and is much more enjoyable to play on a HD set.

Great titles on both the Live Arcade platform and its HD gaming platform combined with the Live Marketplace features makes the 360 not just a gaming machine it’s a complete hub for all of your media and soon, your instant messaging. I definitely can’t wait to see what Microsoft has in store for the 360 in the next 18 months.

2007-04-13 Onwah Tsang

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