I try to look for the best in every situation. In the grand scheme of things, getting bumped from the first shipment of pre-ordered Xbox 360s to the second wasn't the end of the world. Indeed, it allowed me to focus on launch news and information, posting stories for the games page and absorbing the mood of early adopters. The reports that came back were mixed, with occasional technical difficulties and tepid gameplay marring the first next-gen launch. Overall though, gamers seemed to be pleased with their purchases. When my local game store called to let me know my console was in, I bit the bullet and swiped the plastic. Today I have for you a rundown on what it's like to go where others have gone before. Read on for my impressions of the Xbox 360 experience after a month of retail sales and a week of gameplay.While I don't feel the need to bore you with pictures of the packaging, the out-of-the-box experience is attractive and intuitive. It only took a few moments to set things up before I was working with the setup wizard. As per the copious recommendations across the internet, I made sure that the console's power brick was not on the carpet once the system was in place. The bottom of my entertainment center has wire shelving, and the free flow of air around the brick has so far allowed my 360 to be glitch-free. It is, unfortunately, as large as everyone says it is. Pulling the massive thing out of the box, I had a flash of a bad bumper-sticker: "My second console is my 360 power brick." The cables are all surprisingly lengthy, with a nice long piece of cat5 cable making the trip to my router with more slack than the one I was using for my Xbox. One important consideration: If you're fortunate enough to be using your console with an HDTV, make sure and flip the switch on the component cable before you start up the console. It's set by default to 'TV', and if you want to experience the HD signal right away you're going to want that switch flipped. With everything plugged in and set properly I hit the large central button on the controller, and the console whirred to life.
The setup wizard asked for little more than the time zone and my Passport account. The Live account I had with the Xbox was still in good standing, putting me into the 'gold' version of the Live system. This apparently allows me the opportunity to get to some additional content, and make use of the Trueskill ranking system we reported on a while back. The only annoying part of the setup was the grueling process of entering my email address and password. Selecting letters from an on-screen keyboard seems like a good idea until you start entering your 32-character-long email address. As a final touch I was asked my preferences for controls in FPS and Driving titles. I don't know why, but I like inverted look on console games. It just works better for me. By entering the setting on my Live account, every FPS I play on the 360 will use that setting by default.
Setup completed, I had my first look at the 360 'blade' system. The interface for the console is a series of screens arranged in an interlocking pattern of tabs, or blades. Flipping between the different screens is as easy as moving the thumbstick. It's a remarkably intuitive and clean interface, and really hits home the 'next-gen' feel of the console. First thing, I hopped into the Live Marketplace and purchased some Microsoft Points. As much as I was looking forward to playing Call of Duty 2 and King Kong, I'd heard such good things about the downloadable game experience that I wanted to check them out right away. I also wanted to snag the Penny Arcade Skins and gamer portraits. These games and downloadables were purchased with the Points, which are Microsoft's way of putting an additional step between users and their credit cards. Parents who don't want their kids racking up bills via Live can purchase pre-paid Point cards in stores, ala the time cards for a MMOG. You can also buy them directly through Live if you have a credit card on file. They sound like more of a deal than they are, unfortunately. Game downloads range from about 400 to about 800 Points, and right now Live is offering 1000 Points for $12.50 (or $.05 for four points). You can buy about three games then, give or take, for $25.00. A steal compared to most console titles, but not as inexpensive as you might like. Theme packs that re-skin your blades run about 150 Points, and packs of icons for your GamerTag are about 50 Points. There are exceptions, of course. The Penny Arcade icon packs each have several icons to choose from, and cost 200 Points. Expensive, but Mr. Period was worth the $2.50.
The downloadable games are wide-ranging in playstyle, and offer something for just about everyone. Classic titles like SmashTV, and Joust sit beside modern hits like Zuma and Bejeweled. There are also brand new and indie titles, like Geometry Wars Retro Evolved and Wik: Fable of Souls. The console also comes with a shiny puzzle game already unlocked for you, called Hexic. Hexic has you rotating groups of three colored blocks, seeking to make groups of same-colored shapes. It's not the most brilliant puzzler ever, but it is good looking and is something to kill time with if you're not interested in downloading anything. Which would be a shame, because all of the games in the Live Marketplace offer up free trials. The cost is the time to download, and the reward is the chance to recall just how badly you played the original Gauntlet. The Live title I've gotten the most enjoyment out of is Geometry Wars Retro Evolved. Originally a simplistic little extra on Project Gotham Racing 2, Geometry Wars has been reinvisioned for the Live Marketplace. It's a beautiful old-school shooter in the style of Asteroids, with a lot of attitude. There are over a dozen enemy types, several blaster styles, and loads of extremely challenging gameplay. I've accomplished the 'get 100,000 points' Achievement, but only just. Even then, as of this writing I'm number 16,618 on the Geometry Wars leaderboard. Judging by the leaders on the leaderboard, the game is not only challenging but addictive as well.
That Geometry Wars Achievement is one of the easier ones to obtain for that title, most of them centering on surviving for prolonged periods of time. They're somewhat simplistic, given the nature of the game, but every game has their own style of Achievement. Xbox Live Achievements are 'Kilroy was here' moments in games made for the Xbox 360. Every title is required to have some, and it varies from game to game how many there are and how hard it is to obtain them. Call of Duty 2, for example, hands you one for completing Basic Training but then denies you additional kudos until you've beaten large parts of the game. Kameo, on the other hand, gives you an Achievement every time you obtain another Elemental Warrior (which happens relatively frequently). They're viewable through your GamerTag, and are an interesting way to check in and see how far your friend has made it through a given title.
One of the benefits of waiting a month before purchasing my 360 was knowing what games to get and what titles I could safely avoid. With PDZ mostly snagging 8/10s, I decided to pick up Call of Duty 2 instead as my launch-title FPS. Jack Black and Peter Jackson was just too appealing to me to pass up (not to mention the big monkey), so I grabbed King Kong as well. Kameo's colorful visuals and morphing gameplay also seemed very appealing, and I chose that as my third launch title.
Call of Duty 2 (CoD 2) has earned its reputation as the cream of the 360 launch title crop. The game powerfully recaptures the thrill of the original title, placing you in the shoes of a grunt on the Russian, British, or American fronts of World War II. Gameplay is fast-paced and finely honed, with a control scheme that for the first time feels effortless to this PC gamer. The 360 controller, overall, has a wonderful feel to it. It's not even as large as the S-type Xbox controller, and the thumbsticks are incredibly responsive. I've always had some 'user-related issues' playing FPS titles on the console, but the 360 controller feels extremely natural in my hands. Call of Duty 2 makes use of every button on the controller, and the schema feels very intuitive once you've gone through basic training. The game not only plays well, but looks terrific too. I wasn't sure what exactly to expect when I first began playing a 360 title (as still images just don't do next-gen games justice), but I have been extremely impressed. CoD 2 lives, breathes, and clips along at 60 frames per second without blinking. The snowy enivrons of Russia, the ice crusted to the fringe of my commander's longcoat, and the billowing emissions of a smoke grenade all come together to form an immersive experience. If I had to choose a 'best of' element for Call of Duty 2, it would be the AI. German soldiers dive for cover, snipe from afar, and use suppression fire to support their troop movements. Your Russian squad-mates call out enemy positions in simple and understandable terms. They have your back if you run out of ammo, and keep the baddies under cover as you sprint towards your next objective. Call of Duty 2 is easily the finest launch title the 360 has to offer.
The 360 version of King Kong has been in the news recently because of some darkness issues. While it is indeed very dark, on an HD screen the light is more than sufficient to make out the creepy-crawlies coming in your direction. King Kong plays mostly like an action-adventure FPS, with you in the role of writer Jack Driscoll. Driscoll and a motley crew of movie-makers make their way through the creepy enivrons of Skull Island. Originally on the island just for the scenery, the game quickly becomes a race after the giant ape Kong who has stolen leading lady Ann. The primitive environment plays a role in the game's story and gameplay. While ammo is plentiful in some FPS titles, Kong has you relying on periodic supply drops from a low flying plane. Once you're out of ammo, you're reduced to using spears as weapons against the giant centipedes, dinosaurs, and flying harpy-things that plague your every step. Kong has a lot of atmosphere, and even on normal mode is fairly challenging. My biggest complaint with the title is the occasional puzzle element. Doors must be opened via a pair of rotating gate mechanisms, and at various points in the game you're required to find the handle for one or both of these mechanisms. Looking for a small handle in a large outdoor space with variable lighting is, regrettably, not very fun and serves mostly as a way to add time to the game. The 'best of' element is definitely the infrequent sequences where you get to play as Kong. The sheer power he displays, compared to the squishiness of Jack Driscoll, makes for a refreshing change of pace as you progress through the game. Kong is only so-so as FPS titles go, but when at its best it offers some beautiful vistas , scary moments, and "omgdinosaurz" gameplay.
Kameo has gotten a lot of mixed reviews since the 360 launched, and with good reason. On one hand, it has beautiful cartoony graphics. The world evokes a sense of wonder, and the characters that inhabit the various realms are all kind of goofy-looking. On the other hand, it's a violent game with a decent amount of gore. Splattering bugs and plant-monsters tosses a green goo at the screen, which slides down the inside of your television screen. One elemental warrior has a move that impales enemies on his back, and then uses them as thrown weapons. A forgettable plot doesn't help things, either. Kameo was living a fulfilling life as a princess when her sister went black hat and released the evil Troll King. They capture your family and strip you of your powers, and you're off on a crusade to get everything back. There are some amusing story elements that complicate things a bit, like a conniving seer with aspirations of power, but for the most part the game plays out exactly as you'd imagine. You move from place to place in the game world, collecting warriors and freeing your family members. Each Elemental Warrior offers up specific abilities that can be used to circumvent obstacles. The plant-boxer can dive into the ground to move under gates, the dragon-form can light torches with his breath weapon, and the rolling armadillo-guy Major Ruin can use his rush attack to leap chasms. Despite the predictable plot, there is fun to be had, here. Once you have a few warriors under your belt gameplay gets switched up relatively often, requiring you to recognize what form will work best fairly frequently. Combat itself is quick and mostly satisfying, and each warrior has a bevy of upgradable powers to play with. The problem really boils down to who exactly this game is for, though. The graphics say young player, the violence says teenager, and the spine-gratingly annoying 'helper' says functional imbecile. Even halfway through the game your hand is still being held with regard to power use and puzzle-solving, and it gets more than a little annoying sometimes. Kameo is interesting from a uniqueness point of view, but probably isn't worth it unless the art style and morphing premise really appeal to you. Regrettably, they are about all the game has to offer.
My experiences with the 360, even disappointing moments with Kameo, have been overwhelmingly positive. Even while falling to my death because of a wonky camera in Kameo or getting eaten for the fifth time by a giant centipede in King Kong, there's a level of polish to these launch titles that surprised me. I'm not sure I'd agree with J. Allard when he claimed the 360 has the 'best launch lineup ever', but at least the titles that I chose to purchase all have elements worth exploring. The console itself has also surprised me. A slick interface and effortless simple online components make this the first box I've really enjoyed just futzing with. The Marketplace is a powerful selling point, and the games up for offer are well worth looking into. They're constantly adding content as well, ensuring that stopping in at the Live component is almost always a worthwhile sidetrip from whatever game you're playing. Just since the console's launch they've added a Mission Impossible 3 trailer, a Billiards game, and a great PSA from Red vs. Blue. I have been pleasantly surprised by the entire 360 experience, and I might even go so far as to say that I got my money's worth when I purchased the system last week. In these frustrating times of hype and shady customer service, it's hard for me to offer up higher praise than that.
As a final note, you may be interested to know that my Xbox Live GamerTag is 'whoisdialogue'. If you're looking for someone to kick around in CoD multiplayer, I will probably be able to oblige any deep-seated fantasies you may have of shooting a Slashdot editor in the brainpan. See you online.
Update: 12/21 19:55 GMT by Z : Fixed per-point price, because math is hard. Thanks AC.