We've posted a lot about the inner workings of Microsoft's Xbox 360, but very little about what matters most - the games and the experience it provides its users. I've had a couple of days with the box now so I thought I'd put together some of my impressions of the platform itself.

The Hardware

If you haven't heard already, the 360 is loud, but only when playing games. The fans in the system are temperature controlled, and thus as the CPU and GPU heat up, the fans kick it up a few notches and go to work. When we took the console apart originally I was pretty amazed at how small the heatsink on the GPU was, and I figured that the massive heatpipe equipped heatsink on the CPU would mean we'd have a relatively quiet system. Unfortunately, that's not the case. On the bright side, when you're gaming the noise of the box isn't as big of a deal so it's not a huge issue. I wonder how much cooler/quieter the 65nm version of the Xbox 360 will be.

The power brick is also, as you've seen/heard, huge - but that's fine by me. I'd rather have a large external power supply that I can hide behind a component rack than a larger Xbox 360. All of the cables used in the system are thick and feel high quality, which is impressive considering that MS loses money on these things.

The wireless controllers are great - being able to remotely turn on/off the Xbox 360 from your controller means that we'll be able to achieve entirely new levels of laziness. In fact, now I find myself complaining about getting up just to swap discs.

So far I've been lucky and I haven't had any hardware failures with my unit, and I don't exactly stock a lot of spare Xbox 360 components so I'm hoping that continues.

The Games

I've been playing a handful of games (in order of decreasing preference): Perfect Dark Zero, NBA 2K6, Call of Duty 2 and Kameo.

From the looks of it, I think Perfect Dark only enables 2X AA, which is unfortunate as there is still some distracting aliasing in the game. The game itself looks pretty good, but there is a little too much of a cartoony feel to the graphics for me. Although it is no Halo, the gameplay is actually pretty fun - especially in coop. It's a lot more strategy/tactical based than traditional FPSes, but it's not as serious as a Rainbow Six or anything like that, it is a healthy balance in my opinion.

NBA 2K6 is fun, but doesn't look quite "next-gen" at all. Live '06 looks a lot better, but the gameplay just isn't there. The positive impact of AA on sports titles is very noticeable, oh how glad I am that AA is finally on consoles.

Call of Duty 2 looks good, but is comparable to what you'd see on a decent PC.

Kameo is actually a fairly impressive looking title as well, but I can't get into the gameplay at this point.

All in all, the titles look pretty good, but they aren't going to blow you away if you've played any of the latest PC games on a high end machine. Compared to the current wave of consoles however, the graphics are a definite improvement.

The one thing that did really impress me however is the lighting in almost all of the games. The lighting everywhere just looks very, very good, and the result is that we finally have some games that take advantage of the hardware.

Graphics aside, what I found interesting about the 360's launch lineup is that while there is no killer title, there are a lot of pretty fun options. With the original Xbox I ended up playing a lot of Halo and not much else, but the 360 I find myself swapping through a lot of of games just to get the full experience.

The Lag

I've got a 2nd gen Samsung DLP that I use for gaming. Unfortunately, the problem with any fixed resolution display is that often times the content you're playing isn't in the same resolution as your display. Obviously to the end user this isn't usually a problem, since you can get pretty decent quality video scalers built into just about everything that do a good job of upscaling or downscaling content to fit the native resolution of your display. The problem with the scaling process is that it has the potential to introduce a slight delay between when something is outputted from your source to when it is displayed on the screen. On the original Xbox the content outputted was in 480p, which then had to be upscaled to 720p by the TV, which on this particular TV introduced lag into the equation.

The lag was extremely slight, and didn't always bother everyone to the same degree. For example, when playing Halo 2, it affected my accuracy but not much else, however a friend of mine would constantly run into walls because of it. It was possible to get used to the lag if you played enough, but needless to say it was annoying.

With the Xbox 360, the unit natively outputs 720p and thus the Sammy DLP doesn't have to do any sort of scaling. And I'm happy to say, it feels like the lag is either gone or significantly diminished. Given that I've been playing with this slight lag for well over a year now, getting used to not having it is a bit of a problem as looking around feels a lot more sensitive now - as does aiming. But I figure I'll get used to it over time.

Backwards Compatibility

The first and only title I've tried backwards compatibility with on the Xbox 360 is Halo 2. On the 360's side, Halo 2 works like any other title - you stick it in and it boots up. The first time you load it, there's a loading screen with a percentage counter that I'm assuming happens when the OS recognizes the game being run and the appropriate patch is setup on the hard drive.

There were a few more updates I had to run (all of which were presented to me) in order to get Halo 2 working on Xbox Live. After that, it was on to re-download all of the map packs, and then Halo 2 was finally working on the Xbox 360. It wasn't really a complicated procedure, but it did take a bit of time to redownload and patch everything (both of which happened with very little user intervention).

The impact of the 720p/AA rendering options in Halo 2 is noticeable, however it is not earth shattering. I will say that the effect is actually a lot more subtle than I expected at first, but over time I came to appreciate it more and more. In 720p with AA enabled (I'm assuming it's 4X AA in this case), Halo 2 plays without any noticeable aliasing at all, which can't be said about all Xbox 360 games as I will get to later.

Performance is more of a mixed bag unfortunately. The majority of the time, the frame rate on the 360 running Halo 2 is a lot better than on the original Xbox. However, I've run into significant performance issues as soon as soon as you start trying split screen multiplayer - especially with 3 or more people. With three people playing on the same unit, the 360's Halo 2 performance was significantly worse than on the original Xbox. Even with 2 people on the same unit there were times (although far more limited in occurrence) where the frame rate would drop to sub-Xbox1 levels. It is quite annoying, even to the point where if you find yourself doing a lot of split screen multiplayer on Xbox live, it may make sense to keep your old Xbox around just in case.

I've also run into a few graphical anomalies with Halo 2 on the 360, but they aren't readily reproducible.

The only other issue I've encountered with Halo 2 on the 360 is that for whatever reason the quality of the audio of other players speaking is significantly reduced over the original Xbox. It sounds like there's some more aggressive (read: lossy) audio compression being used, but I have no idea why, especially given that the problem doesn't exist in native 360 games.

All in all, the backwards compatibility is impressive, but not perfect, at least based on my Halo 2 experience. And given the number of copies Halo 2 has sold, I'm willing to bet that they (MS/Bungie) spent a good amount of time on that title in particular. Luckily, since all backwards compatible games need to have a hard drive to run on the 360, publishers may be able to improve performance over time with patches. We'll have to wait and see if that happens.

The Live Experience

The Xbox Live experience on the 360 is much improved over the original Xbox, but still not perfect. My main complaint about it is that the actual matchmaking interface still varies a lot from one game to the next. Titles like Halo 2 have excellent matchmaking systems and interfaces, while other games (including a lot of 360's launch titles) just aren't as intuitive or polished - which happens to be a problem with the original Xbox and its Live enabled games. I was hoping that with the unification of Live functionality, Microsoft would fix the issue and abstract the matchmaking process from the actual games themselves, but it seems like it still going to be up to the developers to really put some time and effort into the Live component of their games.

The parts of Live that are entirely Microsoft controlled, however, are very nice. The interface is fast; the management of your friends list and interacting with other users is fairly intuitive as well.

The Xbox Live Marketplace is interesting, and so far the majority of the content at the Marketplace is free. The stuff that isn't free doesn't cost much at all, meaning that Microsoft has effectively presented an effective use of the idea of micropayments. The dangerous part of it all is how easy it is to buy things off of the Marketplace. With your billing information already tied into Xbox Live, it's really just one-button spending. I can see a lot of people getting into trouble with this, but if you've got self control you should be fine.

There's a lot more I could talk about but I'll save that for later if anyone is still interested. Until then, I'd like to wish all of our US readers a Happy Thanksgiving. Vinney and I are in NC with our families for the break, so I'll probably be fairly quiet until afterwards.

Take care.
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  • LanceVance - Sunday, November 27, 2005 - link

    Anand, for a point of reference, what did you think of current gen console titles this season such as: Warriors, Gun, Resident Evil 4, Guitar Hero, Burnout Revenge, Shadow of the Colossus, Socom 3, Drag Quest, etc? Reply
  • 007ELmO - Monday, January 2, 2006 - link

    I have an XBOX 360, and Kameo, NBA 2K6, Perfect Dark Zero, Madden 06, Project Gotham 3, and Call of Duty 2. I agree with all comments Anand has said regarding the couple of games he mentioned. AA is great, very smooth high def look on my HDTV.

    Dragon Quest 8 is great. I'm 22 hours into it and feel like I've just started. Old school RPG with not much new to introduce, and you have to level up to beat portions of the story (which is what I like in an RPG).

    I hated Shadow of Colossus. I stopped playing it after the 2nd boss. "Defeat bosses 3 stories high" just isn't interesting at all to me. I'm not agreed with by most reviews, though.

    Reply
  • gnumantsc - Thursday, November 24, 2005 - link

    After reading XBox360 complaints, it makes me wonder that
    1- Anand was lucky and got a good xbox360
    2- Some poor guy at Microsoft had to test the unit for 36 hours straight and ship the box after passing the test.

    It ain't funny if you wait in line 18 hours to get home to test your new Xbox360 play for 30 mins and find out it crapped out on ya.

    ViperLair repaired getting an Xbox360 that had a burning smell after turning it on... Maybe MS has mobo's with bad caps?
    Reply
  • BornStar18 - Friday, November 25, 2005 - link

    I don't think luck has anything to do with getting a bad 360. I've used 2 so far and they both have run great for me. I'd say it is luck that gets you a bad one judging by the number of people that are actually complaining vs the number of 360s sold. Reply
  • static1117 - Thursday, November 24, 2005 - link

    Good post-

    Ive been hearing that people arent so impressed with the new xbox, but i wonder if thats because we are used to pc games?

    ill be waiting for ps3 regardless.
    Reply
  • jkresh - Thursday, November 24, 2005 - link

    I wonder how many of those who arent impressed are running it on standard or ed tv's vs HD. Having run it on a 42inch ed plasma and my dell 2405fpw I can say that there is a big difference between the two (at least on Proejct gotham 3 and Perfect Dark, havent tried Kameo yet, and suspect DOA4 will have similar results). Reply
  • Pooka - Thursday, November 24, 2005 - link

    So... according to my 360, I only have a 13 GB hard drive. Does yours tell you that too? Cuz if not... I'm going to have words with MS about them giving me a new HD. Reply
  • BornStar18 - Friday, November 25, 2005 - link

    My 360 reports a 13GB HD as well. I'm still trying to figure that out. Reply
  • MrMarbles - Thursday, November 24, 2005 - link

    I'd like to know more about how the Media Center stuff works. As in, the part where you stream movies/tv-shows and MP3's off your XP machine. Is it hard to set up? Does it read all video-files? Does it run HR HDTV releases? I want to know what it can and can not run :)

    I'm very curious about this, as the xbox360 would save me a lot of trouble if it did everything the way I hope it does. It would save me the trouble of getting a HTCP. Any limitations would be nice to know about. Sitting with a wireless controller in the couch to change to the current episode of Lost, would be very sweet.
    Reply
  • GhandiInstinct - Wednesday, November 23, 2005 - link

    We all can see by now that XBOX360 is a meager attempt at next-generation gaming.

    A console like PS3, which understands the importance of time, is waiting a bit longer so that designers and developers have the time necessary to provide the best in gaming.

    Kudos Sony.

    Sour pickles Microsoft..
    Reply

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