This week the Xbox 360 becomes more widely available for the first time since its launch last November. I got lucky on Sunday and picked up the last Premium system in stock at my local EBGames. (I found out they had one because I overheard a phone conversation the sales rep was having. Sorry anonymous dude on the other end of the line ... I ganked ya.)
There's a lot to note about the new system, but my short review is "Wow!" I feel this less because of the games I've seen (I picked up Oblivion and Ghost Recon) and more because of the potential of the 360 as a truly revolutionary gaming platform. The long review is like the short review but with bullets.
- HDTV: This is the first console to fully support HD everywhere and it's quite a thing to have a system-wide choice between 1080i and 720p. The Premium version ships with component video cables which (after having had to order component video cables online for the past 3 years) I really appreciate.
- Controller: While not revolutionary in the way that Nintendo's offering promises, the wireless controller (included in the Premium version) does represent a nice amalgam of lessons learned from controllers past. Beyond the good ergonomics, the feature I'm most fond of is that you can turn the console off and on from the controller. With multiple controllers the console is also appropriately intelligent to figure out how to assign players to ports automatically. These small things contribute to the overall impression that the 360 "just works."
- User Panel: The biggest addition to the controller is the Xbox button which, in addition to being the power switch, also pulls up the User Panel from anywhere. The User Panel allows you to sign in and access Xbox Live (see below) as well as pop out of your game to the full Xbox Dashboard. The fact that this is a persistant layer across whatever game you're playing is huge. It means that accessing Xbox Live functionality is no longer something that has to be supported in the game itself or only accessible if you restart the console with the drive empty or open.
- Dashboard: The source of all the new hotness. Most importantly, this is where you can manage and review your Xbox Live account including friends, text and voice messages, and game achievements. Achievements are game-specific goals that once accomplished are viewable as part of your Gamer Card. Because achievements are viewable by other Xbox Live players, you can find out whether your friend playing Oblivion has been accepted in the Mages Guild.
The Dashboard also allows you access to the Xbox Marketplace and the Live Arcade. The Marketplace is based on a cash-for-points economy and allows you to purchase downloadable content - this is genius from a business perspective and at its worst puts Microsoft in the ringtone market and at its best allows game developers to offer additional content over time.
The Live Arcade allows you to download and play classic games like Gauntlet as well as new games Geometry Wars Evolved (the game I've played the most thus far). Because the Live Arcade is, well, live you can also play two-player games against your friends and see how your best scores stack up against your peers. The latter is a great driver for competition because whereas I may never become the world's best Geometry Wars player, I can at least be better than my friends.
Finally, the entire UI of the Dashboard (based on system of tabs expressed in the margins) is both extremely quick to navigate and easy to pick up. I feel it's the best system UI Microsoft has shipped.
- Media: One of the functions accessible from both the User Panel and the Dashboard is a media player. You can also drop the 360 into full-on Windows Media Center mode for TV, DVD and photos features. The Xbox hard drive is a puny 11Gb so they've built in the ability to have the 360 talk to any Windows media PCs on your home network.
The trouble is that this means you need to configure things on your Windows media PC which means using Windows ... which is where things fall apart. I've spent a couple hours trying to get Windows Media Connect running on my XP Media Center PC and it couldn't be more painful. It seems all the more so because the 360 experience is so easy.
- Privacy: I love the Xbox Live system and the way its been presented in the 360, espeically the Gamer Card and achievements innovations. There are privacy controls to determine how much gets exposed and to whom, but even with those contols I still couldn't figure out how to hide my "Last Online" state without also hiding my online status. It's creepy to be able to figure how and when your friends were last online. To me, it's like exposing historical location data.
- Loud: The fan isn't quiet but it's downright silent compared to the disk drive. In a game like Oblivion where things are being constantly read from the disk, the din is pretty remarkable and probably a big factor that will keep Microsoft from reaching its goals in Japan (they want to not be laughed at there anymore). Since Microsoft loses money on every console they sell, I'm not surprised the cut corners on the drive, but it kinda sucks that they went with the diesel-powered one.
More than the improved graphics, I'm very impressed by the execution behind the Xbox Live components of the 360. By making it such a well integrated and central experience for the console, it will force the competition to see the weaknesses in more distributed models where the work was pushed off to the individual game developers. To me that's the sort of paradigm-shifting development that a new console should bring rather than just introduce new textures and a controller with more buttons.