360 Years of Solitude

Well, that didn’t last long. This weekend I gave in and bought an Xbox 360. Here’s what you need to know if you’ve been considering one.

The Bad

The industrial design on the Xbox 360 is beyond bad: it is a goddamned abortion. There are absolutely no redeeming features to how the console has been put together. It weighs a billion pounds, has an external power brick the size of Finland, a power connector that would look at home on a 220v refrigerator, it sounds like an Airbus A300 when the disc drive spins up, and it puts out as much heat as a pottery kiln.

It sucks, from soup to nuts. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and doesn’t want to admit that they paid $400 for a game console that could be used, like a cast-iron skillet, for both murder and frying eggs.

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time obsessing over what we called “OOBE” – “Out of the box experience.” The OOBE on the Xbox 360 is crap. If I didn’t already know how to hook up a videogame console, the lousy packaging wouldn’t help. My personal favorite here is that each set of cables comes wrapped in a green plastic sleeve which has something written on it in every language known to man. When you find your language on the package, after searching for an hour through the Japanese, Flemish, Farsi, Esperanto, Tamil, and Russian text, you discover that it is just some obscure, gnostic word (like “See” instead of “video cable”). Whatever art-school reject came up with this concept should be forced to clean Philip Glass’s bathroom with a toothbrush for the rest of eternity.

The Good

I predicted a year ago that Microsoft’s real goal with the 360 would be a 100% attach rate for Xbox Live. I think that has turned out to be true, and it makes me happy. Whatever you think about the Xbox as a machine, Live is the best thing since sliced bread. It is the cream in my coffee, it puts spring in my step, it gives me vim and vigor. The Live experience on the 360 is superb. I cannot imagine owning the box and not using Live, or not wanting to use it. Once I actually got the machine hooked up and turned on, I was able to transfer my Xbox Live membership over in a matter of minutes. I did, I will admit, snicker a little when the very first thing the machine did was download an update and reboot. But only a little – that’s just life in the space age au go go 21st century. Instead of jetpacks, we get software updates. At least monitors made from huge vacuum tubes are finally on their way out.

The HDTV support is seamless and well done. If, during configuration, you accidentally switch to a video mode that isn’t supported by your TV, it will switch back to the previous mode after a few seconds.

The Great

Wireless controllers. Completely wireless control of the console: I can turn it on and off from the controller. My ability to be lazy has been catapulted to new heights. I am a happy man. The controllers are much better designed than the previous iteration, and they have a magical glowing thing in the middle that I’m pretty sure has a genie in it.

2083

Robotron: 2083

One aspect of Live support that goes beyond the merely good into “great” territory is the Xbox Live Arcade concept. Xbox Live Arcade rocks my world. I hear a lot of people being snarky about the product. The typical line goes something like this: “Oh, sure, like you want to use your $400 HD-capable system to play Robotron: 2084.” Well you know what? It turns out that yes, in fact, I do want to play Robotron from my couch. What people miss, I think, is how fabulous and seamless the transactions are. I can download free demos of the games, I know they’re going to work, and I don’t have to deal with some greasy rat at Electronics Boutique.

It even works better for online-only games. Let’s compare. If I want to buy Popcap’s Zuma Deluxe for the PC, I pay them $20 (somehow), then I download the binary, install it, and then I get to play their game on my PC at my desk with a mouse and keyboard. On Xbox Live, I can buy the exact same game for “800 points” (around $10). It’s bought and installed with a single button push, and I can play the game from my couch, with a controller designed for arcade games.

Is PC gaming dead? We can only hope. I don’t really mean that, but it’s clear to me that Xbox Live Markeplace is a big part of how Microsoft will be competing with Sony in this generation. The likelihood that Sony will be willing to work with comparatively small software distributors like Popcap approaches zero. Basically, Xbox Live Marketplace brings some of the best shareware and casual games into the console market. It provides a massive incentive for small developers to hew the DirectX party line. It’s good for Microsoft. It’s good for those companies. And it’s good for gamers.

The only thing I’d like to see happen is for the “microtransactions” to become even more micro. Instead of selling me Robotron for $10 (or whatever), let me play one game for $0.25.

I’ve talked to some people who are bothered by the constant whoring of products on Live. This is, indeed, an issue, and I can understand people finding it annoying. But after so many years of videogaming where getting a connection working involved sacrificing four goats (one for each player), I am so relieved to have an online game network that just works that I personally don’t mind the whoring. Hey, Microsoft, you want to encourage me to “unlock” (read: Buy) Zuma Deluxe after each level I play on the free demo? Knock yourselves out. Just keep Live working smoothly, and I can ignore all the advertising you can throw at me. Since I grew up watching TV, I have lots of practice at that.

Yeah, Yeah, But What About the Games?

Games? You can play games on it? Oh, yeah, right. In dealing with the adrenaline rush of spending lots of money on a new toy, I forgot all about that part.

The only game I bought with the system was Oblivion. I’ll have some notes on that later in the week, I expect.

On an amusing note, Tilt gave in and bought a 360 on the exact same day that I did. Sorry to disappoint you, tilt, but I got mine at Target, not Best Buy. Nevertheless, I still feel that in some small, special way, we have had a touching and intimate consumer moment. I will always treasure the special connection I had with you as we each handed over our credit cards at the exact same moment.

See you on Xbox Live.