Summary: It's been 5 months since Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 -- has Microsoft made any improvements? A Pre-E3 Analysis.
When Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 in late November, FiringSquad wrote a series of articles covering the launch titles as well as our hopes for the future. There was a lot of uncertainty with the Xbox 360. How reliable would the launch hardware be? Would the HDD see significant use? Would the 20GB HDD be enough? Would there be games worth buying the system for? Now, five months after the launch of the Xbox 360, we take a look at the state of the Xbox 360 platform.
New to our Xbox 360 reviews is the use of Epiphan’s DVI2USB frame grabber. This precision instrument allows us to capture the true VGA feed from a retail Xbox 360, ensuring that our shots truly reflect the visuals that you will experience at home on a HDTV.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter Mini-Review
Fortunately, GRAW has great gameplay and fits in the niche between the pick-up-and-go of the SOCOM series on the PlayStation 2 and the realistic squad tactics of Full Spectrum Warrior. The squad tactics are superficial in comparison to SOCOM’s voice command system or Full Spectrum Warrior’s, but it does have enough substance to add to the gameplay. I would compare GRAW’s squadmates to the wingmen in a game like Wing Commander. Your squad mates in GRAW aren’t very smart about staying out of trouble and will often put themselves in dangerous situations. Nonetheless, they are usually an asset rather than a liability. You can have your squad take an aggressive or defensive stance and direct your team members to locations or to take out specific targets. Along the way, you’ll call for airstrikes or airborne intelligence using a similar manner. The game is difficult but has a steady learning curve.
As is popular with most of today’s games, the cutscenes are all done through the real-time engine. GRAW adopts a 24-esque real-time mission scenario in which the entire game is focused around one mission with many twists and turns along the way. Breaking up these levels are opportunities to get to a “rally point” where a truck magically is waiting for you, or intermediate points where you can reload and heal using a weapons/supply drop from a helicopter. While neither approach is entirely perfect, it makes more sense than finding a rocket launcher on the ground at the exact point you need it. It would be better if the rally point was dynamic, where there was a limited time window to get to the armored personnel vehicle.
Interestingly, Ghost Recon is rated T for Teen, although it doesn’t seem any less violent than the SOCOM series, which is rated M for Mature, or the previous Ghost Recon games, which were also rated M for Mature. I don’t think GRAW is substantially different in violence from the other games although in general, the SOCOM and Ghost Recon series have always shown good responsibility in terms of the violent images and the targets of the violence.
GRAW is a good game deserving of an 87% Final Verdict. Great graphics and solid gameplay marred by a number of minor issues.
1. Overheating CPU or GPU
I’m experiencing fewer crashes now than I did when I first had the Xbox 360. There have been several updates to the Xbox 360 operating system, and it’s possible that these updates corrected underlying operating system flaws. Alternatively, it’s also possible that the CPU and GPU have had time to burn-in and that the thermal grease has reached its final equilibrium.
2. No MSN Music
Although it’s still impossible to buy music over Xbox Live, Microsoft has partnered with Epic Records to bring the “Xbox Live: Artist of the Month.” For the next 12 months, Microsoft will provide a 720p music video of the featured artist as well as a video interview. A “lucky winner” will get a chance to play the artist on Xbox Live. While this is not the integration with MSN Music that Microsoft should be aiming for, it’s a step in the right direction. The first Xbox Live Artist was Natasha Bedingfield.
3. No HDMI support
Even with Monster Cable Xbox 360 cables, ghosting and loss of resolution is seen with both the component video and VGA cable. This is most prominent when using the Xbox 360 with a large screen such as a 45” LCD. Although Microsoft has announced an HD-DVD add-on (which presumably would include HDMI support), it’s unclear if games will ever be able to use an all-digital connection.
4. Tiny HDD
Even though I don’t use my Xbox 360 as a music server, I still only have 3GB left. The majority of the space has gone into game demos. An unknown amount has gone into game patches.
5. Microtransaction security
This is still a problem.
6. No Web Browser
This is still a problem. While the Xbox 360 wouldn’t be my primary web browser, a browser would be useful for looking up hints from one of the online strategy guides or participating in an online message forum.
7. No WMV-HD DVD
Although there will be no WMV-HD DVD playback, Microsoft is planning to add an HD-DVD add-on. It’s unclear if the HD-DVD add-on will be equivalent to the Dreamcast’s DVD add-on (vaporware; announcements to feign competition against Sony). I would be very concerned if Microsoft did not provide more details about the HD-DVD upgrade at E3.
8. No MPEG-4/AVC
H.264 is the future, and FiringSquad is probably going to use H.264 and VC-1 for its video reviews in the future. If Microsoft is going to support HD-DVD, however, they’ll have to support MPEG-4/AVC. Hopefully this will translate into the ability to play .mp4 and .h264 files.
9. No video calibration
This is still a problem. Many games allow you to adjust the brightness, but almost none have any sort of a calibration setting so you ensure that you’re not making the game too bright or too dark. The new Tomb Raider game has a built-in calibration tool which allows you to adjust brightness and contrast independently. While it is somewhat complicated to use, it is currently one of the better calibration tools from a technical perspective.
10. Poor DVD playback
I don’t know if the Xbox 360 has any AVIVO capabilities, but in comparison to even the budget ATI X1300, the Xbox 360 does a very poor job with DVD playback. Microsoft should consider allowing the user to configure the Xbox 360 for native 480i DVD playback (while preserving the 720p gaming setting). This would allow Xbox 360 owners to use the video processor in the television which may be superior to the software solution found in the Xbox 360.
11. No pressure-sensitive face buttons
This is mistake Microsoft will have to live with for the Xbox 360’s lifespan. The lack of pressure sensitive face buttons will limit the creativity of the developers. Still, this saves a $1 or so for each controller, and will help Microsoft's Xbox division reach profitability sooner. And of course, at the end of the day, helping Microsoft's reach profitability is the ultimate goal for everyone. (that's sarcasm if you couldn't tell)
12. No multitasking
New for 2006 is the complaint that you cannot download a game demo or trailer while doing something else. The Xbox Live downloads have grown from being a novelty to an essential element of the Xbox 360 experience. Rumor has it that Microsoft will be announcing a major upgrade to the Xbox Live Marketplace this E3, with background downloads being a major feature.
1. Well-balanced development environment
Too early to say. The ramp-up for companies such as Ubisoft and EA seems to be progressing very nicely. The developers we’ve talked to are very happy about Microsoft’s development tools, however there have been concerns made about the CPU choice and the relatively poor branching performance. At GDC ’06, Microsoft began a more concerted effort to push XNA and I believe that we will see the fruits of these efforts at next year’s E3. What does concern me is that we've yet to see a high-shader-complexity game running at 60 fps.
2. Wireless controller
The wireless controller continues to be a great feature. The controller is robustly built and buttons still have the springiness and feel of a new controller. One weakness in the controller that has been discovered is the digital D-pad. Although the D-pad works fine for game menus or for sending single commands such as in NBA 2K6 or Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, the D-pad is very sloppy with fighting games such as DOA4.
3. Free downloadable demos
This has been a shining example of the Xbox 360 platform. Over the last 3 months, developers have been taking full advantage of Xbox Live Marketplace. There have been dozens of game demos including unreleased games. More importantly, with the exception of “The Outfit” which offers a multiplayer-only demo (and hence requires Xbox Live Gold), all of the demos offer a remarkable amount of game time. This helps you get an accurate feel for the game.
4. Always On Xbox Live
This is different from “just broadband” because developers have really begun to take advantage of it. I now see gamers talking about earning “Achievements” on message boards and using the Friends List to its maximum potential.
5. WMA/MP3 playback with online metadata
No new comments.
6. HD MCE Extender
No new comments.
7. HD Gaming
There is no doubt that high-definition content is the future of electronic entertainment. While it is worrisome that there haven’t been any Xbox 360 games that feature both complex shaders and 60 frames per second performance, it may take some more time before developers are able to maximize the performance of the tri-core CPU.
Now that the hype of the Xbox 360 has ended, it’s easier to be objective about the console. Xbox Live Marketplace continues to improve and there’s no doubt that Sony will face a significant challenge in emulating Microsoft’s success. Games reflecting true next-generation gameplay and graphics are starting to be released and more importantly, the hardware is now shipping in larger quantities. With the delay of the PS3, Microsoft has a bright future with several months to continue to improve the platform.
Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter
Tomb Raider Legend
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