March 13, 2006

Xbox 360 Buyer's Guide

To the average retail worker, Thanksgiving week is hell. Despite the joy that the holiday can bring, you go to bed knowing that you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of frantic shoppers come Friday morning. In the retail industry, that day is called Black Friday. If you’ve ever gone out on the day after Thanksgiving to find a great deal, you probably know the reason for the dreary moniker.

Microsoft unveiled their newest gaming console, the Xbox 360, in late spring of last year, and proceeded to tiptoe around an exact release date until early October. It would be released on November 22nd, just two days prior to Thanksgiving. As a longtime employee of a major gaming retailer, I knew this was bad news all around. Even if Microsoft produced enough systems to meet the hundreds of reservations we had taken, there would still be many, many others in search of the system. Clearly, I was far too optimistic.

As you may have heard, allocations were incredibly tight on day one. Many stores received less than one-fourth of the total systems their customers had reserved, resulting in mass hysteria (well, countless phone calls and ridiculously overpriced eBay auctions). Only now, as the last reservations are being fulfilled, has it become a bit easier to find an Xbox 360 system. Not to say that it’s an easy proposition, but it’s certainly a less stressful adventure than it was three months ago.

With many gamers just getting their hands on the hot new console, I thought it important to detail the various aspects of the Xbox 360 experience. In this article, I will discuss the two system options, as well as the accessories, both currently available and forthcoming. In the next issue of the Flyer, I plan on posting a follow-up article in which I will discuss and recommend several of the games for the system.

Microsoft opted to launch two models of the Xbox 360 game console: the Xbox 360, and the Xbox 360 Core System. The standard console (we’ll call it the Premium System) comes with a detachable 20GB (gigabyte) hard drive, one wireless controller, a component HD AV cable, a headset and an Ethernet cable for online play, and the massive power inverter. This hefty bundle comes at a price ($399.99), but is a much greater value than the Core System.

The Xbox 360 Core System is a fairly bare-bones setup, coming with only a standard (wired) controller, a composite AV cable, and the power inverter. This setup comes at a more reasonable price of $299.99, but is missing a very essential piece: the hard drive. Retailing for $99.99 on its own, the detachable 20GB hard drive is necessary for the full advantages of online play (via Xbox Live), and is required to play games from the original Xbox system on your Xbox 360 console.

The detachable hard drive is a crucial element of the Xbox 360 experience. Not only does it serve as a storage space for your saved games, but it allows you to download content from the Xbox Live Marketplace. Anyone with an Xbox Live account (even a Silver account, which is free) can download new game demos, movie trailers, and other game-related items for free over a broadband connection. In addition, there are themes and gamer pictures available for a small cost, which allow you to customize your system’s visual scheme and your online profile.

Some have wondered about the differences between the wired and wireless controllers, but there really aren’t any (other than whether there’s a cord hanging from it). The wireless controller is as responsive as any wired one on the market, which is more than I can say for any older wireless controllers. More important is the design of the controller, which is simply glorious. Microsoft learned from the mistakes they made with the first Xbox system and released a contoured controller that feels perfect in nearly any pair of hands. Also, in a first for gaming consoles, you can turn the system on and off with your controller. It’s a huge saver of both time and effort.

If you still opt to buy a Core System (or purchase one out of desperation, as the Premium Systems are much harder to find), you’ll still need either the aforementioned hard drive or a 64MB (megabyte) memory card ($39.99) to save your data. Because of the huge difference in space, I would recommend hunting down the hard drive. However, if you truly do not care about online features and have no intention of playing old Xbox games, you can save a bit of cash by choosing the memory card.

Those who purchase the Premium System are highly urged to pick up the Xbox 360 Play & Charge Kit. For $19.99, you get a rechargeable battery for your wireless controller, as well as a lengthy cord that will connect your controller to the system. When the charge on the battery is low, simply connect the controller to the console and it will charge as you play. It’ll save you quite a bit on batteries in the long run. Pick up an extra battery pack ($11.99) for each additional wireless controller you purchase. You’ll likely only need one Play & Charge Kit for all of your wireless controllers.

Other than that, there aren’t any other necessary accessories. Pick up extra controllers ($39.99 wired, $49.99 wireless) if you plan on playing against your friends often. If you’d like to play against other people online, look into an Xbox Live account. It costs $49.99 for a year of Xbox Live Gold service, though you get a one-month free trial with the Premium System. If you’re new to the Xbox Live experience, you can pick up an Xbox Live Starter Kit. The kits come with a headset, a free Xbox Live Arcade game to play online, and a rebate offer that’ll save you money on a retail game. The 12-month kit retails for $69.99, while the three-month kit is $39.99.

You can also change the look of your system with one of many replaceable faceplates, which range from $9.99 to $19.99, depending on the manufacturer. Some of the more amusing ones are made to look like wood, so your Xbox 360 can blend in with your entertainment center. Also, some game manufacturers have been giving away free faceplates when you pre-order their games. Both Full Auto and The Outfit have been accompanied by promotional faceplates, though there will certainly be more in the future.

Other than new faceplates, there aren’t too many (announced) peripherals on the horizon. The most notable one is the Xbox 360 Live Camera, which will likely release later this year. The camera will allow you to take part in video chat via Xbox Live, as well as send video messages and still pictures. Also, it’s likely that the camera will allow you to physically interact with some games, similar to the EyeToy for PlayStation 2.

An HD-DVD attachment drive has been rumored for the Xbox 360, which will allow you to watch movies released on the new format without buying a new stand-alone player. Also rumored (and likely) are higher-capacity hard drives. While the current 20GB drive is fine for game saves and occasional downloading, the hardcore players will want more space for online games and such. Expect a larger drive by Christmas. More new accessories will likely be announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May.

As the newest and most powerful game system on the market, the Xbox 360 has been surrounded by hype since before its launch. Luckily, I can confirm that it is well worth your money. Still, it is important to be a smart shopper when buying new products like this, and I hope that this guide has proven to be useful. In the next issue, I’ll discuss the hottest games available for the system, as well as what to look forward to in 2006 and beyond.

(Commentary: The article is a little dry, I admit. It was written for the school paper and thus a mainstream audicence. I felt the same way when I wrote my Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes review for The Flyer back in 2004. It's still a solid piece, but I have to be more obvious and detail everything for the mainstream reader. I'll post the follow-up article in two weeks when I complete it.)