Xbox 360 Buyer's Guide
Congratulations, savvy consumer, on your very wise, very savvy purchase!
As a game journalist, I have to "work" with the PlayStation 3 and with the Nintendo Wii. But whenever I have a spare moment, it's the Xbox 360 that typically gets my attention. Why so?
I like Xbox Live. I don't do a whole lot of online gaming, but I do like seeing who's online, who's offline, who's playing what, what Achievements people have unlocked, what's available for download via Xbox Live Arcade, who's watching a movie (Gus is, usually), etc. The genius of Xbox Live is that it allows me to feel connected -- to someone, to something -- even when I'm just sitting alone in my living room in my underpants and playing games solo.
I also appreciate the range of games that are available for the 360. Despite the PS3's purported power, it's the 360's version of a multiplatform title that typically looks and plays the best, to my mind.
- Tons of games from which to choose
- Pretty to look at
- Despite competition from Sony and Nintendo, Xbox Live is still the best online service in the business.
- Known to "red-ring" on occasion
- Noisy; runs hot; brick-like power plug
- Xbox Live Gold Membership costs $50 per year.
The Xbox 360 has been in stores since 2005. It's produced by Microsoft (all together now: Boo!). But to its credit, Microsoft seemed to learn a lot from the mistakes it made with the original Xbox, which was its first foray into console gaming.
Xbox 360 Halo 3 Special Edition
The Xbox 360 is much more sleek and sophisticated-looking than the obnoxiously massive original, and blends nicely with the other electronics equipment in your living room. It's available in two colors -- white or matte black -- but there have been limited-edition Xbox 360s, including a Halo 3 Special Edition. In general, unless you have the Halo 3 edition, your friends won't say, "Oh, I see you have a videogame machine. Look at you, you pathetic man-boy, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" whenever they come over. By the way, if your friends actually say things like this, you shouldn't be friends with them anyway. Jerks.
The Red Ring of Death
The so-called "Red Ring of Death." The earliest generations of the Xbox 360 unfortunately suffered from a ridiculously high failure rate. When hardware would fail, the ring of green light(s) on the front of the 360 would suddenly turn red. (In the name of full disclosure, I've had two retail 360s go to 360 heaven.) Microsoft addressed this issue in two ways. One, they reworked the specs on later generations of 360s, greatly reducing the failure rate. And two, they developed a consumer-friendly repair program that made it relatively easy for consumers to get their faulty 360s repaired or replaced.
You should know that the red rings still do occur on occasion. Pray you don't suffer one. Trust me, it's very traumatizing. You have to put the 360 into a tiny cardboard coffin and ship it to Texas, where a Wall-E will eventually find it hundreds of years from now.
As I said above, the best reason to own a 360 is its terrific Xbox Live service. Yes, it's costly ($50 for a Gold-level membership). But it's worth it, especially since the November '08 update. Sure, now the service features user-friendly Avatars (that are eerily like the Miis on the Nintendo Wii) and a new, easier-to-navigate interface, but it's the partnership with DVD-rental service Netflix that makes the service a must-have. If you have a Netflix account, then you're entitled to instantly watch streaming movies via Xbox Live. The quality -- as long as you have a strong Internet connection -- is great. And while the list of titles that can be streamed is still somewhat limited, it's growing all the time. Now, whenever I log into Live, at least half of the folks on my Friends List aren't gaming; they're watching Netflix.
A word about Xbox Live Arcade
Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) is a magical virtual space that features old-school PC classics (Duke Nukem 3D, DOOM), musty quarter-eaters (Joust, Ms. Pac-Man), Dreamcast masterworks (Soulcalibur) and new-school IPs (Geometry Wars, Braid). All games are available for 400, 800 or 1,200 Microsoft Points (not to be confused the soon-to-be-explained Achievement Points) which can be purchased, conveniently enough, via credit card. All of these old and new games look and play great on the 360, with a few exceptions. For example, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix is a superb game, but trying to throw a Dragon Punch via the 360 controller is basically an exercise in futility.
A word about those Achievement Points
Achievement Points, which build your Gamerscore, can be earned by playing any game in the Xbox 360 Library. Each disc features an allotted 1,000 Points which can be squeezed out of a game by meeting certain criteria and challenges. For example, failing a song on the Easy skill level in Guitar Hero II will earn you the Long Road Ahead Achievement (worth 10 Points). Achievement Points have no real-world value whatsoever, yet don't be surprised if you find yourself up until 4 a.m. trying to earn the Suicide Missionary Achievement in Gears of War 2. (Complete the game on the Insane difficulty level, and earn a whopping 150 Points.) In other words, there's something oddly addictive about that little "bloop" electronic noise the 360 makes and the weird icon that pops up on-screen whenever you unlock an Achievement. If you haven't experienced this, then you have no idea what I'm talking about. But unlock a few, and you'll see the light. How successful have the Achievement Points/Gamerscore concepts been for Microsoft? Sony, playing catch-up, is trying to implement a late-to-the-party Trophy system that feels, in my opinion, terribly flat in comparison.
If you've still got your old original Xbox games lying around, the Xbox 360 will play some of them. Yes, I said "some." Right now, there are around 400 original Xbox games that will play on the 360. Look here for the most current list of compatible titles.
HDTV = essential
If you don't own a high-definition television, you're not really going to be able to appreciate the true power of the Xbox 360. Games like Fallout 3, Gears of War 2 and Fable II will practically sear your corneas in 1080p. I know you just forked over a wad of cash for your 360, but you should seriously consider laying out more dough for an HDTV to get the most bang for your buck. You can get yourself a perfectly respectable HDTV now for less than $1,000.
Hard drive vs. no hard drive
There is the nicer-priced version of the Xbox 360 -- the so-called Xbox 360 Arcade -- which retails for less than $200 these days. But what you should know about this version is that it doesn't ship with a hard drive. All game saves must go onto a Memory Unit (aka MU), the tiny little cards that plug into the front of the 360.
Xbox 360 Hard Drive (120GB)
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My guess is that everyone, sooner or later, is going to want a hard drive. In fact, using the 360 without a hard drive is like trying to drive a car without wheels, or eat an ice cream cone without the cone, or watch a rerun of "Sex and the City" and think, I wonder what the old, whore-y one is going to do in this episode.
Hard drives are not only great for storing game saves and system updates; you can also fill them up with movies, music, photos and various other effluvia that can turn your 360 into a formidable multimedia machine.
Hard drives retail for around $150. I recommend picking one up, if your Xbox 360 didn't come with one.
Xbox 360 Wireless Networking Adapter
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Wireless Network Adapter ($100). The Wii and PS3 both have built in Wi-Fi, but the 360 does not. If your TV isn't near your router, you'll unfortunately need to pick up one of these jobbies. A nice alternative that I've also used: the Powerline AV Networking Adapter (around $130), which uses your home's existing electrical wiring to transmit your Wi-Fi signal.
Xbox 360 Play & Charge Kit
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Play & Charge Kit ($20). Recharge your wireless controller while you play. Small caveat: The controller does seem to get warm in the battery pack region, especially if you're holding it in your lap.
Xbox 360 Wireless Controller
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Wireless Controller ($50). No doubt your 360 shipped with only one controller. Pick up a second for those split-screen Left 4 Dead sessions.
Xbox 360 Headset
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Headset ($20). If your 360 didn't come packaged with a headset, be sure to pick one up. Microsoft also makes a wireless headset; avoid that one (it's poorly designed and painful to wear -- see below). Go with the old-fashioned wired one instead.
512MB Memory Unit for Xbox 360
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512 MB Memory Unit ($50). It's helpful to have an MU handy, in case you want to bring your saved games on the road with you.
Any third-party "coolers." These coolers are designed to keep your Xbox 360 from overheating. But as long as your 360 is placed in a well-ventilated area (hint: The only thing that should be touching it on three sides is air), you'll be fine.
Wireless Headset Communicator ($50). This is the aforementioned wireless headset. It looks nice, but I'll bet medieval torture devices were more fun to wear. Avoid.
Ten must-buy games for your library
Ten must-download Xbox Live Arcade games
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Pac-Man: Championship Edition
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
Bionic Commando Rearmed
Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix
Five must-buy Xbox originals
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
For more Buyer's Guides, check out the following: