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Xbox 360: Good, but not great
The first of the next gen video game machines hits store shelves next week. Should you get one?
November 21, 2005: 12:52 PM EST
Game Over is a weekly column by Chris Morris
The Xbox 360 goes on sale Tuesday Nov. 22 for $299 and $399.
The Xbox 360 goes on sale Tuesday Nov. 22 for $299 and $399.
Photo GallerylaunchSee more photos

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For gaming's most enthusiastic fans, the question of whether to get an Xbox 360 was answered long ago. It would be the first entry in the next generation and a status symbol amongst their friends. But is there a reason for the rest of the world - gaming or otherwise - to rush stores?

The short answer: Not on Day One.

The Xbox 360 goes on sale Tuesday, Nov. 22 and will cost either $299 for a bare bones machine that will not allow you to play existing Xbox games or $399 for a fully loaded, backward compatible system (by far the smarter buy). It's certainly a sleek piece of equipment, with enough technological oomph to make even the most casual gamer raise their eyebrows. And Microsoft continues to extend its lead in the online console marketplace. But when it comes to must-have games, the Xbox 360 falls short. While there are several good - and even very good - titles that will be available at launch, there's nothing truly great.

Admittedly, tastes vary – so you could easily find a game out this month that's a "must have" for you. (Click here for a closer look at the games.) But if you're looking for something that's ground breaking and sets the trend for the system (as "Halo" did with the original Xbox), you're not going to find it.

Microsoft and its publishing partners were smart to offer a diverse lineup of games, hoping to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Ultimately, though, playing it safe like that works against the system. Most of the launch games offer little more than slight graphic advancements than versions found on other systems (including the original Xbox). Only a couple of titles are exclusive to Xbox 360 (that is, they can't be played on any other machine). And none offer any true gameplay advancements. At best, you'll see a couple of interesting tweaks.

Don't misunderstand these criticisms. The Xbox 360 is a truly impressive machine and shows an enormous amount of potential for the years to come. There are titles in development that seem to have the potential to be true blockbusters – and the clever use of a proprietary online marketplace opens up the possibility of innovation. It's just not happening yet.

Microsoft (Research) has hinted that online is the one of the keys to the 360's success – and it seems to be doing everything right on that front. When you first turn on your Xbox 360 and take care of initial set-up (choosing a language, time zone, etc.), you're prompted to either set up or transfer an Xbox Live account. Doing so is an easy, painless process that takes no more than 10 or 15 minutes. (You'll also need to set up an Xbox Live/Microsoft Passport account if you don't have one already).

Once the preliminaries are taken care of, you'll find yourself at the dashboard – the hub of the Xbox 360. From here, you can (among other things) send and receive messages, see which of your friends are online, compare your game collection to that of your friends (and people you meet online) and access both the Xbox Live Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade.

The Marketplace could turn out to be one of the smartest things about the 360. From there, you'll be able to watch game trailers (usually free) and download game demos. (You'll also be able to purchase pictures, game-specific thematic content to let you customize the look of your dashboard and eventually add-ons for games.)

By offering free looks and trials of games, though, the Marketplace could help boost software sales. Electronic Arts (Research) is taking full advantage of this at the system's launch, with free demos of "NBA Live," "FIFA Soccer" and "Need for Speed: Most Wanted". Microsoft and Ubisoft will also offer select free demo downloads. That's a fair amount of free gameplay that comes with the machine – and smart customers will wait to try the games before buying them.

Xbox Live Arcade is Microsoft's nod to casual gamers. The service offers less intense games, such as "Bejewled" and "Hexic" as well as classic 80s arcade games such as "Joust" and "Robotron 2084". These aren't titles that will do much for the hardcore gamer, but they're an intriguing way to turn the head of casual or lapsed gamers who happen to live with a real enthusiast. (Most Arcade games, which -- except for "Hexic" -- must be purchased via Xbox Live, cost under $10.)

Like Sony (Research), Microsoft has plans for the Xbox 360 that go well beyond gaming. The company is in a well-publicized fight for electronic dominance of your living room. So, it shouldn't come as a big surprise that the movie and music playback functionality of the 360 is excellent. DVDs are sharp and shown in progressive scan mode. Home-burned DVDs are supported as well. Digital music, whether it's songs burned onto your 360's hard drive or from your iPod, show no noticeable distortion – and the 360's visualization software is funky fun as well.

Aesthetically, the Xbox 360 is a dramatic leap over the original Xbox. It's stylishly concave shape fits in well with other components. After the endless jokes about the size and heft of the original Xbox, Microsoft got it right. And looking at some of the rejected early designs (see gallery), it's nice to see the company learned from its past. About the only thing that detracts from the visual appeal is the machine's enormous power brick. Fortunately, it's a bit easier to hide that.

The system truly sings with a high definition television, as has been widely reported, but still shows noticeable graphical improvements over the current generation. In an ideal world, HD is best, but you can survive for a while without it and still enjoy the system.

Ultimately, if you consider yourself a core gamer, you've probably already pre-ordered a 360 (and hopefully, your retailer will be able to fulfill that pre-order – many are quietly letting customers know they won't be able to meet demand before Christmas).

If you're a more casual fan, it's probably worth waiting a bit. In a holiday season where dollars are tight and supply will be fairly low, it's hard to justify the stress you'll face and the price you'll pay for Xbox 360.

2nd opinion? Check Peter Lewis' take ..

Want more video game news and commentary? Read past Game Over columns.

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Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.  Top of page

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