LTTP: My First Two Weeks with the Xbox 360

My shiny new old Xbox 360
My shiny new old Xbox 360

Prologue

In the summer of 2005, I made the fateful decision to go back to school full time in order to receive a bachelor’s degree. That probably isn’t very interesting to you, but the upshot was that being a poor student prevented me from participating in this console generation. Sure, I went to the occasional party where everyone got drunk and tried to play Marble Mania and Excite Truck on the Wii, but for the three years it took to graduate I mostly gamed on my PC and my trusty PS2.

In 2008 I had the good fortune of graduating into the worst economic downturn in generations, with the least marketable major imaginable (Philosophy!), and this financial hardship further prevented me from buying in to a new console until the very end of 2010. On December 28th, over five years after its introduction, I finally acquired an Xbox 360.

Getting Set Up

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford a new system, but thanks to the dreaded RROD, prices for used 360s on craigslist hover around $100 locally. I did a lot of texting and trading and finagling and at the end of the day I had a 3 year old Xbox 360 Pro with a 20GB hard drive, one wireless controller and an official headset.

I was glad to get a hard drive, even the smallest one, since I didn’t expect to in my price range. This became even more important when I got the system set up at home and realized why the previous owner was so keen to upgrade to a 360 Slim.

The DVD drive in this thing is deafening. Really, it’s simply intolerable. I was flabbergasted the first time I popped in a disc and heard the drive absolutely howling. In this, the ability to install games to the hard drive is an absolute blessing. I can’t install more than two discs at one time, but juggling drive space is a small price to pay to keep the console operating at an acceptable noise level.

Click to see the image ghosting over my VGA cable.

My second disappointment occurred when the VGA adapter I ordered from eBay arrived. It could be that the 3rd party VGA cables everyone sells just aren’t very good, or maybe that’s just how bad analog signals are when you get to higher resolutions, which is why everyone migrated to DVI a long time ago. Whatever the case, while the colors are pretty good and the detail is there, I’m getting a lot of ghosting in the image on my Dell 2005FPW LCD monitor. It looks much better over HDMI on the HDTV in the living room.

Signing Up for Xbox Live

The previous owner was kind enough to wipe the system and leave it factory fresh for me. The first thing I did (after struggling to get the controller and console to talk to each other via a non-obvious process to someone without a manual for reference) was try to sign up for Xbox Live. Oops, the Xbox tells me, that email address is already in use! Well, I guess I do have a Games for Windows Live account, let’s see it I can recover it! Uhhh, not until I reset my password, but after that it went fine.

I sent out a couple dozen friend requests, mostly to people I know through Quarter to Three, and now have a reasonable friends list to look at. I set up media streaming via the Media Center Extender as well as PS3 Media Server. MCE is pretty good for music, but I found the HD video quality far better when transcoded by PS3MS.

I’d love to check out some of the dashboard apps like Netflix and ESPN3, but I can’t afford to go gold yet. I’m still experiencing a level of cognitive dissonance over the idea that I should pay MS for the privilege of accessing other services I pay for directly, using an internet connection I pay for directly, and to play user-hosted multiplayer games. That choice is not an urgent one yet, as I do not own any games with significant multiplayer features yet.

My First Three Games

I actually bought my first games a couple days before I had secured a system. When I stopped in to a Gamestop to check their pricing an availability of used systems, I found they were running a buy two, get one free sale on their preowned games. After looking through their selection I ended up picking up three games I really wanted to try for $40: Fable 2, Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey.

Fable 2 has a really fantastic look.

In 2008, when Fable 2 came out, that was the first time I really found myself coveting an Xbox 360. At the time it was getting all sorts of game of the year awards and I thought the visual style was gorgeous. The real-time combat system also looked incredibly appealing, with the ability to switch between melee, ranged and magic attacks instantly. At only $10, this was a definite buy for me.

The second game I picked out was Final Fantasy XIII. Ironically, I had always imagined playing it on a PS3, but since PS3 ownership seems to very far off at the moment, I decided I’d lower myself to playing the reportedly inferior 360 version. Historically, the first new Final Fantasy game in each generation has usually been what motivates me to actually buy a new system. Final Fantasy VII was my first PSX game and Final Fantasy X was my first PS2 game. I guess I simply couldn’t resist the chance to pick up XIII on the cheap for the 360. Gamestop had just dropped the price to $20, after all.

Finally, I grabbed a copy of Lost Odyssey, Sakaguchi’s 360 exclusive Final Fantasy competitor, part of Microsoft’s fruitless attempt to win over the Japanese market. I’ve always been both skeptical and intensely curious about this game. I’m not sure I like the character designs I’ve seen so far, but I’ve also heard the game contains some really amazing in game text stories. Those apprehensions notwithstanding, it jumped out to me as I was looking for a third game that wasn’t a shooter I’d rather play with a mouse and keyboard on my PC.

Expectations Vs. Reality

I decided to tackle Fable 2 first and promptly lost a lot of time, in eight hour chunks, including a large portion of my New Year’s Eve. It’s a very fun game with a beautifully realized world to explore. Unfortunately, I found I had finished the main story far more quickly than I would have liked, and although there was more post-credit stuff you can do, having the chair kicked out from under me like that put me off playing any more for the time being.

Ultimately, I had expected a grander adventure than Fable 2 actually delivers. I was disappointed that the scope of the main story was so narrow and that there weren’t many more lands to discover, explore and exert my influence over. I expect I’ll go back to Fable 2 some day, but for now I’ve moved on.

For a little over a week I’ve been playing Final Fantasy XIII. First things first, I don’t have the PS3 version to compare side-by-side, but the quality of the Bink compressed video cut scenes in the Xbox release is simply egregious. The PS3 version received pristine H.264 videos in 1080p. The 360 gets officiously smeared, blocky video at less than half that resolution. They look terrible and that failure is enough to regret the purchase a bit.

Otherwise, I’m having fun with the game. The combat system really is dynamic and crazy and fresh. The challenge curve is satisfying, and in the first 16 hours, or so, I’ve never felt like I’m being punished with the need to grind.

The slimes look real nice in FFXIII

The story is, however, incomprehensible. The worst thing you can say about the storytelling in this game is you will not understand anything that is going on until you go to load your save when the game scrolls a little recap of what’s happening. There are made up words, undefined geography and no real explanation of what is driving the conflict.

It’s weird, since the game takes every opportunity to break up the combat with dialog-heavy cut scenes. But the characters most stop to be angsty about their strained relationships with each other, instead of delivering exposition about WTF a Fal’Cie is or where Cocoon is in relationship to Pulse.

But at least it’s pretty and the animation and voice work are all high quality. I’m finding some of the characters endearing, in particular Sazh and Vanille. The character development system is also satisfying. The “Crystarium” lets you invest points into multiple combat roles to unlock universal stat increases as well as class-specific combat abilities. Those classes roughly correspond to a MMORPG paradigm of tank/nuker/healer/support, and you can customize your party composition into a series of load-outs to switch between during combat.

Others have complained about the game being overly linear, but I haven’t found that true. In fact, my biggest problems involve a number of silly UI annoyances that serve no purpose. As one example when you go to load a save game you select your file, press the button, it will ask if you’re sure, you say yes, it will load the save file, tell you it’s loaded and then wait for you to press a button again before it will start loading the game proper. It’s not like it’s even giving you an option to back out at that point. The only possible thing you can do is proceed with loading the level, but instead of doing so automatically, the game obstinately requires one more meaningless button press.

Getting in and out of battles has similar issues. FFXII was such a treat in the way it did away with the antiquated need to load a separate combat scene. FFXIII use the same art assets for exploration and combat, but it insists on an old school screen blur and pause before combat starts and then, two combat summary screens you have to button pass every time combat concludes. That gets very tedious very quickly.

But it’s not enough to deter me from playing, and I’m already near the mythical 25 hour mark where the game supposedly “gets good”.

I have actually popped in Lost Odyssey for a few minutes, just long enough to watch the opening FMV and defeat the intro combat sequence. For now it’s on the back burner.

Looking Ahead

Although I’m still working my way through my first set of games, I’m already starting to plan my next game acquisitions. In the first couple days of ownership I downloaded a whole bunch of demos for titles that I’d been interested in but had no way to play before. I tried Enslaved, Bayonetta, Castlevania: Lord of Shadows, Vanquish, Dead Space 2, Brutal Legend and a whole bunch of Xbox Live Arcade games.

Seriously, I love that chrome effect!

Of those I’m most excited to play more Bayonetta and Brutal Legend. Bayonetta is just gorgeous, frenetic and absolutely mad in a way I find very exciting. I was also very impressed by what I saw of Brutal Legend. I laughed a bunch playing it, and there is something sublime about the design of the characters, the world and the shader effect on Eddie Rigg’s spiked wrist band. I’m not really in to heavy metal, but the game just feels right up my alley.

Other games on my radar are additional crazy JRPGs like Nier, Resonance of Fate and Tales of Vesperia. I’m also a big fan of the Assassin’s Creed games, having played the first two on the PC, but I’m not sure I can wait for the port of Brotherhood to come out. Red Dead Redemption is another game I’m really excited to give a try.

The Road Goes Ever On and On

Any time you get a new system to play around with, there is an inherent excitement in exploring a new avenue of entertainment. In my case, that effect was intensified by five years of back titles and dashboard enhancements. Finally buying an HD console also carried with it a sense of relief. As my personal timetable for ownership kept getting extended I became a little anxious about this console cycle completely passing me by.

With that monkey off my back I’m left to ponder that value proposition of Xbox Live Gold and fret over the longevity of my three year old system. At some point I’ll also need to invest in a larger hard drive, but as someone who has always been extremely skeptical of Microsoft’s console offerings, I can’t help but feel largely won over by my new (to me) Xbox 360.