A Closer Look

Where's the 'Wow'?

Players find the Xbox 360 is better designed and easier to use when they try it out in stores.
Players find the Xbox 360 is better designed and easier to use when they try it out in stores. (By Justin Sullivan -- Getty Images)
By Tom Ham
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Microsoft's big event last month -- the release of the much-anticipated Xbox 360 -- meant that gamers could finally get their hands on the "next big thing" in video-gaming and home technology.

And even though the company had the support of the big-name video game publishers -- Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft and Sega, among others -- the Xbox 360 experience just hasn't been what it should be, given the hype, anticipation and price tag for one of the units.

Sure, it's exciting to play with a new system and see the new games -- but I expected a lot more from Microsoft's next big gamble.

Out of the box, the Xbox 360 looks more like a svelte PC with its smooth curved edges and rounded buttons. Its unobtrusive DVD media tray and USB inputs highlight its clean look and modern design. Without question, the 360's elegant lines make it a whole lot sleeker than the original Xbox.

The controller is especially worth noting. It feels good in-hand, providing easy access to both analog joysticks as well as the face and shoulder buttons. Microsoft took on a fair amount of criticism about the original Xbox controller and seems to have done a good job of making it better.

Under the hood, the Xbox 360 has plenty of power -- including an IBM PowerPC-based CPU, a custom graphics processor, a good amount of memory, wireless connectivity, and Ethernet and USB ports. Basically, it's a souped-up personal computer that delivers quite a bit: high-definition games with multi-channel sound processing that make video games more lifelike and the sound quality more distinct.

Still, all of this processing power and HD gaming don't come cheap in either of the versions of the Xbox 360. The $300 Core version comes with the console, one controller, a white faceplate and an audiovisual cable. For $100 more, the Premium edition also includes a headset, a remote control, membership to the Xbox Live Entertainment and Chat Network and a 20-gigabyte hard drive to store games, music and other content downloaded from Xbox Live. In addition, the Premium Edition has a wireless controller instead of the Core version's wired one. Both can play Xbox 360 games, DVDs and MP3s. And with the USB ports, the Xbox can also access devices such as digital cameras, an iPod and even Sony's PlayStation Portable.

The Premium edition -- because it has a hard drive -- can also play some (but not all) games made for the original Xbox, thanks to emulation software that the Xbox 360 downloads from Xbox Live to play those games. It's an inconvenient process that seems as if backward compatibility with games for the original Xbox was an afterthought.

In the video game industry, it really is all about the games, and that's why it was encouraging to hear that the Xbox 360 would launch with 18 titles available for play. Sure, that's a strong number, but broken down, it's not so encouraging after all. Of the 18, 11 are sports games -- football, basketball, hockey, soccer, golf and others. Of the other seven, four can be found on other platforms -- leaving three exclusive titles for the 360, a far cry from 18.

For the most part, the games showcase the high-resolution graphics and utilize the high-end sound processing just fine -- but nothing really had the "wow" factor that makes the Xbox 360 worth the $300 or $400 price tag.

There's nothing that's going to stop the hard-core gamers, the ones who spent the night outside stores to get their hands on one of the first units, from buying one. But casual players would be better off taking a pass on the Xbox 360 for now, at least until there is a better variety of games available.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company