Back in November, we reviewed the three next-generation videogame consoles: Sony’s PlayStation 3, Nintendo’s Wii, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The first two systems had just arrived in stores, the latter had just celebrated its first anniversary. As we expected, some of you took grave exception to the grades we awarded each system. Now, as we prepare for next week’s E3 convention — look for our on-the-scene reports on EW.com’s PopWatch blog — we offer this midterm report card for the three consoles. —Geoff Keighley, Wook Kim, and Gary Eng Walk
MICROSOFT XBOX 360
($299 to $479)
It’s earned its lead, but can it keep it? Thanks in part to a one-year head start on the competition, there are more 360s out there than either of the other two next-gen consoles — 12 million units sold worldwide as of the end of June, says Microsoft —. It has the largest and best lineup of games. It sets the standard for online gameplay, and Live Marketplace is bursting with compelling downloadable content. But watch out for the little white box closing the gap. In recent months, the 7-month-old Nintendo Wii has been out-selling the Xbox 360 by at least a 2-to-1 margin. At this rate, sometime during 2008, there’ll be more Wiis in people’s homes than Xbox 360s. Looks like it’s up to one man — a battle-armored warrior from Earth’s distant future — to stop Nintendo’s seemingly inexorable march to console dominance.
WHAT WE LIKE
In May, Microsoft began selling the Xbox 360 Elite. This premium version of the console sports a matte black finish, a larger 120GB hard drive, and an HDMI port that should (theoretically) result in a better picture on flat panel TVs. At $479, the new top-of-the-line 360 is still less expensive than either of the two PS3 configurations. For those on a budget, Microsoft continues to sell a stripped-down version of the 360, sans hard drive and other frills, for $299 (just $50 more than the Wii). No matter which 360 you have, its most valuable asset continues to be the Xbox Live service, which enables gamers to play each other online, purchase new games and accessorize existing ones, and download TV shows and movies. Microsoft performs twice-yearly major updates to Live; the most recent update in the spring added instant-messaging functionality to the service. New offerings from Xbox Live Arcade hit the service every week, and they’re getting better and better — games like Boom Boom Rocket, an interactive fireworks show, look just as sophisticated as the disc-based games you buy in the stores. Very often, the coolest content doesn’t cost you a dime: March saw the first-ever high-def South Park episode, which Live members could download gratis. Also free of charge was May’s three-week-long Halo 3 beta play-test that gave eager gamers a first look at the blockbuster’s multiplayer features.
WHAT WE DON’T LIKE
We still wish we didn’t need an HD-DVD attachment ($199) to play high-def movies on the 360. While Sony had the confidence in the competing Blu-Ray disc format to include the player in its PS3 console, Microsoft could have given the HD-DVD format a vote of confidence by building the HD-DVD functionality into its Elite edition of the 360, even if it meant charging a higher price. The Microsoft Points currency system — used to pay for all of the downloadable content — is still unnecessarily confusing. And we won’t even delve into all those horror stories about 360s and the now-fabled ”ring of death”…
Gears of War, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (both the original and the sequel), Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas, Dead Rising, Tomb Raider: Legend, Forza Motorsport 2, Guitar Hero II, and Crackdown all deserve some play time. There’s also a handful of must-download games on Xbox Live: Prince of Persia Classic, Boom Boom Rocket, and the still-addictive Geometry Wars Evolved, to name a few. From now until the end of the year, the 360 will test the limits of your bank account with a bumper crop of exclusives, including Bioshock, Blue Dragon, Project Gotham Racing 4, and Mass Effect. We’re looking forward to playing a number of non-exclusive 360 games, including Grand Theft Auto IV, Half-Life 2: Orange Box, Mercenaries 2, Assassins Creed, and Rock Band. Not a bad slate of upcoming titles. What? Oh, puh-leeze: Did you really think we were gonna forget Halo 3?
WHAT WE SAID THEN
We said the 360 was ”hands-down your best game console option at the moment” and gave it the highest grade in the group. Last November, the 360 already had a solid, diverse library of titles, including the best-selling Gears of War, which has gone on to sell 3.8 million copies so far. Our grade then: A-
WHAT WE SAY NOW
Going forward, it’ll get much harder for Xbox to stay on top. Nintendo is building some serious momentum. A year from now, it’s conceivable there’ll be more Wii consoles in people’s homes than 360s. Sooner, not later, PlayStation 3 sales will begin to heat up too. And yet, despite the doom and gloom, Microsoft’s machine is still the console to beat. For the most part, they’ve been doing everything right. Wii and the PS3 still suffer from a drought of top-shelf games, making the 360’s solid lineup look even stronger. And when the competition rolls out a hit or two, it’ll still be hard to match the 360’s superb online network. The next six months bring a strong string of hit games, led by a Halo 3 onslaught. Add in a potential price drop later this year and we still like the Xbox 360. Our grade now: A-
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