Where’s the design' I’m not impressed with style of the 360. I was hoping for it to compete with the sleek PS2 Slim or the very unique Game Cube. Instead, the 360 looks like your typical ho-hum DVD player with a huge, almost comical, power supply. Microsoft tried to add the cool-factor by allowing owners to change the faceplate with a $20 replacement. But that's not cutting it. It’s the anti iPod in terms of style.

But who cares right' As far as console gaming history goes, the box design never defined what the system could do. The Nintendo NES, Playstation and Dreamcast were boring, gray, and square. The Xbox 360 is gray but not square. And although it won’t win any design awards for beauty on the outside it will definitely leave its mark. 2006 should be a big year for the Xbox

It’s all about the games. We can talk specs and performance all day long but what it all boils down to is the games. This is the juice that brings consoles to life. And it’s a lot more expensive than a smoothie at Jamba. For $65 a pop; these games better be great. So great that you lose track of time and keep on coming back for more. I’m not just talking about graphics and sound. That’s a given. Depth and substance sell the games. Any 15 year old gamer will tell you that.

So I jumped right in with a few of the frontrunners. After playing Need for Speed: Most Wanted and Call of Duty 2, I can definitely recommend the Xbox 360. I hate using the word “realistic” when it comes to describing video games but the games for the 360 come pretty close. The environments, tracks, cars and physics in NFS: Most Wanted is simply mind blowing. You can actually see individual leaves and raindrops hit your windshield as you try to dodge the on-coming traffic. The fog, smoke and explosions in Call of Duty 2 make you thankful that you are only playing a video game. Call of Duty 2 inundates the player with sound effects and nonstop action that capture the chaos in the frontline of battle. As far as depth and substance, these two games will satisfy even the hard core gamer. The single player modes managed to keep me from getting any sleep. The multiplayer mode opens up a whole new world.

In fact the online component was one of the reasons we were so interested in getting our hands on the 360. Xbox Live, the 360’s online offering, includes a fee “silver” membership or “gold” version with extra features. You can get all the details from Microsoft.

The Xbox 360 comes with a built-in Ethernet port that’s supposed to be plug and play. If you have an extra $100 lying around, you can buy the wireless network adapter. We didn’t bother. When it comes to networks and new technologies hard wire is the way to go. Connecting the 360 to my Linksys broadband router took a little tweaking. Several router brands require firmware updates to work with the 360. Microsoft provides basic how-to, troubleshooting guides and a list of Xbox 360-friendly routers on the Xbox site. Fortunately for me, all I had to do was disable my UPnP on my Linksys WRT54G router.

After a successful hookup, Xbox Live easily detected the games. Joining a multiplayer game was painless. However, the response time isn’t quite there yet. I experienced a huge unbearable lag while playing Call of Duty 2’s team games. I’m a little disappointed because this is the main reason why combat-sims like Call of Duty 2 are so popular to begin with. A nice addition is the free and pay-to-play downloads in the Arcade Live area. The current offerings include old-school arcades and puzzle games.

In addition to playing games, owners of USB microphones can take advantage of in-game voice communication. Boisterous players can get annoying at times but nonstop voice communication definitely helps during team games.

Microsoft is in the house. Let’s not kid ourselves. The Xbox 360 is a Trojan horse for Microsoft that is designed to be a multimedia all-in-one system. The 360 can also play DVDs, music CDs and even perform Tivo-like functions via Windows Media Center. 360 owners can also rip music to the 360’s hard drive. The fast USB ports can be used to plug USB keyboards, digital cameras, Flash drives and others. I’ll leave the possibilities to your imagination. I recently subjected my relatives to watching a CD full of vacation pictures via the Xbox 360’s media center. I played the music from my Cruizer Flash drive in the background to capture the whole mood. Yes. It was cheesy. Easy and cheesy.

So what’s it all about Alfie' The premium 360 is a steal at the $399 price point. As a game console, the current game lineup is quite impressive. The 360 also has solid support from game publishing powerhouses like Electronic Arts, Eidos and Sega. Several top-notch game developers are also planning potentially great titles for the 360.

Make sure that you have the hard drive component to take advantage of all the features I’ve mentioned. I’m glad to say that the Xbox 360 is an impressive system. It’s great to start 2006 with a bang!

Back to gaming -- G1XM4N

G1XM4N (gixman) is the resident hardcore gamer at funkyfresh.

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