When the original Xbox was first introduced in 2001, it already seemed dated, an unwieldy hunk of hardware that looked (and weighed) like a top-loading first-generation VCR. Though the snarling beast arguably plays a little better than its chief rival, the sleek, lightweight PlayStation 2, there was no question at the time that Microsoft was putting out a flawed product and improvements would have to come somewhere down the line. Rushed to the holiday market ahead of PlayStation 3, which is currently slated for spring 2006, the new Xbox 360 doesn't solve the design problems entirely; the power box alone looks like something that was lobbed at police during the Vietnam Era. But in all other respects, the console appears up-to-date, with an attractive concave shell that stands upright and a host of accessories that either refine the original model or add considerably more muscle.
There will be a cadre of gamers who will buy this system no matter what, and they'll have two choices: the stripped-down core system, which includes a wired controller, A/V cables, and nothing else, or the souped-up "premium bundle," which comes with a much more generous complement of accessories. The latter costs an extra 100 bucks, but when you consider that the snap-on 20GB hard-drive alone costs that much as an add-on, it would be foolish not to spend that money upfront. (The other option, individual memory cards, is an even lousier proposition: $40 for an ineffectual 64MB.) The premium package also includes a wireless controller and an Xbox Live headset that plugs snugly into a port on the controller. Any fears that the connection will be as dodgy as your TV remote are quickly alleviated by the range and reliability of the controller, which offers great freedom of movement while eliminating the immense kudzu of cords that seem to tangle around all consoles. On the issue of backwards-compatibility, Xbox Live subscribers can download a free program that will allow them to play roughly 200 old games on the new system, though that still leaves the majority of titles as yet incompatible.
As a piece of hardware, the Xbox 360 is essentially a gaming system with the processing power and memory of a PC, which makes it considerably more formidable than any previous system. Clearly inspired by the user-friendly TiVo model, the system's highly navigable interface aims for something more ambitious than mere demon-blasting: It functions as a CD and DVD player, of course, but it also has USB ports for digital cameras and mp3 players, and allows you to rip CDs to create your own soundtracks, which should come in handy when those generic alt-rock and hip-hop tracks go stale. Media consolidation has become a prevailing concept in entertainment technology, but it remains to be seen how much gamers will rely on their consoles to service all their needs. The key question: How well does this thing play?
Based on the initial round of available titles, there's reason for optimism, if not quite the instant gratification that led Xbox fans to hold candlelight vigils outside Best Buy. Xbox 360 games currently retail at around $60, and for that price, some gamers may be surprised (if not outraged) that they're getting less for their money rather than more. Taking full advantage of the 360's next-generation graphic capabilities, EA's Madden '06 could be the most astonishingly beautiful sport game ever made, yet it may be worth waiting for '07 instead. Why? Because even though the stadiums, character models, and surround-sound atmosphere are beyond anything you've experienced—check out Soldier Field on a snowy afternoon, when you can see the players' breath—the game itself has been downsized drastically. Beyond the spiffy new animations, there's not much here outside of a basic franchise mode; it's almost as if EA were trimming the game for a new handheld rather than releasing it to the most powerful console in history.
And so it goes with other EA Sports standards that are making the crossover to the new platform: The few courses available on Tiger Woods PGA Tour '06 couldn't look more lush if you pitched a tent on the 18th at Augusta, but what can you say about a game in which the ability to customize your player's "Fu Manchu" mustache is the most appealing hook? Let's not forget about gameplay, either. The sweaty, precisely sculpted bodies that clash in EA's NBA Live '06 may make the much-improved 360 upgrades to 2K's NBA 2K6 look like rudimentary sketches in comparison, but 2K6's free-flowing, wide-open five-on-five is still vastly preferable to its cement-shoed counterpart. Impeccably rendered digital graphics can certainly make for a more immersive experience, but they didn't make The Polar Express a good movie and they won't allow games to get by on appearance alone.
Still, a so-so launch doesn't mean the Xbox 360 is a failure. Anyone with a working set of eyes should be able to see the system's enormous potential; the cutscenes alone on EA's solid street racing game Need For Speed: Most Wanted are so spookily realistic that you have to squint to know that the characters are not flesh-and-blood. 360 may not have its Halo yet—though many are high on Microsoft's first-person shooter Perfect Dark Zero—but it seems reasonable that game developers haven't quite caught up to the possibilities. The vaunted next-generation gaming experience hasn't fully arrived yet, but it's coming.