My friends and I have a problem. We’re scattered geographically and temporally, with jobs, families and commitments that keep us from gaming as much as we’d like. We’ve tried online gaming via Windows but have been disappointed every time. Poor net connections, aging hardware, and incongruent patches foiled us time and again. But the Xbox is changing all that.
Back in Fall 2003, one of my friends — Lance — and I began talking about alternatives — specifically, going online with Xbox Live. At the time, Xbox’s online component had been getting good reviews as being quick and easy to use, and just as importantly, it had a number of high-rated online-capable games. We formulated a plan — we’d both get Xboxes, and if the online play turned out to be as good we hoped, we’d try and rally the others to our cause. For the last six months, I saved up my freelance cash, buying the components I needed as I could afford them:
- The Xbox: I bought this in March after the price dropped to $149.99.
- Xbox Live: A 12-month subscription to the online service, which cost $70 and came with the third-person airplane shooter Crimson Skies and a voice-chat headset.
- Xbox Wireless Bridge: An adapter that allowed my Xbox to join my wireless home network.
Halo and the role-playing game Knights of the Old Republic to keep me busy until I purchased everything I needed. This week, I was finally able to put it all together. Lance and I have played Crimson Skies online, and aside from a few hiccups, I think it’s safe to say that the Xbox truly is our holy grail.
Beautiful Graphics, Solid Game Play
Given the Xbox’s technical capabilities, it’s no surprise that games look better on it than on PlayStation 2. The best-looking game I’ve seen on PS2 is easily Gran Turismo 3, though there were occasional moments of brilliance within Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The visuals in Halo and Crimson Skies put them both to shame — the vistas are both games are awe-inspiring. There’s nothing like seeing the long arm of Halo’s ringworld rising up into the sky, or seeing the beautiful, multi-hued sunsets of Crimson Skies as they reflect across the Pacific Ocean.
I’ve found load times to be respectable — far better at least than my tired old PC. Halo saw slight pauses between each section, and while Crimson Skies had longer level-based loads, once you were flying things were smooth. I saw no frame rate issues with either — everything rendered smoothly, without any jagged lines or odd skipping. This level of performance held up during multi-player modes for both games.
Hardware-wise, I love the fact that the Xbox has a hard drive, which can be used for storing saved games, downloaded content, and music but I wish that game designers would make better use of it. If the hard drive is there for the writing, why not just use it rather than forcing me to battle my way through way points? Halo wasn’t bad with this — the way points were frequent and many — but other games, like the first-person fighter Breakdown — put way too much distance between them.
The first time I tried an Xbox, back when it was released, I hated the controller. It felt clunky and graceless compared to the PS2 dual-shock analog controllers. If memory serves, Microsoft redesigned the controllers somewhat to make them smaller and more hand-friendly, and I found the controller that came with my Xbox to be far more comfortable than I remember. I still prefer the PS2 controllers, but the Xbox ones are growing on me.
Xbox’s technical capabilities are impressive, and its fun to play offline, but where it really excels is online. Technically, all you need to get your Xbox online is an Xbox Live subscription, a broadband connection, and network hub of some kind to connect your Xbox to. My particular setup was more complicated than that, because my DSL modem and router are located in my 3rd floor office. Running an Ethernet cable from the third floor to the first, where the Xbox is, wasn’t realistic.
I do have a wireless network though, based off a 802.11b router. The logical thing to do was to get a wireless bridge to connect the Xbox to my ethereal network, which is exactly what I did, picking up the “official” Xbox bridge. Setting up the bridge was a breeze — power it up and connect it to the Xbox via an Ethernet cable. Throw the CD with the bridge software into the Xbox, and power up the machine. The software was installed on to the Xbox’s hard drive, and within minutes I could see — and log on to — my encrypted wireless network. It immediately downloaded any needed updates.
I threw in Crimson Skies and immediately tried to play a game. That’s when the first (and only) snag appeared. I was able to download some online-only content for the game, but when I’d go to join a game, my name would flash red, and there would be a red dot where my status was.
I assumed it was a poor network connection, and tried another game. Same results. Another game. Same. Then I hosted a game of my own, which worked fine, and then three more, which also performed as expected.
Stranger and stranger.
Finally, that night, Lance and I tried our first game, and we ran into that self-same error — flashing red user names with a dot for status. Later on, after playing a few online games of his own, Lance figured out the problem — that flashing red user name meant we didn’t have all the downloadable content that we needed. Once we downloaded those files, everything worked just fine.
Since then, online play’s been a hell of a lot of fun. Online play with my friends is excellent — it’s great to be able to hold a conversation with someone why blasting the crap out of them a few hundred feet above Chicago. Setting up a game is simplicity — just set what kind you’d like to play, how many players you want to include, and how many slots should be reserved for friends. Then send out invitations and you’re online. Accepting invitations is a bit clunky; the first option when accepting an invite is “remove friend from list”, the second is “accept invitation”. It’d be better if the second option came first.
Playing online against people you don’t know is a different experience, but I’ve found it a rewarding one. Human players are often more ingenious than even the best AI, and playing against them is a refreshing change of pace. The voice chat is less impressive with strangers — few people are willing to talk, and most conversation I’ve encountered revolves around sudden curses and trash talking. Then again, I’ve hardly done much to contribute to online gaming conversation, and from what I’ve read in the blogosphere, it is possible to have intelligent conversation online. I’m looking forward to delving into some less-arcade-like games, like Rainbow Six 3, a covert strategy game.
Gaming on the Cheap
It’s worth noting that now is a very affordable time to get into the Xbox. The console itself is selling for $150, less for used versions. Many of the best games for the Xbox — Halo, Crimson Skies, Knights of the Old Republic — are selling for $30 or less. It’s true that Xbox 2 is scheduled to be released in the not-to-distant future, possibly in late 2005, but that’s over a year away (more if you’re like me and plan to wait a few months to get the new console) and there’s plenty of great gaming to be done between now and then.
Although it’s an aging system, there’s still nothing more powerful than Xbox on the market. For a while, Halo was one of the only Xbox games worth playing, but now there are several, and most of them can be acquired cheaply. Moreover, Xbox Live offers easy-to-use online gaming that PS2 can’t beat. If you’ve ever contemplated getting the system, now is the perfect time.