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Xbox 360 Review Part 5: Playing games

While there were over 200 Xbox 360 games in development when I started writing this review, only 18 had trickled out in time for publication, and less than 25 will be ready by the end of the year. I intend to review as many of these titles as possible, but let's take a quick look at the Xbox 360 game experience, and see how it compares to the original Xbox and other video game consoles. I'll examine individual Xbox 360 games later in the review and again in separate reviews. Here, I'd like to highlight how things have changed, generally, when compared to gaming with the original Xbox.

The big difference, of course, is that each game is not an island. With the first Xbox, game makers could decide how and whether they would integrate with Xbox Live, Microsoft's online gaming service. As a result, only about 10 percent of Xbox 1 games are Xbox Live aware. And even when these companies did decide to add Xbox Live compatibility, they could determine which features to add. For example, very few Xbox Live games for the first Xbox connected you with Xbox Live when you were competing in single player mode (Halo 2 is one obvious exception).

With Xbox 360, Xbox Live is a constant companion, as is the Xbox Guide. That means that your friends can contact you when you're playing a game--if you allow that--and that you can take care of any system management tasks at any time. This works during single player and multiplayer, whether you're connected to the Internet in some way or not.

Here's how it works. Let's say you're slagging away in the dunes of North Africa, courtesy of "Call of Duty 2." But suddenly you want to respond to a notification, check out a movie trailer, Xbox Live Arcade title, or whatever. Hit the Xbox Guide button on your Xbox 360 controller (or Media remote or Universal Remote Control). This causes the game to pause (single player only) and the Xbox Guide to appear, overlaying over the game title you're currently enjoying (Figure). From here, you can check your messages, see which friends are online, and a list of players you recently competed against online near the top of the screen, under your Gamertag. You can also launch a private chat, configure your personal settings, select music to play in lieu of the current title's soundtrack, and jump to the Xbox Dashboard. However, if you do jump to the Dashboard, your current gaming session will end: Only the Xbox Guide can appear simultaneously with the current game.

From a general perspective, Xbox 360 gaming is otherwise very similar to Xbox gaming. Most of the game titles feature annoyingly slow load times with numerous demo and pointless brag screens, and loud, horrible music. I've spent more time than I care to admit simply customizing most games to be quieter and less obnoxious.

I will look at individual games in Part 10 of this review.

Backwards compatibility with Xbox titles

Given its success with the Windows franchise, Microsoft wasn't about to abandon existing Xbox customers when it designed Xbox 360. That means that backwards compatibility with original Xbox titles was always a concern. There's just one problem: Xbox 360 runs on a completely different hardware platform than the first Xbox. So there were two ways in which to ensure that the Power PC-based Xbox 360 could run Intel-based Xbox games. Microsoft could have included the guts of an original Xbox inside the case, or it could have created an emulation program that allowed the Power PC processor to emulate an Intel Pentium III.

Microsoft chose the latter approach because of cost concerns. But because the Power PC and Pentium III chips are so fundamentally different, the company had to individually create software shims for each Xbox title. There was simply no way all of these shims would ship in time for the Xbox 360 launch, so the company pledged to support as many original Xbox games as possible out of the box, and would then add support for more games over time.

A few weeks before the Xbox 360 launch, Microsoft announced which Xbox games would work with the initial Xbox 360 version. You can read much more about this topic in my Xbox 360 Software Compatibility List showcase, but the long and short of it is this: Before any Xbox game will run on Xbox 360, you will need to have a compatible software update. Because these updates can be quite big, you also need a hard drive in order to play Xbox games on Xbox 360. And if you load a compatible game on Xbox 360 and have Xbox Live enabled, the system will check for new updates at that time as well.

When you load an Xbox 1 game with Xbox 360, the standard black Xbox loading screen is replaced by a new white version (Figure). Then, if the game is compatible, you'll jump right in as usual. If not, you'll see a screen alerting you that the title is not supported, but that an update might be available on the Xbox Web site (Figure). And as you might expect, classic Xbox title that do work on Xbox 360 utilize the Xbox Guide just as do normal Xbox 360 titles.

On to Part 6...

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