If you're reading this review and suddenly decide that you want an Xbox 360 this year, it might already be too late. By the time the Xbox 360 goes on sale in North America on November 22, virtually all of the available stock will have already sold out. That is, if you attempt to purchase a bundle (see below) through online retailers, you'll discover that all of their allotted systems are taken and they've halted preorders. If we can pretend for a few seconds that this deplorable situation doesn't exist, there are basically just a few ways to obtain an Xbox 360. You can buy what Microsoft is calling "Xbox 360," which is the core console with a slew of accessories (see below), you can buy the stock Core System (essentially a stripper system with no add-ons; see below), or you can try to buy one of several available bundles, which are massive collections of consoles, games, and accessories offered by retailers (again, see below). These bundles range in price from several hundred dollars to $1000. Yes, seriously.
Actually, there's another way. You could camp out in front of a Best Buy, CompUSA or similar store the night of November 21 and wait for the inevitable midnight madness event that will accompany Xbox 360's release, hoping you can rush into the store fast enough and get a system without having to kill a fellow shopper. It's your funeral.
OK, now that I've dampened your enthusiasm, let's take a look at the various Xbox packages you can get.
Xbox 360 Core System
The Xbox 360 Core System, about $300 in the US, is considered the basic package and is the cheapest way to acquire Microsoft's next generation game console. The Core System includes an Xbox 360 console with a standard white fascia, a single wired controller, and a composite AV cable that will work with virtually all modern television sets. However, the Core System is absolutely broken right out of the box: Because it doesn't come with a hard drive or Memory Unit, there is no way to save games or other data. So you're going to need to spend some more cash to get at least a Memory Unit before this package can be considered more than "better than nothing." Because this bundle is so horribly lacking (see the next section for more information), Microsoft expects the Core System to be outsold by the more complete Xbox 360 by at least a 5-to-1 margin. I agree, and though I appreciate the fact that Microsoft is offering a way to get into the Xbox 360 cheaply, this is like selling a car without tires. If you can, avoid the Core System.
The next step up is the misnamed Xbox 360. This version includes the Xbox 360 console, but with a premium chrome finish. It also includes a 20 GB hard drive, a single wireless controller, an Xbox Live Headset, a component HD cable (that will only work on modern TV sets with component inputs), and an Ethernet cable. These additional features enable a number of scenarios that are not available to Core System users unless they upgrade their system. For example, having a hard drive means that you can save game data and downloads from Xbox Live Marketplace. But it also means that you can play games designed for the original Xbox: The compatibility data that Xbox 360 requires to play older Xbox games will reside on the hard drive, and updates will be downloaded as needed via Xbox Live. You also need a hard drive or Memory Unit to subscribe to Xbox Live Gold or Silver, by the way.
The Xbox 360 costs $400. If you factor in the cost of the accessories you get with Xbox 360, but not with the Xbox 360, you'll see that it's a tremendous bargain and is the baseline system you should consider. My personal opinion is that every Xbox 360 user should have the hard drive, because of its storage capacity, relatively low price, and the various downloads you'll want to do. Because it's cheaper to get the hard drive with the Xbox 360 package, you should get that, not the Core System.
That said, even the Xbox 360 package is not complete. Most people will want at least one more controller, of course.
Xbox 360 bundles
To capitalize on the buying frenzy caused by Microsoft's new console, retailers are bundling the Xbox 360 with a variety of games and accessories. These bundles are enormously expensive, but they do provide a way to get a slew of Xbox 360 gear in a single package. I can't possibly cover all of the available bundles, but let's look at a representative retailer to see what's out there.
Toys R Us offers two Xbox 360 bundles online (through partner Amazon), both of which cost a whopping $1000. The first, called the Xbox 360 Pro Player's Bundle, includes the Xbox 360 package (not the Core System), an additional wireless controller, a Play and Charge Kit, a Rechargeable Battery Pack, a second faceplate, and 8 game titles: Kameo: Elements of Power, Project Gotham Racing 3, Perfect Dark Zero: Limited Edition, Quake 4, GUN, Call of Duty 2, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, and Ridge Racer 6.
The other bundle, known as Xbox 360 Pro Player's Bundle II, offers the same accessories and a slightly different contingent of 8 games: Kameo: Elements of Power, Project Gotham Racing 3, Call of Duty 2, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland, Need for Speed Most Wanted, NBA Live 2006, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2006, and Ridge Racer 6. Additionally, Toys R Us offers two Core System bundles, but I can't find pricing on these at this time, so I'll focus on the pro bundles.
From a cost standpoint, the $1000 price point isn't horrible, assuming you want all those accessories and games. Here's how these items would break down if you bought them separately:
Xbox 360 (includes hard drive): $400
Wireless controller: $50
Play and Charge Kit: $20
Rechargeable Battery Pack: $12
8 game titles: $480
So they're stroking you for $18. But the point here is that most people wouldn't buy such an audacious collection of video game gear at one sitting. Toys R Us, and every other major retailer that is selling the Xbox 360, is really just taking advantage of you. If you can afford such a thing, and simply must have an Xbox 360 this holiday season, a bundle like this might be your only choice. But as I mentioned previously, most places are sold out anyway. Apparently this ploy worked. It's astonishing to me that there are millions of people out there willing to spend $1000 on a video game system, but there you go.
On to Part 9...