My First Week As A Console Gamer (Again)

I am a gamer, going back pretty much as far back as you can go. My family had one of the original Atari Pong consoles back in the 70's, and I've been hooked on video games ever since. From the Atari and Colecovision to Sega and Nintendo on to the Mac and PC, I've gone through all the generations. My days as a console gamer, however, came to a close many years ago. After the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis fell into the last-gen, I switched to PC gaming exclusively and never looked back. Until recently, that is. With the release of the Nintendo DS Lite last year, I made my first tentative step back towards the console world. Last Sunday, with the purchase of an X-Box 360, I made the full leap back in.

As far as the specifics go, I bought the X-Box 360 Premium system along with three games: Gears of War, Saints Row, and Table Tennis. I've also bought one of my old arcade favorites, Robotron: 2084, through the X-Box Live Arcade. It's running on a 32″ 720p HDTV, and I'm currently only using the TV's built-in stereo speakers.

One week in, what have my impressions been?

The first and most glaring difference between console and PC gaming for me has been the controls. I've had so many years on the keyboard/mouse combo that it's second nature at this point. The 360 controller? Not so much. I'm finding the analog joysticks to be clumsy and imprecise, especially for a shooter like Gears of War. I realize that part of it is not having touched a console controller since the Genesis, but I still can't see it ever having the accuracy of my old friends, the keyboard and mouse. Even in Robotron, which I've only ever played with joysticks, feels sloppy. I used to be a god at this game in the arcade, consistently able to make it 100+ levels and rack up scores in the millions. (In fact, I'd frequently end up giving up and suiciding away dozens of lives or handing the game off to a spectator because I'd have run out of time to keep playing.) Now, I'm struggling to make it to level 10 and break 100,000 points. Some of it is being rusty, for sure. But some of it is, I think, the sloppy controller. It's only been a week though, so I'm willing to give the controllers some more time. Hopefully I'll adjust to them over extended usage. It at least seems like they are much better suited for certain tasks, driving cars in Saints Row for example.

The graphics are quite impressive. Gears of War and Table Tennis rival anything I've got on the PC right now, and I'm really curious to see how Oblivion looks. Still, as Vista gets more widely adopted and the DirectX 10 games start to hit the streets, I can't help but think that the 360 is going to start looking dated soon enough. For now though, it looks damn fine.

Other than the controller, there haven't been many negatives. Most notable is how loud it is. I didn't think anything could out-do my nVidia leaf blower video card, but this pulled it off. It's livable, I suppose. But it's really close to being unacceptably noisy at times. Beyond that, the X-Box Live Marketplace refuses to recognize my credit card, just claiming it's not a valid card number, so I have to buy those little gift cards from a local retailer to get Microsoft Points to buy anything from the Marketplace. A bit of a mixed blessing though. While inconvenient, it does help me regulate how much I spend at the Marketplace. Without the ease of one-click buying, I actually have to think about what I'm buying and make a physical effort to go out and do so. Bad for Microsoft, good for me. X-Box Live in general is pretty crappy, frankly. I'm frequently unable to connect at all, and drop on and off even when I do get connected. Horribly unreliable. Nothing else on my network has these issues, so I can only lay the blame on Microsoft here.

What of the games?

So far, I've spent the most time on Saints Row. It's a blatant (though well-done) Grand Theft Auto clone, and makes a good stand-in until Rockstar makes the move to the next-gen consoles. It lacks Rockstar's biting sense of humor, and falls into the same trap where some missions are frustratingly difficult that GTA does. Gears of War has, in lieu of Halo 3, become the marquee title for the 360. And, like Halo, so far I'm only mildly impressed. It's a very powerful game engine, but it seems wasted on poor art direction. Everything is the same bland, lifeless hues and all seems to blur together into a big brown mess. How about some color? Contrast? Something? It also seems to be falling into the Doom 3 trap where every level is pretty much the same as the last. Play the first couple levels and you've played the whole game (but I haven't finished it yet, so perhaps it shakes things up later?) Table Tennis I've barely played, so I can't comment much. It looks beautiful, and as GTA IV will share it's game engine, that gives me great hope for the GTA series. Really, it's just Pong made pretty. (Coming full circle here!)

Overall? I'm happy with the purchase so far. I would much rather have bought a Wii, but with Nintendo shooting themselves in the foot on production, there's little chance I'd have been able to get my hands on one for at least a couple more months. It was time to buy a console, and sans Wii the 360 was my only choice. Besides, having seen the GTA IV trailer, I was going to buy a 360 just to play GTA by October anyway, so it became a no-brainer.