With the new consoles by Microsoft and Sony coming around the corner any moment now, and thus the true start to the next console generation, I began to think back on what is soon to become the previous generation. Considering my
Microsoft’s console was the first out the gate this generation, alone in the market for a full year, and this was perhaps the biggest asset to the console throughout its lifetime. In the previous generation, the original Xbox struggled alongside the GameCube to overcome the massive success of the PlayStation 2. But with a crucial head start, the Xbox 360 went a long way in closing that gap. Launch lineups being what they are, the 360 did not come down the pike with too many amazing titles, instead it was the feature-set of the console that pushed software sales. The first HD console on the market, and with no alternatives for a year, was an enticing buy for many gamers. Though I held out for a while, I would eventually get the system in about 2007. Since this was before I owned a gaming PC, the 360 would become my first HD gaming experience, indeed it was the first thing I bought an HDMI cable for. The uptick in graphical quality seemed to make everything amazing and new, at least for a time. Faces and environments had detail I thought were only possible in FMVs, and the menus and HUD were all so crisp and sharp. It made going back to SD pretty difficult.
In 2007 I made my console purchase, and it was no coincidence I held out until that year specifically. In that early part of the console’s lifespan there released a small clutch of very enticing RPGs. With those games on the market, and as a Wii owner still starved for proper RPG content, I figured the time was right to make the next console purchase. In fact, at the beginning of this generation I had planned to own all three consoles so that no exclusive would pass me by, and so my 360 was pretty much an inevitability.
The game I played when I took the system home, the game for which I still keep my current 360 at hand just in case, was Mistwalker and Hironobu Sakaguchi’s outstanding Lost Odyssey. The game is a turn based masterpiece with a compelling, moving story and an equally stellar soundtrack. It features a fun battle system with enough little wrinkles in it to keep it from being just another turn based RPG. It is also not an easy game, the very first boss is actually one of the harder ones. The characters in the game are mostly well defined, but the protagonist, Kaim, is a very intriguing subject. He is an immortal, he never dies or even ages. And rather immediately the game confronts the player with the issues of outliving loved ones, being shunned from society, and feeling like an outsider in the world. The plot only thickens from there as Kaim learns more about his past, meets others like him, and relives locked away memories through the remarkable dream sequences shown to the player in a short story format. These stories, written by renowned author Kiyoshi Shigematsu, add an amazing and often deeply moving insight into Kaim’s character throughout the game. I even recommend looking up these stories, entitled “A Thousand Years of Dreams”, as they make for good reading all on their own.
The other major software release in 2007, one more indicative of the system’s future, was the very ambitious Mass Effect. A Western RPG by Bioware, this game would go on to help popularize story telling mechanics like multiple and dynamic dialogue options, permanent consequences for picking some of those options and the Paragon/Renegade morality system of good and bad character development. These concepts were not founded in Mass Effect but they were certainly helped to the fore by this game. And though some of these systems have gone full circle, now considered to be overused and shallow, like the morality system, they were launched into mainstream usage in no small part by this game. As a scifi “space opera” Mass Effect looked to scratch that itch that high fantasy RPGs like Elder Scrolls could not reach. This game features a realtime combat system and plays similar to a first person shooter, though it is littered the various RPG trappings of weapon power ratings, character classes and abilities. The real draw, however, was always the characterization and story. As Commander Shepard, a person whose appearance and gender can be customized, the player goes around the various planets and interacts with NPCs. These interactions help shape the direction of the story and the moral composition of the player’s own Commander Shepard, with many of the conversations potentially opening or closing routes to different sidequests. For many, including myself, it was the first time in a game where the dialogue forced me to pay attention and consider my responses. And often I would attempt to do so in-character, and with such a compulsion lay the core of Mass Effect‘s initial appeal.
No console is without its downsides, and the 360 has many. Most famous among them was the abhorrent failure rate of the console, with nearly all launch units eventually succumbing to overheating issues. A propensity to scratch discs was also no help to the image of the system, and yet it managed to soldier on through these remarkable defects. Aside from the hardware problems, the 360 would also see issues with its software. I mentioned that in 2007 there seemed to be a focus on RPGs, even JRPGs, on the console and yet that focus would dwindle before long. Once Sony got back into its groove it seemed Microsoft just gave up on courting any other consumer aside from Madden or Call of Duty fanatics. As a result any Japanese flavor the system could have hoped to pick up was pretty well lost by the middle of the system’s lifetime. And though I do appreciate aspects of both Western and Japanese game design, as an old Nintendo fan I do tend to favor the quirkier and less dude-bro-y Eastern game titles. And so, though the 360 was my first HD console to get a spot in my console lineup it would also become the first to fall into disuse. It still sits in its spot, but its replacement, the PlayStation 3, is the one that is actually plugged in. More on that next week.
What are your experiences with the predecessor to the coming Xbone? Did you also find the system worthy of your hard earned money only to feel less interested as time went on? Maybe you never bought one? Or maybe you really like what the system has to offer. For as much as some of its exclusives might get flogged around here, I have found myself enjoying time with the likes of Gears of War or one of the Modern Warfare entries. Fear not and make your comments regarding your 360 experiences (or lack thereof) below, I shall not judge! (That is Lusi’s job)