So, the Xbox. I have been thinking of getting one for ages, tempted by stories of online gaming, cheap retro games and Media Centre compatibility. What finally tipped the cart was a miserable wet Saturday morning (after I'd just come back from a miserable week in Germany), a lack of Djanira in the flat, and only the sixth ever 10/10 given to a game by Edge Magazine, for Halo 3.
So, is all the hype worth it? Well, there's no denying that, by and large, it all seems to work very well. Xbox Live (the name given to the online gaming portal) couldn't be easier to set up, but the biggest novelty is not just being able to play games online (the PC sorted this years ago), but being able to speak to other players in real time. The Xbox comes with a (wireless) controller and a headset unit that plugs into it, which enables communication between players. It's quite something to be able to play Rockstar's Table Tennis against a human-being located who-knows-where in the world; but it's something else entirely being able to speak to them as you play, congratulate them on a good shot, complement each other after a good rally or, more usually in my case, excuse oneself for being completely rubbish. The headset, and its default inclusion into the Xbox Live experience, is what elevates online gaming on the console above that what is available for the PC. Sure, there are a million and one gaming-talk applications on the PC, while on the Xbox there is only one - but everybody is using it.
There other excellent feature of Xbox Live is 'Xbox Live Arcade', a growing collection of old-school (though not necessarily old) arcade games that can be downloaded and saved to the console's hard-drive for a few quid each. Most of them have a free demo-level for you to try, and while many of them are rubbish, some are excellent. Geometry Wars is one of the most popular and has become a classic, proving that you don't need amazing graphics to have a great game, but I'm very excited about SpeedBall 2, a classic amiga game which I used to play with my cousin John when I was a kid, which is being revamped for Xbox Live Arcade. Lastly, Xbox Live lets you download free demos for all the latest full-price releases, nothing new for a PC gamer but a welcome bonus for your average consolista.
The final clincher for me is the console's integration with a PC running XP Media Centre or Vista. The Xbox connects with the Media Centre, allowing you to access the music and video stored on your PC through the console. This works well for me as my PC (and all my music) is not in the lounge, but my Xbox is: ergo I can listen to tunes in the lounge without having to go through the hassle of burning a CD and all that. There's no doubt that the interface is very slick and it all works well, though the lack of native DivX and Xvid video support on the Xbox is what prevents it from being the all-in-one solution. Still, it is very impressive.
So, to conclude; from what I've experienced and read of the PS3 and the Wii, the Xbox is quite comfortably ahead in terms of functionality, at least at the moment. Of course, the fact that it is an accomplished single-player gaming system is one thing, but what really sets it apart is its online and media centre capabilities. All I need now is get some of you lot to come and join me in Halo 3's cooperative mode...