So, it’s finally here; the next generation of gaming was ushered in last week by the arrival of Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The significance of this launch, I believe, is not really in the games themselves, but in the system’s capabilities. I was definitely excited about getting my hands on this console, and luckily, I preordered a long time ago and was able to get one on launch day. However, I wasn’t looking deep enough; I wanted the console so I could play cool new games with outrageous graphics. Oh, I got this, no worries there, but after spending some time with the system, I realized that it is much more than just pretty visuals and processor upgrades.

The Xbox 360 represents an entirely new way of handling data and is all about user customization. Before, you had to create a profile for each game you played. For instance, on your Xbox you might have a Halo profile, a Project Gotham profile and a KOTOR profile. Three different games, three different profiles. Not on the Xbox 360. The console allows you to create one user profile; much like a user profile on a PC, and all your game data is stored there. So, now you have three different games, one all-encompassing profile. Absolutely brilliant. All kinds of data is stored for each user profile and you’re able to select your own theme and gamer picture for your profile. You can even upload images and music from your home computer.

Another completely radical change is that the Xbox 360 dashboard is always available; press the middle X orb on your controller, and a tab will slide onto screen with various options. You can jump straight out of the game and back to the dash if you wanted to. Some reading this may think, “so what? Big deal.” Well–yeah, actually it is. The convenience and possibilities that open up as a result of this are staggering.

The innovations don’t stop there either. Xbox Live is now a juggernaut, a juggernaut that Sony and Nintendo may have taken far too lightly. It’s not about simply playing a game online; it’s about video conferencing with friends, it’s about downloading classic arcade games to your HDD for a fraction of the cost of new games, it’s about the Xbox Live Marketplace, it’s about bragging rights, it’s about connecting gamers in ways no one has ever even considered. Xbox Live has expanded so much with the 360 that it is almost hard to believe. You can download not just content for games, but trailers for upcoming games, new OS themes, video replays of the world’s top PGR 3 racer; it’s things like this that are going to set the Xbox 360 apart.

All this time leading up to the launch, people were looking at the Xbox360 games and while they looked great, many didn’t see the need for a new console just yet. Those games, my friends, are just a mask. Behind that mask lies gaming utopia. Microsoft has taken a lot of heat and a lot of bad press. All the while it seemed like they just didn’t care, they were clueless as to what people wanted. Now that the console has released, it’s strikingly clear that they took such a whimsical stance because they already knew they were not just a step ahead of everyone else, but ten steps ahead. No one saw this coming, and many still don’t realize just how big of an impact the Xbox 360 could have on gaming. Many of the jaded gamers will still criticize Microsoft and the Xbox 360, but it’s time to give props for true innovation. This is big, folks, really big.

Congratulations, Microsoft, and thank you: the Xbox 360 is a new era for gaming.

By Ryan Schaefer – 11/25/05

Screenshots for Xbox 360: Unmasked