Special: Xbox Live can't cure disease, nor does it hold the key to world peace. Naw, at least not until version 2.0.
From the very beginning, the Xbox was designed and built with online connectivity in mind. Microsoft hailed it to be the future of gaming, and a bold new frontier for eager console enthusiasts. Although others have attempted online gaming and met with varying degrees of success (most notably Sega and their efforts with the Dreamcast and SegaNet), Microsoft has evaluated the many slip-ups that doomed their predecessors and taken into account any and all potential mishaps with the service. With this strong backbone they've created Xbox Live, a high-speed, broadband-only network that's turned the prospect of online console gaming into a budding reality.
From Microsoft's standpoint, Xbox Live is already a huge success. The network officially launched in mid-November of last year, and has since sold at least 250,000 Xbox Live Starter kits and millions of Live-compatible games. In fact, despite the advantages of a significantly larger user base and its offering of both broadband and narrowband solutions, Xbox Live outsold Sony's PS2 network adapter by nearly a 2:1 ratio this holiday season. Those that have expressed doubts in the past as to whether online gaming could ever possibly prove itself as a profitable venture need only look at the early successes of Xbox Live.
The surprising performance of XBL can be attributed, at least in some small part, to its full-on implementation of voice chat in every Live-compatible title. Voice chat has a tremendous social aspect that makes it so much more satisfying to use than the conventional keyboard. It gives users, even those that aren't necessarily interested in the games themselves, yet another reason to use and enjoy the service. Xbox Live simply wouldn't be the same experience without it.
Microsoft has done a masterful job in bringing the concept of voice communication to life. The voice headset works flawlessly ninety-five percent of the time, with the only drawback being a short delay (only a matter of a few seconds) as the signal is transmitted from one end to the other. Occasionally, messages from other players will come across choppy or incomplete, but that usually boils down to bad connection and/or human error rather than anything involving the system itself. The voice masks, unfortunately, are an entirely different issue. The majority of them are off-pitch and utterly annoying to listen to (not to mention nearly impossible to understand), to the point that anyone bold enough to use one is instantly deemed a jackass by the players that must endure it. While voice masking may have seemed like the perfect resolution for those wishing to retain their anonymity online, it turns out to be nothing less than a constant hassle. But then again, that's what the ?mute' button is for, isn't it?
What Xbox Live really needs at this point are games that work to build a sense of community. No single title in the current crop of online games has managed to accomplish this, being as the majority of them so far have been nothing but shooters and sports sims. But several upcoming games, namely online RPG's like Phantasy Star Online and True Fantasy Live Online, could make great strides towards bolstering the yet-to-be-realized communal aspects of Xbox Live. Games that turn the spotlight off of fragging one other, and instead call for players to cooperate and work together as a group ? these are what Xbox Live needs now more than anything.
Microsoft lined up some real heavy-hitting titles to accompany the launch of Xbox Live. Shooter fans had the choice of Ghost Recon, Mechassault, and Unreal Championship, all of which can be considered great games in their own respects. Sports fanatics have gotten plenty of love as well, with four online-ready sports titles from Sega and another two from Microsoft. However, the only remaining games in the current Live lineup are Whacked! and MotoGP, both of which come in the form of demos on the Xbox Live Starter disc. Overall, Xbox Live's launch offerings are solid, though they represent only a small taste of what's to come.
From the looks of things, the future of Xbox Live appears to be very bright. Without a doubt, the most significant game on the horizon is Halo 2. That's right - Bungie's superstar sequel is fully-compatible with Xbox Live, and expectations are already through the roof as players gear up for epic, full-scale online battles. Moving right along, True Fanstasy Live Online and Star Wars: Galaxies look to fill the Xbox's MMORPG void, though they're both likely to carry an additional fee of some sort in order to play. In addition, we've been given word that Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War and Counter-Strike are both being brought to Xbox Live in full form.
Below you'll find a complete list of all the future online-ready games that have been announced thus far:
? Halo 2
? Star Wars: Galaxies
? Tom Clancy's Raven Shield
? Phantasy Star Online Episode 1 & 2
? True Fantasy Live Online
? Reel Fishing Online
? Capcom vs. SNK 2 EO
? Midtown Madness 3
? Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Tides of War
? Soldier of Fortune II
? Project Gotham Racing II
? SEGA Sports franchises
The preliminary version of Xbox Live is not entirely without its faults. From a technical standpoint, outside of the occasional issues with lobby drops and server disconnects, the network has performed impeccably. But there are definitely some areas that could stand to see improvements. First off, it would be nice if you could talk with people on your friend's list without actually entering into a game with them. As it stands now, it can be very difficult to get together with friends online, and an instant messenger-like application would seem to be the perfect resolution. Clan support is something that's been promised from the beginning, but never made its way into the final product. At the least, there should be an option in the dashboard to enter in your clan's name so that it shows up alongside your Gamertag while playing online. And we wouldn't mind some sort of an on-screen indicator that cues you into who's talking over the headset. Not only would this eliminate some of the guesswork of trying to coordinate with your teammates, it would also prove useful in squaring in on spammers and other generally annoying people that thrive on their anonymity. The beauty of the whole setup is that Microsoft has the ability to add new features like this any time they wish, without the need to pull outdated Starter kits from store shelves and distribute updated XBL software discs.
To be honest, a lot of us expected some bumps in the road during the program's early-goings. But Microsoft has surprised us all with the solidity of the service, having come through firmly in their promise of a full-featured, virtually lag-free network. The initial wave of software titles provided only a small glimpse into the true potential of Xbox Live, but over the next year we'll watch as the service blossoms into what it will forever become.