When the next generation Xbox 360 video game system launches in North America on Tuesday, November 22, 2005, Microsoft and its software partners will have 18 games ready and waiting for eager gamers. Additionally, there will be 13 Xbox 360 accessories available by the time the system launches as well. In this showcase, I'll examine the Xbox 360 launch lineup, and provide a few thoughts about each of the software titles and accessories that we'll see.

Xbox 360 consoles

Microsoft is offering two Xbox 360 bundles, the Core System and the Xbox 360, which some have been taking to calling the Premium System, because it includes more than the Core System.

Xbox 360 Core System

The Xbox 360 Core System, $299 in the US, is considered the basic package and is the cheapest way to acquire Microsoft's next generation game console. The Core System includes an Xbox 360 console with a standard white fascia, a single wired controller, and a composite AV cable that will work with virtually all modern television sets. However, the Core System doesn't come with a hard drive or Memory Unit, so there is no way to save games or other data without buying one of those accessories.

Xbox 360

The next step up is the misnamed Xbox 360. This version includes the Xbox 360 console, but with a premium chrome finish. It also includes a 20 GB hard drive, a single wireless controller, an Xbox Live Headset, a component HD cable (that will only work on modern TV sets with component inputs), and an Ethernet cable. These additional features enable a number of scenarios that are not available to Core System users unless they upgrade their system. For example, having a hard drive means that you can save game data and downloads from Xbox Live Marketplace. But it also means that you can play games designed for the original Xbox: The compatibility data that Xbox 360 requires to play older Xbox games will reside on the hard drive, and updates will be downloaded as needed via Xbox Live. You also need a hard drive or Memory Unit to subscribe to Xbox Live Gold or Silver, by the way. The Xbox 360 costs $399.

 

The games

Microsoft describes its Xbox 360 launch lineup as the "strongest launch in the history of video game consoles," but that's a bit of hyperbole. None of the coming launch titles is a certified tier-1 mega-hit like "Halo 2" or "Grand Theft Auto San Andreas," though games such as "Kameo," "Perfect Dark Zero," and "Project Gotham Racing 3" are eagerly awaited. Indeed, most of these game are sequels to familiar titles from the past, including Amped 3, Call of Duty 2, FIFA Soccer 06, Madden NFL 06, NBA 2K6, NBA Live 06, Need for Speed Most Wanted, NHL 2K6, Project Gotham Racing 3, Quake 4, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06, and, arguably, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. That means that fully two-thirds of these games are essentially recycled content with better graphics, new levels and characters, and other enhancements.

In some ways, this is actually helpful to game reviewers. Since we're familiar with most of these games predecessors, it's a simple matter to compare them and see how the Xbox 360 versions stack up. For the unique titles such as Kameo, we'll have to actually do some work. Such is life.

OK, let's take a quick look at the first wave of Xbox 360 games. I plan to provide full reviews of each of these titles in the coming weeks, so I'll just provide quick descriptions here.

Amped 3

Publisher: 2K Sports
Retail price: $59.99

Amped is a snowboarding title that aims more for realism than arcade fun. For this reason, I actually prefer the SSX series, but you never know.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Amped 3 screenshot gallery.

Call of Duty 2

Publisher: Activision Inc.
Retail price: $59.99

A fantastic update to a fantastic title, Call of Duty 2 rocks on the PC and should be nearly as good on Xbox 360. I have high hopes for this one.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Call of Duty 2 screenshot gallery.

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Publisher: SEGA Corp.
Retail price: $59.99

A creepy-looking horror title, Condemned: Criminal Origins might deliver if it can find a good balance between mindless first person shooting and plot.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Condemned: Criminal Origins.

FIFA Soccer 06: Road to 2006 FIFA World Cup

Publisher: Electronic Arts Inc.
Retail price: $59.99

As a normal American, I don't really "get" soccer, but like golf, it's a contest that translates well to a video game. Fast-moving sports titles are always great fun, especially with a group of friends.

 

There are more screenshots available in my FIFA Soccer 06: Road to 2006 FIFA World Cup screenshot gallery.

GUN

Publisher: Activision
Retail price: $59.99

This is the dark horse of the bunch, because the least is known about it, and it's a relatively untapped genre. Essentially a first person shooter that takes place in the Old West, GUN looks mature, with cinematic-style storytelling. Could be interesting.

 

There are more screenshots available in my GUN screenshot gallery.

Kameo: Elements of Power

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios and Rare Ltd.
Retail price: $59.99

As big as Xbox 360 launch titles get--which isn't saying much, Kameo is an action-adventure fantasy game with lush, colorful graphics. Best of all, it's developed by Nintendo defectors Rare.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Kameo: Elements of Power screenshot gallery.

Madden NFL 06

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Retail price: $59.99

There are--or, were, excuse me--better football games, but Madden is it going forward, and we're not in bad hands at all. This time around, the navigation UI has changed dramatically, and that could be for the best: With the previous generation, Sega's football titles offered better controls.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Madden NFL 06 screenshot gallery.

NBA 2K6

Publisher: 2K Sports
Retail price: $59.99

Sporting more realistic looking and acting players and a better control system than its predecessor, NBA 2K6 brings fast-paced NBA action to the Xbox 360. The big question, of course, is whether it's any better than NBA Live 06. Yes, there are two basketball games in the Xbox 360 launch lineup.

 

There are more screenshots available in my NBA 2K6 screenshot gallery.

NBA LIVE 06

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Retail price: $59.99

Based more on realism than action, NBA Live has historically been the thinking man's console basketball game. The Xbox 360 version continues this tradition with ultra-realistic graphics and game play.

 

There are more screenshots available in my NBA LIVE 06 screenshot gallery.

Need for Speed Most Wanted

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Retail price: $59.99

I fondly remember the original Need for Speed back in the late 1980's and EA's Xbox 360 port looks amazing. The trick, of course, will be game play: If Need for Speed can deliver more visceral thrills than Project Gotham Racer 3--as I believe it will--this could be the must-have Xbox 360 racing title.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Need for Speed Most Wanted screenshot gallery.

NHL 2K6

Publisher: 2K Sports
Retail price: $59.99

As with soccer, I'm not a huge hockey fan. That said, I've been enjoying video game hockey all the way back to Intellivision NHL Hockey, so anything could happen.

 

There are more screenshots available in my NHL 2K6 screenshot gallery.

Perfect Dark Zero

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios and Rare Ltd.
Retail price: $59.99

Though it's described as the Halo of the Xbox 360 line-up, I'm not so sure Perfect Dark Zero can rise above the mediocrity of the typical first person shooter. The main character is a sexy female, a la Lara Croft, though you don't get to see her perform in third person view. Will Perfect Dark Zero fly? Like you, I'm eager to find out.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Perfect Dark Zero screenshot gallery.

Peter Jackson's King Kong

Publisher: Ubisoft
Retail price: $59.99

Peter Jackson is a genius, but it's unclear whether putting his name front and center on the King Kong movie or video game is necessary. In any event, I've tried the PC version of this game, which is a first person shooter in which you alternatively play a human character and Kong himself. Like Perfect Dark Zero, however, I'm not sure if this rises above the middle of the pack.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Peter Jackson's King Kong screenshot gallery.

Project Gotham Racing 3

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios and Bizarre Creations Ltd.
Retail price: $59.99

Unlike many Xbox owners, I was never overly impressed with Project Gotham Racing 2, and there were at least three other racers I preferred over Microsoft's overhyped title. Can they change my opinion with the Xbox 360 exclusive PGR3? Maybe. I'm certainly willing to give them the chance.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Project Gotham Racing 3 screenshot gallery.

Quake 4

Publisher: id Software and Activision
Retail price: $59.99

As a devout id Software fan with over a decade of DOOM and Quake deathmatching behind me, I can firmly state that the PC version of Quake 4 offers stunning graphics, a decent single player experience, and the absolute best multiplayer in the world. Whether the Xbox 360 port lives up to this lofty remains to be seen, but I expect it to be excellent. If so, forget Perfect Dark Zero: This is the Halo of the Xbox 360 launch lineup.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Quake 4 screenshot gallery.

Ridge Racer 6

Publisher: Namco Ltd.
Retail price: $59.99

Oh good, another racing game. As you can tell from the title, Ridge Racer has been around a while, and Namco figured they'd milk the franchise as a quick way to jump on the Xbox 360 bandwagon.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Ridge Racer 6 screenshot gallery.

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Retail price: $59.99

I've been a video game duffer since Leader Board on the Commodore 64, and the Tiger Woods games have been predictably excellent on each of the platforms its appeared (well, with the possible exception of the Nintendo DS). My suspicion is that I'll be wasting a lot of time with this title in the days ahead.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 screenshot gallery.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland

Publisher: Activision
Retail price: $59.99

A skateboarding and BMX biking sports title that offers no load times and fantasy courses, Tony Hawk's American Wasteland doesn't look like the type of thing I'd enjoy. Then again, snowboarding titles are usually great fun, so I'll give it a shot. My guess is that this is aimed at a much younger crowd, however.

 

There are more screenshots available in my Tony Hawk's American Wasteland screenshot gallery.

Xbox Live

On the Xbox Live front, Microsoft is making a number of significant moves. There will be two Xbox Live retail offerings. The first, the 12-month Premium Starter Pack, provides a 12-month subscription to Xbox Live Gold, an Xbox 360 headset (worth $20), a full version of the Xbox Live Arcade game "Bankshot Billiards 2," a $20 rebate coupon good towards the purchase of any Xbox 360 game title, and 200 points for use on Xbox Live Marketplace. This bundle will cost $69.99 and is a tremendous value. The second bundle, the 3-month Premium Starter Pack ($39.99), provides a three-month subscription to Xbox Live Gold, an Xbox 360 headset (worth $20), a full version of the Xbox Live Arcade game "Joust," a $10 rebate coupon good towards the purchase of any Xbox 360 game title, and 100 points for use on Xbox Live Marketplace.

Additionally, Microsoft plans to offer between 12 and 15 mini-games on Xbox Live Arcade by launch day. These games are aimed at hard core and casual gamers alike and include action arcade titles, retro arcade classics, puzzle games, casual sports games, strategy games, and card and board games. Xbox 360 customers will be able to download trial versions of each of these games, and can purchase the full versions via Xbox Live Marketplace using points. Microsoft has yet to reveal how much each of these games will cost (and, for what it's worth, how much points cost in the real world).

The accessories

Microsoft is providing the following 13 Xbox 360 accessories at launch. I will be evaluating the majority of these separately in the coming weeks as well.

Xbox 360 Wireless Controller

The Xbox 360 wireless controller includes no cable in the box with the controller, requiring you to purchase a separate Play and Charge Kit for wired play. In wireless mode, the controller operates for an alleged 25 hours of use, and can be used up to 30 feet away from the console. You can connect up to 4 controllers, wirelessly, to the Xbox 360 at any time (more via wires). Each controller costs $49.99. Unless you buy a retailer bundle, you will want at least one more Xbox 360 controller, so factor that cost into your purchase.

Xbox 360 Controller (wired)

The wired version of the Xbox 360 controller is smaller and more svelte and, in my opinion, a nicer option than the wireless version. At $39.99, it costs less too, and can be used with Windows XP-based PCs.

Xbox 360 Wireless Networking Adapter

If your Xbox 360 is too far away from your home network to run a wire, you can consider the relatively expensive wireless networking adapter, which supports 802.11b (not recommended), 802.11g (better), and 802.11a (best) networking. The wireless networking adapters provides you with all the functionality you get from an Ethernet cable, albeit at balkier speeds. It costs $99.99 and looks a lot like an iPod shuffle with an antennae sticking off the side. The adapter latches on to the back of the Xbox 360 console and jacks into a USB port next to the Ethernet adapter.

Xbox 360 Universal Media Remote

While it's possible to control Xbox 360's digital media functions with the wireless and wired controllers, most consumers will feel more at home with the Universal Remote Control (UMR), a $29.99 add-on that features back-lit buttons, and a comfortable layout. This is a must if you're going to use Xbox 360's Media Center features.

Xbox 360 Faceplates

The fashion conscious may want to invest in one or more Xbox 360 faceplates, which cost $19.99 each and give the system console a customized look. There are two reasons to get a new faceplate: You're actually concerned about the Xbox 360 fitting in to the d?cor of your living room and have found a faceplate that matches the room's color scheme, or you're a teenager who thinks that skulls and flames are cool. I'm not sure I can rally around either cause, but I do feel that customization features like this make the Xbox 360 more personal, so I won't make fun of you too much. That said, I think it's time to apply the burning flames faceplate to my Xbox 360. Seriously, it matches my living room.

Xbox 360 Hard Drive (20 GB)

The 20 GB Xbox 360 hard drive is a must-have accessory, but then chances are you got one with your Xbox 360 console. If you ended up getting a Core System (the shame), run, don't walk, to Best Buy or wherever it is you sell your soul to the retail gods, and get a hard drive immediately. The unit costs $99.99 and provides you with a wealth of functionality that isn't available on a non-hard drive system. You simply must have an Xbox 360 hard drive. Don't get cheap on me here.

Xbox 360 Headset

The Xbox Live Headset is a simple mono, one-headphone headset with a dedicated microphone that plugs into a small port on the Xbox 360 controller (wired or wireless). Designed primarily for interacting with players in multiplayer deathmatches, the Xbox 360 headset also provides two other unique features. It can be used to control voice command enabled games (of which I've not yet seen any), and it can be used to perform audio chats and record audio messages with your buddies. You get a Headset in the $499 Xbox 360 package, but if you went low rent and got a Core System, an add-on Headset will set you back $19.99.

Xbox 360 Memory Unit (64 MB)

If you accept my notion that every Xbox 360 needs a hard drive, then you can forget about the oh-so-PS2 Memory Unit, a 64 MB external storage device that lets you save games, transport your Xbox Live account to other Xbox 360 devices, and store a limited amount of Xbox Live downloaded content. With Xbox 360, users can take their hard drives with them and plug them into other Xbox 360 consoles in order to retain access to their personal settings, downloads, and other personal data. But a Memory Unit does serve one useful role: It is a decent way to move content from Xbox 360 to Xbox 360. For most users, however, the $39.99 Memory Unit is unnecessary.

Xbox 360 Play & Charge Kit

The Play and Charge Kit lets you connect an Xbox 360 controller to the console using a USB cable. This cable performs three important functions: It charges the controller's battery, it lets you play in wired mode if desired, and it includes a second battery for the controller, letting you double your play time or use a single Kit for two controllers. (Additional batteries are also available separately in a package called Rechargeable Battery Pack, see below.) The Play and Charge Kit docks neatly with the port found on the back top of the Xbox 360 controller, which is exactly where you'd expect a cable connection to occur on a dedicated wired controller. At just $19.99, this is a must-have accessory in my opinion.

Xbox 360 Rechargeable Battery Pack

Essentially just an additional battery for the wireless controller, the Rechargeable Battery Pack is a bargain at $11.99, assuming you go completely wireless with the Xbox 360. Because of my lackluster experience with wireless keyboards and mice on the PC, I'm not completely sold on wireless quite yet, but certainly it pays to have extra batteries lying around. My advice is to grab at least one of these for each wireless controller or to simply get the Play and Charge Kit.

Xbox 360 Component HD-AV Cable

This cable is required for users with HDTV displays or other TVs that support the component (yellow, blue, red, and green connectors) standard. You get this kind of cable with the Xbox 360 system, but Core System buyers with HDTV sets will need to upgrade. It costs $39.99.

Xbox 360 S-Video AV Cable (US only)

The S-Video AV cable is the next step up in video quality from the composite video cable that Microsoft supplies in the Core System and should work on just about any TV set. If you got a standard Xbox 360 package with the component HD cable, you'll need this cable to connect the system to your TV, either via S-Video or composite (both are included). It retails for $29.99.

Xbox 360 VGA HD AV Cable

Why Microsoft never made a VGA cable for the original Xbox is unknown, but now one is available for the Xbox 360, letting you connect that console to virtually any standard PC display. What's awesome about this cable is that it supports all of Xbox 360's display modes, including 480p, 720p, and 1080i. It also includes stereo composite audio cables for 5.1 surround sound output. If you have a sweet computer display that you'd like to interface with the Xbox 360, this is the way to go. It costs $39.99.

Conclusions

The Xbox 360 launch lineup is solid, even respectable, but it's not spectacular. The big hole here is the games. One gets the feeling that Microsoft has to be disappointed that there weren't more and better quality games available at launch. The original Xbox will always have Halo and the tens of millions of customers that title alone generated. With Xbox 360, there's nothing on the level of Halo at all, and we'll have to wait until spring 2006--at the earliest--to see such a title emerge. That may be too late, if Sony is able to ship its PlayStation 3 in that timeframe along with a killer exclusive title of its own. That said, Xbox 360 still represents the pinnacle of video game prowess from a technical standpoint, and hard core and casual gamers alike should be able to find something worthwhile here.