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State of the Console: Xbox 360 2008

Here we are in the dawn of a new year; a chance to start with a clean slate, a time when some resolutions are made and others have already been broken. After the avalanche of great games in 2007, where does our beloved Xbox 360 stand in 2008? With the Wii already surpassing hardware sales of the system and the PS3 making an honest effort for second place, is the 360 destined to take its place at the back of the line? Many industry experts would say yes; many are calling 2008 the year of the PlayStation 3 and it's not hard to see why. Sony's machine has a lot of great software coming to it this year and with BluRay seeming to have finally dealt the deciding blow to HD-DVD, the PlayStation 3 not only offers great games, but is also one of the most affordable BluRay players on the market. After more than a year of blunders, Sony is hitting its stride. Microsoft is definitely in for a fight, but are they already down and out? Not quite.

As previously mentioned, the 2008 lineup for Sony looks strong. Games like Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, Killzone 2, Infamous, White Knight Chronicles, and Little Big Planet are all slated to hit this year and let's not forget Metal Gear Solid 4-- which is the closest thing the PS3 has to a Halo 3. A daunting list for any competitor; and these are just the games we know about. Sony is sure to have a few secrets just waiting to be leaked. When people talk about the 360 lineup for the year, they say it pales in comparison to 2007... what?

gowvsmgs.jpgLast year was a great year for the Xbox. Halo 3, Bioshock, The Orange Box, and Mass Effect all launched within three to four months of each other. We also saw Crackdown earlier in the year which was a very pleasant surprise and a game worth owning with or without the Halo 3 beta. At first, it may indeed seem that the bounty for 2008 is slim compared to last year. Closer inspection will reveal that this really isn't the case. Let's do the list shall we? We've already got Devil May Cry 4 and the Xbox will have exclusive content for what will arguably be the biggest game of the year Grand Theft Auto IV. Coming down the road are Lost Odyssey, Ninja Gaiden 2, Too Human, Fable 2, Alan Wake, and Halo Wars. That's a list that can stand toe to toe with anything announced for the PS3 so far. Also, just like Sony, Microsoft is probably holding some cards close to its chest. Rumors have been surfacing recently that Gears of War 2 may also come out this year. If this turns out to be true, it will be huge for Microsoft. Metal Gear Solid 4 is going to move a lot of PS3's, you can count on that, but I can't think of a better way to poison Sony's wine than to have Gears of War 2 already standing on the shelves when Snake arrives.

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The major titles are only part of the equation for success in 2008. Another key area is the online arena; an arena dominated by the Xbox. The Wii's online presence is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Sony's PlayStation Network is the biggest threat to Xbox Live and while it is definitely a distant second in terms of features and content, it has one huge advantage: it's completely free. Xbox Live is a great service, a service I'm perfectly happy to spend $50 a year on, but if Sony can offer something similar, albeit less impressive, for free--it does make me question why I'm still paying for XBL. That said, I wouldn't expect to see Xbox Live become free any time soon. With over ten million users it wouldn't even be worth it for MS to make the service free. Any consumer base gained would likely be minimal in accounting for that kind of lost revenue. The Xbox Live Marketplace is easy to use, it's convenient, it has a nice interface, it has over 80GB more content than the PSN and the average price for downloadable items is cheaper on Xbox Live.

The launch of Home on the PlayStation 3 will be a pivotal point for both consoles. If Home delivers on all the promises, the PlayStation 3 will have a chance to gain considerable ground on the Xbox, if not surpass it. The Home service has been delayed over and over again; the anticipation has been building with each passing month and if it can't meet user expectations it will be an irreparable breach in Sony's hull.

Breached hull or not, Sony's ship is sailing around the world where as Microsoft has continued to struggle in regions outside North America. If the Xbox falls behind, this will be the reason. Xbox 360 sales are abysmal in Japan and while respectable in Europe, the PlayStation 3 is quickly gaining ground. In North America, the Xbox pretty much has the region secured. I don't see the PS3 ever passing 360 sales here. The world stage, as noted, is a different matter altogether. In the long run, I do see the PS3 surpassing Xbox 360 sales, if only for Blu-ray. The question is when will this happen? If it doesn't happen this year, I believe it will be too late for the PS3 and the Xbox 360 will have won this round. Sony has said over and over again that the PS3 is a ten year machine; I can say with a certain bit of confidence that this is not the case. The PS3 is only a ten year console if Microsoft tries to make the 360 a ten year console. Otherwise, MS will release the next Xbox and Sony would still be trying to market the PlayStation 3. It would be like trying to have the GameCube compete directly with the Xbox 360 or PS3; doomed to failure.

2008 is going to be an exciting year for gaming. Whether or not the Xbox 360 can maintain its lead on the PS3 is anyone's guess, but either way, the system has a great list of titles for the new year. Add to this downloadable content for 2007's heavy hitters such as new maps for Halo 3 and new episodes for Mass Effect and it's hard to complain. With GDC coming up and E3 later in the year, we're sure to see surprises from both camps and whichever console comes out on top, it will be a brutal fight to get there. Either way, gamers win all around. The two titans will slug it out, each offering better and better games; games that we'll have the pleasure of playing.

By Ryan Schaefer - 02/10/08

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