I experienced XBox Live for the first time last month, and despite the frustrating downtime I have been impressed - when it’s working correctly it’s certainly very slick and well integrated across the entire library of games. I like that you can pop out to the dashboard in any game at all to respond to IMs or whatever without having to exit, and that everything works the same way and integrates with your gamertag. I like Live Arcade a lot - hundreds of games and demos, and there’s some really top-quality titles in there, several of which I’ve bought, both because I like small quality games and I like to support independent developers. I’ve been trying out the likes of Catan and Lumines Live lately - I actually took for granted that you can download trial copies of everything which you unlock if you like them (since I’m used to downloading games on the PC which always does this), but someone told me PSN generally doesn’t do this, which seems odd. I know I often pick up full commercial games based on just reviews, but small games like this often don’t get such wide coverage so a try-before-you-buy option is pretty important to me. Plus, sometimes I end up liking stuff I didn’t expect to this way, which is good for the developers.
I also really like the achievement system - not so much as a competetive thing (although I’m sure some people like to use it that way), but more as a personal record of gaming highlights. For me achievements enhance the gameplay experience to give you something tangible to aim for beyond just completing a game - we all do side-quests, chase optional goals, and remember particularly cool moments in a game where you did a huge jump in a car, killed 5 people with one shot, or whatever - and the achievement system is a way to record that for posterity, which I think is a good thing. There’s definitely a sense of satisfaction when you do something non-essential and that little icon pops up telling you the game designer recognises your effort and gives you a badge for it. It encourages replayability when done well because you can see there’s additional stuff you haven’t done yet. It’s just a formalisation of the side-quest / secret level / easter egg principle that games like Zelda have done for years, but that formalisation definitely adds value IMO. People who have owned a 360 for ages probably don’t think anything of it now, but I didn’t really consider it to be a selling point before I experienced it - now I have I’m a convert. There’s a debate on the pros and cons of course, but I think the cons are mostly arguments about the validity of the points assigned to particular achievements, and how that might bias some people’s play - that only really applies if you’re a competetive sort who wants to maximise gamer points, which I’m not. I just like the recognition that games are actually a series of potential little high points, many of which are entirely optional, and it’s good to have a standardised mechanism to celebrate them in addition to the obvious goal of finishing levels and completing games.
On the Live downtime, I don’t know about you but it seems to be getting better here. Over the last week I’ve managed to connect maybe 80% of the time - still annoying when you can’t, but it’s improving. My free Gold trial expires in a few days and I still intend to extend it, even though most of the stuff I like about Live I can get for free (I haven’t played online that much yet, just a bit of Halo 3). Major Nelson (the ‘Larry’ referred to in the title) and Live honcho ‘E’ were being really candid about the whole thing on his podcasts (which, I might add, were a lot more honest and forthcoming than the official press statement, which was quite banal and unsatisfying and I think just pissed people off), that was until someone filed a lawsuit about the downtime - which of course gags anyone at Microsoft from saying anything else about it, as all active legal proceedings do. Personally I think the suit is wildly excessive - sure, they screwed up big over the last few weeks, but offering a free XBLA game in return is pretty reasonable (the cost of a full game exceeds a month’s Live subscription), and at least until the lawsuit was filed they were being pretty open about it, if you bothered to listen to podcasts rather than just press releases. Should the reparations not turn out to be satisfactory, then a lawsuit could perhaps be justified, but these guys appear to have been a little twitchy on the trigger if you ask me. Tsk, you Americans and your lawyers… 😉
Oh, finally I picked up Skate yesterday. Haven’t had a lot of time with it yet, but as a fan of the older Tony Hawks games (THPS2 & 3, before they went a bit silly) I’m looking forward to breaking some virtual bones. 😀