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Multi-Xboxing and the Epic Game Backlog

I recently added a second Xbox 360 to my home console array, marking the first time that I’ve had two Xboxes up and running simultaneously. I was really interested in getting one of the new slim-style Xboxes, and rather than trade in my old “fat” console, I decided to move it downstairs to the living room. Now I have the ability to play both in the game room upstairs, where I can get a real cinematic experience (but am fairly isolated from everybody and everything), or downstairs in the living room where I am more accessible. Since I also added a second set of wireless headphones, I can play in silence in either place, which is useful when the baby is sleeping.

Using the same Xbox account (or “gamertag”) with multiple consoles used to be a serious mess. Formerly, the best way to maximize convienence was to move your gamer profile to a USB thumb drive or Xbox memory unit. And if you wanted to play the same games on multiple consoles, picking up where you left off each time, you needed to keep your savegames on that thumb drive too. This was made somewhat easier when Microsoft allowed us to use basically any 16 GB or smaller USB stick as a memory unit a couple years back, instead of only their proprietary memory units which topped out at 1 GB.

However, this method was not without its inconveniences. You still had to remember to carry your USB stick with you, or be forced to go retrieve it from one Xbox when you wanted to play on the other. You also (if you’re paranoid like me) had to worry about breaking, losing or otherwise encountering corruption with your USB stick, which could cause you to lose your profile — and worse, all of your savegames. In reality, an Xbox hard drive is probably just as likely to fail (if not more so, given its moving parts), but something about a small USB stick that could fall out of your pocket or get stepped on made the prospect of keeping your game data on it seem more dangerous.

You had one option other if you didn’t want to keep your gamer profile on a USB stick. You could store it on your “main” Xbox’s hard drive as usual, and then on any other console you’d use the “Recover Gamertag” option to pull down your profile from Xbox Live. The problem was that this took forever and a day to accomplish, sometimes didn’t work correctly, and at the end of the day, you’d still be without your savegames on the second console. Add in the “rights management” issues that you often encountered, and you’d quickly see that this wasn’t much of an alternative.

With the latest Xbox dashboard update, however, Microsoft has made this process much, much easier.

Now, the “Recover Gamertag” option has been replaced with a new process called “Download Profile” which downloads your entire gamer profile from the cloud in just moments, and stores a local copy of it on the console. When I set up my new Xbox, I used the newly-revised Hard Disk Transfer Cable to move everything from my old unit’s 250GB hard drive to the new one’s 320GB hard drive. Then, after moving the old console downstairs, I used the new Profile Download feature to pull down my gamer profile from the cloud. In seconds, I could sign in to Xbox Live on my old console again without ever messing with a USB stick. And as long as I stayed signed in, I had access to all the protected and purchased content that’s associated with my account. (For security, you will need to enter the password associated with your gamertag’s Microsoft Passport account when you sign in. You can optionally choose to have the console remember it so you don’t have to enter it again.)

Add to this the “Cloud Saves” feature that Microsoft also just introduced, and which is currently exclusive to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. Essentially, this is a 512 MB “memory unit in the cloud” that the Xbox sees as just another storage device. When you start up a game and it asks you for a storage device, just pick “Cloud Saves” and you’re done. You can also copy and/or move your existing savegames to the Cloud Saves area just like you would a USB stick. Then, from any other Xbox console, as long as you’re signed into Xbox Live with the same gamertag, you can access the Cloud Saves “drive” and pick up any game where you left off. This means that I can continue playing a game from the same point seamlessly on either the upstairs or downstairs console without ever having to remember to keep a USB stick handy.

As a result of all this, gaming on multiple Xboxes is just about perfect now. But one remaining weak leak in this whole process is the need to have a retail game disc in the DVD drive in order to play it. Obviously, there is no such limitation for downloadable arcade games like Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light or Alan Wake’s American Nightmare — just sit down at any Xbox, on a whim, and pick up where you left off. But if you were playing a disc-based game like Binary Domain on one console, then later find yourself at another console wanting to play it some more, you have to go get the physical DVD and put it in the drive — even if you have installed the game to both hard disks. This is merely a copy protection holdover from the PC days that I wish was no longer necessary, but what can you do. (Well, that question does have an answer, but it’s not an officially sanctioned one, so I won’t go there.)

There is also one other problem with Cloud Saves. Certain paranoid games, the Mass Effect and Forza Motorsport series among them, don’t let you copy your savegames to the Cloud Saves area (or to anywhere else). They only let you move them there. Although this does not seem to be a problem at first — you can move your games to the cloud, but the Xbox seems to keep a locally synced copy anyway — this may come back to bite you in the ass later in strange and devious ways that are hard to predict.

For example, if you moved your Mass Effect 2 savegames to the cloud, and then tried to import them into Mass Effect 3 to continue the story, the game would not allow the import to succeed. You’d have to move the saves back to the storage device that they originated from in order to do a successful import. In effect, the apparently unreliable combination of Mass Effect and cloud saving has conspired to make me leave my Mass Effect 3 saves on my upstairs console and only play the game up there. There’s really no reason for this that I can see, and it’s aggravating, but fortunately most games seem not to suffer from this.

Other than those minor issues, I’ve been greatly enjoying the new functionality that Microsoft has implemented to make multi-Xbox gaming easier and more seamless than before. It really was the perfect time to pick up a second console — not just because of the revised hardware, but the revised operating system too.

Speaking of that second console, a word about the Gears of War 3 Limited Edition Xbox 360 S that I bought in February: it’s easily the best Xbox that I’ve owned yet. Even though it took some dealing with Microsoft’s warranty department to reach this conclusion (more on that later), I wound up being perfectly satisfied with the purchase. The console itself is a deep blood red (not a fire engine red like some of the product photos would have you believe) with a glossy finish, featuring the instantly-recognizable Crimson Omen logo of the Gears of War series. It features a pair of matching controllers, each with their own “satin-gloss” finish, and a 320GB internal hard drive, currently the largest offered on an Xbox.

Compared to my old Final Fantasy XIII Limited Edition Xbox, which was of the classic white design, the Gears of War Xbox is instantly recognizable for its design (whereas the FFXIII console needed a faceplate to even set itself apart from a run-of-the-mill Xbox). On top of that, the new slim design is definitely a step forward in aesthetics, size, cooling, and ambient noise. Rather than a pair of small cooling fans, the new Xbox 360 S features a single large fan that exhausts heat out the top (or the side, if you’ve chosen to stand the console up on its end). Since everyone knows that larger fans can move more air with a lower frequency of noise, the result is a nearly dead-silent console.

The DVD drive in the new Slim (I think it’s made by Lite-On) is a lot quieter than the old ones, too, even the evolved drives that made it into the last of the “fat” Xboxes. I still install everything to the HDD to keep the optical drive from spinning at all — why not, with 320GB at my disposal? — but there is definitely an improvement there.

The one area where the new design of the Xbox 360 S does not stack up to the original is in, of all things, the power supply — otherwise known as the “power brick” that sits midway between the electrical outlet and the Xbox itself. Earlier this month I briefly outlined the debacle that I went through with this thing. Believe it or not, although Microsoft has quieted down the new Xbox to levels approaching silence, it’s the power supply that now makes noise. Where I never heard a peep from any of the original power bricks attached to my old Xboxes, the newly-redesigned power supply for the Xbox 360 S has an audible internal fan to keep it cool.

This is and of itself is a step backwards, in my opinion, and I would have rather kept the comically large power supply design of the old Xbox if it would have meant a larger, quieter fan (or no need for a fan at all). Not only did my new Xbox come with one of these audible power bricks, mine was also defective: its fan resonated with a kind of aggravating hum that reflected off the wall of my game room and bounced right back to my ears. Worse, the fan ramped up to full-speed within moments of turning the Xbox on, even if it just sat at the dashboard. This too seemed to be against its normal operating parameters, which were to have the fan run at low RPMs until you start a game and begin drawing more power (thus generating more heat).

I won’t recap the entire warranty return process that I went through (see my earlier post if that interests you). Although it was a pain in the ass to have to do this on a brand new console, I wound up pleased with Microsoft’s warranty department in the end. They sent me a replacement power supply that’s completely inaudible, at least from where I’m sitting. Now the new Xbox truly is “whisper quiet”, to match Microsoft’s advertising. It’s about time.

Secretly, though, even if Microsoft had sent me back another bogus loud power brick, I probably wouldn’t have noticed — thanks to the other new toy that I’m about to describe.

Cone of Silence: The Logitech F540 Wireless Gaming Headphones

When I moved my old Xbox downstairs, I moved my old Sennheiser 900 MHz wireless headphones down with it. I love these things. My wife gave them to me for Christmas many years ago, and they’ve been a crucial part of my gaming sessions ever since. Whether I want to avoid annoying her with an evening of raucous gunfire, or whether I’m playing games late at night, these headphones have been a godsend. Not only that, but I can hear sound effects and understand game dialog so much easier with these things on my head, to say nothing of the amplified immersion factor. It’s the only way to game, in my opinion.

With the arrival of a second Xbox, I realized that I’d want a second pair of wireless headphones. Sennheiser still makes the ones I currently own, although they are of course an evolved version. But not only were they fairly expensive, I wanted something a little more attuned to gaming. Something with an integrated boom mike that I could use for in-game chat in multiplayer sessions, for example. With my Sennheisers, playing multiplayer games was impossible if you wanted to chat — because I couldn’t wear both the Sennheisers and a chat headset at the same time. (Believe me, I tried.)

I have also been experiencing a lot of interference on my analog Sennheisers since we moved to Texas. Unlike Florida Fogeyville, where technology is so far beyond most people as to be indistinguishable from magic, there was nothing to interfere with my wireless signals for miles around. Here, everybody’s got wireless everything; even our home security system communicates wirelessly. The result is a pretty crowded spectrum. I decided that I wanted a headset that operated on the 5 GHz frequency range, just to stay out of the morass down there between 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz.

After very nearly pulling the trigger on the Turtle Beach Ear Force X32s, I decided instead to get the Logitech F540 wireless gaming headphones. In short, I’m glad I did. They satisfy all of my requirements: integrated chat with independent volume control, 5 GHz operating frequency, internal rechargable battery that charges directly from the base station. Plus, these headphones are of a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, which is more comfortable than my on-the-ear Sennheisers.

Not only are they more comfortable, they do an admirable job of blocking out external sounds. Combined with the excellent stereo imaging of the Logitech F540s, the audio immersion factor is way beyond anything the Sennheisers could match. Granted, the F540s aren’t “surround headphones”, but it’s hard to imagine markedly improving upon the incredibly good stereo separation and crystal-clear sound that they crank out. And now I can barely even hear the turbine-blast of the air conditioner when it comes on upstairs — double bonus.

The headphones come with an integrated boom mike that lets you chat with your friends while playing online games. Although I don’t have the time (or predictability of schedule) for that very much anymore, I can see how convenient this would be. To make it work, you do need to connect the headphones to your Xbox controller via a small cable. After that, simply lower the boom mike to enable chatting. The microphone automatically mutes itself anytime you stow it, and there’s also a mute button on the left ear cup. A corresponding red LED at the tip of the microphone lights up to give you a visual indicator that it’s muted, which is convenient because you can see it in your peripheral vision without having to take your eyes off the action.

I do have a couple of minor complaints. The F540s have a very slight noise floor in the form of a hiss that is barely perceptible, but definitely present. It’s quiet enough, however, that you no longer hear it once any measurable audio is being emitted by the speakers. And while the headphones swivel and pivot at various points to make them easy to wear and place on a tabletop for charging, this lends to a somewhat flimsy feel — they also creak ominously when you adjust them.

My biggest gripe is the standard USB to micro-USB cable that’s used for recharging the headphones. Let me tell you, the micro-USB end is a serious bitch to plug into the bottom of the left ear cup — it never wants to fit right, it’s too precise a connector to fumble around with in a darkened room, and half the time it feels like I’m going to break the headphones just by plugging them in. In contrast, Sennheiser’s “charging cradle” that you simply hang the headphones on to recharge them is unsurpassed in convenience, and I do miss it when it comes time to plug in the Logitechs after a gaming session.

World Enough and Time: The Epic Game Backlog

So now that I have what is (in my opinion) the perfect gaming setup and a nice new set of headphones to better enjoy it with, I have to acknowledge that I’ve got a serious video game overload going on here. It’s become a common problem of the modern gamer, one that is both a blessing and a curse: The Backlog. Given the sheer number of quality games that are produced and published these days (many, like Mass Effect, with excellent replayability) and our increasingly busy lives, it’s difficult to play all the games that we’d like to experience; there just isn’t enough time. So what inevitably happens is we form a backlog of games that we’ve started — or maybe even just purchased — but haven’t completed.

I’ve always had a tough time finishing games, even before our new baby arrived. Now that he’s starting to learn to sleep better at night, I’m picking up an extra hour or two of gameplay most evenings, but I’ve still got a lot of games to get through. Here’s some of what’s sitting in my backlog stack right now:

  • Mass Effect 3. The juggernaut, and the game I’m currently playing. I suspect I won’t divert from its path until I reach the ending; it’s completely sucked me in. I’m doing every damn last side mission and go-fetch quest there is, as well as continually running new missions in the Datapad iPhone app so that I can get my Galactic Readiness score up to maximum. My war readiness indicator bar has already maxed out and I’m just a few hundred EMS points away from the coveted 5,000, but I’ve still got loads more missions to do. And dammit, I’m still trying to get Lt. Cmdr. Ashley Williams to ask my Commander Shepard to take her on a date. What is that woman waiting for? Armageddon? (Too late.)
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I adore this game, but was distracted by the release of Forza Motorsport 4 (and later, Mass Effect 3) after getting about three-fifths of the way through it. If nothing else, I absolutely must get back to this one — especially because I bought the add-on mission “The Missing Link” and have yet to experience it as well. (It takes place during the middle of the main storyline, I’m told, rather than as a follow-up adventure.)
  • Forza Motorsport 4. Speaking of Forza, I got only a fairly short ways into the latest game in the franchise before my son was born. What I saw along the way was breathtaking, gorgeous and incredibly fun. As a Forza season pass holder, I’m also missing out on car packs that I’m entitled to, and I hear there’s a big update coming which adds Porsches to the game for the first time (apparently there were some licensing issues until now).
  • The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Just prior to Mass Effect 3‘s release, this is the game that I couldn’t put down. Its vast, sweeping RPG world teeming with sidequests and adventures aplenty could keep a person busy for weeks (and already has, in my case). I fully intend to return to this one as well, which is a first for me when it comes to Elder Scrolls games — or, in fact, any game of a fantasy setting.
  • Gears of War 3. This came with my new Xbox console, naturally, given that it was a GoW3 limited edition and all. I haven’t even taken the game itself out of the shrink wrap yet. Just too many other titles in play. I did, however, rewatch the major cutscenes from GoW2 on YouTube to refresh my memory of what happened, since it’s been such a long time. Definitely will be fun to get to this at some point, but…when, is the question!
  • Binary Domain. I just picked this one up after playing the free demo and finding it surprisingly fun. It’s a Western-style third-person shooter similar to Gears of War, but was developed by a Japanese studio, giving it an interesting and unique flair. It also has an innovative voice recognition system which interprets things you say into your headset; your computer-controlled teammates will actually react to your cursing them out or congratulating them after a mission, among other things. Mostly, though, I just enjoyed the robot-smashing combat. Overall the game is like a big American action film with Japanese quirkiness, and I’m looking forward to returning to this unique experience.
  • Driver: San Francisco. GameFly recently had a sale on used games, and I scored this one for 12 dollars. Considering it’s been on my wish list since before Christmas, I was pleased to finally be able to pick it up. The Driver series has always been, essentially, a video game celebration of car chase films. This latest entry apparently includes drivable set pieces based on some of those films, including the 1974 original “Gone in 60 Seconds”, “Smokey and the Bandit”, “Vanishing Point” and others. Most importantly, it features the return of the elder games’ Film Director mode, where you can actually shoot and edit your own car chase sequence. I haven’t even had the time to play this one yet, but it’s on the top of the pile at the moment.
  • Saint’s Row 1-3. Yeah, that’s three games. I scored all three recently for very little money thanks to a gift card and a variety of coupons and credits. Sorta like Grand Theft Auto, but less serious and more egregious in terms of the crap you get to pull off. I was recently listening to an old recording I made while playing the original Saint’s Row demo in 2006 and was inspired to pick these up, having never owned any of them.
  • Even more games. Oh yeah. There’s more. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, as well as both of the expansion episodes for the original Alan Wake. L.A. Noire (never finished it). Portal 2 (got close, but never finished it). F.E.A.R. 3 (never finished it — are you noticing a trend yet?). And on and on — expansions for games as old as F.E.A.R. 2 and Fallout 3 still remain unplayed! By this point, any games that I’ve still got in my collection are either keepsakes that I’ll never get rid of, unfinished games that I intend (perhaps in vain) to get back to, or are so old that they’re worth nothing on a trade-in and thus aren’t going anywhere anyway.

I’m sure I’ll get around to all of that stuff eventually, although the next generation of consoles will probaby get here first. Then all bets are off!

Everybody’s got a hobby, and it’s pretty clear what my favorite one is right now. I watch next to zero television simply because I’d rather be part of an interactive experience like a video game than just sitting passively watching a screen. My boss, on the other hand, has eschewed practically all video games in favor of tabletop games (board games, card games, etc.), and I have to admit, I’ve been having a lot of fun joining him and our friends and coworkers in some of these.

With games like Pandemic, Elder Sign, Saboteur, For Sale, Small World, Carcassonne and countless others, it’s pretty easy to have a good time playing games even without a controller in your hand. I may get into more of this myself — and I’m excited for my son to get old enough to where we can play tabletop games together. Somehow, there’s something much more meaningful and intimate about that than sitting around playing video games with each other!

This probably should have been three separate posts, especially given the lackluster rate at which I’m posting things, but that’s not how things work here at Oddball Headquarters — at least not today.

Gotta get back to the game. I mean, work. Sorry.