After enduring months of contrived viral marketing campaigns, fluffy monologues from James Allard, the Xbox 360 launch has finally come upon those living in the US. If you are one of the lucky few to have preordered months back, or endured long waits at a Wal-Mart, the question of buying is irrelevant. For many others, the big question lingers -- is the $300 investment worth every cent?

Half-Hearted Halo to Backwards Compatibility

Microsoft's much-touted backwards compatibility isn't what it seems for the Xbox 360. One of the major issues is that it's missing a slew of major franchises in its list of compatible titles: why is Dead or Alive 3 compatible but not its sequel, Dead or Alive Ultimate? Not to mention the absence of Splinter Cell, Burnout and Soul Calibur II, or the fact that you need to download a patch to play Halo 2 online.

Blatant shortcomings aside, the Xbox 360 does play compatible titles smoothly. Although Microsoft claims that Xbox games get enhanced with 4x anti-aliasing and 720p resolution, our pre-patched Halo 2 shows a negligible visual upgrade. This, of course, is set to change with the console launch, with Microsoft offering a massive download that will purportedly improve the look of games -- and hopefully extend that inadequate compatibility list to include more high profile games.

Thankfully, none of Halo 2's sharp controls get lost to the Xbox 360 controller, meaning games won't feel any different than with the original Xbox.

Parental controls

The violent content blaming game will potentially end with the Xbox 360, as the console integrates a robust control system that will let parents have control over what games their kids play. The Family Setting will enable users to lock out content based on regional ratings systems for both games and movies, and regulate access to Xbox Live. The password-protected system even allows parents to control access to specific Xbox Live areas such as downloadable content, friends lists, and online status. By far, Microsoft has delivered the most versatile parental control system in a console to date.

Thankfully, none of Halo 2's sharp controls get lost to the Xbox 360 controller, meaning games won't feel any different than with the original Xbox.

Unifying the online front

If there is one area that the Xbox 360 could trump the PlayStation 3, it will likely be the online experience. The best word to describe the online infrastructure? Organized. Xbox 360 features a convenient profile button (located on the center of the controller) that's accessible anytime -- even when a game is loading. Profiles are divided into two sub-categories: offline profiles and online Gamertags. The same profile can be used for every game, making save-game management significantly easier. Xbox Live-enabled profiles have an easily accessible friends list and message box that allows users to communicate with each other--even while in the middle of a single-player campaign.

As with the original Xbox, you will be able to send voice messages to your friends, making the coordination of online sessions much more painless when compared to a PlayStation 2. Still, don't expect an iPod like UI; all of the menus and dashboards can be cumbersome to navigate.

The biggest downside to the Xbox 360's online experience is that you need the $400 premium pack to access anything worthwhile. When you consider that you need a $40 memory card to realistically play anything on the $300 version, Microsoft's two-SKU concept seems like a waste. It's especially aggravating when you see that the Xbox 360 bundle retails for about $330 in Japan -- which includes a hard drive. If you want the most out of online, you are essentially forced to opt for the $400 version.

Customize -- but don't mod

Microsoft seems to have misunderstood the allure of customizing the Xbox -- instead of mods for larger hard drives, we are left only with options to make cosmetic changes. And changing faceplates is an unnerving experience. To take off the stock fascia, you will need to rip it off from a gap on the top of the console. The snapping sounds and the significant resistance from the plate seems rather inelegant, but it does lend itself to a tight and consistent fit. Fortunately, the tabs on the faceplate are durable, and there haven't been any signs of wear after pulling it off a couple dozen times.

The whole package

So the $300 version is underwhelming -- but how's the premium pack? Having been spoiled by the standard hard drive on the Xbox, it's hard for us to be blown away by the $400 version. The Xbox 360 is undoubtedly cutting edge, but doesn't feel too ahead of the curve when you compare it to the lush HDR visuals in PC gaming.

The power comes at a price of elegance, too. The pleasant platinum white aesthetics seemingly hide the brute force internals of the hardware. When you consider the enormous AC adaptor (not to mention how big the console would be had the power brick been integrated) and the tray-loaded drive that pales in sophistry to the slot-loaded drives of the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution, you get the sense that there's room for improvement.

Can that be remedied by another console, or by Microsoft finally delivering a Halo 3? The final verdict will only be known in the coming years -- the console wars have only begun.