If you haven’t already been sold by the news title then you have no heart. Joking aside, Lucasarts have announced plans to release additional Star Wars avatar items on the Xbox Live Marketplace, to somewhat coincide* with the release of The Force Unleashed 2. This includes the ability to purchase your very own Ewok as an Avatar pet.

Anybody who knows anything about games may remember Dead Space, a survival horror game by EA that was a cross between Resident Evil and Doom 3. The game recieved critical acclaim, encouraging the developers to create a sequel. And guess what? The demo is out in two weeks.

Microsoft has finally spilled the beans regarding information on the new dashboard update. The upcoming software promises increase audio quality in mic chat, alongside changing how you can browse your complete achievements easier.

Following suit from Netflix, The Sky Player, and Zune, Hulu Plus is the new feature making its way to our Xbox 360 dashboards. Hulu, the popular video streaming service, have announced Hulu ‘Plus,’ a subscription based ‘deluxe edition,’ enabling customers to stream full series, both old and new. Better yet, this feature is coming to Xbox Live alongside the Playstation Network. This will enable folks to stream favourite episodes right from the Xbox 360, on demand.

Major Nelson has informed us that the Xbox 360 system update which adds USB flash support is now available for download via Xbox Live. The mandatory update should automatically be applied the next time you try to sign into Xbox Live.

On November 15, 2002, Microsoft launched its completely unified online service for broadband connected Xbox owners the world over to chat and game with other like-minded gamers. Microsoft named their service Xbox Live, a name many gamers grew to love over the years. With a few standout titles at launch such as Unreal Championship, MechAssault and Ghost Recon and the fact that Xbox Live’s feature set and ease of use put it miles ahead of the competition. Compared to Playstation 2’s then current online offerings and the GameCube’s virtually non-existent online support, this made for a compelling package and seemed like an amazing deal totally worth the annual subscription fee.

Back then, that $50 was easily justified. Every game featured standard voice chat support along with an integrated online identity and friends list. This carried over across all your online games. Perhaps best of all, the network only supported high speed broadband connections which didn’t leave the door open to lag created by 56k dial up connections as was seen on other services. All of these things and what was often praised as the best library of online compatible games put Xbox Live far above other consoles’ services.

Now, things have changed. Xbox Live isn’t the only fully featured online service on the block. Sony has stepped up their game with the Playstation Network, a service intent on offering everything Xbox Live does, except it’s free. Even Nintendo is attempting to take their console online with the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. While Nintendo has proven itself to be a lesser threat to Xbox Live’s dominance, Sony’s Playstation Network is steadily improving.  While it may not be as good as Xbox Live just yet, at the rate they’re going with upcoming services such as Life with Playstation and the long-awaited Home, Microsoft might have something to worry about in the near future.

On one hand, it can be argued that Xbox Live wouldn’t have seen as many updates as it has in its nearly six-year lifespan if Microsoft wasn’t charging for it. Microsoft continuously performs maintenance to the service in order to make sure things are running smoothly for the millions of gamers accessing the service on a daily basis.  Running Xbox Live servers has to be expensive. Quarterly updates keep a steady stream of improvements coming on a scale no other console online service can compete with.

On the other hand, Sony’s Playstation Network has been free from the day it launched in 2006 and has seen many substantial updates. Ranging from their “me too” online movie and television download service to numerous UI improvements; Sony certainly isn’t slacking in the update department. Once again, allow me to remind everyone that their online service is completely free.

What makes me question the cost of Xbox Live is the lack of something truly worth paying $50 a year for. Sony has taken a considerable step in the right direction by offering dedicated servers for some of its first party online games such as Resistance: Fall of Man and Warhawk. This is in stark contrast to Xbox Live’s client hosted servers. The host player will always have an advantage over the competition since everyone has to connect to him resulting in relatively zero lag for the host. A prime example of a particularly unbalanced host advantage is Gears of War. Many players have complained about the power of the infamous “Host shotgun” which seems adept at downing or instantly killing anyone that happens to wander into the host’s sights, even if they happen to be 20 feet away. If a team has a host that’s good at the game, generally that team will win unless the opposing team makes a concerted effort to decimate the host early on. But I digress. The point is, this could have been easily remedied if the game supported dedicated servers, where no player has such an advantage.

The key to Xbox Live’s success and Microsoft’s ability to charge $50 a year is entirely dependant on the consumers’ perception that it is miles ahead of other online services. It relies on the “you get what you pay for” mentality to stay afloat. The problem is, now that Microsoft has competitors in the online arena that can offer similar services for free, people are going to start wondering what makes Xbox Live so special and why it’s worth paying for. The New Xbox Experience Microsoft has been raving about since E3 2008, which launches this fall, does add some nice new features and enhancements to both the Xbox 360 dashboard and the core Xbox Live experience.  It remains to be seen if this will be enough to catapult Xbox Live as far ahead of its rivals as it used to be.

In the end, it all comes down to what you, the gamer, think. Should Xbox Live be free? I’m sure there are folks that could argue this point on both sides of the fence and there would be no clear winner. I, for one, hope that Microsoft steps up its game as far as Xbox Live goes if they expect people to keep paying for it. That’s not to say the service isn’t worth it, but I want them to give me a reason to continue paying $50 a year for it.

We all know that Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 have provided countless hours of pleasure to the majority of people playing on Xbox Live, and both titles certainly deserve every bit of their popularity. But these two titans have been at the top of the charts for nearly a year, and regardless of the fun to be had with them we’ve got to admit, it’s time for something new. Battlefield: Bad Company and Unreal Tournament III seemed to amount to more of a summer distraction rather than the next big thing, so we’re taking a look at Microsoft’s fall lineup to see what games could seize the online throne and be crowned the new king of Xbox Live.

Lord of the Rings: Conquest

Release Date: November 4, 2008

Although pop culture icons Star Wars and LotR may be two very distinct tales, they do have one thing in common: huge kick ass battles! Back in the days of the original Xbox, Pandemic saw the potential multiplayer draw of recreating famous Star Wars skirmishes with Battlefront, and they’re about to apply the same kind of magic to Tolkien’s universe. Conquest will allow up to 16 online players to clash all over famous landmarks in the realm of Middle Earth such as Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith, and Isengard. Players will also be able to take control of major characters such as Aragorn or the dreaded Balrog, depending if they are fighting against or with the forces of Sauron. Throw in four player co op and Conquest has the right license and large scale gameplay to easily put it in Major’s top ten. Now you know what we want next, right Pandemic? Star Wars vs. Lord of The Rings of course!

Left 4 Dead
Release Date: November 4, 2008

Now this is a game from Valve, the people that brought you Counter Strike, so of course it’s on our list. However Left 4 Dead’s gameplay easily outshines its heritage by offering four player co op against an overwhelming throng of zombies driven by an AI called the Director that knows when to let up, and when to pour on the undead depending on a team’s performance. If adversarial MP is your thing then you can take on the role of the infected themselves playing as special zombies that can either hurl deadly vomit or whiplash opponents with a tongue to rival Gene Simmons’, maybe. For the human players, teamwork will be a necessity while fighting across five different venues including a hospital and city streets, because if a player is left un-revived then they’re out of the game.  Left 4 Dead presents a multiplayer experience that should have been realized long ago, supplying teamwork driven gameplay in a classic survival horror atmosphere that will have no problem finding an audience on Xbox Live.

Tom Clancy’s End War
Release Date: October 15, 2008

When you’re talking about Xbox Live hits it’s almost impossible to leave out the Clancy brand. And even though it’s an RTS, End War is carrying some innovative gameplay to stack up to its first person competition. Ubisoft is promising up to 12 player games that with End War’s easy to use interface will have gamers absorbed in the art of war in no time. What the game brings to the table that gets us so excited is an MMO-like mode where three factions will battle over 40 different frontlines set across the world that will continually change based on the number of wins for each day. Clan support will also be included in this mode, so each skirmish you fight counts in the ongoing war for your faction’s supremacy. It’s this kind of gameplay that should lengthen End War’s appeal and strengthen its community of players who will surely be up until the wee hours of the morning checking their faction’s status in the persistent global conflict.

Call of Duty: World at War
Release Date: November 11, 2008

Out of all these titles, World at War probably has the most to live up to, being a sequel to what some call the best multiplayer FPS game of this generation. Treyarch is already facing controversy by not being the team that crafted Call of Duty 4 and also for bringing the series back into WWII just after gamers have grown so attached to their laser sighted M4’s. One thing that might make them feel better is the fact that this game runs on the CoD4 engine and will feature an all new cooperative campaign with its own experience point system and selection of perks. Not much has been said about the online MP, but Treyarch is going to have to deliver something special, and simultaneously take care not to alienate the mainstream crowd that fell in love with CoD4’s squad based gameplay, a theme they departed from with CoD 3. But whatever the outcome the Call of Duty brand has established itself as the go-to franchise for players looking to get some top of the line FPS action, and we have no doubt that enough soldiers will return for another tour to make World at War a very competitive Live title.

Gears of War 2
Release Date: November 7, 2008

While we can bet that each of the previously mentioned games will make it to the top ten, none of them come with the guarantee of being number one, except for Epic’s Gears of War 2. Packing a bunch of enhancements to give the battles more balance, two player co op, 10 players online, and new modes, Gears 2 is going to be the place most gamers go when looking to play together. The inclusion of Epic patented bots and a new matchmaking system shows that the developer realizes the following the original Gears of War possesses (still making it into Live’s top ten), and are capitalizing on that loyalty with a much more developed and fleshed out multiplayer component. Gears of War 2 will without a doubt become the game that causes the most family neglect during this holiday season, with refined gameplay and all new chainsaw antics to make it worthy of the number “2” in its title, and the number “1” spot on Xbox Live.

Hopefully you enjoyed our preview of titles we believe could become the new leaders of multiplayer gaming on Xbox Live, and we apologize if it made you realize how much money might get blown on yourself this fall. Although only one of these games will be the next number one hit, it’s nice to know that there is a future beyond the current hits of today — that’s what makes Live so great, that it is always changing. See you online!

With Microsoft’s biggest investment, Halo 2, dominating the servers of Xbox Live, many are wondering what will come next for Microsoft’s premiere online service. Halo 2 sparked a batch of new features; brought in thousands of new subscribers; and single-handedly propelled Xbox Live up in popularity. Now that the Xbox devotees have played Halo 2 for some time, what happens next?

In the future of Xbox Live, video chat can be had; friend and clan lists become more detailed; and gaming becomes lag and cheat free. You might have the ability to capture a picture on the screen at any given moment and send it to a friend with a message attached. Instead of sending a voice message, receiving it, then replying back with another voice message, there could be the ability to open a direct communication pipeline with someone within a game. You could talk live rather than playing message tag. As for the video chat, imagine this: Your screen has icons, which are photos of each person in your “conference” room. The people in the room have their gamertag below their icon and a space for an icon to light up. That icon would symbolize that they wish to speak to the whole group as a “leader”. You can select this option and when it’s your turn to speak, your icon or photo would be placed across the majority of each user’s screen and you could now speak your piece as the “leader”. Afterwards, the room is returned to open discussion. This would be helpful to keep peace and order.

Eventually, there might also be the ability to watch games being played via the internet. You could watch friends playing a big game and see how they are doing. The clan systems within games will have to become more in-depth and adapt to the changing desires of a gaming culture. More features such as more rankings; awards; and important clan messages with icons attached denoting their importance would vastly improve these clan systems. Another addition that would be nice would be the ability to issue challenges to specific clans. In this situation, top ranked clans you wish to challenge would then be able to accept or decline. Upon acceptance of your challenge, a game time would be assigned by the system then verified by each clan overlord.

Cheating will be limited to an extent and won’t affect games as much as it currently does. But, the truth is cheating will always exist. If you’re paired with a teammate who continuously kills himself, then his deaths will be offset as a handicap and he will be removed from the game. Using a standby cheat to lag a game will only bring harm onto oneself. Feedback complaints will actually mean something, other than retaliation after a tough loss. This new feedback system could resemble the ebay feedback system, with a compilation of positive, negative, and neutral remarks, allowing comments to be added. All of these remarks would total up percents towards positive, neutral and negative. This would easily let you know who is a desirable player to invite to your game. Thankfully, cheating hasn’t reached a catastrophic level on Xbox Live, yet.

Another nice feature to have would be Xbox Live supported tournaments, able to be created via Xbox Live for any game. Invites would be sent out via email, messages on Live, and MSN Messenger alerts to the people involved. Rankings would be kept accordingly and go towards your individual game rankings. These tournaments could be home to hundreds of participants on different games, as well.

Something interesting in concept could be Microsoft taking their custom soundtracks a step further and implementing them into Xbox Live. Such implementation would allow you to play your favorite music tracks through your speakers or headset while playing a game online. Microsoft could eventually allow you to send and receive music tracks from your friends, or even stream your music for friends and vice versa. Although piracy issues could arise, if properly authenticated music was used and placed onto the user’s Xbox, this would not be a problem.

Finally, I, and I’m sure many others would agree, would like games to support more players. Instead of only allowing 16 maximum players in Halo 2 how about 50? How about 100? Imagine the possibilities of Xbox Live and picture its potential 6 months down the line. Microsoft has already provided us with a great experience, but now the question remains, what will they do from here?