Chris: For me, Xbox Live recreates the feel of the arcade, where you'd gather around to watch the best players do battle. While playing Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3 (in a cooperative mode against computer-controlled "Venezuelan terrorists" in Hawaiian shirts), I enjoyed the feature that put you in the eyes of the other players after you die. Watching through the eyes of a more experienced player, I started to figure out how to play the game. My 14-year-old "friend" (see above) told me that playing Rainbow Six in Live mode is a better way to learn than the in-game tutorial, because you have a guide who knows what he is doing. I started to think of that kid as our Virgil.
I almost typed "or she" in my mention of guides, but we didn't encounter a single woman (or young girl). At least one who turned on her headset.
Seth: Yup, Xbox Live is definitely lacking in feminine energy. Though I think I managed to bring a bit of womanliness to the battlefield.
Part of the problem was our selection of games. All shoot'em ups. I must admit that after awhile I get tired of shooting stuff. I was thinking it might be nice to play a fishing game or something, where we could just chat over our communicator headsets for a couple hours, interrupted by the occasional face-off with a trout. We'd be on couches miles apart, but it would feel like a day together on the lake. Toss me a Coors from the cooler!
I don't think I'll play Xbox Live too often, now that our touristic exploration is done. Mostly this is because I'm bad, and no one likes to lose all the time. Partly it's that I've yet to find any games I really enjoy. (I like the tennis game Top Spin, but I suck at that, too. When I played it on Xbox Live, my opponent hit every single serve for an ace and smacked every single one of my serves for a return winner.)
But partly it's because I feel like everyone else is cheating—"modding" their characters to be stronger and better-equipped. There was a lot of chatter about this when we were playing online. One kid said he'd seen a guy in Halo 2 who'd rigged his gun to somehow fire vehicles out of its barrel. You're in a firefight with him and he sends a truck hurtling toward you. (Conversely, it felt like someone had modded my character to be especially frail and had limited my weapons options to "butter knife.")
I know Microsoft tries hard to crack down on cheating, but it's a real issue. We were both convinced we'd encountered it several times. I believe you called one opponent the Rafael Palmeiro of Halo 2. (I pictured him shaking a robotic, metal finger during some sort of galactic parliamentary hearing.)
Will you be playing more Xbox Live now that we've gotten a taste? And will you cheat?
Chris: I have a confession to make. I've already been cheating on you. Late at night, after we stopped playing, I would sneak back to Xbox Live and spend the evenings with him. But don't worry; those encounters were brief and meaningless. It was nothing like when I was with you.
I think I will keep playing Xbox Live, though I already played a little before we started our adventures together. I won't cheat, and to be honest I didn't encounter as many cheaters as I expected. Just players who were much, much better than us. We're such bad players that it was hard for me to know whether an opponent got that rocket launcher right away because he cheated or because he has memorized the map. In this video, a player shows how his opponent modded his machine to make himself invincible. For all I know, I played against this guy and thought nothing of it. Bungie calls cheating a "growing epidemic," and both Bungie and Microsoft claim to take the problem seriously. But they also claim to take racist taunts seriously.
Part of the problem is Halo 2's pitiful feedback mechanism. Players have to tattle on their opponents, and then either Bungie or Xbox Live decides when there's enough complaining to ban someone temporarily or permanently. The two things that would improve the experience most for me are 1) instituting a more transparent, eBay-style ratings system that would give you some hint of which players are jerks and bullies; and 2) creating a "senior circuit" that lets graybeards like us match up against players our own age. Halo 2 uses an algorithm that tries to sort players by experience and ability, but some idiots go through the tedious exercise of "leveling down"—throwing a series of games in the style of the Chicago Black Sox—so they can get their jollies by annihilating lesser players. And even when it works, it's not quite what I'm looking for. It's not just that I want to play against players who are as bad as me. I want to talk to people who are like me, not preteens and high-schoolers.