New Xbox Experience: First Impressions

It isn’t everyday that you can turn on your Xbox 360, and within a minute it can transform into what initially feels like a whole new console. Microsoft have been preaching so much about the ‘New Xbox Experience and how it will change your life’ that they’re starting to sound like Scientologists. But how much of a revolution is this software reinvention?

After a very colourful, pretty and irrelevant intro video, the first thing you’ll be forced to do when powering up the NXE is to create an avatar. Created by Microsoft’s darling developers, Rare Studios, the Avatar Creator will inevitably suffer from comparisons to Nintendo’s Mii system. The avatar is clearly supposed to be representative of your actual appearance, but although there are many more facial options in some parts than Nintendo’s equivalents, the fact that once-selected you are unable to adjust the positioning or size of these parts actually makes Avatars more restrictive and less varied than their Mii counterparts.

Even the bodily options for height and weight are disappointingly limited, even the fattest or tallest Avatar still looks pretty average. The smorgasbord of freaks that is my Mii Plaza puts Avatars to shame. This results in the fact that looking down your friendlist you realise that other than differing clothing, accessories and hairstyles, most Avatars look annoyingly similar.

Unfortunately another use of Avatars is so that you can quickly and easily determine who is online, or which of your friends are in a party. Sadly, as the Avatars are not easily distinguishable, compounded with the fact that you may never have actually seen the real faces of many of your Xbox Live friends, that fail at this purpose. Until you’re able to build up a mental list linking your friends Avatars to their gamertags, you’d be better off using the old-style friendlist accessed by using the guide button.

You can save different outfits that you’ve created for your Avatar, but there is no option to save several different Avatars or appearance settings, so unfortunately there is no easy way to quick-switch yourself to being Mr. T for a day.

But what about the main difference of this new dashboard, the actual interface? Although the new ‘Coverflow’ style navigation looks flashy, ironically it can be more difficult for Xbox 360 veterans to find what their looking for at first. Once you’ve been using the now-classic dashboard for almost three years, the muscle-memory of your fingers knows exactly how to find what you’re looking for without you even thinking about it, and it takes time to realise that the NXE actually does make things quicker and easier.

The blades of old are now vertical selections on a looping list, with the different options within those sections now being spread out horizontally. This makes it easier to go through lists of items without having to click on each one to view more information about it.

The default ‘channel’ on which the dashboard begins is the Spotlight channel, which makes it easier for Microsoft to target you with specific products. All cynicism regarding data collection and shady marketing techniques aside, this does actually help to highlight things that may interest you that you may never have come across otherwise. Even more useful is the fact that this is dynamic and personalised advertising, so if you’ve been downloading lots of movies or arcade games recently then the suggestions will change accordingly.

The new Marketplace makes it easier to find a specific game or movie by allowing you to search by a particular letter of the alphabet, and of course still has the options for just looking at new additions, most popular downloads etc. You can easily and quickly view screenshots of any game, which often gives you a good idea of the gameplay without having to download a trial. Although Microsoft have said that the NXE should load things faster and smoother, at the moment the contrary seems to be true with some items taking a minute or more to load, and some even returning an error message. We can only assume that this is due to the large number of concurrent online users and the strain that the NXE rollout is taking on the Xbox Live servers. Lets hope this will be rectified shortly.

Possibly the best new addition that NXE has to offer is the advent of Microsoft’s Community Games that have been created with the software giant’s XNA platform. Thirty-two games have been made available at this point, and although these titles are not subject to the Microsoft approval process, they seem to be of a generally high standard. The pricing is evenly split with fifteen games costing 400 points (£3.40), fifteen costing 200 points (£1.70) and two bold games trying for 800 points (£6.80). Standout titles so far include the experimental audio-only ‘In The Pit’, great twin-stick shooter ‘Biology Battle’, and wonderfully presented side-scrolling shooter ‘Weapon of Choice’.

This could be something of a renaissance for small-budget games, although these initial offerings may be seen as a litmus test for the potential viability of the user-created downloadable business model. Gamerscore junkies beware that Community games will not include Achievements, but are no less enjoyable for that fact.

Complimenting this extension of the Xbox Live Marketplace is the ability for gamers to now access the Marketplace from Xbox.com. You can now buy Microsoft points, purchase games and movies, and simply browse the marketplace from any PC with internet access. If your Xbox 360 is turned on back at home these items will instantly download. If not, then they’ll automatically begin to download the next time you access Xbox Live.

Another excellent addition is the new Party system. Up to eight gamers can get together to easily move from game to game. Party Chat means that all eight people could be playing different games, watching movies, listening to music etc. whilst still keeping in contact with the others. Parties can be open to all friends, or invite-only affairs and it’s simple to leave and join different parties. As long as one person on your friendlist is a member of a party then you’ll be able to view the status and gamertags of the rest of the party.

A surprising announcement when NXE was revealed was that 360 owners would be able to install almost every Xbox 360 game past and present to their console’s Hard Drive. Although this does decrease load times a minimal amount, the main benefit is a quieter 360 and less wear and tear on the Box’s disc drive. I’ve never been one to moan about the loudness of the Xbox 360’s fan and disc drive as I usually have the volume loud enough not to notice. But this is a sound that is certainly noticeable in its absence, so if you have enough space on your HDD then it’s certainly something worth considering for the game that you play most often. As an example, Gears of War 2 took up 6.7GB of space and took 10 minutes to install.

Gamerpics are still as much use as they ever were, although the option for a mini-photoshoot with your Avatar for create a new pic is available. Many old themes actually look better on NXE without the old dashboard blurring the visuals, but others can be somewhat obscured by the new layout. ‘Premium’ themes are the Next Big Thing. As well as being optimised to look good on NXE they also change the random Xbox objects that friends Avatars pose in front of to more appropriate ones. For example the Gears premium theme sees your happy buddies hanging around crashed choppers and burning buildings. As a nice bonus the Night and Day themes that come free with the 360 have been given an automatic upgrade to premium stylings.

Pressing the Guide button now brings up a miniaturised version of the old blades, and gives access to pretty much everything that the old dashboard did. Disappointingly, you’ll still have to leave your game if you wish to access most of the options such as system settings and the Marketplace, but it certainly speeds up the process. Quick-launching Arcade games is a personal favourite feature, as is the ability to delete any games in which you have no achievements from your gaming history.

In summation, much of the NXE takes time to grow on you before you learn to love it, but it seems that although several useful features have been added, this is more of a natural evolution for the service rather than a revolution. Still, appears that Microsoft may well have been successful in their goal of making Sony’s online offerings look rather meagre by comparison.