Ever since Nintendo released its Wii to great commercial, if not necessarily critical, success, every rival console manufacturer has been itching to claim a piece of the much sought after 'casual' market for itself. Sony tried it with Singstar and, perhaps, its fantastic LittleBigPlanet, but it is Microsoft who are the most persistent in their efforts to steal Nintendo's market from them.
Whether it is the various 'casual game' bundles with the console that we are now seeing, or the party games that 'borrow' from other titles' ideas (we're looking at you, Lipsâ€¦) Microsoft have tried almost everything in their power to make their software as accessible as possible. But, try as they might, Nintendo still reign supreme, reportedly shifting over a million consoles over Black Friday. With Microsoft's plans for game-based domination thwarted, they decided to 'emulate' another feature of the Wii - its 'Miis', strange cartoony versions of the user. And so one of the key features of the New Xbox Experience, or NXE, was born.
But they're not called Miis here - perhaps that would be too obvious a homage. Microsoft have opted for the ambiguous title of 'avatars', and they lookâ€¦ well, they look an awful lot like Miis. Designed by legendary British developer Rare, they have more options than their Nintendo rivals, but look very similar. A few games, such as Kingdom for Keflings, allow the player to use their Avatars in the game, and Microsoft promised that more titles will include this feature in the future. They have also learned from Nintendo's mistakes, including updates to the clothes your avatar can wear. This promise is kept so far, with new costumes becoming available fairly frequently.
Another key feature of NXE is the ability to install games to your hard drive. This will come as a huge relief to those of us who have suffered through the ridiculous noise levels the 360 can reach when it is going at full power. The games are much quieter when installed, but this is only really an option for those with Elites, or at least 120GB hard drives. Many of the games take over 7GB of hard drive space to install, so Premium owners will only be able to fit one or two in, and that's not thinking about demos or downloadable content. But the games do perform significantly better when installed, with titles like Oblivion and Fable 2 really benefiting from the shortened load times.
New and improved
The old guide has had an overhaul as well. It is now very different in appearance, with the choosable themes gone. Instead, you are given a very neat looking dark blue skin which is much faster now, allowing you to flit between your friends, messages, parties, settings, profiles, recent players and more at will. The guide is as comprehensive as it sounds, and contains basically everything you will need while playing a game, or just messing around on the dashboard.
However, one thing, or type of thing, is sorely lacking- more community support. If Microsoft think that bios and the friends list of your friends are going to help make Xbox Live a big, happy community, then it is sorely mistaken. Where are the regional GamerScore leader boards, the *insert category of people* game nights, the social networking, and all of the other features that could help Xbox Live to truly set itself apart from Sony's Playstation Network? It is things like these that would have been more appreciated in the update than being able to install games to the hard drive, and more importantly, it is what could help Microsoft catch up to Nintendo.
Does well, but not enough
But that is an argument for another time. The New Xbox Experience does streamline the 360's front end, which is arguably all it needed to do to be successful. It includes many welcome new features, and there isn't really anything there that is sub standard. But it is what is not there that stings- it could have been a much bigger update to the Xbox 360 than something that people will simply forget a week after its release. Microsoft really need to up their game for their next update, and as such the New Xbox Experience stands on shaky ground. What it does, it does very well, but it doesn't do anywhere near as much as it should.