At the Electronics Entertainment Expo this year, Microsoft announced a new update to Xbox Live scheduled for release on August 11th. Last week preview builds were sent out to members of the press for an early review of the service. I was fortunate enough to be invited into the Early Preview of the Xbox Live Update so that I could share with you my opinions of the featured changes. I won’t go into massive detail on every change, such as Timestamps on the game saves or faster account recovery but a few of the changes are so important, or have the potential to be, that they might change the way Xbox Live is used. Here’s what I mean:
Parties – So far the only change I can see to the party system is an automatic reconnect should a member of your party be kicked for whatever reason. As soon as they sign back on they will be re-invited to your party automatically.
Netflix – In this update, Netflix undergoes the most major overhaul. Now in the Netflix application you can add/remove movies from your instant queue, as well as view suggestions based on movies that you’ve watched. They do have a few kinks to work out of this system since there is no way that “Zach Galifianakis Live” is similar to “No Country for Old Men.” This update also adds the ability to watch movies with your party. Every attempt I made to test this came with problems. I tested the party system with non-Netflix subscribers and they were unable to join my movie, and Netflix customers who were not a part of the update preview build were unable to join as well. This feature will likely be the first thing I test out once the update goes live August 11th.
Avatars – The new Xbox update features Avatar Awards as well as an Avatar Marketplace. So far none of the Awards have been announced yet, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll be given custom clothes for your avatar based on playing well in certain games. In my opinion, the avatar marketplace’s cupboards are pretty bare for a launch. Currently available are a few T-shirts and costumes from Halo 3, Fable 2, Monkey Island, and a variety of Steampunk outfits. These range from 80 MS points for a shirt to 160 MS points for a full outfit. Personally I don’t see the point in charging for avatar clothes, when there are a variety of free options. You’d have to be a diehard fan of a game to spend actual money on digital clothes for your digital character.
User Ratings – This is the new feature that perplexed me the most. A new rating system is available for gamers to rate Xbox Live Arcade games on a scale of 5 stars. You can also sort games by their ratings and view a Top Games tab in the marketplace. What I don’t get is the addition to this feature without an ability to justify your rating. What is to stop Gears of War fanboys from nuking the rating on Halo 2? Without a reason to justify the rating, there is no way this system can be dependable.
Games on Demand – So far nothing new has been added to this feature. It’s more of a renamed Xbox Originals tab. In the future games like Mass Effect and Bioshock will be available to purchase, and re-download at will, from this tab but currently it only features games like Splinter Cell Chaos Theory and Black.
Achievements – Launching games from the achievements tab is now possible, as is a more detailed in-game achievements window. In addition to these changes, your first achievement pane is now a summary of your total games and total achievements as well as displays the icons for games you currently have 100% in. So now everyone can see that you’ve got 100% in Pocketbike Racer and Disney’s Cars.
Also included in this update is the ability to sort your friends list, a Gold Member stamp on your gamer card to prove how long you’ve been a member as well as a few other smaller changes. Overall this update is nothing to be too excited over. This is not the “new ultimate Xbox experience” that we were all hoping for but a few of the changes, most specifically to Netflix, are welcome ones. It might also be worth it to note that the promised Facebook, Twitter, and Last.fm applications are not included in this update and there is currently no word on when they will be patched in. The dashboard will be available to download to every Xbox on August 11th, though some of you might already have access to it, and on that day hopefully the Netflix party system and Games on Demand will launch to their full capabilities.