Sunday, 9 November 2008

A Look at the NXE

A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft announced that they were going to let a lucky few users try-out the Xbox 360's brand new revamped dashboard dubbed the New Xbox Experience (or just the NXE). To get the chance to wrap their deformed gaming thumbs around this 'preview', all they had to do was sign-up to Microsoft's 'Connect' service website … thing, fill out a quick form and they were entered into a selection process. I was one of the few who were chosen to download and preview the NXE weeks before its official release and so I thought I'd be kind enough to meld my thoughts and 'experience' so far into this concise but hopefully descriptive bit of readery for your eyes.

So what is the point in this 'Preview Program', I hear you ask? Well, it's basically a beta trial, where users can test out the new dashboard on their very own consoles at home and contact Microsoft to moan about all the bugs, so Microsoft can repair said bugs before it's officially released upon the public, like some kind of sexy-looking and rather functional pack of baying hounds. In other words, Microsoft gets a bunch of people to do their work for them and then have the gall to call them 'lucky'. You won't see anyone who got picked complaining, though, as the NXE genuinely is a lovely bit of user interface.

The loveliness of it all rears its beautiful head almost immediately as, you'll be glad to know, downloading and installing it is literally as easy as pressing one button twice. Whether it'll be as quick and painless on the 19th of November (when the WHOLE WORLD downloads it) is yet to be seen. It might be a little slower on the actual day, but at least it'll be painless, unless you sit on a pin or something. When you're all ready to go and when your 360 has restarted itself and after the rather spiffing intro video thing, your first interactive port of call in this 'experience' is to create your Avatar. You can either pick a placeholder for now and move on to the dashboard proper, or you could spend a while customising your Avatar, changing things such as hair and the other obvious bits I can't be bothered to mention. At the moment, though, it seems that Avatars are rather arbitrary and purely there for aesthetics. They don't do much except stand there waving at you and looking pretty. Come the 19th, however, I can pop my 360 on and have a look-see at the smiley new faces on my spanking new friends list. It's for this reason, and the fact that there are a lot more options available to you, that it's already tons better than Nintendo's simple-looking but faff-laden Miis.

Once you've saved your Avatar, you're finally taken to the dashboard. Without getting too in-depth, it's all set-out rather well; push up or down on the control stick and you're taken to the different sections of the dashboard, such as the Marketplace or your friends list, left and right taking you to the different options each section gives you, e.g. allowing you to play whatever game is in your tray. Your friends list is now no longer confined to the guide blade and has its very own full-screen section. Your friends all appear as their Avatars (the box of the game they're playing next to them) standing in front of certain background articles depending on the theme you've got, such as a big Xbox 360 or a police car or something. These backgrounds don't really have a purpose, but it's much more pleasing to the eye than a boring list or some kind of weird 'parade'.

One of the best new things about the NXE is the new guide button menu, which is a basic version of the old dashboard, but the speed at which it pops up and travels through its different options is rather refreshing. The old guide menu was a little clunky and a little ugly, especially when compared to the new one. It seems like the old guide has been retired to make way for its slicker, quicker and more intelligent younger sibling. You'll begin to feel pangs of regret every time you press that button (pangs that are quickly dispersed, mind you) as that old blade was like a friend. The kind of friend that is mostly reliable, but boring and slow. It did what it was asked to do without much fuss, and it might have broken down every now and then, but you always went back to it, mainly because you had to and had no other friends. I feel I've rinsed all I can from that particular analogy.

There are myriad features and options that the NXE gives you and I could go through them all, but by the time I'd have gotten around to writing them down it'll be next Thursday and everybody will already have it. I could go on to say that the new party system seems like an awesome idea, but seeing as nobody on my friends list (so nobody I actually want to talk to for longer than a minute) has the NXE, I'm not really able to test it out. But I'm not going to say that. I'm also not going to say that, at first, the NXE seems nothing more than a completely aesthetic make-over, but if you spend some time with it (and you will) you'll soon find that its newly found functionality and swiftness means that it's so much more than mere eye-candy. I could also say that perhaps I'm over-hyping it too much. Perhaps my love for all things Xbox 360 has clouded my judgement, and that if the NXE was merely a badly-compressed picture of Bill Gates sitting on a throne of money with a speech-bubble saying "buy more games you fucking loser" whilst giving me the finger I'd probably still love it. But, again, I'm running out of time here so I'm not going to say that either.

Just don't expect to play many games on the 19th, as you'll be too busy playing around with the front-end menu of a machine that was built primarily to play games on. Madness!

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