Tag Archives: Xbox Live

Sorry, Microsoft. Damage Done

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that yesterday’s reversal was unprecedented. Games companies have gone back on unpopular policies before, of course, but for a hardware company to withdraw its plans for new DRM features that until yesterday had been trumpeted as essential to the new system, that had only been codified less than a fortnight ago, and all only a week after E3 – by far the biggest opportunity they’ll get to set out their stall before the consoles actually arrive

Now I don’t necessarily hold such a reversal as a mistake in itself. I see many, particularly in the States, where the suggestion of ‘flip-flopping’ can torpedo a politician, saying that this makes Microsoft look weak. There’s value in admitting one’s mistakes and rectifying them, and it’s far better than a dogmatic refusal to change course.

But this DRM snafu is only the latest in a line of missteps that have shaken my faith in Microsoft and the Xbox platform. Although this makes the Xbox One a far more attractive – and, once the price drops and Halo comes out, far more likely – purchase for me, I’m still jumping on the PS4 train for my primary console this generation.

As superb as the first few years of the 360 – and, indeed, the original Xbox – were, Microsoft hasn’t represented my interests for some time now. There’s the complete dearth of interesting first-party titles, even compared to Nintendo’s increasingly token efforts and especially so next to Sony’s adventurous, technically world-class internal studios; the relentless focus on Kinect, once an avoidable annoyance and now “an essential and integrated part of the platform”; the backwards inability for indie developers to work outside the traditional publisher-developer relationship when it’s a dinosaur in these days of digital distribution; the twice-exhibited inability to close out a console with software support up to its successor’s release.

Mainly, though, it’s the inability to see me, as a consumer who has spent hundreds on Xbox games every year since 2002, as anything other than a walking wallet.

I actually didn’t mind paying for Xbox Live Gold and have done since the beta in 2002, as it provided by far the best online gaming experience around. Even today, after innumerable updates over years of development, PSN can’t compete in terms of the integration of the whole system. But PSN is now good enough, and its premium service offers far better value for less money. I don’t care that the PS4 locks online play behind the paywall now because I stocked up on PS Plus membership when it was £20 for a year in Game.

Microsoft, meanwhile, arbitrarily locks features behind the paywall to justify the cost, when most of them – Netflix, Sky Go, et al – require separate subscriptions and are free elsewhere. Why would I pay to use Netflix on my Xbox when my PS3, Blu-ray player, laptop, iPad, phone and DVR all have it integrated at no extra cost. Hell, why should I? This inflexibility famously kept the BBC iPlayer off the 360 because Microsoft didn’t want to give away access and the BBC wasn’t allowed to charge for the same thing.

The attempt at matching PS Plus’s Instant Game Collection gave us free Assassin’s Creed II and Halo 3, from 2009 and 2007 respectively, while Sony has recently given us top-class games from 2012 like Uncharted 3 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Rumour has it August will bring DmC: Devil May Cry, which is less than six months old, to PS Plus.

Even as I’ve dropped money on Xbox Live, year after year, Microsoft pushes out dashboard updates that seemingly do little but create more advertising space. It’s a company whose idea of generosity ends up looking insultingly miserly. That Mojang had to fight to allow the free content updates to Minecraft that have come to every other platform without issue. That simply doesn’t give most publishers the option of offering free DLC, even if they want to.

Well, a week from now on the 27th, my ten-year-old Xbox Live subscription will lapse and won’t be renewed. The Xbox One will be the first Xbox that I’m not picking up on day one. While I applaud Microsoft for reversing this disastrous policy, what it has lost over the last few years has been the benefit of the doubt. I should buy an Xbox One? Prove it, because you’re getting as little for nothing from me as I get from you.

Game Room

It occurred to me recently how hard it is to legally obtain old games. Whereas almost any film from any year is probably readily available on DVD within a few clicks, and the same goes for music, the way that a previous generation of games is almost discarded every few years means that the only way to play, say, an old favourite from the Amiga is either to get lucky on eBay or a car boot, or to just go the illegal route and download the ROM. For all the bad that piracy does in this industry – and it does, no matter how overblown the claims may sometimes be – it’s doing an infinitely superior job of preserving gaming history than anyone with the publishers’ blessing.

Microsoft’s new Game Room is far from exhaustive, of course, but the plan is to grow it rapidly with games that are often otherwise unavailable elsewhere. To be honest, the vast majority simply serve to remind you of how far we’ve come and that it wasn’t any better back in the day, but they’re all available for a free play and there are some classics to be (re)discovered. Personally I’m a fan of Tempest and Crystal Castles, and I think that a quid or two is a reasonable price for them in this context.

It’s certainly a cool implementation of retro gaming with modern technology, and I think that if we can get some other big names like Capcom, Sega, Midway and Konami in there – somehow I don’t think even the biggest optimist expects to see Donkey Kong – and expand the selection up to the 16-bit era, it could be a big hit. I already enjoy visiting my friends’ arcades, but let me do it with games that I actually remember playing with them – the likes of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Golden Axe, etc – and the nostalgia factor is broadened beyond that 40-year-old creepy guy who hangs around in Gamestation. Although I can appreciate the historical value of Adventure and Asteroids, I would argue that I’m not the typical under-30 gamer.

But even so, I love how clearly Game Room is designed for fans. It’s so cool to wander into your friend’s arcade and see 80s gaming decor and a Bentley Bear sprite walking around in three dimensions, Paper Mario-style, and then to have a crack at their high scores. Everything from the way that rival high scores attack your pride with red neon to how the rewind function maintains the retro theme with a VHS rewinding effect is made to provoke a smile, and it usually does.

A good start, then, to a promising new system. I really hope that Microsoft can expand it and resist the urge to nickel and dime us too much on ultimately pointless tat like the decorations, but hey, I want to be an astronaut too. Let’s just hope that it can do the former.

The Year of the DLC?

So my last informal ‘Year of the…’ post didn’t turn out so accurate, and this one could either herald a brave new frontier for gaming as retail goes down the toilet or turn out to be a damp squib that people aren’t really interested in, but I’m pretty confident that 2009 will, either way, be a big year for downloadable content.

Fable II has just had its first DLC package, Knothole Island, and I happily bought it because I was itching to play more of the game. The same thing is likely to happen later this month when Fallout 3 receives its first downloadable quest line, Operation Anchorage, and again with the other two to come in February and March, Left 4 Dead has more campaigns on the way, and of course GTA IV’s much-ballyhooed expansion, The Lost and Damned, is planned for next month.

It’s a big line-up for a traditionally slow period, cunningly placed to keep players from trading in last year’s games, and although map packs have been a fixture of this generation since the 360 launch, with the silly money being thrown around for exclusive DLC at the moment, could this be when the idea of DLC fulfils its promise? Continue reading The Year of the DLC?

New Xbox Experience


Along with wireless controllers, upgradeable firmware has to be one of the best things to come out of this generation. The 360 and particularly the PS3 have come on massively since their launches, far beyond the days when a CD player and memory card manager were the best you could hope for. The ‘New Xbox Experience’ is the biggest update yet, completely overhauling the old dash – a good interface stretched thin as more functionality has been crammed in – keeping the bits that worked well and stealing cherry-picking a few ideas from the Wii and Sony’s XMB.

First of all, Avatars. I don’t care for them, and I don’t like the visual friends list because it’s a lot more unwieldy than the text-based version. They don’t have the personality of Nintendo’s Miis, which would justify such a prominent implementation, and once the novelty wears off I just imagine that they’ll just become more screen furniture. But hey, they might not do it for me but they don’t hurt, so whatever.

What I’m really interested with are the two features that are most clearly aimed at gamers like me: installs and system-wide parties.

I hate the forced installs that that are so common on the PS3 – I had a bit of a rant about it here – but the handful of PS3 games that have an optional install that lets me shave off a few seconds of loading if I want to but can also be popped in and played immediately cut a happy medium, and that’s fine.

What the NXE has done is expand this feature to almost every single game on the 360, past and present. Every game can be played completely from the disc, but since I have that lovely 120GB drive and am not inclined to download movie rentals, I can now play with loading times ranging from a few seconds saved to dramatically improved, and, most importantly, without my 360 sounding like a jet engine. The NXE actually makes late-night 360 gaming when everyone else is in bed viable. Never thought I’d see the day. Continue reading New Xbox Experience

The 10,000 Club

It only took me the best part of two and a half years, 45 games and 502 achievements, but today, I am a man.

By that, I mean I finally got my Gamerscore into five figures.

NekoFever breaks 10,000

The one that did it was the ‘One Man Army’ achievement in the rather excellent GTA IV (impressions post coming when I get the time), with the 40 points that it yielded being enough to push me over this glorious milestone.

I’ll have to live with the fact that I was playing the system a bit in order to get it (running backwards and forwards on the train tracks where the police couldn’t get me for five minutes with a six-star wanted level), but I can deal with it. It’s the gaming equivalent of grinding out an important win with ugly football.

Will I ever reach 20,000? Doubtful. At my current rate of achievement unlocking, purchasing the required number of games would surely bankrupt me, and I seriously doubt even the most optimistic analysts projecting any console to have a life that long. Oh well, at least I no longer have that four-figure black mark on my gaming credentials.