Review – Xbox console update and Kinect Sports Season 2

30 Dec 2011

In recent weeks Microsoft revealed one of the most dramatic software updates to its Xbox 360 console software that helped it to unleash the full firepower of Kinect, allowing gamers to use voice and physical gestures to game and discover content.

It was interesting to note this morning that online music video site Muzu.TV recorded some 1.5m video plays via its app for the updated Xbox 360 console within 36 hours. I have to say being able to swish between videos with your hand or simply say what’s on the screen absolutely makes content more discoverable and its incredible to see videos manifest on screen in full HD.

Before the recent Xbox update the first game I discovered to employ the voice capability was Kinect Sports Season 2 which comes with a range of new sports experiences including Skiiing, Darts, Baseball, American Football and Golf. It was a tantalising glimpse into what was possible and certainly in terms of the future of TV, stole a march on Apple’s Siri voice capability that many expect to feature in a new piece of hardware in the coming year.

Before I talk about Season 2, the Xbox update is a strong statement of intent from Microsoft in terms of how it intends to join the dots between the forthcoming Windows 8 desktop experience, mobile and social apps.

Social capabilities are evident through a feature called Beacons, which sends messages to friends on Facebook with status updates indicating the user wants to play an online multiplayer game with friends.

The design and layout of the Xbox update is intuitive and features the tiles that we’ve come to expect on Windows 8. Simply say ‘Xbox’ and whatever happens to be on screen in front of you and that’s it. I found this to be magical when activating content like videos. However, it seemed to flounder when it came to Bing searches, it just didn’t take what I wanted it to search for. It seems the magic, currently, is only in terms of commands visible on the screen.

I also struggled a little with the gesture capability – it seems that gesture controls via Kinect are more responsive within games whereas on the updated Xbox console and within certain apps it is not quite so automatic, responsive or smooth.

Another criticism is the number of apps available. I know that Microsoft launched the update with a bevy of different app brands, including YouTube, Muzu, Love Film, Zune, Netflix, etc. Unfortunately, being in the Republic of Ireland and at the bottom of the list when it comes to resolving licensing agreements, we’ll have to wait – the only apps currently available right now for download are YouTube, Muzu and Zune as well as Facebook and Twitter.

That said, the download experience was intuitive and like I said, it’s cool seeing video content stream via the web directly to your TV in HD.

Getting physical with Kinect Sports Season 2

Back to the game. I loved the first Kinect Sports, marvelling at how cleverly it managed to replicate physical experiences and while not quite the real thing, you still managed to burn off a few calories.

Kinect Sports Season 2 features a range of new games. The Darts game is a great crowd pleaser if you have friends over for a beer, it requires skill and accuracy (and a little patience at first), but if you’re a little rusty it’s a great way to relearn the game.

Baseball was quite a bit of fun and had many layers of engagement and while it struggled to pull off the physical manifestation totally, it nevertheless pulls you right in and makes you want to be at the top of your game.

Skiing wasn’t really a huge leap forward from the first generation of Kinect games, you’re doing a bit of dodging and jumping, but I found it exhilarating nonetheless – without the pain of real skiing on your legs!

American Football I found to be the most technically savvy of the various games, engaging you in all the various roles of the real game and including a set of tactical choices you can select for your team when it’s your turn to throw.

Tennis was no huge technological advance but absolutely great fun, superb graphics and really gets those competitive juices flowing if you’re taking a real opponent.

I’m not a big fan of golf in the real world, but I respect the skill that goes into it and I found Golf on Season 2 to be graphically quite slick and again it requires skill and patience to gain accuracy. If anything, for real golfers it would be good exercise in terms of perfecting your swing, I would imagine.

The technology knitting all of this together is of course the Kinect gestures and voice control feature that compared with the first generation of Kinect games lets you cycle through content at a faster rate.

A strong statement of intent from the Xbox folk at Microsoft!

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years