Microsoft Xmas Showcase 2008

image by gaygamer.netYou may, or may not, have noticed that we’re getting fairly close to that most wonderful time of the year, when radio stations start playing Mistletoe & Wine, scarf and gloves become a daily necessity and mince pies are back on the supermarket shelves.

It’s also a time of the year where a fiercely drawn out competition takes place on both the real and virtual high street between the manufacturers of toys, games and other technology wonders.

The Gadgetoid team was kindly invited down to the St Martins Lane Hotel, London to get a hands-on look at some of Microsofts games and gadgets that will be available in stores in time for christmas. Follow the jump for our thoughts about the New Xbox Experience, Live Mesh and more…

Phils thoughts on the gadgets…

There was a lot of technology floating about at this years Christmas Showcase, and quite a significant portion of it wasn’t actually made by Microsoft but, rather, ran their operating systems or interacted in some way with their computers. The range of living-room suitable PCs, windows mobile smartphones, netbooks and laptops all suggested a future of connected home and portable computing being pushed by Microsoft’s interest in the concept of “The Cloud” and their Live Mesh service.

Amongst the computers and gadgets there were also a pair of home storage solutions, one of which was the Tranquil PC which could easily contain up to 10TB of storage when 2TB drives become prevalent. Pushing both “The Cloud” and home network hubs seems like a contradiction of ideals, but we’re all well aware that internet speeds capable of making home data storage and backup redundant are a long, long way off. Particularly when you consider that media is in as much a race to expand into larger, higher definition formats as the internet is to become faster!

Microsoft’s key reason for pushing home storage solutions was backup. Whilst these solutions are certainly not infallible, and would be subject to any fire or property damage that destroyed your computers, having a home backup of your laptop is certainly not a bad idea. Unfortunately Apple are doing a far, far better job of integrating this into their operating system and supply storage-endowed AirPort base stations, Time Capsules, for just this purpose. Microsoft have left the backup software and hardware to the whims of third parties. The result, as is always the case between Apple and Microsoft, is that the Microsoft solution is slightly less easy to use and not as tightly integrated but far more upgradable, expandable and flexible… and also a damn sight cheaper.

Live Mesh is an interesting concept and what was demonstrated to us has nothing in particular to do with Cloud computing. It’s a very close parallel to Apple’s new “Mobile Me” service letting you integrate your laptop, desktop and mobile phone via online storage. There’s even a limited tech preview of Mesh for Macs but, alas, we all know Apple will bar any such applications from the iPhone thus locking out competition to the Mobile Me service.

There was a paltry token offering of Microsoft hardware at this years Christmas Showcase, this included a couple of web-cameras, a couple of mice and their new gaming keyboard, however the focus was very much on software and, of course, the Xbox 360.

Amongst the mice was, of course, the much touted new Blue-Track technology which was largely uninspiring in appearance with very little differentiating Blue-Track mice from Laser or Optical alternatives despite images online showing some “pimped-out” neon underlighting. Obviously the underside had a blue light in place of a laser or good old red optics. Performance wise, however, the Blue-Track technology absolutely floors the competition on tricky surfaces such as carpet and furniture. It still doesn’t work on glass or mirrors though, so SUN Sparc Station mice still have the upper hand in that respect. The Blue-Track mouse was available in a smaller, portable version in addition to its larger desktop cousin both of which are sculpted for the right hand.

Alongside the Blue-Track Mouse you can see the a sleek, portable mouse by Microsoft designed to accompany notebooks. The accompanying dongle is just as sleek, which is quite important for laptops where the risk of snapping off a dongle protruding from a USB port and damaging either is quite high.

The new gaming keyboard, the SideWinder X6, was very attractive and boasted a numeric-pad which could be detached and re-attached to either side of the keyboard. The keys on the main part of the board are tastefully lit in red with the numpad changing colour to indicate its hot-key mode.

As far as gaming keyboards go the SideWinder X6 is very down to earth and Microsoft made a point of noting that it was designed in response to the demand that a gaming keyboard should be suitable for office/productivity use in addition to gaming.

For us MMORPG players, there’s also a dedicated auto-run button. Wonderful!

Johns take on the games…

The New Xbox Experience

An NXE avatar - Xbox 360 - proddedWell, technically not a game, but I wanted to talk about this first as it is the biggest thing to happen to the Xbox 360 this year. It is a complete overhaul of the existing user interface with the intention of making everybody’s experience with the Xbox as fun and interesting as possible, from the hardcore to the casual.

The avatar creation feature is far superior to Nintendo’s Mii, having Rare develop these ensures other games developers will be able to easily integrate them into future games as well as possibly offer avatar items for completing things. I for one can’t wait to get a Master Chief t-shirt!

The ability to run games from the hard drive will definitely benefit those with the 60GB or 120GB units, perhaps not so much those with the 20GB or Arcade model. The party system will definitely benefit people who regularly game in groups, as now you can party up and then go straight into a game, no messing about with assigning private slots in lobbies and sending out invites.

The Marketplace has also benefit from the new interface and has a much richer visual style, with a better explanation of what’s on there, with screenshots, back of the box info and more all very easy to find. You’ll be able to access all the Marketplace content via xbox.com and set up your downloads that way too.

Despite no Netflix or Primetime availability over here, they’ve definitely managed to create something that is going to extend the life of the 360 dramatically. It allows people who know what they want to get it much easier, and for people who don’t know what they want it is much easier to find new things to try out. The New Xbox Experience goes live on November 19th.

Lips

Lips - Xbox 360 - box artTouted as being “one for the girls”, Lips is the Xbox 360 equivalent of Singstar and the first proper karaoke style game to hit the console. It comes complete with two motion sensitive wireless microphone controllers (sadly no ear plugs) and has 40 music videos for you to warble along to, either with yourself or with mates.

While it doesn’t do a lot differently than Singstar the game is nonetheless fun to watch and play, and with the prospect of being able to plug in your iPod or Zune and warble along to your favourite tracks, sans lyrics, as well as potentially download as many tracks as the Marketplace will have to offer this game could be one of those guilty pleasures worth cranking out at parties.

You’re In The Movies

You're In The Movies - Xbox 360 - box artA game for all the family, You’re In The Movies utilises the Xbox Live Vision camera and records clips of you and up to three friends whilst playing some strange minigames, like beating up prohibition era mobsters and running as far as you can with a bungee cord tied to your waist, as well as performing a series of specified poses.

These captured moments are then sequenced together into hilarious B-Movie style trailers, which as well as providing laughs for everyone in the room, can also be saved and shared across the Xbox Live community and also uploaded to your computer. It is another game that would work well in parties, with no controller use required even uber-casual gamers like your Nan can take part and be immortalised on YouTube running away from a giant lizard.

Scene it Box Office Smash

Scene It? Box Office Smash - Xbox 360 - box artScene It? Box Office Smash is the sequel to last years movie trivia game, it is the first game that utilises the NXE avatars and is pretty much the closest thing that people without Playstations are going to get to Buzz!

The wireless controllers are pretty swish, but because the game is all about films rather than including a general knowledge mix you may not find that it suits everybody. You can play it online though, thus minimising the amount of objects being thrown at you for being such a movie geek and winning all the time.

Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2 - Xbox 360 - box artTouted as “one for the boys”, Gears of War 2 is an all out, blood soaked shooting frenzy. Cliff Bleszinski promised the game would be “bigger, better and more bad ass” and he absolutely has delivered on that.

Shaking off the monochrome styling of the original this game has a lot more diversity in the surroundings your war takes place in, with a whole range of new uglies ready to put a chainsaw ‘tween your nether regions. The multiplayer has been improved and I especially liked the Space Invaders inspired Horde mode. If you liked the original, or action games in general you won’t be disappointed if this ends up in your stocking.