Windows Phone 8 and Xbox: Best friends forever
While Windows Phone 8 gaming is still in its infancy—and several thousand apps shy of the offerings available in Google Play and the App Store—Microsoft’s Xbox Live is alive and well and has sunk its tendrils deep into the mobile ecosystem. Windows Phone 8 users will see its influence in the form of Xbox Live integration and the Xbox SmartGlass app, which aims to turn your handset into a second-screen interactive remote control.
Xbox Live Gaming
To access all the gamer goodness that Windows Phone 8 has to offer, tap the Games icon (which looks like a tiny Xbox controller, naturally). Once you've logged in with your Xbox Live account, your Windows Phone handset acts as a window to your Xbox Live account. You can use the app to see what your friends are up to or playing, and to send them messages, or to check out your gamer score and achievements. The app will also relay notifications from your console, including requests from friends to play games. It’s nice information to have on hand, but if you aren’t inclined to show off your gaming exploits, it doesn’t really add much to the gaming experience.
The app’s primary purpose is to keep you abreast of what’s going on in the world of Xbox Live, and highlight mobile games you might enjoy. Granted, the selection is a bit sparse so far, but there are a number of games that offer achievements that bolster your Xbox Live score. Better still, games like the upcoming Skulls of the Shogun will let you play cross-platform multiplayer games across Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, and your Xbox (something that isn't available to Android users, and iOS users can only approximate with GameCenter).
One attractive facet of the app is that it also places your animated Xbox Live avatar in the palm of your hand, complete with any avatar awards you may have unlocked by playing Xbox Live games. You can customize your avatar by downloading the (free) Xbox Extras app, but unless you're especially particular about what they’re wearing (or very bored) thumbing through clothing and hairstyle options on your phone isn't any more novel than it is on a console.
SmartGlass is an app designed to create a bridge between your Windows Phone 8 handset and your Xbox 360. Once you've downloaded it, you'll be able to use your handset to control various apps, games, and functions on your Xbox 360—either as an additional game controller, or as a remote control to play and pause videos and music. It can also provide additional content to your handset, such as interactive companion guides, behind-the-scenes commentary, and real-time game strategy, although again, the selection here is still pretty limited.
Personally, I'm not entirely sold on Xbox Music, as I don't own a Windows Phone device and am plenty satisfied with my Spotify subscription. But the SmartGlass interface makes a for a compelling party experience —if you can get it working. Navigating about the Xbox Music app’s menus with a Windows Phone handset isn't any easier than using a controller, but searching with the keyboard on your phone (or tablet) is leagues ahead of hunting for letters with a gamepad and the second screen interface is, simply put, awesome. The app serves up short biographies of the artist you’re listening to, and you can quickly search for new songs and artists or queue up playlists as far as your wireless connection reaches. It can come in very handy if you’re entertaining guests and don’t want to be tethered to one spot.
If you're already renting movies on your console or paying for Xbox Music, SmartGlass is an excellent (and free) addition that works across Android, iOS, and Windows devices. It also offers some second screen options for games, though options are limited. The only compatible title I own is Halo 4, and the app shows statistics like the weapons you’ve used most often, or your kill to death ratio in multiplayer matches. In games like Forza Horizon the app will show an in-game map of the track, which will probably be of more use if you have a friend sitting beside you on the couch — I can’t imagine finding much utility in looking over to a second screen while I’m racing along a track.
It should be noted that your Windows Phone will need to be connected to the same network as your Xbox 360, or the app will deem the connection insufficient for web browsing. In my case, that meant disconnecting my console from my wired network and hopping on to a wireless connection — an arrangement I find wholly unacceptable for online gaming. I also had quite a bit of trouble getting the app to work; a cryptic “Can’t find your console” alert was the only indication that things were amiss, and my only solution was to keep mashing buttons to try again while repeatedly checking my connection settings. You may have better luck, however.