Video games are supposed to be one of Windows Phone 7′s main attractions, and rightfully so; the Xbox is a rare success for Microsoft's entertainment division, so it's about time the brand moved off the television and on to mobile phones.
After spending some time with the Xbox Live feature of Windows Phone 7 on a pre-release HTC Surround handset, my conclusion is similar to the general consensus on the entire OS: There is plenty of potential in this gaming platform, certainly enough to challenge Apple's iPhone. But as it stands, the phone's Xbox Live feature has too many drawbacks and missing features to be a major selling point for gamers when the first Windows Phone 7 models hit the US next week.
Xbox Live gets its own tile on the Windows Phone 7 home screen, and all games are sent here instead of showing up in the master app list. You can pin individual games to the home screen, but Microsoft is clearly pushing people towards the Xbox Live hub. That's fine by me, because the hub is pretty inviting. From there, you can load games, find more titles from the marketplace, check on invites from friends and track your Achievement points. The place feels alive, kind of like the Xbox 360 console, but without all the advertisements and distractions.
It's not perfect, though. Some features, like avatar editing, friends list management and a full list of your achievements are only available through a separate app, called Xbox Live Extras. This makes for a jarring shift from the otherwise smooth Xbox Live hub. And while a search function would be nice for finding games, pressing the hardware search button sends you out to Bing. Still, you've got to keep these nitpicks in perspective. Microsoft still has the best unified gaming interface of any mobile phone; the iPhone's Game Center lacks avatars and messaging. Android, Blackberry and WebOS don't have gaming platforms at all.
Not all games are created equal in the Windows Phone 7 marketplace. Any developer can be part of a broad storefront similar to the iPhone App Store, but a privileged few developers get to create Xbox Live games, which are more prominently promoted by Microsoft and include achievements, free trials and leaderboards. These are the games I focused on most when trying the phone.
As previously documented, the majority of Xbox Live games are already available on other phones or gaming devices. Flight Control addicts will be pleased to see the game on Windows Phone 7 with support for Achievements and leaderboards. Same goes for classics like Tetris and UNO. I only noticed performance issues with one of these ports, Gameloft's Earthworm Jim, which ran at half the framerate of its iPhone counterpart.
The real stars of Windows Phone 7 gaming are the originals. I really enjoyed The Harvest, a sci-fi action RPG that plays a bit like Diablo, and Rocket Riot, a frantic 2D deathmatch that combines jetpacks and explosive ammunition with a cute, pixelated art style. This is what Xbox Live is all about - meaty games on a mobile phone - and they're worth the price premium over games from the general marketplace. (Both The Harvest and Rocket Riot cost $7.)
I don't know if the iPhone has games like these - maybe they do - but that's the point. Say what you will about the size of the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace relative to the iPhone App Store, but the Xbox Live seal of approval, when paired with free trials, really works for finding great games. Even before launch, I certainly didn't feel like Windows Phone 7 lacked selection.
My concern with Xbox Live games is that they aren't high-profile enough. I know that exclusive games based on Crackdown and Castlevania are coming, but where are the really recognizable franchises from the Xbox 360? Why don't Halo, Gears of War and Forza Motorsport have a presence on Windows Phone 7? Despite the quality of Rocket Riot and The Harvest, I wouldn't consider either to be a killer app. A well-known Xbox game could do the trick.
Read on for Windows Phone 7 gaming's biggest problems and missing features.