Hands On: Microsoft's Next Big Xbox LIVE Update

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Rate me, display me, sort me…

Who needs snarky game journalists or mathematically specious aggregators like Metacritic when you've got community game ratings! Sure enough, the update lets you drill on any game in the Games Marketplace and drop in a quick star rating by tapping the A-button to increment or reset your verdict. A number displays in parentheses beside the "average rating" to let you know how many people voted, and there's a new "top rated" category that sorts games by those ratings accordingly. Only quibble: If I want to back out without submitting a rating, I can't--once you're in, you're apparently committed.

Speaking of committed, I've pledged fealty to a VGA display connection since my Xbox 360's one of the non-HDMI originals, so all I can tell you about the HDMI update is that Microsoft claims you can now override the audio/video information your TV sends, e.g. you could ostensibly force it to 1080i if it's only detecting 720p.

My favorite miscellaneous improvement: Achievements browsing. Instead of plowing through dozens of slow-to-load lines of text, game achievements look like they do when viewed via your Game Library, i.e. the little achievement icons spread eight columns by three lines. Economical and elegant.

What else… Xbox LIVE Community Games has been renamed Xbox LIVE Indie Games, which Microsoft says "better represents the independent spirit of these titles." Voice messaging can (finally…what took so long?) detect when it's not receiving audio and alert you so you're not dispatching blank messages. Friends lists can now be sorted by activity, Gamertag, or online status, and time stamps have been added to the Memory settings view, making save game management less opaque.

What the July 24th Xbox LIVE update preview doesn't include

Games on Demand, Microsoft's new online library of downloadable, account-linked Xbox 360 games, manuals (printable from Xbox.com), and the option to re-download anything you've purchased "to the same console or another console." Payable by MS Points, direct debit, or credit card. Games promised so far? Assassin's Creed, BioShock, Call of Duty 2, Crackdown, Mass Effect, and Oblivion.

What the final August 11th Xbox LIVE update won't include

Facebook, Twitter, Zune video and 1080p Instant On, or Last.fm support. Microsoft won't say when we'll see them (last we heard at E3, they were coming this fall), just that they'll be in "future Xbox LIVE updates." Notice that's updates plural, meaning we'll probably see them staggered as opposed to rolled out simultaneously.

Also: While we'd heard Microsoft was working to make the guide speedier (the grayish blade-like menu that pops up when you tap your gamepad's central glowing X button) it doesn't seem fated for this update. Everything I've tested so far indicates the guide's still poky, and it may have picked up a serious glitch: Just after invoking, it now freezes for 7 or 8 seconds while the hard disk audibly crunches in the background. I'm not sure what changed, but it happens every single time I tap the button.

And the verdict is…

Comme ci, comme ca, i.e. "so-so." Your mileage will of course vary according to your investment in any of the above features. The guide button issue's the only serious downer. Maybe it's just my Xbox 360, or maybe it was happening before I updated and I'd subconsciously rationalized it out of existence. I'm sure noticing it now, and it's definitely bad mojo. Where's the Xbox version of Diskeeper when you need it?

And afterthought: Hey Microsoft, how about a bunch of Games For Windows LIVE feature updates for all us steadfast Windows gamers?

For more gaming news and opinion, follow twitter.com/game_on.

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