November 19th has come and gone and for those of you with an Xbox Live membership, you know what that means: the New Xbox Experience is here. I wasn't aware that NXE was actually an official name for the update, but apparently it is. No longer will we speak of blades and dashboards. Instead, umm, what exactly are we supposed to call this now?
I don't know, but I do know that I like it. As Microsoft has been fond of pointing out over the past 6 months, NXE represents the first time a piece of hardware has gotten what amounts to a complete operating system overhaul -- for free. Those of us who logged on yesterday were greeted with a 7-minute update that completely revamped the interface, streamlined the Marketplace, made navigating our game collections easier (not to mention photos and music), and the ability to create avatars (a system that even an X360 fan like me has to admit pales in comparison with that on Yahoo... and don't get me started on MS wanting to charge for extra clothing and accessories).
The biggest addition, in my opinion anyway, is the partnership between Xbox Live and Netflix. Those with an $8.99 monthly subscription to Netflix can now instantly stream any move from their Netflix instant-play queue directly to their Xbox 360 and start watching it within about 30 or 40 seconds. This is an absolutely phenomenal feature. I may be a bit behind the times when it comes to on-demand programming and instant-play movies, but this is the first time I'm taking advantage of any such service and I have to say the results are mind-boggling. For nine bucks a month we can watch as many movies as we want, when we want, and we only need to wait half a minute for them to start playing.
Of course Sony had to go and play sore-loser and make sure Netflix pulled all of their Sony/Columbia movies from the service, but that's alright as I'm pretty sure if I made it this long without seeing "Spiderman 3", I can go on living without it.
The one drawback to the Netflix streaming is, naturally, your broadband speed. When you select a movie to watch on your Xbox 360, Netflix spends the half a minute or so determining the quality of video it can stream to you. The icon shows four bars and, unfortunately for us, our DSL speed only nets us 2 bars out of 4. Enough to watch the movie instantly, but the video signal is highly compressed. I watched Warren Miller's "Cold Fusion" last night to test out the system and the picture quality left something to be desired. Granted, the film was made in 2001 and wasn't shot in hi-definition, but the picture quality was somewhat disappointing. Certainly watchable -- and enjoyable -- but not the HD movie-watching experience I've gotten used to.
I'm going to update my queue to include some newer movies, hopefully one or two we actually own on HD-DVD (epic fail) to get a sense for the video quality degradation. Either way, it's not the end of the world if the quality suffers. We still get unlimited one-at-a-time discs in the mail with the $8.99 membership and could always just make sure to save the big blockbuster movies for hard-copy rentals and rely on the instant-watching for the movies that don't necessarily need to be seen in HD with surround sound.
What's that you say, all movies need HD and surround sound? I feel ya, bro.
Anyway, I was going to post all of this yesterday but I didn't. And the reason for that is the other aspect of the NXE that I have yet to talk about. As limited as the initial avatar-creation mechanism is (literally about 1% of the options on Yahoo) and as much of a blatant milking of people's MS Points as this is going to be, the inclusion of your avatars as playable characters in some games is an excellent addition. Sure, those of you with a Wii have been able to do it for a while with your Mii characters, but guess what, that meant you had to play the Wii. Now we can do it on the Xbox too.
And the first new game to include the feature is my new BFF, A Kingdom for Keflings. If ever there was a game that made me want to pack a bowl full of tree and just sit and mellow with a bag of Doritos and some Red Vines, then this is that game. KfK is a game that pits you as a giant charged with building a, you guessed it, Kingdom for Keflings. As the giant, you pick up your Keflings and carry them to resources you need harvested. You tell them where you want them to chop wood, mine rock, shear sheep, etc., etc., and show them where to carry said resources when they're done. You then use these resources to build the various parts needed to construct any one of several dozen different building types. There is no combat. There is no adversity. Your kingdom (for Keflings) is never attacked. You just build, grow the town, build some more, re-assign your Keflings to new jobs, and keep on building. Every now and then the Mayor will give you a small quest to complete, but these seldom require anything more difficult than delivering 75 bricks to the factory.
If the game sounds rather boring, it isn't, but you certainly have to be the right type of gamer and in the right mind to play it. Yes, it can get repetitive, and there is absolutely no pressure while playing it, nor is there anything to do that requires any reflexes (save for manipulating the camera) or skill. Like I said, feel free to inhale deeply when playing this game.
Despite the simpleness of it all -- and the fact that the closest I've come to any illegal substances in the past eight years is my old scratched-up copy of a Cypress Hill album -- I played it for four hours yesterday. Two hours in each of two sittings. The game has a therapeutic quality that I find very endearing and, dare I say, addictive. I haven't even touched the multiplayer mode yet (up to four players can work on the same kingdom simultaneously) nor have I played in the sandbox mode just yet. I'm still on that first "New Game with Tutorials" working towards building a castle for my little Keflings.