Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Xbox Fail

March promised to be a big month for the Xbox One. The first exclusive FPS, Titanfall, was due to release. At the same time, the promised feature to stream gameplay live via, a feature the PlayStation 4 had at launch, would be released for the Xbox. Additionally, a system update would bring some much-needed improvements to the party system, bringing back features taken for granted since they existed on the Xbox 360 for years; and an update for the controllers that would enable an adapter accessory for that proprietary audio port to allow for standard headsets. The Xbox One was finally going to make its mark in the new generation gaming space.

The system update was pretty well-received. Joining a party now turned on party chat by default, and parties were no longer assumed to be all for one game. Options like sending a party or game invite were introduced at the system level, instead of requiring digging into a game's menu system to find it. The Friends app starts up faster (though it still can't be snapped for some reason), and it can now show you recent players. Overall, it is much better, closer to where the 360 was and where the One should've started.

My main complaint is that I still have difficulty joining parties or connecting to party chats, because my Xbox One still thinks my NAT is "strict" — despite the fact that I can use either of my 360s and have "open" NAT on the same network, if not at the same time. Sometimes, I can run the multiplayer network test in the Settings app, and after running it two or more times, it will think my NAT is open (and my party and game connection issues disappear), but that doesn't always work.

In summary, I'm very happy with the new party system, if network issues didn't keep me from using it.

The app looked cool. Industry insiders that had the opportunity to play with the new app ahead of release praised its ease of use, superior UI, and higher quality compared to the PS4's offering. It was released to the public the day before Titanfall, and since I opted not to spend my evening standing in line for a midnight launch, I decided to try out this streaming feature myself.

Ultimate Fail.

Setting it up seemed simple enough. Log in to the app and use an activation key to tie it to a Twitch account, not altogether unlike tying a device to a Netflix account. And saying "Xbox, broadcast" snaps the app in broadcast mode, ready to go.

But then it doesn't work.

The best it manages is to actually display the broadcast preview and the game title for a few seconds, though sometimes it doesn't even do that much. Selecting "Start Broadcast" brings up a message saying it is testing the network connection, and then goes right back to the previous screen. If the preview and the game title existed before, it's replaced with a blank window and the message "Unknown game" (which it would already say in the majority of the cases that it doesn't manage to show the preview and actual game title first).

The worst part about this is, the system is now in an unstable state. If you unsnap or close the broadcast tab, and then later try to run the Twitch app full-screen, it claims it is still in "broadcast mode". If you try to close the app by hitting the menu button on the tile from the Home screen, it may or may not appear to close the app — but trying to launch the Twitch app again will reveal it thinks it's still running in broadcast mode.

And then it gets worse. Trying to start any other app, including Friends or Settings, will usually simply fail (though launching games works fine). And trying to shut the system off will result in it hanging, with the power light on the console flashing on a several second delay, and the Kinect turning on and off slowly. If you have it set up to turn off your TV and/or A/V receiver, it will do this first, but you can turn your TV on and see the Xbox One's output is still very much alive, though you can't control it — any controllers will be flashing their Xbox button like they're trying to find the Xbox One, and the Kinect responds to neither voice nor gesture. The only solution is to hold the power button down for several seconds until it forces the Xbox completely off.

An Xbox Support forum post shows I am not alone with this problem, and the suggestion of uninstalling the app and its data, and reinstalling, doesn't work for everyone, including me.

The biggest fail, however, was yet to come.

Starting at about 4pm my local time, the Xbox Live service was unavailable for signing in on the Xbox One. (For some reason, this did not affect the website, the Windows Phone, Windows PCs, or even the Xbox 360.) The service remained down for several hours, coming back online just barely before 9pm. I was able to use the time to install my copy of Titanfall (which required an 800MB update, which the Xbox seemed to be able to get to and download despite the lack of a sign-in service), but I was struck by how much I could not do with the Xbox One without that service.

Attempting to sign in brought up the message pictured here.

What I found particularly disturbing by this is, it wouldn't let me do anything with my profile. I can understand not being able to play online, but I was not even allowed to play anything locally, at least not with my game saves or profile. I tried starting Killer Instinct, and it offered to let me play without saving any progress, but the other option of signing into a profile led straight back to that same error message. If I wanted to play Skylanders Swap Force, assuming it had the "play without a profile" option, I would be starting the game from scratch and not saving anything — certainly far less than desirable than picking up my current campaign playthrough. Attempting to start the Netflix app brought up the message "Can't connect to Netflix" — a statement provably less-than-true, since my son was watching Netflix on a laptop in another room.

I wasn't on a submarine, I wasn't in a middle-America town with shoddy internet, and my internet and electricity were still on. And yet, the Xbox One servers were unavailable and the console was virtually unplayable, despite any assurance to the contrary (unless you count having to create an all-new local-only profile (can you even do that anymore?) and starting all your games over from scratch).

I still have hope for the Xbox One, but I would be lying if I didn't admit it has been a major disappointment so far. At least Titanfall is fun to play, but the system still has a long way to go. If Titanfall is the system-seller that we expect it to be, these faults are going to be in front of a lot more eyes, and Microsoft would do well to correct them as soon as possible, before it's too late and the Xbox goes the way of the Zune.

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