Debated, discussed, anticipated and feared, the new Xbox 360 dashboard is almost upon us. Launching as a mandatory system update on November the 19th, the New Xbox Experience as it is known completely overhauls the system's interface with a new menu layout, new functionality, and the addition of Avatars, Microsoft's equivalent of Nintendo's Miis.
But what's it like to use? Well fortunately we can tell you, having recently had an hour of hands-on time with the current build. It's still being updated and tweaked every day, so some elements might change slightly before launch, but from what we've seen we reckon you're going to like it a lot more than you may currently suspect. Here's why.
The Avatars aren't actually that lame at all
They're the most reviled part of NXE amongst the hardcore, and for very good reason. While everyone loved the idea at first, we all got sick of Miis in close to no time at all, such is the way that their sterile, vacant faces instantly suck the personality out of the mercifully few games that use them.
Thankfully though, Microsoft's Avatars are a much better bunch. They're stacks more customisable for a start. At launch they'll have around four-hundred bits and bobs to play with, covering everything from head-to-toe clothing and make-up to facial features. We were a bit worried when told that they mandatorily have to be built by adapting an existing model, but given that everything can be changed anyway, that idea seems more about avoiding over-facing noobs with the design tools' multitude of options than dumbing down the experience. Though we now feel slightly dirty for fearing that little cartoon dress-up dolls are an idea that could be dumbed down.
During our play around with them, we found a staggering amount of ways to offend God's work with our Frankensteinian tampering. Eyes alone currently have 45 variations, and whereas Nintendo's Miis have to face the world with nothing more than a single-colour jumper or dress, the Avatars' clothing has been designed in conjunction with London fashion students. It's no exaggeration that these little guys have some better clothes than we do. The only problem is going to be our jealousy that this stuff doesn't exist in the real world.
It's unlikely that they're ever going to be genuinely cool, but with so many options - they get 10 shiny bonus points for including vampire fangs alone - and the possibility of wearable game and sports merchandise on the way, the chances are that you're going to be able to make a little computer person you're more than happy to be associated with. And failing that, you can always just make a hideous overweight transvestite with a redneck trucker cap and earrings. Make no mistake, the first week of launch is going to see some spectacular horrors appear online.
It's even easier for Achievement whores to show off
Scroll up to the My Xbox row and you'll find that your played games now each have their own window, filled with their own grid of Achievement icons. If Gamerscore is your thing, it's incredibly refreshing to not have to click in and out of a potentially very long list to find your bragging material. You can now bask in the glory of your skills in multiple games at a time, and the grid layout makes it easy to check out what you've got at a casual glance.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, should you not want to taint your record with any empty score sheets, it will be possible to delete any games with a zero score from your list. Not that any of you are likely to have such a shameful thing on your hard-drive, but it's nice to know that the face-saving device is there.
Even better than that, the Avatars are eventually going to make your prowess more visible than ever before. As the system matures and third-party publishers get on board, they're going to be able to provide unlockable accessories related to hardcore Achievements. The example we were given was the obvious idea of Guitar Hero guitars, but the possibilities really are endless. We can't wait to see our Avatars rocking a COD 4 50 cal. in one hand and a Big Daddy drill in the other. In our dreams, they already are.