Windows Phone 7 review: the gaming experience

It's been nearly a decade since Microsoft stepped foot into the console arena, successfully joining Nintendo and Sony to become one of "the big three." Since then, there have been numerous rumors of an "Xboy," or portable Xbox. With the impending release of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft is finally releasing a portable gaming platform, one branded with Xbox Live. But, does Windows Phone compete against not only Sony and Nintendo's handheld offerings, but the iPhone as well?

A few weeks ago, I received two Windows Phone devices, both on AT&T. Unlike Apple's iPhone, Windows Phone is not a single device. It's a platform, allowing phone manufacturers and carriers to offer some personalization. The HTC Surround, for example, comes with a sliding stereo surround speaker and the "HTC Hub." The Samsung Focus features a 4-inch AMOLED screen and weighs 110 grams (a quarter pound). While each device is different, there are a few tenants that must remain the same across the platform -- and Xbox Live is one of them.

The Setup

Accessing Xbox Live on the phone is super-simple. Most phones will feature it prominently on the front screen, giving you one-touch access to your entire games library. If you don't already have a Live account with Microsoft, the phone makes it easy to set one up. However, if you're reading this, it's likely that you already have a long-running account that you want to import onto the phone. Thankfully, it takes only a few seconds to get that set up.

Adding your Live account information into the phone's "Settings" menu will start an automatic download process that retrieves your Gamerscore, Avatar and mobile games collection. (In addition to any e-mail, contacts and calendar entries, if you use these Live services.) Once your account information is stored on the phone, you'll never have to tweak the settings ever again. You'll find the process is much simpler and far less restrictive than importing your Gamertag across multiple systems. In fact, you'll even be able to activate your Gamertag on up to five different mobile devices.

The Experience

There are a lot of things to like about the Xbox Live experience on Windows Phone. Seeing your Avatar pop up on the home screen is a nice touch, and makes the phone feel distinctly "you." The four pane-wide Live hub looks and feels great, allowing you to quickly switch between seeing your latest Achievement, any pending friend & game requests, updates on Xbox Live happenings and most importantly, your games collection. Windows Phone's inspired minimalist design (nicknamed "Metro") is a complete 180 from the 360's advertisement and animation-filled Dashboard -- and I approve.

For better and for worse, you won't actually spend much time within the gaming hub. It's designed to quickly get you into a game, and that's precisely what it does. However, if you want to take advantage of Live's other features, you'll need to download a standalone "Xbox Live Extras" app from the Marketplace. This will give you access to a 3D version of your Avatar, which you can customize just like on the console. You'll also be able to add friends, see who's online, what they're playing and shoot them a message. A more complete Achievement listing can also be perused through this app.

In addition, Xbox Live games are mandated to follow the "spirit" of their console counterparts. All Xbox Live games are required to feature playable demos. All Xbox Live games are required to have 200 Gamerscore, although games are no longer restricted to having exactly twelve Achievements. You can download a demo of Hexic, for example, until you perform an Achievement-unlocking action. From there, it's easy to do an in-app purchase to unlock the full game and the familiar Gamerscore-awarding bleep-boop.

By mandating these features for Live-branded games, Microsoft has created a gaming marketplace for mobile phones that's easier to use than the Apple and Google counterpart. This is a dedicated gaming store, making it much easier to find games that could otherwise get lost in a glut of other mobile software. Tying demos and full versions into one product listing makes much more sense than offering a "Lite" version of a game, for example. Also sensible: banishing the use of Microsoft Points. You have a number of options when purchasing a game: using a credit card, or having the purchase added directly to your cell phone bill.

The overall experience is quite easy to get a handle on. It literally took less than five minutes for me to link my Gamertag to my phone, jump into the Marketplace, download a game and unlock my first on-the-go Achievement. From an ease of use perspective, I think this bests the digital offerings of all of Microsoft's competitors.

The Games

While the Windows Phone gaming hub makes finding, purchasing and playing games all very easy, the overall value of a platform is determined by the games that inhabit it. Unfortunately, this is currently the weakest link of the Xbox Live experience on the phone. The launch games are a mix of ports from Xbox Live Arcade and iPhone -- at seemingly inflated prices. The Windows Phone version of Bejeweled, for example, costs $4.99. The iPhone version costs $0.99. Many of the games are also, put simply, bad.

There are only a dozen or so Xbox Live-branded games available at launch, although Microsoft promises that games will be made available regularly and in a schedule, much like the home console does. However, there are a number of other games, available without Xbox Live support, that you can find on the Marketplace ... if you know what you're looking for. While Microsoft makes it easy to find new and notable Xbox Live games, the rest of the Marketplace is the Wild West. While not at App Store-levels of clutter, it's already overwhelming to see the number of completely unknown games populating this half of the Marketplace. Thanks to the segregation of these games, I see non-Live games doing as well as Xbox Live Indie Games on the console. That is to say, not well at all.

As Sony discovered with the PSP, it will take much more than ports to captivate gamers into buying into a mobile platform. What Windows Phone needs is a marquee original title, and The Harvest is simply not it. In fact, the best games on the platform are currently available on other devices. I'm certain that Microsoft will start leveraging its own franchises, much like Nintendo and Sony have, in an effort to win over gamers. But, the launch library as it is right now is no reason to run out and buy a Windows Phone.

The Verdict

I really love how simple it is to use Xbox Live on Windows Phone. But, most portable gaming devices don't require you to sign a two year contract with a mobile carrier to enjoy its games. Had Microsoft released a non-phone version of WP7 -- a game-enhanced Zune, for example -- it would be easier to recommend in its current state.

But the games simply aren't there. The innovation isn't, either. As it is now, the primary reason to pick up Windows Phone 7 is the prospect of getting Gamerscore on the go. While that will undoubtedly have its appeal for hardcore Xbox fans, is that really a system-defining feature? Sony and Apple's cross-platform approach is a huge value-add for consumers: many games and movies (whether PSOne Classics, PlayStation Minis or App Store purchases) work across multiple devices and platforms. As of yet, Microsoft offers no equivalent.

The iPhone is set to get games that run on Unreal Engine 3. The PSP has a new God of War coming this holiday season. And in a few months, Nintendo will have a gaming device that shoots 3D into your eyes. What does Windows Phone have? ilomilo is cute, but it's definitely not a system-seller. The foundations for a revolutionary gaming device are there and I'm excited to see where the platform and the library go in the future. But, given its competition, and its hefty cost of entry, it's hard to recommend rushing out to purchase a first-generation Windows Phone right at this moment.

See also: Windows Phone 7 launch games reviews hub

This review is based on a retail Samsung Focus provided by Microsoft and AT&T.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.