HOLD­ING FIRE

How does Ama­zon’s me­dia/gam­ing box per­form?

EDGE - - KNOWLEDGE AMAZON -

Ama­zon’s Fire TV is a small, sleek, un­ob­tru­sive black slab that comes with a min­i­mal­ist re­mote and has an op­tional $40 game con­troller. Once you get past the short, friendly and only slightly ir­ri­tat­ing open­ing tu­to­rial, wait­ing for things be­comes rare. Since Ama­zon pre-links your ac­counts with the hard­ware, all of your Ama­zon con­tent ap­pears in­stantly. Pag­ing through big, colourful icons on hor­i­zon­tal ro­ta­tors – fa­mil­iarly grouped by cat­e­gories and gen­res – feels silky, speedy and in­tu­itive. The box is a very light sleeper, leap­ing wide awake as soon as you turn on your TV, which seals the over­all im­pres­sion that your con­tent is wait­ing for you un­der the thinnest bar­rier, not buried in load screens. And Fire TV’s voice search func­tion, one of its key sell­ing points, is just as alacritous – up to a point.

The most prom­i­nent but­ton on the Blue­tooth re­mote is alone at the top. Hold it down and a di­a­logue box springs open, say­ing that the de­vice is “Lis­ten­ing…” Say any­thing, your mouth no more than eight inches away from the in­ter­nal mi­cro­phone, and then re­lease the but­ton. Af­ter think­ing for just a mo­ment, the de­vice de­liv­ers ac­cu­rate lists of rel­e­vantly tagged con­tent, search­able by medium – so long as you’re solely search­ing for Ama­zon prod­ucts or An­droid apps, which are the only re­sults voice search de­liv­ers. Flip­ping be­tween the home and a run­ning app feels fric­tion-free, and some apps can run in the back­ground of oth­ers. The unity of the sys­tem breaks down when you use apps such as Hulu and Net­flix, where you have to sign in and search the old-fash­ioned way, with lots of typ­ing and wait­ing.

At least the slen­der and softly curved re­mote makes that fairly easy, once you get over try­ing to point it like a Wii Re­mote. Be­low the mi­cro­phone but­ton is a large, shal­lowly springy ac­tion but­ton sur­rounded by a four-di­rec­tion click ring that you use to nav­i­gate through con­tent grids or guide a tight, brisk cur­sor. Be­low that are two rows of small but­tons: Back, Home and Menu, and then Rewind, Play/Pause and Fast-for­ward. Key com­mands such as Ac­tion and Back serve con­sis­tent, sen­si­ble func­tions across apps, with the ex­cep­tion of the Menu but­ton, which sel­dom seems to do any­thing.

The op­tional con­troller is a boxy and in­el­e­gantly tank-like, but per­fectly ser­vice­able, 360 knock­off, adding a row of me­dia-con­trol but­tons to a fa­mil­iar lay­out. The con­trols have a high re­sis­tance that feels good in the ana­logue stick, OK in the but­tons, and poor in the woe­fully stiff D-pad. The con­troller comes with Sev Zero, an Ama­zon exclusive that doesn’t work with the re­mote, as many of the less ca­sual games don’t.

Though Ama­zon has down­played the sig­nif­i­cance of Fire TV’s gam­ing as­pect, call­ing it a bonus, its ca­pa­bil­i­ties far out­strip its im­me­di­ate com­peti­tors’, with 2GB of in­ter­nal RAM and a 1.7GHz quad-core CPU. Sev Zero it­self is a mildly in­ven­tive third­per­son shooter mixed with a tower de­fence game. You quickly beam back and forth be­tween the ground bat­tle and the wire­frame maps where you built your traps. Af­ter you se­lect a tower to tele­port to, you have a short time to move your spawn point away from it, dam­ag­ing en­e­mies you land on. In a neat touch, you can throw your game from a Kin­dle Fire or An­droid phone to your Fire TV with the flick of a fin­ger. These twists make for a fre­netic ac­tion-strat­egy game, if not one likely to be­come any­one’s favourite, and it gets old af­ter a few lev­els. But the pro­duc­tion val­ues are sur­pris­ingly high for what’s es­sen­tially a ser­vice for play­ing An­droid games on your TV, and it works as a proof of con­cept.

Can­a­balt, Sonic ports, Minecraft, Bad­land, As­phalt 8 and other An­droid favourites are all avail­able. 8GB of in­ter­nal stor­age sounds like a lot un­til you start in­stalling some larger games, such as

The con­troller is a boxy and in­el­e­gantly tank­like, but per­fectly ser­vice­able, 360 knock­off

Deus Ex: The Fall or The Bard’s Tale. But unin­stalling a game leaves its icon in your list un­less you also choose to re­move it from the cloud, which makes it more con­ve­nient to ma­noeu­vre around the stor­age limit. Heavy on ports and ca­sual fare, the cur­rent se­lec­tion in­cludes high­lights such as The Walk­ing Dead, The Cave and Prince Of Per­sia: The Shadow And The Flame, but there’s noth­ing to rec­om­mend play­ing them here over else­where. Dredg­ing the bot­tom turns up some mi­nor sur­prises, such as Dark In­cur­sion (a Rolling Thun­der- alike ham­pered by stiff con­trols), a Dou­ble Dragon re­make trio, generic but fun ac­tion-RPG Soul­craft, and sev­eral Go­jii hid­den-ob­ject games. What’s miss­ing is much con­sole-chal­leng­ing en­ter­tain­ment – though the re­cent ad­di­tion of three Grand Theft Auto ti­tles ( III, Vice City and San An­dreas) is a hope­ful sign – or the sense that Ama­zon has suc­cess­fully courted the more am­bi­tious in­die de­vel­op­ers. There are cur­rently only a dozen ti­tles listed in Fire TV’s in­die cat­e­gory, in­clud­ing the quirky Quiet, Please, ac­tion-puz­zler CLARC and user-gen­er­ated melee bat­tler Bit Brawlers.

While Fire TV has mul­ti­player ca­pa­bil­ity, only one player can use the re­mote or con­troller to play on the screen, so oth­ers have to join in via smart­phone or tablet (An­droid or Kin­dle Fire, of course). This nar­row­ness sums up Fire TV’s lim­i­ta­tions as a gam­ing con­sole, al­though it still sur­passes its clos­est An­droid-backed fore­run­ner, Ouya, with more pow­er­ful hard­ware and a bet­ter con­troller. Still, it may also run aground un­less fu­ture games can com­pete for screen time with con­sole of­fer­ings. While it has de­cent me­dia-stream­ing func­tion­al­ity, as a pure gam­ing ma­chine it doesn’t make a con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment for people to es­sen­tially play mo­bile games that are avail­able else­where while stuck at home. The usual is­sues of trans­port­ing touch­screen me­chan­ics to a TV per­sist, so more am­bi­tious ti­tles that use the gamepad ex­clu­sively are the best way for­ward. Other­wise, Fire TV will re­main a mi­cro­con­sole for ca­sual gamers and cu­ri­ous Net­flix hoard­ers who don’t mind re­hashes and shov­el­ware, with lit­tle to boost it over its sim­i­larly priced com­peti­tors.

Fire TV’s store is full of older games, such as Can­a­balt and Deu­sEx: The Fall. But Ama­zon’s se­cre­tive de­vel­op­ment slate will have to im­press as much as its voice search does to drown out its liv­in­groom com­pe­ti­tion

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