I almost consider Cortana on Xbox One like an episodic Telltale game, or one in Early Access – she’s a work in progress, but you get a strong sense of what she could achieve.
It all started on 30th July, a day with just enough cloud that no-one needed to comment in the weather. And the internet was whooping/screaming/sighing about the new Xbox One update that brought a new-look store, background music to drown out the carefully crafted score of whatever game you’re playing, and Miss Cortana.
First my update was there. Then it wasn’t. Then…
Finally Mildred (what, you didn’t name your Xbox?) gave up playing hard to get and let me download the update and after what seemed to be six hours (15 minutes), it was on like a Nintendo game that sorta rhymes with ‘on’.
Now that it’s merged with Windows proper, the store looks pretty, in that girl-next-door way. And I can’t get background music yet because, in their infinite wisdom, Microsoft didn’t prep their Groove music app for it – I guess that’s what you call cohesive thinking. But I got Cortana, eventually.
Having problems getting Cortana to work? Try this trick.
I was pretty familiar with Cortana – I once saved her life in Halo 3, but we don’t talk about it – and I’ve ushered her in on my laptop and phone, where she’s a joy to use, when I remember she’s there. On the Xbox, though, I can’t forget her. She can do all the things she could in previous iterations, like remind you of shit you need to do and the opening times of your favourite restaurant, so I was looking forward to seeing her come on to the console, so I didn’t have to scream ‘Xbox, pause. Xbox, pause. XBOX, PAUSE!’ every time I’m watching Netflix and need to piss. I know, I’m lazy and I’m stubborn, so picking up the controller is like admitting defeat.
So how does Cortana run on Xbox One?
That lady is glorious. Sometimes. And frustrating. Often. She’s still learning, presumably trying to pick up my mumbles and translate them into real, actual words, but sometimes not even enunciating like an old-fashioned BBC broadcaster would get her to do my bidding.
It’s fun bouncing questions at her, and seeing if she has some witty retort (don’t ask her if she’s stupid). It’s easy to kill time having some fun seeing whether she has a ready-made response to some insane question like her favourite colour, or getting her to sing a song, tell a joke, talk about her top TV show and tell stories.
One of Cortana’s features, which she’ll remind you about almost constantly, is that you can now say what you see, meaning you can be a lot more casual and conversational when chatting to her. So rather than limiting yourself to oh-so-specific phrases, you can be a lot more general. ‘What’s xXKillSnipeAssassin69Xx up to right now?’ ‘Let’s check out my friends.’ ‘Open The Witcher.’ Navigating around apps like Netflix, or the Xbox dashboard is made a lot more fluid, and as a result, a lot more enjoyable.
But sometimes, I had to be a lot more precise – ‘what time is it?’ gave me your local time; ‘what’s the time?’ defined the word time. This need for precision proves disastrous when it cones to one of Cortana’s best aspects: Dictating messages. There’s barely enough tine to rattle out even a short sentence, before she rushes in like a poorly trained puppy, asking if I want to send, add more, start again or cancel. This severely slows down the process to the point where it’s usually swifter to type a message via the Xbox mobile app.
Occasionally, Cortana can be downright obtuse.
Case in point…
‘Hey, Cortana, turn off.’
‘You want to put the Xbox to sleep?’
[Yes appears on screen, but…]
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.’
…I repeated this multiple times. Multiple times, Cortana registered my confirmation, yet then claimed she didn’t catch it. Like I said, I’m a stubborn fuck, and after a good nine or ten times, she took the hint and turned off the console. But why show me the words I’ve literally seen the screen? Why did you lie to me, Cortana?
That wasn’t the only issue with speech. I don’t know how many times I said, ‘Start a party with Spaceman,’ only to be taken to Edge, where she searched ‘Displacement Party’ – don’t tell me you’ve never Googled Binged that phrase.
There’s also a quirky little issue when I asked what specific pals were up to. If they’re not online, Cortana will attempt a sentence along the lines of, ‘Your friend was last seen home 2H ago offline.’ Obviously she’s just reading out what the profile says, but the result is clunky and near-senseless. If someone said this to you in the street, you’d either run or punch them out of fright. Maybe both, with whiskey in you.
She has a nasty little character trait too, our Cortana. She takes her sweet time. Using the legacy commands was on par with getting spawn-killed in the joy stakes, but they were quick; Cortana can’t compete on speed.
Ok, she’s not Commander-Shepard-in-an-elevator slow, and she’s still a technological marvel, but she’s sluggish whether loading a game or taking a screenshot (I advise praying to your chosen deity that she heard you in time because the notification takes forever to pop). This is time-wasting breaks up the flow, and left me wishing that the controller wasn’t out of reach.
And yet, despite all that, I love having Cortana knocking about the place. She’s as charming and moderately helpful as your deaf, old Aunt Maud is. She does what I need, most of the time. She does what I want almost as often.
Cortana is an intriguing glimpse into the Microsoft’s end-goal. I’m gonna go ahead and side-step the Orwellian undertones, that’s a whole other
argument article. But I can imagine a more refined Cortana in every home someday, switching on lights, ordering my shopping and flushing my toilet. She’s the next step into our sci-fi future (flying cars and interstellar war next, guaranteed).
In the mean time, she’ll only be totally effective when you can command her to kill that fucking camper on the other side of the map.
For now, I’ll throw it a tentative 8/10.