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Apple TV Gaming: A Work In Progress
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Apple TV Gaming: A Work In Progress

The refreshed Apple TV promises to bring iOS gaming to your home screen; how does it measure up?

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Christmas is coming up! It’s time to release tons of gadgets so everyone can ask Santa for them; the jolly old elf will work his employees to the bone to produce all this high-tech nonsense. Apple’s got quite the spread of goodies this year. We’ve got a fancy new iPhone, a stupidly huge new iPad and the subject of today’s discussion, the fancy new fourth-generation Apple TV.

The Apple TV is, well…it’s another set-top box in a market that’s been flooded by set-top boxes for a matter of years now. It’s got an HDMI output, WiFi and Ethernet capabilities, a butt-kicking 64-bit A8 chip and a complete lack of expandable storage and 4K streaming capability. It does all the things an HTPC does, but does them slightly worse and offers less usability along with a nice, safe locked-down ecosystem to keep naughty users from installing anything Daddy Apple might not like. Pretty standard so far.

Really, though, the largest potential draw here is the Apple TV’s ability to access the App Store and associated ecosystem. Apps can be developed specifically for the Apple TV, making use of its improved specs and the larger screen it’s typically connected to. App support is without a doubt what’s going to make or break the latest Apple TV, as the device is otherwise just another set top box with a gimmicky remote, a few neat quirks and an Apple logo on it. Specifically, we’re interested in the nod that Apple’s given to gaming on the Apple TV.

I’d love to tell you all about the top apps on the device and what you should absolutely download right this second, but, well…the Apple TV doesn’t seem to want me to know about them. The App Store on the Apple TV is a poorly populated mess at the moment. We recently looked at the Nvidia Shield TV, which at the time I felt was your best option if you had to get a set-top box that played games. It still is; the Apple TV certainly has some potential as a gaming device thanks to that beefy A8 processor, but the fairly slim selection of games (right now) combined with its heavily secured ecosystem and difficulty in finding anything you’d want to play means that the Shield TV has infinitely more content available for gamers in the set-top box wars.

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That’s not to say the games we’ve got available right now are bad, but you’ve probably seen – and played them – before and elsewhere. Supergiant’s Transistor runs fairly well, though disappointingly it doesn’t do so at a perfectly consistent framerate. Pixelbite’s Xenowerk has an Apple TV port that plays much like its mobile cousin. Rayman Adventure is the latest in Ubisoft’s endless runner spin-off for the four or five people who aren’t tired of those yet; it’s very pretty and runs well, but it’s also a bit buggy and will often crash when you’re switching to a map screen. Evil Kneivel is a Trials clone with a striking visual style that’s probably one of the better options on the device.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch is as hilarious as ever, but we played it a few years ago. Guitar Hero Live is shockingly acceptable if you shell out for a guitar controller and still pretty decent otherwise; it’s on par with the console versions of the game.

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The device’s headlining game and the one Apple TV-exclusive app I’ve tried is Beat Sports from Tilting Point, by way of Harmonix, which deserves its own paragraph. Essentially, this is just Wii Sports with rhythm game elements; you’ll wave the remote about or swipe on its touchscreen to hit tennis balls, feed aliens and score home runs. Had the Apple TV made it onto the market before the Wii – which would have required some pretty nifty time-travel – this might have shaken up the gaming landscape significantly. As it stands, it’s a good time that’s worth the money but certainly not a title that will sell the device.

Given their predilection for reviewing their own games lately, Harmonix would probably claim Beat Sports is 2015’s Game of the Year, 5/5 stars, blah, blah. Personally, I’d give it a solid B rating (or in Popzara Parlance a “YAY”). It might get its own review later; we might even ask Harmonix if they’d like to write it for us!

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The killer here is that these are largely mobile games. Just like every other time a set top box has tried this, we are again faced with the question of why you’d want to play phone and tablet games on your television, especially ones designed for touchscreens. Frankly, you probably wouldn’t. If you’re at all serious about making this thing work as a gaming system then adding something like the SteelSeries Nimbus Wireless Controller is impressive if you’re willing to drop a little coin ($50 – reasonable for a high-quality controller).

Oh, a couple other quirks bear mention: first, for whatever reason, the Apple TV absolutely loves to continue downloading games after they’ve ostensibly already downloaded. Expect painfully long downloads and installs over WiFi, to the point where you might want an Ethernet cable if you plan on doing a lot of gaming. Second, only one Siri Remote can be connected to the device at a time. Yes, that means that despite the fact that the headlining game here is essentially a Wii Sports-like experience, you’re incapable of playing with multiple remotes. That’s brilliant planning.

This is dragging on a bit, so let’s cut to the chase. Should you get the new Apple TV if you’re primarily focused on gaming? Well…that depends. The game selection is thin. If you buy this thing intending to game on it, then you’re paying for the promise that it will garner the sort of app support it needs to stand out; it’s certainly got the horsepower to make this work, but the games have to exist first. You also need to be cool with the Apple brand and the Big Brother-esque ecosystem it entails, along with an insulting lack of expandable storage which may eventually cause issues if this thing does develop a following.

Really, the problem is that it’s entering a market clogged with so much competition that can do so many things it can’t; in particular, the Shield TV has already seen a $150 sale in the wake of the ATV’s launch and boasts expandable storage, 4K support and an entirely superior gaming experience. Decisions, decisions!

Bottom line: I can’t say that the Apple TV is a bad choice for gaming, but it certainly doesn’t distinguish itself as the best choice, especially if you’re only interested in it for gaming. Perhaps that will change in the future. We’ll have to wait and see if it does.

About the Author: Cory Galliher