Microsoft’s next generation Xbox One console promises next-generation gaming and entertainment experiences, but not everyone should buy a console on day one.
Xbox One: On the plus side
Microsoft arguably rushed into its second generation console, the Xbox 360, leaving the Xbox behind as something of a curious and bulky relic. This isn’t a mistake it’s made with the Xbox One, having given the Xbox 360 a very solid number of years as its primary console. The Xbox One replaces the Xbox 360 as of the 22nd of November 2013 with all new internal components capable of dizzying arrays of…
You know what?
That doesn’t really matter.
I could waffle on about the processor speeds, polygon counts and screen modes until you collapsed in a pile of fannish drool, and it wouldn’t actually change what the modern console is about.
What it’s actually about is experiences, and here there’s a lot of experiential promise inherent in the Xbox One.
For a start, the cleaned up dashboard, which features two simple side screens — one for the store that sells games, music, videos and apps, the other for your pinned applications. It’s a very simple and streamlined approach, and a lot better and more responsive than the cluttered mess that the Xbox 360 dash eventually became. It’s a sign that lessons have been learned in terms of good user interface design, because for the most part the Xbox One UI just gets out of the way.
The controller has also been given a smooth makeover. It’s lighter, and yet somehow feels more robust than the Xbox 360 controller. Given the Xbox 360 controller was generally cited as the best of its generation — a statement I’d agree with, for what that’s worth — a refinement here and there was all that was needed.
Kinect is now a standard part of the Xbox One experience, and it’s a great deal more accurate. Once I’d trained it — which does take a few login sessions — to detect me, it would flick up a cheery welcome every time I walked in front of it. It’s happier — to an extent — with you being a bit closer to it for those with smaller living rooms, as well.
Microsoft’s pitching the Xbox One as your “all-in” home entertainment box. To that end, it has a dedicated TV application that takes a feed from any HDMI source plugged into what is essentially an HDMI passthrough on the Xbox One itself. The idea is that you’ll use it and EPG data to control your television viewing habits, leaving the Xbox One on all the time as you do so. It works — but I have my concerns, which I’ll address below. There’s more of a focus on additional functions other than games, including Skype, because that’s now a Microsoft brand.
What about the games? I’ve already given my early thoughts on Dead Rising 3 and a more rounded view of Powerstar Golf; there are still a few other game reviews from first and third parties that I have to power through, and some I’m not technically allowed to talk about just yet.
Overall, as launch packages go, Microsoft’s ticked all the big boxes. There’s a fighting game. There’s a racing game. There’s are multiple military shooters, albeit ones that you can get for the Xbox 360 or PS3 anyway. There’s a game where you feed oranges to Giraffes for some reason. It’s solid stuff, and while there will almost inevitably be a bit of a “new console drought” period post launch, there’s a little bit of something here for everybody.
I should note that part of having early access to a console has meant that certain features, such as the Game PVR, or the expanded friends/followers list weren’t yet fully functional. They exist, like everything else on the Xbox One as apps, but I can’t pass comment on them right now.
Xbox One: On the minus side
Online has played an increasing role in the console game for the past couple of generations, but with the Xbox One, you’re going to want to have a decent speed data pipe and a suitably large download quota at your disposal.
I’ve got to qualify that statement somewhat, simply because in having early access to an Xbox One console, Microsoft also indicated that they might be sending out some patches that won’t apply to day one Xbox One customers.
I’m not exactly sure how that’ll work, given that logically stock must be in warehouses at the very least by now, but even if I assume that half the download patches and updates I’ve had won’t be needed for consumer users, you’re still going to need a lot of data at hand. You’ll need some just for core functions. Blu-Ray playback is a feature of the Xbox One, but it’s an app, just like any other, and one that you’ll have to download before you watch your first disc.
You’ll also need a little patience. I’m yet to hit a game that doesn’t require a lengthy install, and while you can start playing games while they’re installing, it’s a different kind of experience to simply slipping in a disc or popping in a cartridge. First time users will have to wait to play games, seemingly every single time.
Kinect has been improved without a shadow of a doubt, but it’s still just Kinect, for better or worse. That invites two problems. Firstly, there’s the aspect of what happens when it doesn’t work, and you’re left shouting “Xbox Watch TV” at it over and over again. It’s noisy, but it’s not terribly effective, and it is annoying.
Then there’s the aspect of actually integrating it into games. That’s something of a mixed matter at the moment. As I noted in my Dead Rising 3 hands-on, it doesn’t seem to work terribly well there. My kids already love Zoo Tycoon, which also uses Kinect gestures for tasks such as animal feeding and washing, but playing that game you could be forgiven for thinking you were playing a game on the Xbox 360 based on how well it detected my motions.
In the end, the button scheme worked every time, and that’s where Kinect really needs to be. It’s improved — but it’s not quite there yet, and at the same time, developers need to sort out experiences that make Kinect actually worthwhile for games. Waggling has been done — we need more.
TV entertainment is a big focus for Microsoft, but the reality for the Australian user is that what we’ll be getting is distinctly second best. There’s no Netflix — there’s not even Foxtel or ABC iView at launch — and I can’t comment on the EPG, because it doesn’t actually work just yet.
On the topic of things not working, the first TV source I tried to feed into the Xbox One was a FetchTV PVR. The Xbox One detected a TV signal, tried to set it up, dropped it, detected it, dropped it, detected it again, dropped it again, detected it again, dropped it again,detected it again, dropped it again… you get the picture.
I let it sit and try to work it out for about ten minutes before giving up. Plugging in an Australian TiVO box (yep, I’m one of the three people in the country who still have one of those) worked just fine. It’s a bit of a roll of the dice, in other words, and it’s a roll of the dice that, right now, doesn’t exactly feel like it’s worth it. There’s small convenience in being able to flick between TV and games, and you can snap certain apps to the side of your TV screen, but right now the utility is still quite limited, and you’re essentially paying for the extra power needed to run the Xbox One in order to watch TV programs that you could already watch anyway.
I also hit a very odd hardware glitch from time to time when plugging in the Xbox One to a TV through an HDMI switch. Sometimes on boot it would decide it could only handle the lowest possible resolution. I think it was 480×240, but I’m not entirely sure, because the onscreen text was so terrible as to be unreadable. The problem didn’t occur on direct HDMI connection, so it could be a mismatch between the switch and the Xbox One, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you are using an HDMI switch to connect up multiple consoles.
In the “minor niggles” column, while the new controller is a nice improvement in most respects, the one thing Microsoft’s done that I don’t like is use slightly smoother plastic on the body. This gives it less grip than the standard Xbox 360 controller, which means it slips across surfaces a little more when you put it down.
Also in the minor niggles space, every time I look at the Xbox One’s design, I start thinking about grilling sausages. Maybe that’s just me.
Xbox One: Pricing
The Xbox One RRP in Australia is $599.
Xbox One: Fat Duck verdict
All over the planet as I write this, debate rages furiously on gaming forums between those who have staked their flags in the Microsoft or Sony camps.
Actually, now that I think of it, there are far more camps than that. For the sake of not igniting argument, could you pretend as though I added PC/Nintendo/Apple/Android/Retro to that sentence?
(and with that, the hardcore Go players threw down their pieces and lunged at me, screaming “ATARI!” as they did so)
In any case, there are those who stay devoted to a single brand, either to justify their purchase to themselves, or because they’ve chosen a “team”, or because they lack the emotional maturity to admit there can be other options, or… actually, I really don’t know. I’ve never really understood that kind of fanaticism myself, although it’s all over the Internet.
Anyway, I can’t write a conclusion for those kinds of people, because they’ve already made up their minds.
What if you’re a more regular gamer, or someone who has yet to place down money for a console?
The issue there is that consoles are designed for lengthy lifespans, and you don’t get everything out of them on day one. There’s a lot of potential in the Xbox One, and there are certain things, like the improved dashboard that show a lot of that promise early on.
Writing a review of a console on day one is rather like reviewing the first half hour of a movie. You can see where some of the beats might be going, and you might be able to appreciate the gist, but you can’t genuinely make a statement that’ll cover every possibility.
It’s been mooted that Microsoft might sell off the Xbox division. What happens then? Sony could go bankrupt. What happens then? Apple’s slow march into mobile gaming could pick up and leave everyone in the dust, or Nintendo might release a Wii U 2 that captures every other developer’s imagination, leaving the Xbox One a relic alongside, say, the Atari Jaguar. The future’s not ours to see, and all that.
(Side bet: The global embargo on Xbox One reviews must have lifted, because you’re reading this. I’m willing to bet this is the only review with embedded Doris Day in it.)
All I can do is assess what it can do right now.
On the general entertainment front, it’s much more a play towards potential that could be realised rather than something that’s definitely good or bad. If that’s your interest, though, you certainly shouldn’t rush in.
On the games front, the launch games are good, but that’s all they are.
Good, but not great, and not quite edging towards the “killer app” status that sells systems by the million.
My general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t buy a console until you can get at least six games on that platform that you would want to but can’t otherwise play. The Xbox One isn’t there yet. The PS4 won’t be there yet either, to keep it balanced. There are a few standout titles, but you’d be paying a serious premium to play them right now.