The other shoe has dropped. And the game is truly on.
Friday marks the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One, the company’s next-generation successor to the Xbox 360 video game console. This comes one week to the day after Sony unleashed its own PlayStation 4 upon the world, kicking off a brand new battle in the console wars.
We’ve spent the last five days becoming intimately acquainted with Xbox One, from its emphasis on all-around entertainment to its desire to finally make you love the Kinect sensor, which is included with each console.
While it’s impossible to share every nugget of information or every facet of the Xbox One experience, here’s a look of what’s going inside that mysterious black box, and what to expect if you plan to jump in.
The Xbox One is physically the largest of the new generation of game consoles, but not by as much as you might expect – the unit looks bigger in pictures than it feels in the hand. (The Michael Scott in us wants to add, “That’s what she said,” but we will resist.) One downside, for those of us who like our consoles arranged in aesthetically pleasing vertical columns, is the Xbox One can’t be stood up on its side – it must lie horizontally.
The industrial design of the Xbox One is a bit utilitarian, but it presents a very clean face, with only the softly glowing power button and the disc drive slot on its half-matte, half-glossy front. One USB port is found on the left side of the machine near the front, the rest of the ports are on the console’s somewhat unsightly butt.
The Xbox One also sports a significant external power brick – something not found on the PS4 – although this could be one reason why the machine’s fan is a bit quieter than the PS4’s when playing processor-intensive games.
Setting the Xbox One up is relatively simple, but there are a few caveats to be aware of. For starters, the newly designed Kinect sensor needs to sit somewhere where it can “see” the room – Microsoft recommends placing it above your television set, if your arrangement will support that, but below the TV seems to work fine. And if you want to take advantage of the Xbox One’s live TV features, you’ll need to connect an HDMI cable between your set-top box and the Xbox One, and another between the Xbox One and your TV or A/V receiver. We’ll talk more about the TV functions in just a moment.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Xbox One requires a broadband Internet connection during setup, either wired or wireless. We repeat: You can’t use the Xbox One straight out of the box without going online with it during the setup process and downloading a fairly significant update. It doesn’t have to remain connected to the Internet after that, although many of the Xbox One’s secondary features do require an active Internet connection.
The Xbox 360 has what is possibly the single best game controller ever made, and the Xbox One controller doesn’t mess significantly with that design. There are several welcome new tweaks, such as textured rubber rings around the edges of the extremely responsive thumbsticks, and redesigned triggers with built-in vibration motors. The directional pad has been significantly improved, and an infrared transmitter on the front of the controller allows it to communicate with the Kinect camera.
In our wildly subjective opinion, the Xbox One controller feels better in the hand than the new DualShock 4 controller for the PS4, although Sony’s controller is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and has some unique bells and whistles that the Xbox One gamepad lacks, including a clickable touchpad and motion-sensing gyroscopes.
The included Kinect sensor is the main reason the $499 Xbox One costs $100 more than the PS4, and this is likely to remain a point of contention among some fans. The redesigned Kinect is definitely more sensitive and accurate than the Xbox 360 version of the device, and in games that make clever use of it, such as Zoo Tycoon and Kinect Sports Rivals, it’s easy to see those improvements.
But even though Kinect can be disconnected from the Xbox One, a very large part of the Xbox experience is built around it. It’s too early to say if Kinect will gain traction among so-called core gamers in this console generation, but it’s like a mother-in-law: whether you want it or not, it’s always going to be hanging around. So you might as well try to get used to it, or maybe even like it.
Microsoft very much wants you to use Kinect voice commands to navigate the Xbox One menus, and some functions are actually more easily activated using voice than by digging through menus with button presses. Whether you find talking to your game console to be a cool sci-fi trip or a constant pain in the butt depends on your outlook.
Despite the improvements made to the new Kinect, using hand gestures to select things in the on-screen menu is exactly as ungainly and annoying it was with Xbox 360. Until we reach that Minority Report future, stick to voice commands, which, while not flawless, are definitely more consistent.
If you’re not a fan of Windows 8 and its ham-fisted, hand-holdy approach, prepare to cringe – the Xbox One has fully joined the Windows family, and at first glance you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Xbox One’s menu screen and a Windows 8 tablet or PC.
Going from the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One feels a bit like moving into a new house – it takes a while to figure out where everything is and to stop opening the linen closet door when you actually wanted the bathroom. One of the most novel new features of the Xbox One is Snap, which lets you play a game, watch a movie, browse the Internet and so on while having a second app “snapped” in a vertical window that takes up about 1/4 of the screen. It feels a bit like a gimmick that no one asked for in a game console, but it can have practical uses, such as playing a game in the main window while having Internet Explorer open to a FAQ in the other, or, if you’re really rude, being on a Skype video call while watching Netflix in a second window. Not all apps support Snap, but it works well with those that do.
Judging a console by its launch games is like judging a human being by the first steps it takes as a baby. That said, the lineup of launch games for Xbox One is reasonably robust, and covers a lot of ground – there are mature action games (Dead Rising 3, Ryse: Son of Rome), family-friendly games (Zoo Tycoon, Kinect Sports Rivals), a solid fighting game (Killer Instinct), an excellent driving game (Forza Motorsport 5) and so on.
There’s been some talk that third-party games look better on the PS4 than the Xbox One, and that some – including Call of Duty: Ghosts – actually display at a higher resolution on the PS4. Whether this will persist over time remains to be seen, but right now the PS4 does appear to enjoy a slight edge over Xbox One in terms of raw visual horsepower, even if it might take keen eyes to notice it.
Like the PS4, Xbox One fully installs all disc-based games to the console’s 500 GB hard drive, although with most games it’s possible to begin playing before the installation process is complete.
Both the PS4 and Xbox One are embracing the idea that gamers love to share their exploits with friends and followers, but Xbox One offers significantly more freedom in that regard. The console’s built-in Game DVR app can be used to manually record clips of up to five minutes in length, or to edit the previous five minutes of gameplay, which it automatically captures. (Simply saying, “Xbox, record that” grabs the last 30 seconds of gameplay and saves it as a clip with no further action needed.)
Once a clip has been saved, players can use the Xbox One’s Upload Studio app to trim the clip, splice clips together or add voiceover or even picture-in-picture commentary via Kinect. It’s really easy and kind of fun, and edited clips can be shared with friends via Xbox Live and/or uploaded to SkyDrive, Microsoft’s free cloud-based storage service. From there, clips can be viewed in any browser, shared via social media or simply downloaded as a video file for further tinkering. (Check out this clip from Dead Rising 3.)
One thing Xbox One can’t yet do is stream live gameplay to the popular Twitch TV online service. This feature, which currently exists on the PS4, is slated to come sometime in the first half of 2014.
The Xbox One’s very name refers to its raison d’etre – it’s an all-in-one entertainment box. It plays Blu-ray movies, allows you to buy or rent films and TV shows and includes streaming services such as Netflix and NHL GameCenter, most of which we’ve became accustomed to on the Xbox 360 and other consoles.
The Xbox One also lets users connect their cable or satellite set-top box to the console, and acts as a go-between of sorts for your live TV viewing. It’s kind of cool to be able to simply pop into your regular live TV at any time from the Xbox One menu, and it’s easy to set up the Xbox One to turn on your TV and your A/V receiver when you say, “Xbox, on.” You can even control the volume of your TV or receiver with voice commands – saying, “Xbox, mute” instead of fumbling for a remote is kind of handy.
The downside is that right now the Xbox TV experience in Canada is limited. The console’s OneGuide feature isn’t available here yet, which means Canadians can’t access channel and programming information on Xbox One, nor can we take advantage of cool features like saying, “Xbox, go to channel 500” or “Xbox, watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” These features are coming, but there’s no word on exactly when.
It’s impossible to pass judgment on a new game console at launch, especially when we look back at how much the Xbox 360 has evolved over the eight years it’s been available. Xbox One has some big ideas and big ambitions, and is introducing some intriguing new connected experiences that go far beyond just playing games. But change isn’t always easy or painless, and some will certainly resist it.
Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer, and the options for enjoying our digital diversions are nearly as limitless as the games themselves. Whatever flavour of gaming you prefer, it’s going to be one hell of an exciting decade.