November is certainly one of the best months this year for the gaming industry, not only with the sheer number of titles that are hitting store shelves before the Christmas rush but also Microsoft and Sony Computer Entertainment releasing their brand spanking new consoles the Xbox One and Playstation 4. While the case is reversed in North America, over here in Australia it was Microsoft that made the first move with the Xbox One launching just prior to the weekend and raking up more than one million global sales.
It has now been eight years since Microsoft first launched their Xbox 360 console, which like its counterparts was bulky in design and had its capabilities tested over its lifetime. Bringing full-body motion gaming and avatar integration to the mainstream market, the number of accolades it holds are numerous… but all good things must come to end, and Microsoft’s Xbox One has set them up to be more than capable to handle the oncoming years of bigger and hopefully better gaming.
While it is not possible for me to fully review the console until compared against its key competitor in the market, this is my tentative review – looking at the user experience delivered by the system itself. Does it achieve a perfect merger of multimedia and gaming that they strived to achieve? Is the user interface easy to pick up? Does it limit itself by locking too many features to Xbox Gold members? This and more is the target of my review.
1. The Design
While not a major talking point when it comes to the system itself, as someone who likes to proudly display my consoles, I always desire something that looks nice. The best words to describe the Xbox One is “Simple but Sleek”, in comparison to the “Xbox360” which I considered quite bulky – even if its design did shrink in the latter years.
The Xbox One has been designed to perfectly sit horizontally, and features a simple two-tone design that I felt allowed it to blend in to (in my case) its darker surroundings while looking modern, instead of the more elaborate console designs we have seen from the past few generations. It’s short stature also means that you should be able to fit it under one side of a reasonably sized television if space is an issue. For the purpose of this review I didn’t stand the console vertically, as unlike its predecessor it felt unstable in that position.
Those who complained about the lack of ventilation on the Xbox 360, should be glad to hear that the Xbox One is jam packed with it, not only with sizable vents on both sides but also a grill taking up half the top containing an extra large fan. The Xbox One remained relatively quiet during my play tests, and is good to see that they have tackled this last-generation issue head on.
An issue I did have with the design was the lack of frontal USB ports. with there only being a single USB port on the side and two at the back. It is a minor issue at this moment, but may save users from a bit of strife when having to move the Xbox One to plug a new peripheral into the back of it down the track. On a more positive note, the controller sync button is conveniently nestled just to the side of the blu-ray disc drive, and both this button and the disc eject button only require the minutest touch to respond.
2. The “New” Xbox One Controller
While there are some perks with sticking with batteries, I was surprised to hear that Microsoft chose to stick with giving the option of going with either batteries or rechargeable controllers… especially considering they only throw in a complementary battery-powered controller with the console. But fortunately, rather than the big bulky box sticking out from the back of the Xbox360 controller, the Xbox One goes with hiding the battery slot at the back of the controller instead of separately. The batteries don’t nestle in the slots as well, but all-in-all, it was just a surprising decision to me.
While boasting more than “40 technical designs and innovations”, aside from a brief aesthetics change the Xbox One controller looks almost identical to its counterpart. Some of these small changes include the D-Pad being in the design of a cross rather than circular, greater rumble capabilities, smaller thumbsticks and proper integration with the Kinect through infrared LED’s at the top of the controller. The Xbox button is also less intrusive, and less prone to being hit when frantically scrambling for the start / select buttons.
There wasn’t much noticeable difference in weight and it felt pretty much the same in my hands. There is little I thought to warrant not including Xbox 360 controller support, even if missing the few notable new features.
3. Kinect 2.0
While only being on the market for a couple of years now, the Kinect system entered with the ambition of bringing full-body motion gaming to a wide audience, and while doing so failed to, in my opinion, ignite interest outside of the casual gamer. While the Kinect launch line-up was pretty average so far and will require more time to fully shine or fail, there is potential as shown from its capabilities even through the UI.
My biggest frustration with the Kinect system on the Xbox 360 was that even after much calibrating and providing facial examples, it never managed to recognize me when trying to log in. After a single face association on the Xbox One, the console has been able to recognize my face every time without fail. The quality is also a lot better, and should make for much better integration with Skype and other apps that use the device.
The device once again also features voice commands, and despite still struggling with certain commands (or my voice), seemed to work pretty well post of the time. While in my opinion it is no replacement for using the controller, it goes well with new features such as game recording rather than trudging through menu options while what you want to record is happening right there and now.
4. The Xbox One User Interface
One of the most exciting features from the last generation of consoles was to take a new console home, open and set it up (After struggling half an hour with the packaging) and dive right into checking out every nook and cranny of the user interface. My initial reaction with the Xbox One was disappointment, as for the most part its design is highly reminiscent of the Xbox 360 but also the Windows 8 OS and Windows Mobile devices. But while simple, it is also very innovative and easy to grasp provided you take the time to familiarize yourself with its many facets.
The entire user interface is comprised of tiles, each representing a specific game, application or setting. The main screen consists of the hub pictured above, which includes your profile, most commonly used apps and links to “Snap an App”, your entire game collection and what is directly on an inserted disc. The big tile in the top middle highlights the currently active or most recently used title, and allows you quick access to whatever it displays – rather than before when pressing the Xbox button in-game simply showed you a dumbed down menu.
While the UI does allow you to pin specific items you are fond with on the main screen, I feel like there could have been a better organizing system than the “My Collection” tab which merges pretty much everything on the console in a single menu.
While I can envision some potential long-term issues such as lag later down the track when the Xbox One Store begins rapidly filling with content on a weekly basis, it is currently very approachable with lots of large imagery and easy to access search tools. But my favourite feature overall was finally being able to use QR codes held up against the Kinect to not only potentially find a title but also claim a purchased title. What would you prefer – claim a 25-character code for your bonus DLC or scan in a simple QR code? If you can search for a game using QR codes (Which I haven’t personally tried), I could see QR codes being sighted a lot at indie developer areas of events such as the EB Games Expo.
It also makes me wonder if this is just a means of getting retailers to be less hesitant of the shift to downloadable gaming, given that they could potentially sell these QR codes in-store.
The “Snap an App” feature is one of the most innovative UI enhancements of the Xbox One. It allows you to sacrifice as small portion of your screen to have a second app running while you are playing a game or watching TV. In this instance, you could potentially run / keep an eye on your Game DVR or party recruitment while comfortably enjoying whatever else you are doing. Some of the apps were useless, but I look forward to seeing future apps developed and tailored specifically for this functionality.
While no improvements were made to earlier Xbox 360 console achievements you may have earned, the Achievements system received an overhaul with the introduction of featured “timed” challenges, nicer screenshot achievement pictures and tracking of a number of in-game records from game time to (for example) the number of zombies killed in Dead Rising 3. The achievement and trophy systems of Xbox and Playstation consoles have copped some flack in recent years for showing little in terms of actual in-game achievement, therefore keeping track of in-game values without a direct link to an achievement in addition to the occasional challenges should provide more potential for the system.
One feature that Microsoft seemed conservative about promoting when discussing the Xbox One was the re-inclusion of Avatars that were originally introduced as part of the massive 2008 “New Xbox Experience” update. The good news is that the avatars are back, although their role in the user interface is minimal – aside from being included as your Gamerpic. The Avatar system has received a small overhaul and looks nicer, but aside from allowing full-body gamerpics doesn’t reinvent the system by any means.
Another nice feature is the overhaul of the Xbox Live friends system. You are now given access to your own, and friends game activity feeds which can provide information and access to their achievements, in-game updates, shared recordings and more. You don’t even need to be friends with someone to see select information, introducing a new followers system which allows you to follow anyone elses activities without needed to be buddies.
5. Apps and Entertainment on the Xbox One
I was pleasantly surprised to see that on the day of the console’s launch there was already a number of apps tailored towards the Australian market, in addition to Aussies not missing out on at least some of the internationally available apps. These entertainment apps include Network Ten’s Tenplay, SBS on Demand, Machinima and a number of other local and global services. The value of these of course hinge on the publishers maintaining these apps with new content, which given their history should not be an issue. I for one look forward to checking in regularly to check out more presentations on the TED app. Unfortunately with Youtube being such a major entertainment entity, it seemed to be having a few launch jitters and has refused to run for me to date. However, having a Youtube app at launch is a must for any gaming console, and it was good to see that they have a dedicated app for it.
When you think “Entertainment”, you are left thinking about films and television series from DVD or Blu-ray. The downloadable blu-ray player app worked like a charm with no hiccups, although my hopes of having a region free DVD and Blu-ray player out of the box were dashed when it refused to play my North American DVD and Blu-ray copes of anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day. Seems like I will still be resorting to my computer for titles like that.
While if you have an Xbox Live Gold account you can ignore this paragraph, but if you do intend only retaining a Silver membership, there will once again be a number of limitations imposed upon you. Skype, Internet Explorer and pretty much every non-paid routine in Xbox Fitness among other things will be unavailable to you. Given Microsoft acquired Skype in 2011, I was hoping that Microsoft may have dropped the Gold membership requirement to take advantage of such a rich resource given the enhanced Kinect camera and the program being freely available on the PC. From my experience however, all three apps mentioned above were well incorporated into the Xbox One system – and can be taken advantage of through a complementary Xbox Live Gold membership trial in the box.
One of the broadly promoted features of the Xbox One is its Game DVR and Upload Studio functionality, allowing you to acquire 30 seconds of in-game footage through voice command and up to five minutes of gameplay through the Game DVR app. These can then be edited through the simple features present in the Upload Studio then shared through SkyDrive, Youtube etc. Unfortunately Twitch support is currently missing, although hopefully given the popularity of game streaming this will come sooner rather than later. This is especially considering their competitor recently drew in some addition with one gamer forming a call-in talk-show using an augmented reality app and Twitch.
6. The “Getting Started” Experience
I have no issue with Day One patches, and understand that this allows the development team to push the consoles out to production sooner while giving them a vital few weeks or months to work on enhancing the game experience. While the Wii U drew some flack for having a frustratingly long patch time, the 500ish MB Day One patch for the Xbox One was over and done with in a matter of 15-20 minutes. That being said, I warn everyone to make sure their update is running before switching over, as the patching process for me took two hours longer because the console had crashed before the patching even began. This patch is obligatory, and the console will be inaccessible until you connect to the internet and download it.
After all those events, setting up primarily consisted of setting up the first gamertag, Kinect calibration and then giving you free reign to jump into a game.
7. Launch Titles
You should never judge about what a console is going to be like from its launch titles alone, and while I won’t be naming any individual titles, the launch range for the Xbox One from first impressions feels a bit more diverse than the one provided by Sony Computer Entertainment for the Playstation 4. These range from multiplatform releases such as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts to a range of exclusive launch titles including Dead Rising 3 and Forza Motorsport 5.
An issue I have heard pop up in discussions occasionally about the Xbox One however is that unless you picked up the launch FIFA 14 pack and actually enjoy Soccer Games, the Xbox One doesn’t come with any free, bonus games whereas the Playstation 4 at least comes with a free 14-day Playstation Plus membership that includes two PS4 games (Xbox Gold Members are set to receive monthly free Xbox One games from sometime in 2014). A simple, complementary game that embraces the Xbox One’s Kinect functionality while embracing an all-ages audience would have been a fantastic addition to every console purchase, and is something that Nintendo has done well with for both the Wii (Wii Sports) and the Wii U (Nintendo Land) in the past.
Final Verdict on the Xbox One
Usually this is the part of a review where someone such as myself would usually provide a brief blurb on the console and then give it a score out of 10, 5-stars or some other deviation of the standard review score. I won’t be as in the end – everything that has been discussed above may very well only remain valid for a few months or even weeks into launch as new titles are released to take advantage of everything the Xbox One has to offer. So instead, I will end with this:
When it was first announced back in May 2013, the Xbox One was initially met with mixed reception, and during its development process had several of its features edited to appeal to what the current market wanted at the time. While we may never know if these edits resulted in a lesser or greater console, the Xbox One seems to be on the right track to achieve what Microsoft originally set out to do – produce a console that is not only about video games but other entertainment experiences.
Over a million purchases in the first days is a healthy start for the Xbox One, now we just have to hope that developers and consumers alike continue embrace the system.