Xbox One Review
Many have declared the Nintendo Wii as the most successful console of the last generation, citing the number of consoles sold as the sole measure of success. But when you look at an entire console ecosystem including game and accessory sales, advertising revenue, and overall mindshare among those who are (or will become) lifelong gamers, it's pretty clear that Xbox 360 was the most successful console of the last generation. Microsoft found themselves in a tough spot, though, as we've found that in the console wars, no one stays king for long. Their vision for Xbox One was to continue their move towards living room domination by making their console the "One" destination for living room entertainment. They've definitely taken some missteps along the way, but it's not nearly the disaster that some gamers will try and have you believe. The Xbox One is ambitious and gamers will wind up paying the price to buy into Microsoft's Kool-Aid without getting too terribly much in return (or at least, not anytime soon), but it's still a powerful, capable console with some great games now and coming soon.
Few will disagree that Microsoft's announcement of the Xbox One was disastrous in multiple ways, but the biggest one was how Microsoft attempted to change how we buy, play, share, and sell our games. Throughout their misguided attempts to bring all-digital gaming to the masses, Microsoft made big mistakes in their delivery of their message and in the removal of choice on the gamer's end of the equation. Sure, they offered some cool perks like family sharing and an entire digital game library that moves with you to any Xbox One you play on, but the removal of "Disc in hand equals game ownership" status as well as the attachment of restrictive policies wound up killing nearly all of the good vibes that could have come out of it. Microsoft later reversed their positions and what we got instead is an Xbox One that's similar to the Xbox 360 as gamers' rights and privileges go, but many gamers still remember what Microsoft tried and they won't be forgetting that anytime soon. Now, Microsoft's job is to put all of this silliness behind them and just make and sell the best games they can, because everything else (including the sales of the consoles) will follow.
The Xbox One is a rather large console, nearing the OG Xbox in overall size - and probably exceeding it once you factor in the sizable power brick, which the original 2001 Xbox didn't have as its power circuitry was inside the main case. Here, that power supply is separate, and while that's seen as a big problem by some, there is one upside: if the power supply dies, it's cheaper and easier to replace. Consoles with internal power supplies that have died must be replaced entirely.
Beyond that, the console is big and squarish, with a couple of different textures and surface types - some of which are hiding a copious amount of vents. As big as the console is, I have to admit that it's whisper-quiet and cool to the touch on the front and sides, even after hours of use. It certainly isn't pretty and it's much bigger than its main competition, but I think those will prove to be small negatives in the grand scheme.
Most gamers seemed to consider the Xbox 360 controller the best one of the last console generation, with possibly the only real black mark on it being the sub-par D-pad. Now, the D-pad is much improved with less travel and a better "click" to you pushing a direction, the sticks are smaller and tighter, the size has been tweaked just so, the batteries don't sit on a bulky pack on the back, and there are rumble motors built into the triggers themselves. It's a great controller and I do like that it uses AA batteries rather than a non-user-replaceable Lithium battery. Buy one 4-pack of rechargeable batteries and keep a little charger nearby and you don't have to ever worry about having to connect a USB cable in the middle of a gaming session like you'd have to do with the PS4. Just swap the dead batteries with the ones from your little charger and you get to stay completely wireless.
Clearly, MS stuck closer to their original controller design than any of their competition this generation, but just think of all the feedback you've ever had with the 360 controller - why would they really change things when this basic design was so successful? Sure, unlike Sony's design there are no lights or touchpads, but I'm not convinced that those features will ever really go anywhere regardless.
Microsoft made the bold decision early to pack its new, more accurate Kinect in with every Xbox One. This is seen by some as a positive because of the potentially larger install base that'll come over the years, but for core gamers like me, I saw it as an added expense that I won't likely make much use of, no matter how many games come out that ask me to dance or gyrate around. It's the same as I felt with the original Kinect on 360, which only got about 20 hours' total usage in my house among multiple games I wound up buying for it. I've done little with the camera side of the new Kinect, as I play consoles to experience the core games that aren't on PC, and basically no camera-enabled Kinect game is a core game. Can there be in the future? Maybe, but I'm certainly not happy with having to pay extra now for the mere chance of it in the future.
The other side of Kinect is the microphone, and for that, we honestly just needed one or more microphones built into the Xbox One itself (without a Kinect unit being packed into the box at all). Yes, the microphone can be handy both in the interface and in games, but the biggest issue I have is that it's intended to just work for anyone out of the box with no "training", and while it's fairly accurate considering it's meant to be a complete generalist without learning its users' voices, it's not accurate enough to really rely on. Most of the Xbox One interface elements that are Kinect-controlled can be done with a controller instead of via Kinect's voice commands, and anything else could easily be moved to Guide-button shortcuts if Microsoft wanted to.
Overall, I've spent almost no time with the Kinect's camera, but as a core gamer, I'm more interested in its voice controls - which in this situation is more dependent on the software inside the Xbox One than the all-seeing eye sitting on top of your TV. Honestly, they could have had the voice functionality without a Kinect at all; just put the microphones on the front of the console itself or on your controller. But Microsoft insisted that those functions can only come along with crazy cameras and work only through a big black box separate from the console, so that's why my negativity regarding poor voice controls is getting directed at Kinect. I still hope that at some point, we can move past this notion that Kinect will become this universal control scheme that tons of games make use of, because I just don't think it's what most Xbox gamers actually want. I still think Microsoft would be making a smart move to sell a separate XB1 model at a cheaper price without Kinect.
One of the more interesting features that Microsoft added to the Xbox One (at a vastly lower hardware-based cost than the Kinect, I must add) is the HDMI input. The idea they had was to make this new Xbox the "One" place you go to for your living room entertainment, and that means integrating with your current cable or satellite box through this port. Integration with video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime all work on the same interface where they all sit side-by-side - it's an interesting idea that makes sense, but the execution could use some work.
Even if your cable box can't take commands over its HDMI connection, Xbox One can control it by showering the room with invisible infrared remote control commands, and so far, I've found that it works well after a slightly confusing setup routine. From there, you can bring a second-hand control to your cable box as well as other devices through the XB1 controller or Kinect-enabled voice commands. Overall, this system is clunky and it requires your family to learn a new way to navigate just to watch a TV show, and if the voice commands worked with higher accuracy, it might turn out to be worth it - but at this point, I can't recommend it because of its tie to those features. Often the Kinect couldn't even hear me when I had audio from the TV running, requiring me to grab my usual remote control anyway.
Microsoft intended to add some of the multitasking we are used to on the PC to the Xbox One with "Snap", a feature that puts a fixed sidebar on the right side of your screen showing content from another app or from TV while you do things on the main "screen" like watch other videos, play games, or more. The issue is that Snap is nearly as clunky as the TV interface itself, and Microsoft didn't do a good job telling people how to use it. Sure, there's a video that tells you how awesome you are for knowing how to do these things (carefully hiding the notion that they are aware you don't know how and are actually teaching you during the video), and I just don't care much about having chat or a web browser open while gaming when I'm already surrounded by touch screen devices that do these things much better.
Snap's not dead in the water, but it needs a revamp in interface and it needs to show people how to multitask in more useful ways before people really start to care about it.
Maybe it was the delay of DriveClub on PS4 that did it, but it's my opinion that the Xbox One actually launched with a better lineup of games. There are some shared cross-generation titles like Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed IV and Need for Speed Rivals that in general play about the same on both consoles while looking a little sharper on the PS4, but that's for enthusiasts to care about; most gamers don't care near as much about the small visual differences between the two, not when it's so close at a glance - or if you're playing on a 40" TV from ten feet away, where the difference between 720p and 1080p is rather hard to see for most people.
Then there are the exclusives, and I think that's where Microsoft has a lead - and most of that lead is due to Forza Motorsport 5, which does come with its fair share of disappointments but it still leads Gran Turismo 6 over on the PS3 (nope, that game's not even on the PS4) in gameplay. We knew it'd lead in graphics for obvious reasons, but I don't think anyone really thought that GT6 was going get hundreds of cars and a dozen tracks added to it with basically no addressing of glaring flaws in sound, race structure, and AI. The point I'm making is that Forza 5, despite having some compromises, is the big-budget exclusive game that probably shows the new console's potential the best out of all the launch titles for either machine. It's only on next-gen, it's a leader in its category (console racing sim) in many ways, and it clearly has features that Turn 10 and Microsoft couldn't fit onto the 360.
The other exclusives are a mixed bag - just like they are on PS4 - but one thing I was surprised to see was that Sony had an exclusive first person shooter on launch, and Microsoft didn't. Considering that Xbox is the house that Halo built, I wouldn't have expected that.
Nearly every enthusiast and analyst seems to agree: The reason that the Xbox one costs $500, $100 more than the PS4, is because of the inclusion of Kinect. Now, Microsoft is obviously banking on past good will, as they have a very loyal fanbase of online social gamers who still have the perception that Xbox is where you go to play online and multiplatform games, and PS3 is only good for their exclusives. (And it's up to Sony to change that perception, and if they can't with big game releases and better ports, then I think that perception might become the reality again someday.)
But for now, that $100 difference is surely hurting Microsoft. Will it pay off for MS in the long run, having a Kinect in every home? I don't think so. Sure, the first Kinect sold a lot, but how much was it actually used? Much like the Wii with its waggle-based controls, I think we're going to see people push back against motion controls on the next gen the same way. I think Sony has correctly predicted this and backed off on motion controls as a result. Sure, MS has a neat device, but it's just not reliable or accurate enough.
Back when the XB1 was announced, Microsoft laid out this future of gaming where discs were only install files, your license to the game came separately, and the console essentially 'lived" online. That came with both limitations to how people could buy, trade, and sell games, and it also game with a few extra perks, but people mostly stuck with pointing out the downsides - and understandably so, as regardless of the positives, things were about to be taken away from them. As we know, MS backed off and went with a more traditional route, and the XB1 in our hands is what we're used to: the disc in your hand grants you ownership of the game, and digital versions are available if you really want them as well.
But there's still an issue with the immovability of digital releases (which still cost as much as retail releases so far!) and MS already laid out a plan that could be re-implemented to make digital sales more enticing - it's just up to them to decide to go ahead and implement them. What am I talking about? Well, how about MS giving you the option: buy your game physically and get all the same perks you expect from a game on disc (including giving it away or trading it in to a store), or buy online in a way that you can't trade it in or give it away, and get the option to share your game online with that whole "family sharing" program they talked about six months ago?
There's a lot of opportunity here for Microsoft to move ahead on what they wanted to back when the console was announced, and to do it without attracting any of the hate they did last time they tried it.
Will Xbox One take our living rooms? Not any time soon, not for most gamers who get the console. Will it serve as a solid gaming device? Most definitely - the games we can play on the XB1 sum up basically the only thing it's really good at so far, and while that sounds like I'm being overly negative, that's all most gamers actually want from a game console in the first place. Sure, people will wind up use consoles for media purposes like Netflix when it's convenient and they might wind up connecting the XB1 through their cable box, but that's not what people are buying it for initially.
The thing is, some of the best console innovations come through software rather than hardware, and we have to keep this in mind. Things like the expensive Kinect are a big gamble that we're expected to buy into just as much as Microsoft did, but adding an HDMI port (which costs pennies per console) on the back of the XB1 is a much smaller investment. Sure, Microsoft invested in the software for processing the HDMI input, but the difference between that and Kinect is they're not asking us to buy any bulky, expensive pieces of extra hardware.
So while I don't think that Microsoft will truly be taking over that many living rooms with this console, the important part is that the software that drives the HDMI input feature can always be improved without extra purchases by the user, and overall the attempt doesn't cost the consumer much - unlike the Kinect.
A recent spat over the internet regarding the upcoming Tomb Raider Definitive Edition reminded me that there are hundreds of thousands of dedicated enthusiasts out there that put huge emphasis over the fact that the PS4 version of the game will run at 60FPS while the XB1 version will run at only 30FPS. The simple fact is that these people, even if I'm one of them, are the minority; the vast majority of gamers don't care about a single player game running at 30FPS as long as it runs at a consistent speed. For that majority who don't mind as long as a console's games run vaguely as well as its competitors' games, this kind of thing doesn't matter.
For nearly everyone that buys a next-gen console, the much bigger factor will be what the console can do, what games it'll play, and its overall look and usability. And I believe that for core gamers, mainstream or not, they won't care about Kinect or HDMI input, just as they won't care that the PS4 controller has a touchpad or that the XB1 has a big ugly power brick behind their TV stand. They'll consider the price of the consoles they can choose from, play the games, and have fun.
With that in mind, the XB1 only loses big on the price front. And where does it win? That's still yet to be decided, but for now I'm really enjoying the exclusives that I can play on the XB1, just as I did the exclusives on the PS4. And I happen to love Forza 5 more than it has any right to be loved considering its downsides, so for me, the Xbox One is the console that's getting most used in our house right now.
Disclaimer: This review is based on hardware bought at retail and games provided by Microsoft for the purposes of review.