Xbox One review: a weekend with Microsoft's new console
Rob Beschizza takes Microsoft's new console for a spin. It's good enough, but there aren't enough good games and apps yet.
Here's the thing about console launch day: there's always too much, yet not enough. Microsoft's Xbox One is a great machine, so the only real question is whether it's the best machine. But, just as with Sony's Playstation 4, there's just not an awful lot of fun to be had with it, yet, because games and apps worthy of the hardware aren't there. The question on your mind doesn't have much of an answer ... and you can't ask the Xbox because the voice recognition won't understand you.
The Xbox One is plain and boxy and high-end, like a snazzy DVR. It lacks the svelte, minimalist look of its big rival, but I like how it fits cleanly and neatly into the living room gadget stack. It's a big improvement on the weird curves of the last-gen Xbox 360--itself redesigned for the holiday season, to match its big brother--simply because it knows it doesn't need to be seen. The Kinect camera/motion detector, and the power brick, are both surprisingly large and unwieldy.
Inside are much-improved specifications, too. The Xbox One has 8GB of RAM, 500GB storage, an 8-core CPU, discrete AMD graphics, 3 USB 3.0 ports, gigabit ethernet, HDMI input and output, and a Blu-Ray drive. The controller is compact, well-made and precise: Microsoft allegedly spent millions developing it, but it's rather as if they ended up leaving a well-solved problem mercifully unrevisited.
Much has been made of the fact that, while not quite as powerful as the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One is $100 more expensive. If you're concerned about the fine details of performance, the proof of the pudding will be in cross-platform games. That price difference, however, is worth of immediate consideration: $100 saved is $100 more for extra games and controllers. (Note, though, that while a 1080p Kinect camera/motion detector comes free with the Xbox One, Sony's equivalent is a $60 upgrade.)
The first thing that really greets the new Xbox One owner, unfortunately, is a mandatory system update. This happened once again this morning, and it all had me drinking unusually early. These updates take quite a long time to download and install, too--they were about a gigabyte each!--and the system is a high-def loading bar until it's done. Me, I want to wake up the box and play a game. With the rest of the setup hassle, it's a disheartening out-of-the-box experience. Maybe I'm just old.
It should suffice to say that if you buy this as a holiday gift, you should hook it up and get all that dealt with beforehand. But not too early, lest there be more updates.
The user interface, derived from the Microsoft design concept once known as Metro, takes a little getting used to. In fact, it's amazing how confusing and disorganized it feels, given how attractive it is at first blush, and the limited set of things it seemingly deals with. It functions almost exactly like a sliding tile puzzle; muscle memory works against you! And, just like in Windows 8, it gives an unnerving impression of hiding rather than simplifying complexity.
None of this amounts to a real problem, though. The selection of launch games, however, is another matter. Though I've barely gathered my first impressions (with bare minutes spent in some of them), the general consensus among other reviewers I've spoken to isn't good, either. They mostly look good, thanks to the upgraded hardware, but there's not much to set the heart on fire.
Zoo Tycoon is a standard-issue management game. The best part is belting around a zoo in various animal-themed electrical vehicles, menacing visitors and performing drifts! Harmless, engaging fun, but nothing to pay a $500 entry fee for.
LocoCycle is an unfunny "zany" game with a high-tech AI bike as protagonist, like KITT but voiced excruciatingly a la GladOS. You escape; a mechanic is dragged along with you, a reluctant sidekick. Then it somehow becomes a button-mashing beat-em-up, with the bike suspended weirdly in mid-air so that it can do zany battle with flying robot soldiers. ZANY! And terrible.
We also had a go of Crimson Dragon, too: our first impression was of a difficult-to-control fantasy shooter with bags of atmosphere (albeit terrible voice acting), and impressive cinematic visuals. It's a great way to show off the new machine's graphical capabilities, though.
As this useful list of early scores shows, none of the other day 1 titles are getting much acclaim, either. The best of the bunch are sequels or variations of games already available: Killer Instinct, Dead Rising, Forza and Call of Duty being the safer bets.
The cable-TV passthrough system--watch normal TV from the Xbox and control the cable box and DVR via the Xbox's voice-recognition system--was something I had high hopes for. Setup went without a hitch, but the voice recognition system it relies upon was blood-boilingly frustrating. But we stuck with cable passthrough until the Xbox required another update: another progress bar to watch for half and hour. I had to plug the cable box into its own HDMI port on the set, lest I miss The Today Show.
Speaking of the voice recognition system (since it can't reliably be spoken to), I hope Microsoft's got big plans for improving it. The commands are arbitrary and seemingly inconsistent, for starters: Xbox Stop Listening!
What ran perfectly, mind you, were the video apps I tried (freshly unlocked, so again, first impressions). Amazon Prime Video and Xbox Video service (showing recent TV shows and films) worked a charm; Hulu and Netflix are among the other services already available in the Xbox store. You can also scan local networks for Windows shares. If a game-capable media center is your aim, the Xbox One has the necessary partnerships out of the gate. Unlike the PS4, you can plug in external storage, but I wasn't able to test it yet.
It's clear to me that Microsoft's new console is a great piece of technology and, in all likelihood, a very safe bet for your living room over the next few years. As obvious as it might be to most gamers, consoles are a good deal, sold at a loss to rope you into the gaming and media ecosystem: a similarly-specced Windows PC would be much more expensive.
If you need guidance, all I can suggest is to be patient. The Xbox One and the PS4 are similar, and both have unexciting launch titles. If you're not sure which to get, wait a week or two; see what games get good buzz from players as well as critics. If you're not sure whether to get either, there's no harm waiting until there's more to do with the next-gen consoles, period, before making a choice. And if you're waiting for validation on a decision you've already made: go buy it already. The Xbox One is fine. 8/10! You'll be happy with it. Eventually.
Josh Jacobson is a Nintendo cartridge hacker who makes homebrew cartridges for games that were never released for NES/SNES, complete with label art and colored plastic cases that makes them look like they came from an alternate universe where (for example), there was a Nintendo version of Sonic the Hedgehog.
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