Long before Sony’s PlayStation 4 landed on the front lines of the next-gen console war earlier this month, it was decided it would be a gamer-focused platform, while Microsoft’s Xbox One would be an all-in-one entertainment device. Due in no small part to the latter’s early — but later-reversed — unpopular policies regarding used games and an always-online connection, as well as Microsoft’s own marketing, this was, for better or worse, the defining distinction made between the two boxes.
It’s ironic, then, that I’ve had more fun with the Xbox One’s first-party launch lineup than I had with the titles that debuted alongside Sony’s dedicated gaming console. As with the competition, the Xbox One has no Halo-like killer app. Its trio of triple-A entries — Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, and Forza Motorsport 5 — however, make a more convincing case for the power of next-gen gaming than Sony’s pair of big-budget day-one offerings Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack.
While none of the three justify the console’s purchase, they offer a glimpse into the future of gaming that should — at the very least — ensure early adopters have something slick to show off to friends this holiday season. Favoring cinematic style over gameplay substance, Ryse is a very pretty hack-and-slash, sword-and-sandal epic that sees players lopping limbs, braining baddies, and otherwise painting the ancient empire in pulpy viscera; sure, it lacks depth and suffers from repetitive combat, but it’s still a damn fine display of next-gen-fueled, gore-soaked action. Racing sim Forza 5 is similarly easy on the eyes, showcasing detail-drenched dashboards, sun-soaked blacktop, and enough car porn to get any automobile enthusiast’s pulse pounding. Toss in Dead Rising 3’s clever weapon combinations — and an open world brimming with undead to unleash them on — and Xbox One’s in-house entries inch out PS4’s in both diversity and quality.
Of course, like the PS4, Microsoft’s machine is also supported by a solid lineup of third-party fare such as Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed IV, EA staples (Madden, Need for Speed, FIFA), and 2K’s NBA 2K14. Unlike Sony’s platform, however, the Xbox One’s indie offerings are lacking at launch; while Microsoft’s promising plenty of smaller, artsy fare for the future, Sony’s currently the king when it comes to letting the little guys share the spotlight with the big boys. The Xbox also takes a hit — like the PS4 — in its inability to play last-gen games; because its architecture is so radically changed from its predecessor, Xbox 360 owners will have to hang on to their old consoles if they wish to continue enjoying their existing libraries.
The trade-off for this inconvenience is having a machine capable of powering the Death Star. Like Sony’s horsepower-pushing box, Microsoft’s hardware comes close to delivering the sort of high-fidelity gaming previously reserved for tricked-out PC rigs. All this power comes at a cost, however, as the Xbox One is a beast of a box. Not as slender or slick-looking as the PS4, it’s more like a chunky cable set-top box that’s undergone a makeover. Its intimidating size is softened a bit by appealing aesthetic touches, such as contrasting matte and shiny surfaces, stylishly integrated vents, and a pretty glowing logo, but its exposed power brick — an eyesore Sony managed to hide within its hardware — still reminds you it ain’t no Apple product.
More refined is its gamepad, which somehow improves on the Xbox 360’s near-perfect peripheral. From its sticks and buttons to its triggers and bumpers, it’ll feel comfortably familiar to anyone who’s crushed Covenant scum or piloted a Warthog behind the 360’s controller, but a number of enhancements also bring welcome evolution. Textured sticks guarantee sweaty-palmed players won’t lose their grip, while a more responsive d-pad replaces its predecessor’s imprecise four-directional input. The battery compartment no longer protrudes from the gamepad’s underside, and additional rumble motors housed in the triggers up the tactile immersion. My favorite feature by a long shot, this latter addition is crazy-impressive; its coolest implementation so far sees it registering every nuance of Forza 5’s purring car engines, but I can’t wait to see what it brings to future games — perhaps a slowly building pulse in a horror title or a jarring jolt from a jammed gun in a shooter? Improvements aside, the gamepad, like its predecessor, isn’t rechargeable out of the box — a gamer-pleasing feature Sony smartly included — but instead relies on a pair of AA batteries for power.
Given the rich lineup of titles that continues to land on the now technically last-gen Xbox 360, I’m not surprised by how quickly the Xbox One was able to convince me it’s still a game console at its core. I was taken aback, however, by its ability to mostly win me over with many of its all-in-one features. As a gamer who’s embraced the pastime since doing so meant having my mom drive me to the arcade, I’m in it to save the world, rescue the princess, and separate zombies from their squishy innards — not control everything but my George Foreman Grill with my game console. The Xbox One’s streamlined user interface and enhanced Kinect tech make it accessible and engaging enough, though, that I found it hard not to get swept up in the science-fiction-flavored fun.
Leaps and bounds better than the gimmicky peripheral that spawned it, the new Kinect feels like it’s from the future. Bundled with every Xbox One and largely responsible for the system’s $100-more-than-PS4 price tag, the Kinect logs in users with facial recognition, while its microphones allow them to control and navigate nearly all the system’s multimedia features. Coupled with an intuitive, albeit a bit crowded, tile-based UI, the tech lets you do everything from surf the Web and Skype to navigate game menus and manage your movie and TV viewing. That latter feature is the biggest draw, as connecting your cable box to the Xbox One theoretically cuts out the need for a remote control or your provider’s clunky channel guide. Using voice commands and the “OneGuide,” you can surf the boob tube without switching inputs.
It’s magical when it works, but the tech’s not without its frustrations. Commands aren’t always picked up and channels — not shows — are recognized, so you’ll need to call out “FX” rather than “Sons of Anarchy” to get your Sunday night biker gang fix. Similarly, full game titles, like “Ryse: Son of Rome” rather than just “Ryse,” must be spoken. More standard commands, such as those that mute, pause, power on and off, and control volume, are more reliable; still, even trickier stuff, like specific Internet searches, work surprisingly well. You won’t go a full day without occasionally shouting at the system, pleading with it to understand your requests, but given the fact that it’s letting you control television, apps, games, movies, music, Internet, and social media by barking commands from the couch, its more competent than I expected.
Xbox One takes multitasking a step further by also allowing users to have more than one program running simultaneously, a welcome addition for gamers accustomed to fully exiting a session to check something else on their dashboard. Even cooler is the “snap” feature, which allows a pair of programs to run side-by-side on the screen; this could mean playing Madden while watching an NFL game or attempting to conquer a particularly brutal boss battle while also viewing Internet tips on how to do so.
Like the PS4, Microsoft’s new machine incorporates social media, but doesn’t integrate it quite as well as its competitor. Using the system’s Upload Studio and SkyDrive — and even an “Xbox, record that” voice command — players have plenty of options to spotlight their skills. But without a direct link to Twitch (something Microsoft says is coming in 2014) or a dedicated tool like the PS4’s “share” button, Xbox One’s social features feel like less of a focus right now.
Brimming with multimedia features and the sort of multitasking prowess previously associated with desktop PCs, the Xbox One is quite the technological titan. Its voice-controlled Kinect features, while still in need of some tweaking, feel downright futuristic and, more importantly, are fun to use. And despite its gaming side being downplayed in favor of its all-in-one media hub functionality, its launch titles — while lacking a system-seller — offer a promising glimpse of what next-gen gaming will look like once developers learn to get the hardware firing on all cylinders.
Out of the box, the Xbox One isn’t perfect. On top of the occasional voice-command frustration, I suffered through a few lengthy load times, had some apps freeze on me, and needed to invest the better part of a weekend before I felt comfortable behind all its non-gaming elements. Still, supported by an impressive foundation of launch features, it feels less like the latest trendy gadget and more like promising tech everyone will be using in 2015 — or even 2055.
GRADE: Console: A-; first-party launch titles: B