16:53, 24 Dec 2013
The Xbox One is here ─ we review the third-generation games console to see if it has matured like a fine wine, or gone a bit stale
Stunning graphics, Excellent interface, Kinect is great, Blu-ray support
Expensive, Small initial games catalogue
The Xbox One delivers next-generation gaming and home entertainment goodness in an understated package, making it a purchase you are unlikely to regret. However, there's definitely no harm in waiting until the games catalogue gets bigger and the price inevitably gets smaller.
Back when the first Xbox arrived in Europe in 2002, I had been doing a paper round in my local village to pay for it. Early mornings, ungrateful people and miserable British weather ─ it was hardly glamorous. But all it took was five minutes of Bungie's epic Halo for years of pain to fade away.
The same happened with the Xbox 360. Just a few high-speed laps around the streets of London in Project Gotham Racing countered the nightmare of spending your mornings carrying newspapers. Only the lack of a Blu-ray player rained on its glorious, video game parade.
Seven years since the Xbox 360's launch, developers (developers, developers) are still churning out great games, many of which have brought the best out of the mighty Xbox Live online service. You could argue, then, it was perhaps a bit too soon for a next-generation console.
Thankfully, the days of the paper round are (for me) long gone ─ although a shiver runs down my spine when I so much as glance at a letter box. But, upon hearing the Xbox One would be here in time for Christmas, I threw my money at Microsoft just like old times.
From the moment I opened the unassuming black and white packaging box everything felt familiar, like an old friend had come to visit. My mind, however, soon wondered whether the Xbox One could match the expectation its predecessors had created.
On the face of it, the Xbox One has a lot against it. A lack of Halo at launch? Very few games worthy of a purchase. A ton of negative PR. Is Microsoft right in making entertainment centre stage? I wanted to find out whether my £430 was money well spent.
Hardware: The Box
Much of the internet seems to dislike the look of the Xbox One, but I happen to find its unassuming look compelling. It's a weird mix of old VCR styling and simple modern lines with a bit of gloss and matt black to break things up. Granted, the PS4 had a go at being less boxy but the Xbox One radiates quality and the understated look really does work.
Looks are somewhat irrelevant, mind you. What matters is that it matches most living room appliances and will fit into an Ikea cabinet or shelf quite happily. It is a fair bit bigger than the Xbox 360, granted, but we're not to the point of causing a problem.
On the back are the usual connections (Ethernet, USB 3.0, optical, HDMI-out) and the unique HDMI-in, which allows you to plug in anything with an HDMI. The idea is that you can control Sky TV through the Xbox One, so there's less faffing around. The PS3 and Xbox 360 work via this port too, although expect a bit of lag until Microsoft irons things out.
Perhaps the biggest gripe with the hardware is that it makes us pine for the days when all you had to do was plonk in a cartridge or disc and off you went. Before you do a thing the Xbox One must download a 507MB patch. You then need to download and install a patch for the game you want to play, if one is required.
While the Xbox One can update itself in the background if you allow it to, you still have to wait for a game to be installed, with each one needing to reach a certain installation point - usually around 50 per cent - before you can play it. By this point I was on my third cup of tea and feeling slightly wired, thinking that if this was the Mega Drive I'd at least be two stages into Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
Adding to the misery, mandatory game installations mean the hard drive is soon put under a lot of strain. Forza 5, for instance, needs 31GB of storage space. Luckily Microsoft has promised support for external storage solutions, which means the weight on the shoulders of that 500GB internal hard drive will soon be lifted. When exactly, I'm not sure.
Like the headset with the Xbox 360, the Xbox One's offering is relatively hardy, but nothing like the 3rd-party offerings you get from device makers such as Turtle Beach. Think plastic and more plastic. Still, the sound quality is good and the microphone works nicely, which is ultimately what you want from a headset ─ at least, until you can afford to upgrade to something flashier.
At first glance you may think Microsoft has merely recycled the Xbox 360 controller to save money. Look closer, though, and you will see two new buttons, the left of which is app and function specific and the right is for bringing up a menu. The central illuminated Xbox button makes it very easy to jump out of what are you doing to the dashboard. This makes it easy to go from, say, watching a bit of Breaking Bad on Netflix to hopping into an online game of Battlefield 4.
The directional pad has been improved and feels more precise as a result, which is good news as the old version was a bit rubbish. It particularly helps with games like Killer Instinct where specific combinations of movements are needed to get the required result.
Both joysticks are now more taut and have a smaller indented area, which felt uncomfortable at first but became normal in no time. Lining up a shot in Call of Duty seems more natural.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the introduction of Impulse Trigger rumble packs in each of the trigger buttons located on the back of the controller. These are meant to make certain actions, such as shooting a weapon in Call of Duty, feel more realistic by way of vibration. While it's a nice touch for single-player gaming and works very well, it can become tiring in multiplayer.
Minus the fetching white Xbox One light, it's business as usual. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Microsoft has merely refined what made the Xbox and Xbox 360 controller so appealing. The Xbox One controller gets a solid thumbs up. If only the £20 plug and play charge kit was standard, but at least you get one set of batteries to get you started.
Microsoft's tile-based Metro user interface - or whatever we have to call it these days - makes an appearance on Xbox One, although unlike Windows Phone and like Windows 8 it scrolls horizontally. You can pin stuff you use the most just like before, or jump directly to the Store to buy new games and other content. Rewardingly, navigating around it all is nice and easy.
A new feature is Snap. This allows you to run, say, Netflix while browsing the built in Internet Explorer. Essentially part of the screen is taken up by one task, while the game runs in the remaining area. We've seen this in action on Windows 8 and it gives you the ability to multitask. It may seem an odd addition for a gaming device, but it means you can be looking up a level guide with the game still running in the background.
For some reason Skype can't be snapped, which seems like a strange omission considering the social benefit of chatting with friends while watching TV.
For those who like to show the world how good they are, the Xbox One includes built-in DVR functionality. While it won't rival a dedicated capture device like the Elgato HD, you can create a gameplay reel good enough for showing off to friends.
Another odd but useful addition is the SkyDrive app, which lets you look at anything you've saved to the cloud. If you use Windows 8, Windows Phone or both, this can prove handy if you want to check out some of your photos and videos when sat in the living room.
During early testing I experienced a few performance issues - going to the menu from Netflix caused the user-interface to judder a bit, for instance - but I've yet to really see any particularly troublesome peoblems since the most recent patch. It seems as stable as the Xbox 360 and certainly far snappier.
Overall the new user-interface is refreshingly simple, much easier to use and makes it possible to multitask. Gaming is still at the heart of it all, but there's definitely a focus on the living room experience above and beyond gaming, which is no bad thing. Whether we care to admit it or not, many of us use our Xbox to watch TV and Microsoft has designed the Xbox One to integrate with this.
Putting all the negative press surrounding the always-on Kinect behind us, version 2.0 of the motion-sensing peripheral is a very clever device to the point where it makes the highly popular Wii and Wii U seem very primitive.
The field of view has been greatly improved and a number of clever touches further improve its abilities. Like, for instance, it will follow you around a room during a Skype call.
While you may not play Dance Central or games of its ilk, Kinect 2.0 recognises you the moment you walk in the room and signs you into your account. If you leave the room and someone else walks in, it will then recognise them too, saving the hassle of signing out and back in. It's a simple touch, admittedly, but one that elevates the Xbox One above its peers.
There are few games out there right now that really make use of the new Kinect sensor, but based on its accuracy and new tricks I can see it going down a treat. Voice control, which allows you to switch the console on or off and navigate around the dashboard without raising a finger, simply sweetens the deal.
It's a shame you have to quote a full game title to launch it, instead of saying just "Forza", but this is nothing a patch can't fix in the future. Overall, the voice accuracy was impressive and there are plenty of prompts to help you learn what you can and can't say.
Would some people prefer to knock £100 off the price and ditch the Kinect? No doubt. But then making the device mandatory provides a level playing field for developers who, hopefully, will make good use of it over the Xbox One's lengthy life-cycle.
One thing we do miss about Kinect 2.0 is the look. While it matches the aesthetic of the Xbox One console perfectly and feels much more substantial in the hand, it no longer looks like Wall-E, which is a shame. The new shape also means you need to buy yet another mount if you want it sat atop your TV or monitor, but then again, no Xbox 360 accessories work with the Xbox One. Talk about tight.
Apps and social networking
A number of apps like Twitch.tv, used for streaming gameplay videos, are currently missing, as is social networking. But Skype, Netflix and the few others on offer should keep you going while you wait. Ultimately, things can only get better in this department ─ you'll just have to be patient if you become an early-adopter, that's all.
Arguably you only need to do so much on a games console, anyway. I've never, for instance, felt the need to fire up Microsoft Word. But choice is always a good thing and as things stand the lack of iPlayer is the biggest problem.
While PS3 owners got to enjoy Blu-ray disc goodness, the Xbox 360 had HD DVD. Luckily this time around you can slide Blu-rays into the front-loading disc slot, allowing developers to fit more content on discs than before and you get to enjoy films at much higher quality, both in terms of sound and picture. Just bear in mind you have to download the Blu-ray app to get it working.
I've heard reports of a screeching Blu-ray noise, but this seems like an isolated issue. At no point did my Xbox One sound like it had been possessed, perhaps because the delivery bloke hadn't dropped it.
The initial launch line-up is perhaps not the best, with a couple of the bigger games landing next year such as Watchdogs and Titanfall. Indie games are also coming in 2014, with March touted as the month we'll see some action. This is the same story for the PS4, which has seen a few big games pushed back.
There's nothing really new or killer to make you say 'wow', but there are more platform exclusives on Xbox One than PS4. Factor in the online aspect of some games and you will be kept busy until 2014 when a number of potentially more interesting titles arrive.
Here are some of the more interesting titles:
Back in the day Killer Instinct was a mighty beat-'em-up. In its Xbox One form expect fast-paced gameplay and combos that seemingly go on for days mixed with fantastic visuals. The game is free for all to play, but there's only one character to play as. You will need to shell out a few quid to unlock additional characters, or pay £15.99 to unlock everything. Worth a look, if only for the addictive online multiplayer.
Call of Duty Ghosts
Take away the smooth visuals and Call of Duty Ghosts is more of the same. Expect a gung-ho plot that thinks America is the centre of the universe and multiplayer shenanigans that can sap away your life all too easily. The visuals are much crisper, compared with the Xbox 360 version, and versus the PS4 you would be hard-pressed to spot the 720p up-scaling instead of 1080p, even on a large plasma TV.
Personally, one very minor frame rate drop once in a while is preferable to fancier, jumpier visuals in a game that requires accuracy and quick reflexes.
Some reports of multiplayer games dropping out are doing the rounds, but all has been okay so far for me. Expect epic visuals, improved player animation and more of what makes the beautiful game compelling, including the obligatory 'banter' you need to throw at your opponent during an Xbox Live match.
Until the brilliant Project Gotham makes a return (which reports say is unlikely) Forza 5 offers the best racing fun on Xbox One. Sure, it has less cars and less tracks (no Nurburgring, for instance), but it feels incredibly polished and is only marred by the inclusion of in-app purchases, which seems harsh when we're talking £45 to buy it in the first place. Fortunately the developer is said to be rectifying the issue, so all is well...sort of.
Ryse: Son of Rome
I've not really played this title to any great extent, which is a shame when it happens to be one of the more original games in the list. Apparently the storyline is good while it lasts, the gameplay can get a bit repetitive, but it's a visual treat. If you like "Gladiator" style sword-and-shield battles, this is probably the one for you.
Dead Rising 3
Not an especially big game, but shooting zombies in a variety of ways makes for a fun experience ─ although you can really have too much of a good thing. One of the stronger titles in the line up but by no means perfect.
So how good are the graphics, you're no doubt wondering? Well, visually the step up is substantial, even at such an early stage. Only gamers used to high-end PC rigs will be disappointed.
Call of Duty is vastly smoother, Forza 5's cars look ridiculously close to reality and FIFA has never appeared so life-like. Shadows look more realistic and light trickles through tree branches as if you were actually there. Really, it's all positive stuff given how early in the game it is for developers.
Take a step back to the Xbox 360 and suddenly it looks very dated, even though the Xbox 360 is still somehow managing to offer increasingly impressive visuals all these years on.
Should you buy an Xbox One or stick with your current console? That is the million dollar question, or rather the £430 question. As things stand, £430 is a lot of money, especially when the PS4 is cheaper and technically more powerful.
Let's also not forget the line up of launch games is reasonable, but certainly not hugely impressive or new, and lacks Halo (although arguably the series has gone off the boil in recent times).
Really, the answer depends on you and your wallet. The true potential of a console is never really reached at launch so a proper plung into next-gen visuals will happen over the next few years.
An element of patience is therefore essential. Those who get in at the ground floor are obviously die-hard fans who are happy to wait while the foibles are ironed out. Me? I've yet to encounter anything jarring enough to make me feel like ringing up Steve Ballmer to complain.
So really it boils down to whether you are happy paying more for the privilege of improved visuals, a Blu-ray player, vastly superior user-interface and a Kinect sensor so clever it saves you having to move from your couch. If the answer is yes and you can put up with a few bugs, you will not be disappointed.
Ultimately, Microsoft's vision is one where the Xbox One is the hub of your living room. You use it to watch Sky TV through, browse your holiday photos, download movies, surf the internet, stream your music collection and blow people up in Call of Duty. All of which the next-generation console achieves, albeit with a few hiccups in places.
By no means is it an essential purchase, especially when the Xbox 360 has a lot of life in it yet, but it's one you probably won't regret if you bite the bullet. Even so, the cautious among us would be wise to wait until next year, if only for the games catalogue to pick up a bit and the price to inevitably take a tumble.
Microsoft Xbox One