The Eye

11.22.13

Xbox One Review: Big Brother Is Watching You

Why the Microsoft console, despite a lot of kinks, is the future of video games, and its voice- and motion-sensing Kinect will take over our living rooms—and our lives.

It has been eight years to the day since the Xbox 360 heralded the 7th generation of video game consoles. For the 8th generation, Microsoft finds itself last to the plate, and with the PlayStation 4 fresh in everyone’s minds and more than one million wallets $400 lighter, the Xbox One is going to have to prove itself a worthy competitor, especially with that $500 price tag.

Microsoft also has to convince consumers they can trust it. The original decision to require users to always be online was a debacle, and while they have backpedaled, a sour aftertaste remains. Will the Xbox One convince users that Microsoft has seen the error of its ways, or that dropping half a grand on a videogame console is a worthwhile proposition?

Not yet, but it will.

The Xbox One is an imposing beast of a machine. Where the PlayStation 4 is a svelte little rhombus, the Xbox One feels like something powerful, which it is. Dead Rising 3, despite some texture loading problems, shows hundreds of zombies onscreen at a time, and even when you start mowing them down by the dozens with a steam-roller/motorcycle hybrid (that shoots flames), the constant showers of gore do nothing to slow the system down. Ryse: Son of Rome is a sight to behold, too, with spectacular lighting effects and excellent animation, even if the gameplay is not great.

Forza Motorsport 5 harnesses not just the power of the system but the “power of the cloud,” which Microsoft has been talking a lot about without really explaining what it was. Xbox One games are able to tap into massive server farms that Microsoft has set up, and Forza 5 has dipped into this power for a mechanic known as “Drivatar.” Every player, after just a few races, is profiled and then sent online as drivatars. Rather than racing against programmed artificial intelligence, players are up against these drivatars. While it may not technically be racing against other humans, it’s truly fascinating, and there is nothing else like it on any platform.

Kinect

There’s nothing quite like the next generation Kinect, either, although the PlayStation 4 Eye is a decent, limited imitation. The Kinect, a camera/microphone combo, is used as another method of controlling both the system and its games using either motion controls or voice commands. Putting the Kinect next to a PlayStation 4 Eye is almost funny: the Kinect is six times the size. Where the Xbox 360’s Kinect required studio-quality lighting to work consistently, the new Kinect seems to be able to recognize me even when the lights were off. That doesn’t seem possible, but go into the Kinect settings and look for “What else does the Kinect see?” I won’t spoil it, because it’s kind of amazing. If you’re a privacy nut, you’re probably not going to feel comfortable being in the same room as one of these things.

When the Kinect does exactly what you want it to and you’re seamlessly switching from app to game to app, it really does feel like the future.

When it works, the Kinect is truly amazing, allowing for things that none of the other consoles can do. This is apparent just from the voice-command boot-up, when I can say “Xbox on” and have the system ready to go by the time I’ve walked over to turn my TV on, it feels like the future. (Except for the part where I have to walk over and turn my TV on.) But it doesn’t always work, and you start to feel pretty stupid yelling at a hunk of plastic when it isn’t responding. (Tip: when doing the audio calibration at startup, turn the TV’s volume really, really high, not just a little high. It helps.)

The Kinect then waits for me to come into view to sign me in. I’ve been having trouble with this recognition, and it’s annoying to be confused for my girlfriend. Sometimes it will even recognize me as myself and then recognize me as someone else also, signing in two people while I’m the only one in the room. When it works, it’s awesome. A few days ago, I was playing a game when my girlfriend walked behind me. She didn’t stop or even turn towards the system, but the Xbox One almost immediately greeted her at the bottom of the screen. Creepy? Yeah, a little bit, but also kind of amazing.

Multitasking

The Xbox One is the only game console with true multitasking abilities. Players can switch seamlessly and instantly between apps and games without losing any progress. With the right settings enabled, you can even turn the system off and have the game ready and waiting when it's powered on again. These abilities are complemented by a featured called “Snap,” which allows players to open certain apps without pausing what they’re doing and have them run side-by-side. Most apps can’t do this, but being able to pull up Bing or Internet Explorer while in the middle of a game is pretty cool. Say someone gets stuck: they can go to the Internet and find a walkthrough, then have it beside them without ever leaving the screen.

The Controller

It’s completely possible to navigate the Xbox One interface without a controller, using a combination of voice controls and hand motions, but even though it works reasonably well (and quickly, when the voice stuff is solid), you’ll want to just be using the controller, because it is the most comfortable controller out there. For years, the Xbox 360 controller reigned supreme, but both the Wii U and the PlayStation 4 responded with extremely comfortable controllers of their own. The king has returned, though, with what Microsoft claims are 40 improvements. The new analog sticks have a textured ring around them to help keep grip, a plus-shaped d-pad will hopefully fix the failures of the 360’s awful circular one, the battery hump on the back has been removed, and much more. It just feels right.

The controller’s sole fault lies with two extra rumble motors, which have been added to the L2 and R2 triggers. They have potential to add another dimension to play—Forza Motorsport 5 uses them during acceleration to add another layer of physical feedback, which feels nice—but they are also extremely loud. Whenever the motors kick in, a high-pitched whirring sound emanates from the controller, which is a major distraction.

And I wonder about the quality control of the first batch of systems. I have two controllers (the one from the system and one extra), and both of them have minor defects with their left analog sticks. One creaks whenever the stick is pushed in and the other makes a weird springy sound when pushed to the left, like there’s a piece that has come loose inside. I’ve asked a few others and it seems like it may be an isolated incident, but 0 for 2 is a pretty bad score. Maybe I just got unlucky, but it could point to a grander issue in the production line.

Xbox Live and Achievements

Microsoft’s two biggest innovations since it got into the console race are easily Xbox Live and achievements. Its premium service, Xbox Live Gold, was important for the Xbox 360 but it’s necessary for the Xbox One. The system is so media-centric, but it’s crippled by a paywall. Without Gold, which costs $60 a year, players won’t be able to play online (true for the PlayStation 4 as well), but they also won’t have access to the myriad of entertainment apps, Skype, Internet Explorer, or even the ability to capture and upload clips from gameplay. So factor that extra $60 into the cost of the console, because without it, you’re getting a $500 game machine and nothing more.

The achievement system has seen an overhaul, but not for the better. It’s much prettier now, at the expense of functionality. There is no longer an easily accessible list of the requirements for each achievement, and the new Achievement Unlocked pop-up turned a simple one-step system into a laborious three step process, which goes on for far too long, and covers the center bottom of the screen, obscuring any subtitles. More troubling, there are now achievements linked to non-game applications, and while they do not affect a player’s accumulated Gamerscore (which transfers from the Xbox 360, although games do not), it doesn’t feel right to get an achievement just for opening FXNow. It cheapens the experience.

Media Experience

That media experience is a major part of the vision Microsoft is selling, especially with regards to its cable TV functionality. On the back of the console is an HDMI-in port, allowing users with HDMI compatible set-top boxes to plug directly into the console. From there, the Xbox One can control the whole experience using the controller or Kinect. I’ve seen it in action, and it looks cool (TV can also be snapped to any other app/game), but as someone who has cut the cable cord, I can’t speak to the everyday experience. And while there are a number of other video options available, from staples like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant to more niche services like TED and Machinima, it’s a fragmented experience.

Some of them can be controlled through the OneGuide app that also controls the TV experience (and requires Xbox Live Gold to use), but not all. I have been told that Microsoft is working to expand the list over time, though, which should go a long way towards simplifying it. There’s potential there, but it’s not done yet.

Necessary Improvements

And that is true about the experience in general: It’s not done yet. I’ve been using the Xbox One for a week and a half and in that time it has updated itself half a dozen times, some of them substantial downloads. The software will be ready in time for launch day (a large patch is required before use), but it definitely seems like it’s being rushed to market. Going forward, these updates will happen in the background for anyone with their console set to standby mode, waking the system up in the middle of the night so players will return to it later, freshly updated and ready to go. And it is not unreasonable to expect some big changes. The Xbox 360 people bought at launch is radically different from the one people bought years later. The Xbox One will surely be the same.

It’s exciting, because it means the system has huge potential to grow and expand, not just as a game machine but also as an entertainment device. But it’s also frustrating, because it means the system feels incomplete. If this were eight years ago, I don’t think Microsoft would have released the Xbox One in its current state. In today’s highly connected world, it’s mostly OK to assume that people can hook up their systems to the Internet periodically (although that assumption got Microsoft in a lot of trouble this summer), but the trend of releasing incomplete products to retail only to be patched up later is a disconcerting one.

When the Xbox One really works, in those moments when the Kinect does exactly what you want it to and you’re seamlessly switching from app to game to app, it really does feel like the future. But you should hold off on buying it. The problems with early Xbox 360 systems were legendary, and while I would like to believe those would never be repeated by any manufacturer, sometimes it is better to be safe than sorry. When the Xbox One’s lineup expands and the software fills in the gaps, it will be amazing. Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be the only box plugged into the TV, and I can see a future where that might happen for people not interested in having multiple game systems (aka weirdos). I expected to be turned off by what Microsoft was doing, and I thought I would hate the console on principle. But I walked away impressed. In a few years, the Xbox One is going to be really, really cool.

Let the console wars begin.