Microsoft did not have the smoothest road into this new console generation. Almost entirely as a result of planting two left feet in their collective mouths, the company managed to insult, ignore and otherwise antagonise the vast majority of their current and potential future user base with their announcement of the Xbox One. Comments about mandatory internet connections, a seemingly draconian attitude to sharing and trading games, flippant attitudes to customer feedback and very little focus on actual video games had people calling the console justly dead before it was even off the production line.
Now the Xbox One is out for all to see for themselves, complete with many hasty backtracks on controversial features, a nifty launch line-up and a day one patch. And it’s rather nice, to be honest. If you can look past a few gaps and quirks.
The magic box itself is rather heavy — as is the custom for Xboxes — but not much bigger than its 360 ancestor. Curiously, you are expressly forbidden from standing the console on its end, which is a bit of a downer for those of us who value cabinet space. Early pictures of the console made it look a bit like it was designed by two committees that never spoke, but I’m pleased to say the final product is much less haphazard in person. Xbox’s trademark green is nowhere to be seen on any of the hardware logos, replaced with a soothing, neutral white. Because gaming is mature now. Those who remember the jet engines of non-slim 360s will be happy to hear — and be able to hear — that the fan in the One is generally imperceptible.
Considering the Xbox 360 controller was the go-to for last generation in terms of design, Microsoft didn’t really have to do much to put together a satisfactory input device. Nevertheless, the One controller is a sleek and small beast of a thing, complete with haptic feedback on the triggers and a very satisfying directional pad. The former is a strange thing to get used to — vibrations straight to one finger or the other — but after a little time adjusting it’s quite an improvement when it comes to immersion. Forza is the only launch title where I noticed the effects, vibrations telling me when I was pushing on the brake or accelerator and how hard.
The new directional pad, with its lack of diagonal buttons will surely be appreciated by fighting game fans, and all the buttons on the controller have a satisfying click to them. Beyond initial impressions, I rarely thought about the controller while playing, which is exactly what you want from such a thing.
When I had occasion to actually switch on the Xbox One, I was pleasantly surprised. Then unpleasantly surprised. Setting the console up was a simple affair, and it was nice to see that once I logged in it remembered my profile settings from a brief day’s gaming on a friend’s console after launch. The day one patch installed with no fuss, although I wish I could say the same for installing the games themselves. All games now require an install to the hard drive, since this is the future, and what turned out to be a known bug prevented me from completing the install process several times. After many restarts and an angry unplugging of my internet things finally, slowly, began to move along. Hopefully the rather sluggish progression of installing and patching is something that will be addressed in the future.
The Xbox One has a Kinect attached, which you will notice at some point because it is mandatory. The Kinect 2.0 is happily a big step up from the original beast, boasting improved voice and visual recognition. I was genuinely impressed by how easily Kinect managed to pick up both my face and my wife’s in a variety of light conditions. Silly though it may be, watching the One spring to life and say hello to me when I sit down on the couch is rather spiffy.
As excited as I may have been to test out the much-advertised voice command system for the One, it isn’t working in New Zealand yet. The estimated time for that feature is “sometime”. Apparently the New Zealand accent is some impenetrable puzzle of linguistics and programming, as Australia already has theirs working just fine.
Sadly, this brings into sharp relief exactly how important Microsoft have made voice control to their UI. The UI closely resembles the current Windows 8 Metro view, with tiles for each function and groups to put tiles into. Navigating this sort of setup with just a controller isn’t difficult, but it does feel much more cumbersome than it needs to be. The same goes for the Snap feature — which allows users to snap a second app to the side of their screen if they want to listen to music or browse the internet while gaming. With voice all you need to do is say what you want to do, but without it you have to return to the home menu and manually switch back and forth, making it as convenient as fumbling with a remote.
What the UI does do well is switching between different applications and software. Now that I’ve gotten a taste of being able to pause my game, check achievements, quickly look at my favourite website and instantly switch back to the game in progress, I’m not sure I can ever go back. The improved integration with Xbox SmartGlass is also looking to be a winner, with the ability to launch games from the app, look at store information and load up specific game companions.
Recording game clips is another feature Microsoft was particularly proud of in the lead up to the One’s release, and it’s actually a pretty neat system. Clips can be recorded whenever you like, and instantly uploaded to your online profile. You can view someone’s clips from their page, and the most recent clips for any given game show up on its store page, which can often provide a better preview of a game than any polished trailer.
Aside from a slightly wonky UI, the One’s biggest hurdle going forward is the same one any new console has: unique content. There is a rather meagre selection of games and apps at this point, and while this is sure to grow, it remains to be seen whether the One will set itself apart as a system with something truly unique to offer or whether it will go down the same route as the 360 and simply be another place to play multiplatform games. It’s certainly a step forward in terms of power, speed and features, now it just has to make all that worth something. As it stands, the Xbox One is a very functional console and a rather nifty media device, and if that makes it sound a little boring then that’s probably a little accurate.