The Next Generation Has Dawned

Xbox One

The Xbox One launched worldwide last Friday, heralded by good reviews of the console as a whole.  Many have noted that the One’s entertainment focus shines through, but the console remains a serious gaming machine.

Thoughts on the Xbox One’s aesthetics are similar to those for the original Xbox of ten years ago – a big, heavy box which isn’t a looker, although it does look elegant within a home entertainment centre. However, unlike previous consoles, this one runs almost silently and draws very little in the way of power compared to the PS4, which is a plus.

The Xbox One’s graphical power is also a step up, but not a giant leap forward, from the 360 according to reviews, being similar in quality to the PS4.  It’s telling that Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts will run natively at 1080p on PS4 and only at 720p on Xbox One.  Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward claims that this is due to compatibility issues with the Xbox One that could not be ironed out in advance of release.  This doesn’t condemn the One to being second-fiddle to the PS4 in terms of power – but it does suggest that the tables have turned on Microsoft this generation, with the One being slightly more difficult to program for than the PS4, rather than the other way around last gen.

The Xbox One’s controller didn’t need to improve much from the 360’s, but several new changes have made it better, although some haven’t been as successful as others.  The one obvious downside to the 360’s controller was the d-pad, which more a poorly designed plastic ring that didn’t give very good feedback when pressing buttons.  This has been replaced with a simple cross, with four directional buttons that work much more efficiently.  The thumb sticks have been given more texture on the stalks, in case you prefer to use them that way, and a deeper concave top which grips your thumbs better.  The triggers are larger than before, tighter and more responsive, and include rumble functions that are designed to add to games by giving more subtle feedback than a full controller vibration – such as to mimic nerves before taking a penalty in FIFA or edging off the track in a racing game.  The bumper buttons haven’t improved.  They have been made larger, but are harder than before to press – making repeated presses much more effort than before.  They have also moved more towards the centre of the controller, which is an unusual place for them after using the 360 controller for years.  The back of the controller has more texture now than before, to make it easier to grip – with the battery pack of previous controllers being reduced.

The distinction between wired and wireless controllers has been removed for this generation, but not necessarily in the most efficient way.   Controllers now have a mini-USB port, allowing you to hook up the controller to the Xbox One and play wired.  However, they all still require AA batteries to play wirelessly – which are much more cumbersome than being able to recharge via USB.  The upside to this is that battery life is superb, with reviewers claiming weeks of heavy play before having to swap out batteries.

However, using the Xbox One with the controller is by far the least exciting way of doing it.  With a new improved Kinect ‘2.0’ coming along with the Xbox One, you can now use gesture and voice support to navigate through the console.  Everything you can do with a controller, you can now do with your voice; from turning the Xbox on and off, selecting apps, searching the store etc.  The Kinect can be set to constantly run, even when the Xbox is in standby mode, although this can also be turned off.   These commands are said to work well in general, although naturally sometimes the Kinect doesn’t quite understand what is being said or fails to pick up speech.  In the short time I had with the console, it didn’t work terribly well, but it could have something to do with the fact that there were several people talking in the room whilst people were commanding the Xbox.  Another small issue is the requirement to be very clear about your commands.  Saying “Xbox, play Ryse” won’t work; you have to say “Xbox, play Ryse: Son of Rome”.  On the whole, compared to the 360’s Kinect, it is a massive step forward.

The system interface of the Xbox One is familiar if you have had experience with the 360’s recent interface or Windows 8.  It’s extremely quick to load up and very fast to navigate.  Some commonly used features (such as friends lists) are hidden behind some tabs, meaning you’ll need to spend a little time navigating to them (or you can use the Kinect to do it), which is hardly ideal in a modern console.  A new ‘Pins’ tab mean that you can pin your favourite functions to that page, to make it easier for you to access them, though.

The Kinect adds a few great little features to the interface.  The Kinect can log you in to your profile by recognising you in the room, which works for multiple people at the same time.  The Kinect will also scan redeemable QR codes to save you the hassle of typing in 25 characters, which is a godsend.

A big change to the interface is the introduction of the ‘snap’ functionality.  Both new consoles allow you to navigate the dashboard properly whilst in a game, but the Xbox One allows you to ‘snap’ an application to the side of the screen – so you can keep track of two things at once.  You can play a game and see who’s in your Xbox Live party on the right, or keep track of football scores via a site on Internet Explorer, or watch Netflix (for a break between matches).  You can flip back and forth between the ‘windows’ by double tapping on the Xbox Guide button.  It’s a brilliant new feature, which adds another layer to gaming.  Sometimes video in the tab is a little laggy, and the One doesn’t necessarily mix audio outputs from both windows as well as it should, or allow manual adjustment, which detracts from the experience.  One unusual limitation is not being able to use the new Skype app whilst playing a game, which is perhaps one of the things that people would be most likely to use.

Xbox Live continues to be a great service, and the introduction of Skype to the platform is a big part of its improvement.  Audio chat in parties is even further improved because of the introduction of Skype’s audio codec.  Achievements have also been revamped slightly, with the introduction of ‘Challenges’ – which are time-limited objectives to add to your online bragging rights, that don’t affect your Gamerscore.  You can even get achievements now in apps like Netflix, but again it won’t bump up your Gamerscore.  A drawback to the new revamped achievement system is that you need to be online to unlock achievements.  You can earn them by meeting their requirements offline and then connecting to Xbox Live though.  The friends limit cap has been raised to 1,000, although it’s not as large as PSN’s and you can’t use anyone’s real names as of yet.  A new ‘Activity Feed’ is introduced to Xbox Live which lets you see what your friends are up to, but crucially you can also ‘follow’ gamers who you aren’t friends with, in a similar way to Twitter, that will show up on your activity feed.

Part of the Xbox One’s attempt at building a home entertainment console, rather than just a games one, is the ability to watch TV through your Xbox One.  The One accepts HDMI input from another source, which means you can plug your Sky, Virgin Media or Freeview box into the console and browse TV through the One.  If you want to, you could play the PS4 via the Xbox One, although there would be a lag as you’re outputting through an extra step.  From reviews I’ve read, this function works really well, although most of these were from American writers, and there have been some reports of some lag because of European and UK TV content being broadcast at 50Hz and the Xbox One outputting at 60Hz.

You can share Xbox One footage easily, much like the PS4.  Although it doesn’t have live stream capabilities through Twitch yet like the PS4, it will receive them early next year via a patch.  You can edit videos from the last five minutes by diving into a DVR app, or just say “Xbox, record that” to save the last thirty seconds of footage.  You can record more if you want by snapping the DVR to the side of the screen.  There is not as strong HDCP on the Xbox One, so it’s possible to record video from the console through traditional PVR and capture card means.

In terms of launch games, the Xbox One’s line-up is possibly stronger.  The usual range of third-party titles are available, but you can also buy titles such as Forza 5 and Dead Rising 3, two games that would be highlights in a release calendar any year.  Judging by the Metacritic rankings, not many other games are worth buying as of yet – with Ryse and Crimson Dragoon in particular receiving weaker review scores.  Again, though, in buying an Xbox One, you are sure to have titles like Halo and Gears of War at some point in the future – even if they are by different developers than the ones that made such games famous.

Comparison

The PS4 sold 1 million units in its’ first day in North America, while the Xbox One sold 1 million units in its’ first day, which included North America, Europe, Australia and 7 other markets.  This makes them both the fastest-selling launches of a console in history.  The Wii U only sold 400,000 units in its’ first week on sale.  For comparison’s sake, last-generation’s Wii – which went on to outsell both the 360 and PS3, only sold 600,000 units in its’ first eight days of release in North America – so both of these consoles show promise in terms of sales.  The PS4 outselling the Xbox One in North America is notable, but given that the PS4’s launch price is $100 cheaper than Microsoft’s machine, that’s not necessarily an indicator that the PS4 is bringing in more revenue.

There have been some reports of console failures, as is always expected. Some PS4s would simply not work, giving a ‘blue light of death’, although Sony claims the rate is only 0.4% for their machine.  Xbox Ones have suffered from an error with disc trays that don’t read discs properly and make a loud, grinding sound while doing so.  Whilst these foibles aren’t ideal, they are far less serious than the Xbox 360’s much publicised Red Ring of Death that claimed as many as 23% of launch consoles.

A common concern for both platforms is the relatively small hard drive space that comes along with the consoles.  Both feature a 500GB drive as standard; but with mandatory installation of game data that reaches up to 40GB for disc games and goes beyond that for downloadables, many are worried that they will have to spend more money on adding space.  The PS4 allows you to remove the existing hard drive and replace it with any compatible one, of any size, that you want while the Xbox One allows you to attach an external hard drive if you want more space.  Each console only has the one option to upgrade physical storage though.  Therefore, it is recommended that if you are buying a next-gen console to consider buying extra storage along with it.

Both consoles also require large patches to firmware the second you set up the console.  For the PS4’s, you can skip this and use it with limited functionality, connect the PS4 to the internet to download the patch or download the patch on your computer and bring it over via USB.  The Xbox One is much more restrictive, requiring you to connect the console to the internet to download the update; otherwise you will be left with an almost entirely functionless console.

As of yet, I’m not going to put my money on the line by buying one of the two.  Until the launch of a proven franchise that I enjoy such as Mass Effect, Red Dead or, perhaps a new, much improved, Call of Duty, I don’t have much incentive to shell out over £400 to get fully involved in the next-gen.  The launch line-ups are nothing too exciting.  Several upcoming and rumoured releases next year may force my hand though.

I also think that as things stand at the moment, the main deciding factor to me as to which console to buy will be what the people I play with buy.  Neither of the old consoles has any pre-existing exclusive IP that I really enjoy, apart from the dead Resistance series, so I have no inherent loyalty to either one.  And with no ‘killer apps’ as of yet on either, the pendulum hasn’t swung either way.  With the similarity between both systems’ performance and architecture, developers can more easily create games that run well on both platforms; rather than focussing on one over the other because of time or money restraints.  I think other valid decision points on the consoles are the extent of entertainment experience and, obviously, price.

It’s neck-and-neck between the consoles so far, and few reviewers have dared give one console the advantage over the other.

A new generation in gaming has properly begun – and the console war between Sony and Microsoft is closer than ever.

If you’d like to read more in-depth, hands-on reviews of both the Xbox One and PS4, I’d recommend visiting these websites (particularly the ArsTechnica and Polygon reviews):

 

PS4                    Xbox One

IGN                                        IGN

ArsTechnica                            ArsTechnica

Polygon                                  Polygon

Engadget                                Engadget

Eurogamer                              Eurogamer

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