I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft’s Xbox consoles.
With every iteration of the console wars, I’ve always sided with the Japanese gaming giants, Nintendo and Sony. Perhaps I’m afraid of change.
But here I am, with an Xbox One camera in my room, and the Kinect camera staring me down as I bash out this review. To be fair, I didn’t buy the console it's a review model, courtesy of Microsoft. But now that it’s here, and after around 50 hours of play, it’s grown on me.
I’m actually a little reluctant to send it back. But has the Xbox One done enough to change my programming?
Unboxing the Xbox
Microsoft must be a firm believer in the whole ‘bigger is better’ adage, because the Xbox One is huge. It's girth and the accompanying Kinect sensor is enough to make you double take when you pull it out of its shiny green box. The icing on the cake: it’s accompanied with thick sturdy cables which can be a little tricky to thread through tight spaces. If you're setting up the Xbox One in a tight space, you may want to measure it out first. It’s likely bigger than any of those other devices you may have sitting under your TV.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much better once you turn the Xbox One on. Unlike the consoles of yore, this is not a plug-and-play device. As is the norm with almost all the consoles these days, you need to go through menu after menu of set-up screens to ready the Xbox for use. In total, it took me about an hour to set up, agree to Microsoft's legal jargon and offer up my details to their servers.
Also, don’t plan on moving the console around too much either. This console was built to be left in one place; most likely your living room. The Kinect sensor doesn’t take too well to being shifted around and needs to be recalibrated with each move.
Once you hit the main screen, the Xbox One experience finally becomes less of a hassle and more of an enjoyment. The main interface of the console is clean, and easy to use. It borrows the same tile-style layout seen with Microsoft Windows 8 OS.
Even if you’re a little lost, there are some great tutorial videos that feature on the main screen to show you what’s what. For some reason though, the voice command tutorials, along with the Australian Xbox Music and Movies stores aren’t available out of the box - you have to download them from Microsoft’s servers.
Australian accents and a voice command mystery
The voice and gesture commands - enabled by Microsoft’s Kinect unit - are excellent. They take some getting used to, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll resort to them as an afterthought and abuse the “Xbox Turn Off” command.
At times, these commands can be a bit sketchy. For instance when I tell say “Xbox play disc” to get it to boot up the game in the unit, it loads up the music store. That pesky Australian accent eh?
Well, that’s the reason that Microsoft has provided for not rolling out its voice commands at full strength in Australia. But that doesn’t exactly wash.
A quick flick to the options menu and a snappy toggle to US version of the console, and suddenly the voice commands are drastically better; even with my dreadful Australian (sometime mistaken for American) accent. I could even access that very useful “Xbox On” command to turn on the console. This was excluded from the Australian version of the console.
The Xbox One is also a geoblock-free console, so you can play Australian games on the US version of the console without any hitches. Online play works too. There is a catch however, Microsoft will let you buy US movies, music and TV shows at US prices with Australian credit card with a faked US address, but it won’t let you play them. Very sneaky Microsoft.
Handy features abound
Console jailbreaking aside, the Xbox One also has a number of handy features that really cement it as a next-generation gaming console. To be honest, there’s too many to list, but there are a few that stood out.
The new Xbox’s online gaming profile management system is a huge improvement on anything seen in the last generation of consoles. It even comes with random gaming name generator - doing away with the hours required to come up with an original, non-numbered gaming name.
Microsoft’s multi-screen Snap feature is cool too. This allows you to divide up your screen and do two things at once. Want to buy and download a video while playing Dead Rising 3? Well, Snap allows you to do this. It’s handy, albeit a tad gimmicky, but should appeal to the multi-taskers among us.
The Xbox One also allows you to record and upload gaming footage to its own social network. Another great feature, but it would be so much better if you could share your digital triumphs on Facebook or Twitter. This would also double as a great marketing for Xbox’s range of games.
All of these features are great, but it’s a shame Microsoft hasn’t been able to iron out some of the frustrations from the previous generation of consoles. For instance, game install times are still quite lengthy and now have the added bonus of being quite data intensive. The Xbox One allows you to install games while undertaking other tasks, but that more or less hides the problem rather than fixing it.
And we’re finally gaming
There’s so much to do on the new Xbox, that it’s pretty easy to forget that this is indeed a gaming console. Luckily, Microsoft hasn’t.
The graphics on the new console are superb. The latest Forza racing game perhaps best showcases the console’s visual prowess. The level of detail in that game is astounding. It’s at a point where you can see realistic-looking sunbeams reflecting into the car as you drive towards the sun.
The graphics aren’t the only thing that’s impressive with Forza. It also hosts a cloud-based system that records your driving behaviour and then uses it to create a driving bot that will traverse across the net. When you race against other drivers in Forza, you're no longer competing against the game’s AI. You’re racing against cloud-based bots, built on the driving data collected from other players.
Most of Xbox One’s games will also harness the console’s new SmartGlass system. This basically connects the console with a device of your choice, though an app you can download on any of the respective app stores.
Second-screen gaming is an exciting concept, but it’s yet to be fully realised. At least, in any of the current release Xbox One titles. In Dead Rising 3, the SmartGlass app is more or less an interactive strategy guide that offers few side missions for good measure.
Someone will come along and create a game that revolutionises this feature. It’s not on the market yet, but it’s exciting just thinking about it.
In that regard, the future of gaming looks very bright on the Xbox One. The launch line-up isn’t too inspiring. But from what I’ve played, it seems enterprise IT trends are bleeding into the gaming space and that's going to produce some very interesting results.
One console, many revenue streams
The Xbox One is proof that gaming has well and truly adopted Amazon’s Kindle business model, where buying a console is only the beginning of a transactional journey.
If you want to do anything online with the Xbox One, you have to pay Microsoft $79.95 per year for an Xbox Gold membership. If you're a developer and you want to feature your game on the console’s home menu, you will presumably have to pay an ad fee for that. And if you’re pioneering indie games, and you want to distribute your game via the Xbox store, you’ll need to pay a fee for that too. If you want a controller with a rechargeable battery pack, you have to buy this too as an add-on accessory.
Little cost-cutting measures, like the controller, worked when Microsoft offered it’s Xbox as a tiered product. For instance, with the Xbox 360’s launch you had the Pro model which came with everything and the Arcade model which really was the budget version of the same device.
No pun intended, but there’s only one Xbox One on the market and it’s priced as a premium product. It’s in fact the most expensive Xbox console to date. Microsoft obviously did all it could to keep the overall $600 price tag down and still include the impressive Kinect sensor but the priciest next-gen console on the market just doesn’t feel like the Rolls-Royce of gaming.
There’s honestly too much to write about with the Xbox One. We haven’t even touched on the multimedia aspects of this device.
Adam Turner already sized up the multimedia elements of the console in his write up earlier this month. And, this review isn’t going to tread over old ground. You can read his full review here, but in summary, he said that the Xbox One has potential as a multimedia hub, but Microsoft is yet to fully execute on all of its promised features.
The same comment really applies of the rest of the console too.
The Xbox One is missing that final sheen of polish, that little extra that takes it from being a good device to being an unforgettable one.
What's unforgivable however, is Microsoft's lack of care for the Australian market. This is the second next-gen console that I’ve reviewed that promises the world to US users but leaves their Australian counterparts second best.
So, back to the question that I posed at the start of the review: has the Xbox One converted me?
No, it hasn’t. I will still end up buying a PS4 – even though I haven’t even tried it yet.