It’s been a while since Microsoft released its latest console, the Xbox One, and with the Christmas rush out of the way it’s high time it was put through its paces.
Of course, the version of the Xbox One we have now is far from its potential and there are plenty of possibilities for the future, but at the same time, a lot of people have paid a lot of money for this console, so what did they get for their cash?
The Xbox One is a gaming machine built for a connected future. Though I won’t get into the tech specs debate (may touch on that later), the key thing is that this is a considerable step up from the Xbox 360.
The increase in memory (eight times to be vaguely approximate) is the most noticeable change,boosting draw differences and the amount that can be going on on screen substantially.
Kinect 2.0 is a big improvement on the original and is pretty reliable – providing you pay attention when going through the setup process. There are a lot of optimisations and refinements to come with this, but to perform this well pretty much out of the box is a real plus.
The multimedia features of the box are one of the main selling points for some, since the console’s vision of being king of the living room actually seems to work in practice. Jumping between DVD, Netflix and games using voice commands is seamless and soon you will wish you had the same functionally in all of your devices.
The HDMI passthrough is the feature which still holds the biggest potential, since at the moment the much-touted TV services are very much US-orientated, but hooking up the Xbox 360 works pretty well (apart from the One having to be on to play it).
The launch line-up was reasonable, and showcases what the console can do, to an extent. Forza Motorsport 5 (to give it its full, overly-wordy title) is a solid game. It looks beautiful, it plays smoothly and the drivatar system, which builds AI racers based on the drive style of your friends and other players, makes the competitive experience far more compelling.
There are some issues with multiplayer games at present, some of which are more the One’s fault than the games, but when you do get into a game it’s good fun, though you can’t help but feel some of the Top Gear humour seen in the single player could have been extended to give a selection of ‘party’ race types, which emphasise the sillier aspects of a game which is generally fairly stuck up.
Dead Rising 3 delivers more of what fans wanted and puts an impressive number of zombies on the screen, but doesn’t offer much in terms of story or anything which is particularly ‘next-gen’.
Ryse, heralded as the shiniest of the first party launch trio. Has strong visuals with somewhat lacking variety in terms of gameplay. The controls can be a pain as well, with a simple action, such as picking up and throwing a spear, being a pain.
Performance of third-party games is strong, although there’s no getting away from the fact that the PlayStation 4 handles them with greater ease. Battlefield is a strong example of how a tried and tested gaming experience can be taken forward, with the scale of 64 player battles undeniably impressive – it’s just a shame about all the bugs.
Which leads us neatly onto the not-quite-baked interface. Generally most tasks are intuitive enough, particularly when you use voice commands to bring them up, but delving through the menus can be a chore.
Luckily the ability to ‘pin’ games and menu items on the left hand side of the home screen is a great help to making your life easier, though it would have been nice to see the customisation taken a step further.
The biggest issue is that everything feels a bit slow, as everything is now its own ‘app’ rather than just a part of the UI which was running in the background. Plus there are a raft of basic menu options, particularly relating to friends and parties, which are just inexplicably missing.
When you work out how to get everyone into a party, turn on party chat (still baffling that the default is off with no option to change) and get that party into a game, things are fairly simple. The trouble is the combination of different invites and different places to do different things is dizzying and most players would have lost patience long before it became obvious.
It seems in their strive for simplicity, Microsoft have taken out a lot of the basic functions which were actually so commonly and easily used that they became second nature, making their disappearance cause to learn a whole new way of doing things.
It’s not dissimilar to the switch of the start button to the start screen of Windows 8, by no small coincidence, but it is frustrating when the logic isn’t obvious and it’s easy to feel as if things have just been changed for the sake of it rather than because it enhances the player experience.
Probably the strongest element of what the Xbox One has to offer, Microsoft kept thing similar but made a lot of refinements under the hood – perhaps an ethos they should have extended to the interface overall…
The controller feels sturdy, has a comfortable weight and feel and reacts precisely. The rumbles in the triggers, probably the most obvious change from the 360 iteration, go a long way to adding to the immersion and it will be interesting to see how it is used in genres such as survival horror to catch players of guard.
The D pad is leaps and bounds ahead of the 360s bloated mess, and the buttons generally are solid without being stiff. There have been some objections to the sharpness of the edges of the thumb sticks, but a lot of it comes down to personal preference.
Of course Kinect is also a controller, but with little on the table to prove itself just yet. The viewing angle is much improved and it works well in a more confined space but it can be fussy if you have something between it and you in the middle of the room, such as a coffee table.
Updates and tweaks will see this go from strength, but considering how little the first Kinect progressed from its release, you can be fairly sure that any change from how the new version is working now is fairly close to the peak of its potential.
The Xbox One is a machine which offers new experiences, but often at the expense of the old. The slick feeling of effortlessly breezing through things with voice commands is excellent, until you reach a point where you have to press a button on the controller and you wonder why.
The social side is where Microsoft has to do the most work. The Xbox LIVE community, probably Microsoft’s greatest success to date (at least in its gaming division), has been fractured with this new console release, in a way which wasn’t as significant when the Xbox 360 came along.
Online is undeniably where the future of console gaming lies, and online functions and integration are going to become increasingly important as time goes on.
More games will be online only, more will have integrated social functions, possibly supported by tablet devices, drawing on the benchmark set by the new version of Xbox Smartglass, and players are going to become increasingly impatient.
Some work needs to be done to plug the gaps and rethink the oversights, but by and large the Xbox One is well set for this future. Being future-focused brings the drawback that the current experience might feel like a bit of a let down.
Once more games come along, particularly Titanfall, Destiny and Watch Dogs, there will be a much more rich variety of things to do on the machine, but for now things can be particularly empty, especially if you are purely focused on gaming.
If you take the One as it is, it might not knock your socks off, but if you bear in mind the long-term and the potential of what Microsoft are clearly trying to create, then you will appreciate it a lot more.
For now, the key is getting together with people who you know. Even having one team mate playing with you, who you can rely on and communicate with, makes all the difference in most games, and multiplayer adds life and soul to otherwise clinical titles such as Forza.
Most importantly, enjoy it and try things out. If you haven’t unpacked Kinect yet then it’s well worth exploring, since it does add a lot to the user experience. In the words of Colonel Stars and Stripes whatever you do, try to have fun, otherwise, what’s the point?
To game online with This Is Entertainment, message gamertag ‘Decent Jam’ or visit the forums at http://www.oxm.co.uk.
James Michael Parry