As I wake up this morning, I find myself on the fence. Yesterday, at a controlled presentation from their Redmond campus, Microsoft finally unveiled their mythical Durango project: the Xbox One. Taking the box portion of their moniker fairly literally, the third entry into the Xbox family promises improved performance for games, beefy software based on Windows 8, Kinect 2.0 and a plethora of entertainment media offerings. Yet aside from showing off the impressive multitasking capability, the speed of the new console and the exclusive relationships with new media giants, I can’t bring myself to fully accept the Xbox One.
See, I have supported the Xbox brand faithfully since the winter of 2001, during its original launch window. That Xbox still sits under a 20″ CRT television and still works reasonably well. I also have owned the Xbox 360 since its first year and to this day I consider it my primary console.
I was awake early for Microsoft’s presser (I streamed it live over my Xbox 360), and I found myself getting anxious in anticipation of the new features, the new games, the new technology that Microsoft crammed into their shiny new console. But when all was said and done, I wasn’t even sure what to take away from the showing. All I knew was the name caught me off guard, the console was there to see, some new features were shown and a couple of pseudo-announcements were made.
What’s in the box!?!
The Xbox One was right there, plain as day. Unlike Sony’s reveal of the PlayStation 4 where there wasn’t so much of a reveal as there were presenters trotting around talking about dynamic technology and waving around the fancy Dualshock 4. The fact that Microsoft had the stones to put the Xbox One on display, complete with the new Kinect and controller showed that they were at least paying attention to Sony’s miscues.
Aesthetically, the Xbox One looks to be fairly large. Kotaku did a basic size comparison of the console and it appears to take about the same amount of table space as a mid sized laptop (they used a MacBook Air for comparison). At first I was underwhelmed by the look of the One, but its simple stylings have grown on me and I can see it neatly fitting into the counter of any entertainment system. Even the Kinect has adopted the boxy look though I question the weird placement of the camera, but more on that later.
Inside the Xbox One is an 8 core x86 processor with 8GBs of RAM, a 500GB internal HDD, a Blu-Ray drive (finally), USB 3.0, internal 802.11n wireless (finally again) and HDMI in/out. All this is in line with what was expected and is fairly similar to the PS4’s offerings. Although the HDMI in/out is particularly interesting as it allows for cable boxes to be attached to the Xbox One to allow for live TV to be shown through the console.
Microsoft is clearly proud of this new feature and demonstrated it at length in the early portions of the presentation. Not only is live TV, complete with local listings, a unique capability of the Xbox One, it allowed Microsoft to demonstrate the ease at which switching from the Dashboard to live TV would be. But swapping between TV and the dashboard wasn’t the only thing, with a quick voice command the Xbox One snaps from live TV to a game of Forza Motorsport instantly.
The key to this effortless evolution in multitasking is due to the Xbox One taking part of the Windows 8 kernel to allow it to act more like a PC. It’s an intriguing proposition and something that seemed to work well as they demonstrated simultaneous instances of gameplay, movie viewing, live TV feeds, internet browsing via Internet Explorer and Skype conversations.
It still plays games, right?
During the presentation not only did MS show a glimpse of a (McLaren filled) Forza Motorsport 5, but they had Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake, Max Payne) on tap for a new IP in Quantum Break, EA Sports discussing their concept of Ignite and Infinity Ward showed off Call of Duty:
I will point out that I was disappointed in Forza Motorsport’s pre-rendered trailer, but the in game screenshots appear to be solid. I am less forgiving for EA Sports however. At least they owned up to using pre-rendered trailers based on assets from their games, but they’ve already gone down this road several times before (Madden 06 announcement). The fact that the trailer models looked emaciated and decidedly terrible only made the taste sour in my mouth. Frustrations from pre-rendered trailers aside, having Forza and Call of Duty in the launch window for the Xbox One should help Microsoft this fall.
The Xbox One’s controller will look familiar as it is the exact same layout as the 360’s controller. The squishy pancake D-pad has been swapped for a traditional cross, the Xbox guide button (or whatever they’re calling it now) has been moved to the top of the controller, and overall it appears a little wider for contour purposes. They have also added force feedback into the triggers for a more robust rumble.
Kinect 2.0 has been improved with better voice recognition, a stronger camera and software that identifies more points of the human body. Not only has skeletal mapping increased, but body angles, force and impact of movement, and even heartrate can supposedly be recognized by the new Kinect.
Online features like cloud supported gaming and expanded achievements were also touted. Achievements can even be recorded and shared so that your entire Facebook feed can see you teabag in the next Halo.
What about always online, used games and backwards compatibility?
Where Microsoft was calm and collected during their presentation, it was when reporters began questioning the things that gamers were really worried about that Microsoft’s united front began to crumble. The console was confirmed to need at least some form of online connectivity, games were to require access codes and backwards compatibility for 360 games was shot down.
Their reasoning for requiring online connection is that the Cloud service, similar to the way that the new Sim City operates, exists to assist in the execution of games and applications. What worries consumers is that there will be no way to run software without connecting to the internet constantly or even becoming disconnected will break the execution of a game. This is both true and false. Microsoft representatives confirmed that some sort of online connection would be required, but that (unless needed by the application) internet connection can be interrupted with functionality continuing. However, the catch is that at some point after loss of connection, the Xbox One needs to be reconnected at least once per day in order to continue functioning. This means that a system with no connection will not be feasible, neither will taking your console into the woods to play for a week, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’m not surprised the backwards compatibility was not included because it just does not seem to be a priority for this incoming generation of consoles. To be fair, if you’re going to buy an Xbox One, odds are that you have an Xbox 360 already and with digital distribution, purchasing of older titles will be inevitable.
But used games and borrowed games are where things become sticky. The Xbox One is to require a one-time access code for each game put into the console. In order to play a game after the code has been used, the user has to purchase a new key at the cost of a new game. This may effectively kill used game sales, rentals and even loaning a game to a friend. Microsoft did point out that the code is attached to a gamer’s profile, so if you log in through another console and play the game, there should be no problems. Even still, this is not something I am fond of, despite my propensity towards purchasing new games.
So how’s that fence?
Honestly, my views on this console may have shifted back and forth over the course of this article. The Xbox One feels like a device that would perfectly integrate into my routine. I already use my Xbox 360 as a main hub for both gaming and entertainment, the Xbox One would merely be a natural progression. Always online isn’t a problem for me as that describes nearly every one of my devices. The only thing holding me back is the Xbox One effectively burying the secondary gaming and rental market.
Microsoft teased my expectations by showing off a device that would fit well into my interests. They even surprised me by announcing a live action Halo series produced by Steven Spielberg. But I have to remember that at its core, the Xbox is for playing games. One time use access codes destroy the secondary market, persistent online requirements handcuff the console more than Microsoft thinks, a Kinect that always on is incredibly intrusive and pre-rendered trailers that show zero innovation are simply insulting. Maybe the Xbox brand is primed to square off against Google and Apple, but they’ll need to remember who built their brand come E3.