Dear Xbox lovers, your wait is nearly over. Tomorrow Microsoft’s next-generation games console Xbox One goes on sale and if you’re going to be among the first cohort to get their hands on it then you’ll want to know how good it is.
It’s been quite a wait hasn’t it? Tomorrow will mark eight years to the day since Microsoft brought out the Xbox 360 (still a powerful platform in its own right and likely to be so for quite awhile), and with almost 80m units sold Microsoft is moving on to its next winner.
What’s truly exciting about the time we are in is the sheer concentration around console launches – the Xbox One tomorrow and the Sony PlayStation 4 on 29 November – so much at once and it’s no coincidence, both Microsoft and Sony will compete aggressively for the hearts and dollars of dedicated gamers.
But the landscape has changed and neither company can afford to trade on former glories – eight years ago there were no smartphones in the way we understand them today; there was no Twitter; there was no iPad; YouTube was but a pup; and for many broadband was still in its formative stages.
The year 2013 is a vastly different place and gamers as we know them tend to do much of their stuff on little glass screens and their game apps are downloaded in seconds. Foostering around with discs is so last decade.
So it’s hard to decide who will be the optimum customer either Sony or Microsoft will be targeting. The young gamers of 2005 are mostly grown up now and some have daily running arguments with their kids who run off with their tablet computers to download Temple Run 2.
The real target market will be the dedicated gamer, a breed of gamer who has the cash, the patience and the appreciation for cinematic graphics. The gamer who has probably stayed with Call of Duty since its inception and could probably match the sequels of Halo with pivotal events in their lives.
The great beyond
With the Xbox One you get the sense that Microsoft saw this eventuality coming, took a look around and saw the digital landscape for what it is today – on demand, insatiable desire for entertainment experiences now – and decided the new console would be far more than a games station, it would be the entertainment and digital hub of your life. It would be the place where your jaw drops at the latest escapades of Walter White from Breaking Bad and in an instant throw yourself onto the mean streets of Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto 5 or Skype or do a workout with your friends thousands of miles away.
The console has moved from the bored teenager’s bedroom to sitting among the clutter of the evolved digital life of individuals who have too much, too many gadgets, but too little time – it will sit among surround-sound systems, set-top boxes, second-screen devices and indeed it will seek to marry all of this into one.
Does it succeed?
When you open the box on the Xbox One, the first thing that is apparent is the Kinect sensor. It seems bigger and bulkier than its original predecessor and it has a speaker that runs along the base.
You’ll also note that Microsoft has bundled in a generously long HDMI cable (sensible move, Redmond). The power block is what you’d expect a power block to be and the controller appears more refined and stylish. Ergonomically it fits beautifully into your hands and a headset and microphone included in the package clips neatly into the base of the controller – with useful volume and mute buttons within reach of your thumbs.
The machine itself is quite elegant, the power button shines a bright white and tinkles prettily when you switch it on.
The console packs a lot of punch – it includes an eight-core x86 processor with an 853MHz GPU clock speed. Wi-Fi is built in and the machine boasts 8GB DDR3 RAM, which is about 15 times the amount of RAM in the Xbox 360.
Out back there is an HDMI port for connecting to the TV and another HDMI port for connecting to your satellite or cable set-top box. There are also three USB 3.0 ports, the Kinect sensor port, an Ethernet connector, optical and audio ports and an IR port. It almost makes you nostalgic for SCART leads.
RYSE: Son of Rome
Set-up was quicker and easier than I expected but that was because our office doesn’t have cable or satellite TV and so I focused on setting it up as a console only.
After you’ve gone through the whole avatar sign in thing, the first thing you’ll notice once the user interface comes swishing into view is how different everything is to the Xbox 360. Different, but in our highly attenuated digital state, thanks to smartphones, tablets and if you’ve been using Windows 8 at all, instinctive and familiar.
What’s immediately obvious on first perusal is the user interface is dominated by a large screen that reflects the last game you’ve played, the last movie, or song, or app. It is also going to be your home for TV programmes and it feels like Microsoft has pulled off something of a strategic masterstroke in its design.
Surrounding this central screen are your favourite apps and activities, or what Microsoft would call “pins” while off to the right as you scroll along are the respective Games, Movies, Music and Apps stores.
The design of the user interface is elegant and smooth and navigation is quite fast and easy. Remember, the new console is deeply integrated with Kinect so all you have to do is hold up your hands and move objects on the screen with physical motions.
Because of my rush into switching on Kinect I overlooked the reviewer’s guide and the part where it said that voice control of the new Xbox via Kinect will only be available in five out of the 13 markets that Xbox One will launch in tomorrow – you know, the big ones like the US and the UK – the rest will follow soon in an update, a spokesperson promised. So for awhile my colleagues and I were shouting “Xbox, on” and “Xbox, go home” to no avail.
It would have been cool to experience this functionality straight off because it feels like it would be the outstanding, definitive feature of Xbox One. Time will tell.
Forza Motorsport 5
Our review model came with two games, a disc-installed version of the new game RYSE: Son of Rome and Forza Motorsport 5. One of the things you need to get used to about the new console is that everything has to be installed onto the device, something that gamers from the world of chuck the disc in and play away will find very different.
RYSE was meant to be installing for ages – showing a 1pc progression for a long time – but as soon as I decided to play it out of exasperation, the game was ready to play. Very confusing.
In each type of store on the Xbox One – games, music, apps, movies – there is a “use code” option for buying games. This involves simply holding a QR code you’ve been issued with in front of the Kinect’s camera and the download begins.
In this way I downloaded Forza Motorsport 5. Because it’s a fully fledged console game, the download took awhile and this is where broadband speeds will really be tested.
The gameplay on the Xbox One will not disappoint. Taking Forza for example, after listening to Jeremy Clarkson ramble on about his lust for things with four wheels, it was straight into the action careening around the streets of Prague in a souped-up supercar. The adrenalin rush is there, the graphics are super-cinematic and realistic and the colours are mesmerising. Mind you, that was just a gentle introduction – the real action comes later as you race in some of the fastest cars in the world’s most exotic locations.
RYSE: Son of Rome is a beautiful, if gory, swords and sandals mash-up of Call of Duty and Streetfighter, where vivid and grandiose depictions of ancient Rome vie with the pace and thrill of combat and you have to rely on quickly learned combination attacks to maim and disembowel hordes of marauding barbarians. The game is addictive and epic in scale but there little glitches, such as members of the crowd freezing on screen like a moonwalking Michael Jackson while blood and gore fly around them.
We also tried a demo of FIFA 14 and the quality of the graphics were immediately apparent – not a pixel in sight – and the footie players looked like they were painted onto the screen.
Another cool set of features is Game DVR and Upload Studio, where you can capture videos of your gameplay, edit your favourite scenes, add in voice commentary and post them to your Xbox Live profile.
The biggest shift with the arrival of the Xbox One is clearly the seismic transformation in terms of hardware specs. Gaming is getting bigger, more beautiful and more immersive.
But it’s not enough in an on-demand, multi-screen world where distractions exist aplenty and Microsoft knows this. That’s why positioning the Xbox One as an entertainment hub was strategically brilliant. The sooner Microsoft rolls out voice-command capabilities for the rest of the world, the more seamless a role the Xbox One will play in digital lives. But integrating Xbox One with TV set-top boxes was a masterstroke.
If there’s one thing Microsoft has done right with the Xbox One it’s this: it conjures up the original emotions, the giddiness of wanting to play video games and the satisfaction of a race or a fight won. Magical.
The truly exciting part is what game and app developers will do with the hardware and how gaming might evolve following this long overdue stepchange.
Developers, now it’s your move.