All my life I’ve played video games. I remember when we got the original Nintendo (which, thanks to a friend of mine, I still own a version of); I remember being upset when I realized that the onset of the Super Nintendo era meant that they would stop making NES Mega Man games, but falling in love with SNES’s classic (and maybe best game of all time) Zelda installation, A Link to the Past. I remember thinking a Zelda game could never work on one of the fancy new 3D consoles (“How could they possibly get around the top-down view from the old games?”), and then being blown away by Ocarina of Time. I remember thinking that Sony’s PlayStation gamble would never be able to compete with fierce Nintendo and Sega brand loyalty, and that XBox’s entry into the market in the following generation was a misguided joke. Then the Dreamcast bombed, my GameCube couldn’t play about half the games on the market, and Halo came out… and within a few years, I bought an XBox. By the time the next generation rolled around, I was hip to the times; XBox and PlayStation were here to stay; Nintendo was relying on cheap consoles, cheap games, and novel gimmicks to capture the family gaming market. I bought an XBox 360 long before I bought a Wii, and to date I have about 10 times as many XBox games as Wii games, maybe more.
With the next generation of consoles out, I knew I would have to make some serious decisions. History had taught me that brand loyalty means nothing; just because I have a 360 now doesn’t mean I should get an XBox One. Moreover, the new XBox isn’t backwards compatible, so my impressive library of 360 games wouldn’t factor into my decision. Initial reports on specs for the new platforms suggested that PS4 would outstrip XBox One in most categories, plus the XBox system would be far less flexible, requiring users to maintain an expensive XBox Live account and boasting a litany of other offenses large and small. On top of all of that, it would cost more. In the end, I was thinking there was a good chance I’d make the decision to switch that I failed to do years ago with the GameCube.
In the end, my decision was made for me — my friend (the same one who sold me his NES) decided to go with the XBox option; this in spite of the fact that he owned a PS3 (and also a 360 — he game real hard). Since a lot of the fun of the games lies in the multiplayer options, and to date no cross-platform multiplayer options exist, there was basically no other option than to follow suit. I’ve had my XBox One out of the box for about 24 hours now, and here’s what I’ve discovered.
So far, there’s a lot of really cool things about the XBox. In many cases, these apply to both consoles; if you’re looking for an in-depth breakdown of which is better at what, this seems to do a pretty nice job. But as for things that I like about my new XBox One so far, here they are, in no particular order:
The graphics are hands down better than the 360. I didn’t really think this would be a huge selling point, but it turned out it is. Apparently, PS4 has better graphics than XBox One, but the difference isn’t that noticeable unless they’re side by side. Anyway, I actually think that the gaming industry will be at a crossroads for the next generation of consoles — they’re rapidly approaching the uncanny valley, and I think the industry is going to have to pour a ton of money into elevating their graphics to the point of photorealism in order to avoid the sickening sensation of seeing a perfectly-crafted computer-generated face, then seeing its hair fail to detect it and pass seamlessly through its own skin.
I didn’t have a Kinect with my 360, but I went ahead and spent the extra money to get one with my new XBox One — we’ll get into why later. So far, the ability to issue voice commands has been extremely helpful, and I intend to continue to use it. An obvious application here is pausing Netflix and other video apps; one of my biggest pet peeves about the old system was how hard it was to judge the timing on the menu — how often did you hit play, then wait to see if the controller menu would disappear, then click “B” to get it to go away, but you were a second too late so you accidentally exited the movie? Or worse — bump the controller to the ground and all hell breaks loose. That’s a thing of the past, now!
By far the coolest thing is that you can use your XBox One as an entertainment console — you can plug your satellite or cable into the XBox and use it to switch between TV and games and apps, without having to change your input. I actually had a pretty complicated setup involving an audio receiver, so I didn’t think this would be that useful, but since 95% of my use is either the XBox or the TV, now I don’t have to even switch my receiver. I was a bit worried when I ran through the setup steps that the receiver wouldn’t work (it kept trying to issue volume commands to my TV, for instance, which has zero pracitcal effect), but in looking through the settings it turns out you can redirect audio commands to a receiver. I had a few hiccups getting it set up (it was unable to automatically detect my cable box type), but I found that I could manually specify my setups and it had no trouble getting everything set up; it seems like they have a pretty rich library of integrations. There’s also the ability to basically PIP an app — including TV, so today I watched the Duke game while playing Shadow of Mordor. Go Devils!
As an added bonus, if you get the Kinect, you can actually issue TV commands verbally, and switch between TV and games with verbal commands too. To top it off, you can even turn on and off the entire system with voice commands. I just took a video of it, but can’t upload videos to my blog unless I buy a $100 upgrade (stupid WordPress), so that’s not going make its way up here. The important thing is that it turns on my audio receiver and my TV, just by me saying “XBox On.” But don’t take my word for it — here’s meth kingpin Jesse Pinkman shilling for the man:
This is actually where brand loyalty to XBox (and Nintendo in the past) really matters; I want to play the next Halo game when it comes out. I have no attachment to any PS games, and none have been sufficiently intriguing for me to even consider getting a new console just to play them. XBox exclusive games are a pretty small fraction of the games I’ll play, but I’m excited to know I’ll be able to play the ones I really want to.
Of course, knowing me, there’s always plenty to gripe about. None of these things is a deal breaker, but in my opinion they’ll need to be dealt with if XBox wants to steal away any market share from PlayStation in the long run.
The new menu is — at least for now — totally un-navigable. It’s just a huge jumble of stuff; it seems like the most recent things you’ve viewed show up to the main page, and anything important you can “pin” to the far-left page, but they’ve severely reduced the navigable content and thrown all apps under a generic “apps” tag. It’s also almost impossible to navigate with only a controller; it’s really built for use with the Kinect, which is why I ended up getting one. Speaking of which…
It’s pretty cool as a gimmick, but the Kinect has a long way to go. Its speech recognition is at best fair and at worst usable; it definitely gets things wrong from time to time. I’ve also heard that its facial recognition is fairly poor — it signs you in automatically when it sees you, but apparently if you have two people who even look remotely similar that have accounts on the same system, that’s a deal breaker. (This is anecdotal; friends have complained of this. I’ve not had any issues.) Where it’s really lacking is in its gesture controls. They’re basically unusable; having to wave your hands out in front of you is tiring on the arms; the gesture recognition software is either a little too jumpy, picking up gestures where there are none, or not perceptive enough, failing to interpret gestures unless they’re performed perfectly; it’s gesturing interface has unintuitive and uncomfortable commands (you extend your arm to click something, but frequently it doesn’t pick up that you’ve begun extending until your arm is already fully extended, and then there’s no more extending you can do, so you just… sit there…). Altogether, the gesturing is not ready for production and primarily serves as a distracting gimmick.
The other shortfall in this area is Kinect-integrated games. Assuming the technology is where they say it is, this should be an incredibly powerful tool for developers to exploit. Unfortunately, I think the fact the Kinect is not a guaranteed feature of the XBox makes it difficult to design around the assumption that there will be one — if you make it a central feature of the game, you’re really just limiting your audience. Furthermore, given the above list of grievances, it’s definitely possible the technology just isn’t where they claim. Either way, the Kinect is a killer app away from being something really special, but until then it’s just not there yet.
There doesn’t seem to be an HBOGO app? Thank God I finished The Wire last weekend.
All-in-all, I have no regrets about my recent upgrade. I’m excited to start playing through some of the new titles, and I’m cautiously optimistic that Microsoft will fix some of my gripes above in the coming year or two. Bottom line? Now that I’ve finished my second Coursera course for the year, I’m definitely going to be wasting a ton of time on my new toy. Don’t look for CCM.com to be ready for launch any time soon…