This weekend we’re taking a more general look at the consoles based on what we know so far and our experiences playing with them at Gamescom. For the sake of transparency, we are buying both consoles at launch with our own money (we don’t get them free) but have preferred the Xbox 360 this past generation largely due to the controller and lack of ridiculously long patch times.
The Xbox One appears to have redeemed itself a little in the public eye thanks to Gamescom. Coming in early November if rumours are to believed and boasting a launch lineup of 23 games (with most of them being high quality games rather than the shovelware you often find at launch), the Xbox One also comes with a free copy of Fifa 14 for Europeans and now boasts a headset too. Microsoft are evidently doing a lot to make this an attractive launch despite the systems high price (£430), but what is the console actually like?
First off, it is huge. There are comparison shots around but it’s slightly bigger than the old-style PS3s and thanks to the lack of curves it looks a lot bigger. There’s also a big power brick to go with it so this machine is going to be taking up a large space in your gaming room or lounge. It’s certainly attractive although the two-material finish isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and the logo that lights up as a power indicator is elegant and subtle, much more so than the 360’s ring of light (something that I imagine Microsoft want to distance themselves from after the Red Ring of Death debacle). A look at the back of the console reveals a ridiculous number of inputs and outputs, taking USB, HDMI in and out, optical out, the power plug, the Kinect plug, an ethernet port and a socket for an IR sensor. It might be massive but it’s designed to be the centerpiece of your home entertainment system, with everything else feeding through this. The other reason for the size is that Microsoft have tried to make it as quiet and cold as possible. This was impossible to judge on the show floor but in quieter rooms where we played a couple of games not once could we actually hear the console. This isn’t to say it’s silent but it’s definitely quiet. A number of developers confirmed this stating they were surprised at how quiet it is, even with the Blu-Ray drive running; even with the slim versions of the current gen systems they seem incredibly noisy next to a much more powerful PC, but that’s largely due to the form factor and the extra space afforded to most PC cases for larger fans, heatsinks and liquid cooling.
The controller is going to take some getting used to, with slightly higher and thinner analog sticks and a different form factor to the back that changes the way you grip it. It certainly looks nice, again with the more subtle white illuminated logo replacing the harsh green of the 360 (a colour Microsoft are apparently abandoning on the console but not in their marketing). Thankfully the controllers have an absolutely killer feature, the triggers. Not only are they larger with a wing-shaped edge allowing your fingers to take different positions depending on your grip, but they also feature much more sensitivity and resistance in your ability to push them down at different pressures. For example in a racing game you might want to just lightly let back on the accelerator and this is much easier to do with the new triggers, they feel tight and responsive rather than the slightly loose triggers of the last generation. The big new thing though is the force feedback. In the Xbox One not only does the controller itself have a rumble motor inside, but each trigger does too and they can all be controlled independently by the game. The only title we saw this working with was Forza Motorsport 5, but it was incredible. With the right trigger responding to the vibration of the accelerator you could feel the revs in that thing while the left trigger represented the braking, allowing you to feel the brakes locking up and ABS kicking in to sort them out. It’s a huge amount more feedback and we fully expect developers to make the most of this with recoil for guns, breathing for your aim as you steady yourself while looking down sights and who knows what else. It’s very difficult to explain how important the new triggers are but once you get your hands on them you’ll understand instantly.
The Kinect sensor has also seen major upgraded, although in terms of appearance it’s just slightly larger and less curved than its predecessor. We got a chance to try out the Kinect Sports: Rivals title from Rare and although our expectations were low (we live in a tiny London flat so Kinect has been mostly useless to us) we were impressed at what we saw. The demo started with Kinect scanning us in to create an avatar. It starts off with hundreds of tiny blocks and then gives you instructions on how to stand, asking you to come up close to the camera for the face section. the blocks form themselves into an approximation of your image in a scary ‘that thing from the end of the last Matrix Film’ kind of way before finally giving way to a cartoonised ‘champion’ version of your body. The recognition worked well and although the end product ended up being a lot more muscular than I am it had worked out my bone structure and build incredibly well, the first time I’ve seen this kind of technology create a decent resemblance. The whole process took around five minutes, most of which was me needing to adjust my position slightly because I couldn’t hear the commands on the show floor.
Once my avatar was created we got to have a go at a climbing game and a jetski race. The climbing game was simple, you had a climbing wall and using your hands you had to stretch out and grab new grip positions my clenching your fist once you were over them and then pulling yourself up by pulling your arm down. There were no problems with tracking , even when we moved much closer to the device (around 3ft away) and it seemed to be only tracking the upper half of our bodies so perhaps you’d be able to play this sitting down. It was very sensitive and all through the climb you have lots of choices of where to climb to next, with an opponent trying to race up at the same time. If you get close to them you can even grab them and throw them off the cliff which seems a little harsh. After getting into a steady rhythym we were shooting up that mountain and it was satisfying to get to the top and use our arms to clamber up to the summit.
The jetski race was more basic, using your arms to control the jetski like you would a bicycle and then leaning backwards or forwards or side to side to do tricks once you were in the air. It looked great with fancy water effects and was fairly easy to control although the jetski’s turning circle was quite wide making small adjustments fairly difficult. Nevertheless I won my race which was fairly impressive considering I’d never played it before, demonstrating how well the controls work. Rare assured us that all of these games will be playable online as well as in local co-op, and as you progress through the game your champion levels up, trying to get the best times and compete on leaderboards with alerts coming through to let you know when a friend has beaten your times.
Kinect 2.0 seems much more competent than the first version and the live demonstrations in Microsoft’s booth showed how well it can work with the UI as well. It’s still not perfect, when they showed off how it’s working and monitoring your hand and thumb positions there was a noticable amount of jittering, but that seems to be able to be smoothed out by the developers who can just tone down the sensitivity a little. There was no apparent lag and the Rare devs told us that essentially the raw data comes through with little to no delay, it’s only the game’s processing of that information that can introduce delay so it’s important that developers work on streamlining their games to eliminate these problems. There was none on the Kinect Sports demo but we got the impression that results will vary slightly game by game.
In terms of the launch line-up there appears to be a great deal of choice which is unusual for the first few weeks of a console. We’ll be picking up Forza and Dead Rising on day one, along with Call of Duty and Battlefield via the upgrade options. We’ll also be getting Fifa free in the box as well as a single character from Killer Instinct. That’s quite an impressive amount of games to get home and try out, although it’s going to be an expensive evening.
Overall we came away from Gamescom with a lot of enthusiasm for the Xbox One. The launch is going to be great, with strong hardware backed up by a library of good-to-excellent games. With titles like TitanFall, Kinect Sports and Project Spark coming within the first few months there’s a lot of reasons to be excited. The price tag is still high and we’ve seen very little about the HDMI passthrough features as of yet, but we’re expecting more news from PAX and will be there at midnight for the launch to pick up our Day One editions.