The Xbox One is here at last and it’s amazing. Is it worth £430 though? Is it right for you? Those are much trickier questions.
We’ve been waiting for the Xbox One for what seems like an eternity. When you play a lot of games on the PC the last generation started to get long in the tooth. Once we started hearing about all the fancy features the One has, we just got more excited. We’ve been quite vocal in our defence of Microsoft’s progressive ideas, and while they’ve been watered down to an extent, there’s still a lot of true innovation in this console – it’s not just ‘more of the same’ which many of us were fearing with this generation, it’s something new.
Starting with the physical side of it, the Xbox One is huge, and it’s heavy. We picked ours up from Game at midnight, and after having to go back to the shop because they’d put the wrong bundle in the bag my arms were getting tired from carrying the box around. Getting it unpacked it’s hard to get across just how huge it is. Aesthetically it’s got a solid boldness to it, but within an entertainment centre it’s definitely not an exciting design. Our favourite touch is the new Xbox light, it’s a soft white that’s repeated on both Kinect and the controller, much classier than the gaudy silver Xbox 360 versions (that being said, the controller one is silver while it’s turned off, must be magic). Kinect is similarly huge, and while it’s on you can see three menacing red lights coming through the plastic. It’s definitely ominous although we’ve got no time for all these conspiracy theories about it uploading video of us covertly. All in all it’s a solid package that takes up a huge amount of space, but definitely looks different from what we’re used to, and that’s always a good thing when a new generation comes around.
Once you’ve got it all plugged in (very simple, it’s mostly the same as other consoles with the addition of the Kinect cable and a HDMI in if you have anything like a TV box you want to run through it) you need to do an update that doesn’t take too long but will make you hold your breath when it keeps pausing and seeming to stall. During this time you can get your hands on the wonderful new controller, that’s an improvement on the old 360 S in almost every way. The new triggers are a slightly different shape and have individual ‘impulse’ rumble motors in them, the buttons look gorgeous, the D-Pad is actually competent and the battery pack no longer sticks out whichever version you have. The new sticks are smaller and we’re still not used to them yet. They definitely work fine but still feel a little bit odd in more twitchy shooters like Call of Duty.
In the package you also get a surprisingly sturdy headset that plugs into the bottom of the controller. We’re glad to see the return of the control buttons (mute and volume) on a little panel under the controller, a much more convenient place for them than the in-line ones we’re used to seeing lately on the 360 headsets. The sound quality is excellent thanks to a new proprietary port, but sadly that means existing headsets won’t work at the moment. Supposedly there might be an adapter coming out at some point next year.
Once the initial update is done, you get to set up the Xbox One and enter the new UI. At first it’s alien and very, very confusing. Things are hidden away, they move around when you load programs and everything seems to want to use Kinect. Now that Kinect can actually do things via voice commands reliably (in our experience it works about 95% of the time) Microsoft have obviously decided to do away with having layers and layers of menus. Once you know what you want to do, you simply say it and you go straight there, unfortunately knowing what to say isn’t so obvious. We spent ages trying to work out how to close ‘snapped’ windows (you can ‘snap’ some apps to the side of the screen like in Windows 8, running them alongside your regular program) until we found out you had to say ‘Xbox unsnap’. I’m not convinced that ‘unsnap’ is even a word. There’s still lots of things we don’t know how to do like how to switch control between a snapped window and the main one or a quick way to see who of your friends is online. Lots of notifications seem missing too, like one telling you when people get into a game or log on. Hopefully these kinks will be ironed out as once you get used to it, the experience is brilliant. Nearly everything can be done with a controller, so you can still use it even if you can’t talk when you’re playing (like if it’s late at night) but we haven’t worked out how to record video yet without voice sadly. Nearly everything you’d want to do with the Xbox One is an app that you need to download for free. So things like uploading and editing video, watching Blu-rays or listening to CDs need to be downloaded before you can use them. This does get rid of a confusion between a system feature and an app, which is handy as there are particular rules about how apps work and you know they work the same for everything. You can have two apps running and a game, but no more. If you open up a new app, the oldest app closes down and so on, the game won’t close down unless you start a different game.
The UI is a wonderful thing once you get it working, and the ease with which you can tell the Xbox to record a video, back out of a game, go to the upload studio to edit and upload it, then drop back into a game is nothing less than astounding. Microsoft have been brave changing things up so much, but for us at least it’s definitely paid off. Little things like being able to walk into the room, say ‘Xbox On’ and having it turn the TV on for you and get ready is amazing. Similarly when you say ‘Xbox turn off’ it asks you for confirmation then turns your TV off as well if you want it too. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s surprisingly useful.
In terms of power and specs, we won’t bore you with the statistics as you can find much more detailed looks in places like Digital Foundry, but games like Forza and Ryse have shown that the console can at least keep up currently, even if it doesn’t surpass the PS4 or high-end PCs. What it does with that power though is much more interesting. Everything switches very quickly, movie files are rendered in less than a minute most of the time, you can play games before they finish downloading or installing, all of this alongside excellent game performance and an almost silent machine. It’s fairly amazing that they’ve managed to achieve all of this and much of it will be completely ignored by most of the people who use it, because the whole point of the Xbox One is to stay out of your way. It lets you do what you want, and tries to avoid causing any problems for you while that happens. I’m currently writing this with my PC running through the Xbox One, so when I get messages (Gamertag is TPSou by the way) the UI pops up. If I want to start a game, I can and then switch back to the desktop of my PC while the game loads. There is noticeable lag introduced, which makes playing games through it very annoying, but if you want to watch films or browse the internet it doesn’t get in the way.
Another great feature is followers. If you want to see what someone is up to on the Xbox One, you don’t necessarily need to have them as a friend, you can just follow them and it works like in Twitter, some interactions are limited but you can vicariously live through their exploits. This will open up a new world of celebrity Gamertags, watching what Plan B is playing or Major Nelson. Of course all of this can be turned off if you want your privacy.
One big change that’s coming out on both platforms is the ability to record yourself gaming. While you cannot livestream yet from the Xbox One without extra hardware, you can at any time say ‘Xbox Record that’ and it will save the last 30 seconds of whatever you were doing. Then later you can go into the upload studio, edit them, do voice overs, use Kinect to record yourself, apply ‘skins’ to make them look more professional, and then upload them to Skydrive. It’s all incredibly quick and intuitive, and a lot of fun to play around with. Hopefully before too long you’ll be able to upload to Youtube directly, but for now you can just download the clips and then upload them. You can also browse all the clips your friends have saved at any time, which is well worth doing to experience all those magical moments in gaming that would normally be lost in the either. As an example, here is me and Wraith playing Forza 5:
So in conclusion, we love the Xbox One. There’s a few unfinished features, and a few things missing that we’d like to have back, but it’s a startlingly fresh way to approach a games console and it works exceptionally well. If you’re interested in any of the launch games and like new gadgets, it’s well worth the money. £430 might be a lot but when you get so much in the box (Kinect is much more impressive than you’d expect) you won’t be sorry.