Microsoft Xbox One preview

4 stars
RMTBC
There's never been a more ambitious games console, but the Xbox One doesn't yet live up to its enormous potential [UPDATE: now with video]

While the Xbox 360 and PS3 basically matched each other for sales with a frankly bonkers 80m each, there’s a feeling that the Xbox really won the last generation console battle, especially among hardcore gamers.

Unsurprisingly, those hardcore gamers were the first to throw their toys out of the pram when the Xbox One was announced as a TV-integrating entertainment device with gaming seemingly sidelined. Then there was the price - it costs more than the PS4 – the fact that Kinect, hated by the hardcore the way cats hate being stroked backwards, was now mandatory, and DRM so strict that it meant you couldn’t simply lend a game to a friend.

But things have changed since that fateful announcement night. Microsoft have shown off more of the One’s capabilities and even the most curmudgeonly of gamers are admitting that the TV stuff and new Kinect look pretty darn ace, and those features combined with a bundled copy of FIFA 14 are starting to convince some that the extra £80 might be money well spent. Meanwhile, DRM is dead, at least for now.

So in the cold light of day is the Xbox One a horror show or a home run? Actually, it’s neither, but boy is it aiming high.

It’s packing plenty of power

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Not everyone will love the design of the PS4, but at least it looks like it has been designed, rather than simply shoved into the case of a VCR from the ‘90s. Exaggeration? Ok, but the One is a big angular box of a machine that no one’s going to appreciate for aesthetic reasons.

The extra height (about 3cm) and width (6cm) is all the more disappointing when you consider that the One still comes with a chunky external power brick, whereas the PS4’s is built-in. Microsoft says it’s all about enhancing reliability by increasing air flow and keeping everything cool, but while we’ve had no technical issues or heat problems with our Xbox One, our PS4 has been problem-free, too – only when thousands of gamers put millions of hours of gaming in will we find out if one is more reliable than the other.

Noise is something we can test now, and the Xbox One is generally a very quiet console. When idling we measured a PS4-matching 42dB from 14cm in front of the console – that was just 2dB over the ambient room noise – and downloading and playing games or movies from the Xbox Store causes no increase in console noise. Popping a disc in automatically initiates installation, which increased noise to 49-50dB in our tests. Slightly disappointingly the disc drive continues to spin even after installation, and even if you’re not playing that particular game, but it does quieten to around 45dB, which is pretty much unnoticeable when combined with game or movie sound.

 

 

The controller: if it ain’t broke…

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The Xbox 360 pad, loved so much that even hardcore PC gamers have been known to plug it into their rigs, is no more. But fear not, the One pad that replaces it is very similar.

In terms of size and weight it’s almost identical, but there are some small ergonomic points of difference, including a move of the Xbox Home button to an extended section at the top, a recessed d-pad, smaller thumb-rests on the analogue sticks and a battery compartment that doesn’t protrude from the back as it did before.

There are niggles – to us those thumb pads seem too small, the d-pad feels rather cheap and clicky, and inserting AA batteries into a controller feels decidedly last-gen (is a bundled Play & Charge kit too much to ask?) – but the overwhelming sensation is that this is largely the pad you know and love.

There are some improvements, too. The triggers and shoulder buttons are curved more comfortably, and Microsoft has upped the ante in terms of vibration – there’s even haptic feedback in the triggers themselves.

There’s always been a hefty dose of subjectivity to the discussion over whether the Xbox or PlayStation controller is “best”, and this generation it’s a closer fight than ever. Sony has closed the gap in terms of ergonomics and accuracy, while also adding a touchpad to a tech recipe that already included a motion sensor, and on paper it certainly seems the more advanced pad. But there’s a very compelling argument that you’ll get more out of the enhanced vibration of the Xbox One pad. For now we’re just going to say that both are excellent, and we’re going to have to wait to see how the new features are utilised by developers in the future.

 

 

It won’t be as restrictive or Orwellian as feared

When Microsoft originally laid out the plan for the Xbox One, it said that users would not be able to borrow games from friends, or purchase second-hand titles, without likely paying a fee for the privilege – and that the console would require an Internet connection, to check once every 24 hours and make sure that you had all the required permissions and licences.

The company also said that the Kinect camera would need to be connected at all times, and that it would always be listening to you – y’know, in order to switch the console on when you ask. A concept that seemed a whole lot scarier after it emerged that Microsoft was one of the first Internet companies to cooperate with the NSA’s PRISM snooping programme.

After the public and press expressed concerns and a fair bit of outrage over these plans, Microsoft eventually performed a u-turn on the DRM and more recently has confirmed that, if the idea of an always-connected camera concerns you, you can unplug it when you’re not using it (and then going on to explain that it isn’t an Orwellian creep-machine).

It’ll support 4K – for video at least

Microsoft has said that 4K video has a place on the Xbox One, for both video and gaming – but has been decidedly coy about exactly how it will be implemented.

Our gut tells us that 4K streaming for movies will come first, with Blu-ray to follow in the future (it hasn’t even been finalised as a standard, so we understand why Microsoft is keeping quiet on this for now) and, perhaps, 4K gaming in a few years time. The sheer amount of processing power required to render games in 4K at a decent frame rate is the elephant in the room (something we explore in more depth here), so Microsoft is likely still looking for ways in which it can make Ultra HD gaming work.

More after the break...

It’s an entertainment powerhouse

More so than any other console in history, the Xbox One will be geared towards more traditional forms of entertainment: TV, movies and music.

Xbox Music is a Spotify-style all-you-can-eat streaming service, there’ll be TV and movies on-demand (including an exclusive Halo TV series) and, perhaps best of all, the ability to run an existing cable or satellite service through the system, using it to switch channels (via Kinect if you wish), set reminders and run apps (fantasy football, for instance) that integrate with your favourite shows.

Trouble is, this is for US users, and there’s no real guarantee beyond a few “we’re looking it” statements from the likes of Sky, Freeview, Virgin Media etc. that anything major will happen outside of the US. Xbox execs have said that functionality will start small over here and expand over time, but details are sketchy.

It offers an evolved controller

The Xbox 360’s standard gamepad controller is by far the best of the current generation, so Microsoft didn’t need to change any fundamentals for the Xbox One’s version. There are, however, over 40 innovations, according to Microsoft. The overall design and button placement is almost identical, but the much-maligned D-pad has been overhauled to improve accuracy, the analogue thumb sticks now offer greater precision, the controllers now feature coloured LEDs allowing them to be recognised by Kinect, and the battery compartment has been made integral to the controller body.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that the triggers each now offer their own independent force feedback vibration. That means gunfire, driving and jolts should be more realistic than ever.

Each Xbox One console can support up to eight wireless controllers at the same time – but as yet, no eight-player offline games have been announced.


It’ll probably still have the best online service in Xbox Live

This time, Microsoft and Sony are on more of a level playing field when it comes to online gaming, as with the PS4, Sony will no longer be offering PSN matchmaking etc. for free. With Xbox Live Gold, Microsoft has long been king of online gaming and that seems set to continue, thanks to 300,000 servers, Skype video calling and the ability to transfer its already-established gaming community straight over from the Xbox 360, thanks to the ability to share a single account across both consoles and transfer across Gamerscore, friends lists and the like.

Twitch TV has announced that it'll be available on the One, allowing you to live broadcast your sessions online.

Microsoft is also making much of the Xbox One tapping into the power of cloud computing in order to allow games to evolve and improve over time. This is an intriguing prospect, even if the company hasn’t really sold us on how precisely how much it'll change things.

It has a killer launch line-up

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The Xbox One will have a tantalising selection of tasty gaming morsels to sink your teeth into when it launches. Gamers can look forward to blade-swinging looting in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, undead-smashing shenanigans in Dead Rising 3 and epic battles in Ryse: Son of Rome.

Forza 5 should get the heart of any racer fan pumping on all cylinders While Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts will serve up glorious explosioney bullet-spraying action for FPS lovers.

There's something for everyone and we can't wait to dive in...

 

It’ll be out 22nd November

Microsoft has settled on a release date of 22nd November, stealing a week’s march on the Sony PlayStation 4. The Xbox One is, however, somewhat pricier than the US$399 (RM1,300) PS4 at US$499 (RM1,626).

says

Microsoft Xbox One

Xbox One review
4 stars
RMTBC
Kinect is amazing in many ways
Solid selection of exclusives at launch
Multi-tasking and picture-in-picture
Flagship features fall just short of their potential
A big big and inelegant
Some big titles still 720p
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