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Xbox One Report Card 2016

Microsoft continued improving Xbox One in 2016, though it still has its faults.

2016 marked the Xbox One's third year on the market, and it may well have been its most significant one yet. Yes, the UI remains something of a slow, cluttered mess, and prospective buyers face an unpleasant choice in deciding between an Xbox One S and waiting for Project Scorpio. Despite that, there's been a lot to like about the platform this year, which may explain the uptick in sales it's seen in the U.S. over the second half of the year.

So, as the year comes to a close, let's take a look back at the year that was for Microsoft's console.

New Hardware, With More to Come

In August, Microsoft launched the first revision of the system with the Xbox One S. It's a revamped version of the system that addresses many of the complaints about the original box. It's a good deal smaller, does away with the external power supply, can be stood up vertically (albeit with a stand sold separately), and replaces the capacitive power button with a good old-fashioned physical one. It's also a lot nicer looking than the spartan, utilitarian design of its predecessor, and even supports 4K Blu-ray discs--which even the premium-priced PS4 Pro does not (although that system supports 4K games where the Xbox One S does not.)

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There are some downsides--namely, the absence of a Kinect port means you have to forgo using the device or order an adapter from Microsoft. It's ultimately a small issue that won't affect everyone, but it is disappointing for those of us (there are dozens of us!) who still like and use Kinect.

Most significant are the effects the Xbox One S has on games. HDR is its most heavily touted new feature, and with good reason: On an HDR-compatible TV, games can look spectacularly vibrant. It's unfortunately something only supported by a handful of games at this point. Those that do--like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3--look fantastic.

Microsoft faces a challenge in marketing the feature, as it's difficult to see just how good HDR looks without an HDR display. But between the Xbox One S and all PS4 models supporting the feature, it's hopefully something that will see sustained support moving forward as more people buy HDR-capable TVs.

The other big improvement for games on Xbox One S is something Microsoft doesn't actively advertise: improved performance. Since the system's launch, we've seen a number of games run more smoothly on the system's upgraded hardware, which is ostensibly there to prevent HDR support from causing performance issues. In reality, it's translated into more stable or higher framerates in some games without developers patching their games to make this possible (as is the case with the PS4 Pro).

Image credit: Microsoft
Image credit: Microsoft
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The impact of this is inconsistent, and oftentimes it can translate to a small performance bump likely to go unnoticed by most people. Nevertheless, it is welcomed by those seeking the best possible performance out of Xbox One games.

While only one new model of Xbox One launched this year, it's impossible to discuss the platform without acknowledging the looming behemoth that is Scorpio. Microsoft announced the console at E3 this year alongside the Xbox One S. Slated for release in late 2017, it features significantly more horsepower than existing consoles, even surpassing what's offered in the PS4 Pro.

The way Microsoft has spoken about the system's power has put prospective Xbox One buyers--or those looking to upgrade from their existing system--in something of an awkward position. Do you go for an Xbox One S now to get occasionally improved performance and 4K Blu-ray support, or wait another year-plus for a dramatically more powerful console that will likely cost much more but still play the same games? It's hard to knock Microsoft for being forthright about its plans--nobody wants to buy an Xbox One S now only for an Scorpio announcement to come next year. But this new era of smartphone-esque hardware refreshes burdens us with difficult choices.

Earning Goodwill Through Welcome Improvements to the Ecosystem

Microsoft shot itself in the foot when it initially presented the Xbox One. It envisioned a platform the public either didn't want or wasn't ready for, and the company has been trying to compensate for that ever since.

It's done this primarily by giving people what they want. Backwards compatibility was introduced last year, but it's exploded in 2016. We haven't gotten more than a week without at least one addition to the list since March, and the total number of supported titles is up to nearly 300 as of this writing. November alone saw major additions like Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3, and Oblivion, while Red Dead Redemption arrived earlier in the year. Backwards compatibility doesn't cost a penny, and it's been this kind of cost-free feature that has helped make Xbox One increasingly attractive.

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This year's big addition has been the Xbox Play Anywhere program. First rolled out with Quantum Break in April and then formalized with the release of the Windows 10 Anniversary update in August, Play Anywhere provides digital game buyers with access on both PC and Xbox One. It's similar to PlayStation's Cross-Buy feature, only with bigger-name games like Gears 4 and Forza Horizon 3, rather than the smaller, digital-only games that typically feature Cross-Buy.

Like HDR, it's still limited to a small selection of games. But what Microsoft has done is finally provide Xbox One owners with a compelling reason to move from physical games to digital ones beyond simple convenience. The Windows Store sours the experience to some degree and is in serious need of an overhaul, but it's not enough of an issue to overshadow the benefits.

What Microsoft has done is finally provide Xbox One owners with a compelling reason to move from physical games to digital ones beyond simple convenience.

In another area that isn't necessarily an innovation but is nonetheless welcome, Microsoft has established Xbox One as the most mod-friendly console (for the time being). PC remains by far the best place to use mods, something that's never going to change. But for anyone looking to play with them on a console, Microsoft has provided modders with more freedom than Sony. Fallout 4 and Skyrim each present players with a better modding experience on Xbox One than PS4, not to mention the fact that Fallout 4's support came months sooner on Xbox One.

One thing Microsoft hasn't done yet, but is clearly on the commendable side of, involves the prospect of cross-play. The company is no longer dead set on maintaining its walled garden as it once was, now openly supporting the idea of cross-play between Xbox One and PS4. That's put pressure on Sony to also approve it, something it apparently is unwilling to do at this stage. Rocket League developer Psyonix, for one, is ready to make this happen, claiming it would be easy to enable. Whether it ever will is another matter, but Microsoft certainly deserves a thumbs-up for being willing to do something it reportedly resisted for years.

Xbox Live and the System Expand, But Shortcomings Persist

In terms of what it has control over, Microsoft delivered some new features for Xbox Live users this year. In some ways, it's played catch-up, re-introducing background music, which has been present on PS4 for some time and was available on previous Xbox systems. Clubs, a system-level feature that function almost like clans, are a lot like PS4's Communities. But we've also seen the Looking for Group feature, which makes it easy to find like-minded people to play with, group messaging, and welcome niceties like improved Achievement notifications.

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Not all of the changes have been positive. Microsoft embraced the Xbox One's current, Kinect-less reality with the release of Cortana. Finally offering the ability to use voice commands through a headset for those without Kinect has been a long time coming, and the expanded suite of things Cortana can do is nice, if somewhat unnecessary. Does anyone really look up directions or perform currency conversions on their console?

For all its advancements, Cortana has also proven to be far less reliable than the standard Kinect voice commands offered previously. Seemingly because of its reliance on the internet, commands can take upwards of 5-10 seconds to actually take effect--to the point where I'm legitimately surprised on the rare occasion where the system reacts more quickly. This makes them borderline worthless when you need to quickly pause or mute something--and you can forget about efficiently using Cortana to fast forward or rewind videos. In a day and age where you can instantly control the lights in your house with a voice-controlled device like Amazon Echo, Cortana's performance is unacceptable. At least you can revert back to the old commands, provided you have a Kinect.

Xbox One's guide menu remains something of a sluggish, convoluted mess.

Xbox One's guide menu remains something of a sluggish, convoluted mess. Microsoft made some improvements in the past year, such as ditching the game library's awful horizontally scrolling layout that buried the Ready to Download list. Yet there remains no support for folders; the store is hard to navigate; game installs take forever; the vaunted Snap mode is laggy and wastes a good deal of screen space; and many features are buried away in menus where they're difficult to find.

More than anything, it's downright slow. Cortana's issues don't help, as effective voice controls could make tasks like saving a screenshot or video quicker and easier. A recent rumor suggested Microsoft could dump Snap mode in favor of something else and refresh the system's UI, two changes that would go a long way toward improving the user experience. It's something to cross your fingers for in 2017. For now, we're left to continue double-tapping the Xbox button and waiting for the system to respond.

A Solid Year for Games, But New Ideas Have to Wait

Xbox One owners had no shortage of great games to play this year, even if many of them--Overwatch, Doom, Dark Souls III, Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2, et al--were also available elsewhere. That's not to say quality exclusives were absent entirely: Forza Horizon 3 is excellent. Gears 4 was a solid return for the series, and an encouraging debut for new developer The Coalition. ReCore and Quantum Break are interesting, if flawed, games. Dead Rising 4 is fun, though combat hasn't evolved much. For a time, it was the only console with Fallout 4 mods, and as noted above, it remains the best console for playing with them in Fallout 4 or Skyrim. Halo 5's free DLC has been a pleasant change from the norm for shooters, and Gears 4 looks to be continuing that trend.

Yet 2016 also felt like a year of delays, with Scalebound, Crackdown 3, Cuphead, Halo Wars 2, Sea of Thieves, Gigantic, and Tacoma slipping out of the year. Delays are inevitable, and we did end up with a solid slate of games to play. But it seems as if we've been forced to wait even longer for most of the exciting new, console-exclusive IPs we thought the system would be home to this year.

The shutdown of Lionhead also came as something of a disappointment. Even if the Fable series was on a downward trend, the studio was responsible for some excellent games, and it leaves Microsoft without a studio that specializes in RPGs.

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Other Matters, in Brief:

  • It was an all-around good year for Games With Gold--Sunset Overdrive, The Wolf Among Us, Super Mega Baseball, Sleeping Dogs--bolstered by the ability to play all Xbox 360 GWG games on Xbox One, too.
  • Similarly, the EA Access games lineup remained strong, with a number of games showing up not terribly long after release, including Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, and Unravel. Early access also continued, even for big games like Battlefield 1 (Titanfall 2 being the notable exception).
  • The continued sale of 500 GB systems is less than ideal, given the growing size of game installations. At least Xbox One plays nicely with external hard drives, which continue to drop in price.

Verdict

2016 wasn't as exciting of a year as 2015 for Xbox One, which saw the release of Halo 5, backwards compatibility, and the Elite controller. But for all its shortcomings, it feels like Microsoft has been consistently trying to improve the system in smart ways. After a long stretch of mostly uninterrupted wins for PS4, Xbox One has been the top-selling console in the US from July through October. Petty squabbling between fanboys aside, that's ultimately good news for everyone--that kind of competition can only help to drive Sony to do better, which in turn will push Microsoft to do the same.

Microsoft made a lot of good moves this year. Play Anywhere is not a new concept, but it's a fantastic incentive, and one that doesn't cost you a dime. Its games lineup has remained good, with Forza Horizon 3 and Gears 4 both solid additions to the library. Backwards compatibility continues to grow. And aggressive pricing and bundling means there's never been a better time to pick up an Xbox One--provided you wouldn't prefer to wait a year for Scorpio.

The GoodThe Bad
  • Xbox Play Anywhere is great.
  • Backwards compatibility has grown quickly with a long list of quality games.
  • Xbox One S is a nice revision that doesn't make existing hardware feel outdated.
  • Xbox One's UI remains in serious need of improvement.
  • Cortana needs to learn how to hurry up.