Cursed at birth yet back on track, has Microsoft done enough to revive its troubled third console?
If you've grown tired of hearing the Xbox One's back-story of calamity and eleventh-hour reversals, imagine how Microsoft feels. The corporation refuses to dwell on its mistakes, tirelessly adding in numerous features and tweaks to the system, guided by new gamer-first principles that have reformed every root and branch of the business.
And yet, Microsoft still has some distance to go if it really wants to turn the console's fortunes around. While Xbox One sales are (naturally) picking up for the holiday season, the corporation has undeniably lost its stranglehold on the UK and North American markets.
At the very heart of its revival plan is convincing you, the informed consumer, that its new-gen console is worthy of your money. Has it done enough yet? Below, GameSpot has created a comprehensive review to mark the one-year anniversary since the system's release, guided by a simple yet important question for any gamer: Is it time to buy an Xbox One?
- Xbox One's Inferiority is Overblown, But Not Trivial
- Xbox One Game Install Times Are Exasperating
- The Controller is an Acquired Taste
- Kinect is a Complex Relationship
- The Xbox One Interface is Challenging
- ...But the System is Improving Faster Than Any Other
- Games With Gold is a Small Plus...
- ...But EA Access Helps
- Xbox One is a Fantastic All-in-One Media Player
- Xbox One's Game Library Edges Ahead of PS4
- Microsoft Hunts Down Triple-A Exclusives...
- ...But Indies Have Slipped Through its Fingers
- VERDICT: Is It Time to Buy an Xbox One?
On Saturday, November 15, GameSpot marked the one-year anniversary of the PS4's release with a similarly styled analysis. Then on Tuesday, November 18, we followed up with a breakdown of the Wii U to mark its two-year anniversary.
Xbox One's Inferiority is Overblown, But Not Trivial
The Xbox One is a capable next-generation console packaged with a problem.
In its first year on the market, Microsoft has proven its system can deliver a noticeable leap in visual fidelity when compared to the previous geneneration, as demonstrated by the graphical sumptuousness of games such as Forza Horizon 2 and Ryse. And yet, while this next-gen splendour should be applauded, Microsoft faces a hard truth: PlayStation 4 has shown, on many occasions already, that Sony's system carries a raw power advantage.
Who, hand on heart, can tell the difference between 900p and 1080p?
It is difficult to gauge how meaningful this will be for everyone. Who, hand on heart, can tell the difference between 900p and 1080p? Such a minor disparity in resolution can be found between the Xbox One and PS4 versions of key triple-A games such as Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
It's worth noting that, generally, the quality gap appears to be narrowing, with the 1080p/720p split mostly occurring with launch titles. Much like how coders managed to get the most out of the PS3's complex and exotic multithreaded architecture, the likelihood is that developers will eventually be able to optimise Xbox One code so that it comes closer to graphical parity.
But that can't exactly be guaranteed either, especially considering the PS4 GPU has a pipeline for 1.84 teraflops of compute workload, while the Xbox One's maxes out at 1.31 teraflops. Hard facts such as these will be difficult, but not impossible, for programmers to overcome.
Microsoft has taken a proactive approach to addressing the Xbox One's shortcomings, and in June, it updated the platform so that developers could reclaim 10 percent of the GPU that was reserved for Kinect-related tasks.
Yet, no matter how much resolution disparity is an overblown issue, and no matter how hard Microsoft is fighting to remedy the Xbox One's shortcomings, the PS4 nevertheless comes with the quiet assurance that it delivers an uncompromised console experience. That detail, when combined with the PS4 and Xbox One's similarity in price, makes Microsoft's console a complicated proposition.
In terms of form factor, the Xbox One boasts a premium finish that loses a little elegance due to its sheer bulk and external power brick. This is a humongous and somewhat hollow console, halved with ventilation casing that--one suspects--was designed with the nightmare of three red rings still lingering in mind. It's not a disastrous look, but good hardware design tends to grow on you and the Xbox One, when sitting under your TV for months, won't do that.
Kinect, meanwhile, is an eyesore. Stiff and angular and bulky beyond belief, the peripheral blends as well into a home theatre set-up as a brown leather shoe would. Its artery-sized cabling is difficult to hide and the peripheral will make any set-up lose its grace. (It is, however, now an optional extra).
Xbox One Game Install Times Are Exasperating
The escalating file sizes of triple-A games, coupled with the relatively slow speeds of disc drives, has made game installation a modern necessity.
While this is an understandable trade-off for games that carry beautifully rich and detailed assets, the Xbox One's install times are painful. When taken completely offline, the console took around five minutes to install 13 percent of Assassin's Creed Unity, which was enough to make the game accessible to a point. The remainder took more than another half hour to fully install (which, bear in mind, locks out the chance of installing other applications). When taken online, Xbox One arbitrarily mixes update patches into the install process, which means there's every chance a new game will be inaccessible for at least an hour, if not more.
By contrast, the PS4 installs the Assassin's Creed Unity disc, in its entirety, in less than two minutes. (Some GameSpot staff point out that, in fact, it isn't always as rapid as this). The Wii U, meanwhile, doesn't require game installation.
The Controller is an Acquired Taste
While the Xbox 360 controller garnered near-universal praise, the response to the Xbox One pad is surprisingly conflicted. An anecdotal survey of GameSpot's UK staff showed that some consider the tweaked design a step forwards, while others don't quite embrace the changes.
Its shape has been slightly revised, with each handle now pointing inward at a more acute angle, which means that the pad doesn't quite fill out into your hands as much as the 360's did. Consequently, some feel they have less grip and control as before, while others say the result is actually more comfortable.
There was, however, unanimity on some points: Everyone prefers the new d-pad, which is flush and far better defined, while most people dislike the hard-shell RB/LB buttons, which feel unwieldy and out of position. Not enough respondents even mentioned the pad's superior rumble capabilities, partly because there aren't enough games yet that emphasise the superiority of the force feedback.
After the ritual annoyance of recharging a DualShock 4 every few hours, paying for batteries that will last up to 20 hours is well worth it.
Prior to release, it was the controller's AA battery requirement that proved to be the most controversial aspect. But trust us, after the ritual annoyance of recharging a DualShock 4 every few hours, paying for batteries that will last up to 20 hours is well worth it. You can, if you wish, buy a recharge kit.
It is difficult to give an overall assessment of the Xbox One controller, such is the pad's inherent divisiveness. Microsoft has tweaked its winning formula to the extent that the pad has become an acquired taste that necessitates a road test for any would-be buyer. There was, however, one surprising conclusion that came from the GameSpot UK team's analysis: Everyone who held the Xbox One controller in their palms, even those who praised it, said they preferred the feel of the DualShock 4.
Kinect is a Complex Relationship
If you own Kinect there's every chance that, eventually, you'll share a magic moment with it. Commanding the Xbox One by voice-control alone, at times, seems like the realisation of a eight-year dream for Microsoft. Booting the console by uttering "Xbox on", and controlling live TV with phrases such as "Xbox pause", and navigating its apps and system features by names alone, feels dipping your toes into the future. It's not just cool, it's convenient.
Then there are the rough patches. The days when Kinect just wants to ignore you. The occasions when you need to repeat yourself. The times when it refuses to hear requests to switch off. The moments when it loads the Xbox Store instead of the app you asked for. The awkward instances when it doesn't listen to guests. These are moments of disappointment, inconvenience, and even stress, that will make you regret splurging on it in the first place.
Booting the console by uttering "Xbox on" feels like dipping your toes into the future.
(It turns out, by the way, that the camera, and the concept of navigating the system with your arms, palms, and fingers, is farcically inferior to what was first promised. You will likely never bother with it.)
But it's hard to stay mad at Kinect forever, especially since it offers free--and hands-free--Skype video calls. Connecting to a friend's mobile from your couch, without needing to hold anything, has an unmistakable pinch of magic to it. One suspects it would be hailed as a key phase in the smartening of televisions, had Apple done it first.
Should you buy Kinect? Absolutely not if you're only using your Xbox One for games (12 months in, and only two games use Kinect as a primary control input). But for TV, Skype and hands-free navigation, it's an expensive luxury that will occasionally dazzle.
The Xbox One Interface is Challenging
Navigating the Xbox One is a bit like hearing an Aristocrats joke. Each turn and navigation is more unfathomably awful than the last, defying sacred taboos of user interface, to the extent that it genuinely becomes amusing.
Let's warm you up with the home page layout: A third of it is saved for sponsored content, and another third is dominated by a huge preview pane showing your singlemost recently used app, which is essentially a gargantuan, space-eating reminder of what you've just navigated away from. Clicking on this vast window is also how you return to the app, which is a strikingly inelegant replacement for, say, just pressing the Xbox button.
Each turn and navigation is more unfathomably awful than the last, defying sacred taboos of user interface, to the extent that it genuinely becomes amusing.
You might not believe this either, but trust us; currently, pressing the Xbox button on the home page does nothing. Yes, Microsoft could theoretically make the Xbox button resume your game, like how the PlayStation 4 does so swiftly, but what's the point in having a colossal preview pane if you can outright negate it with a simple thumb press? And sure, Microsoft could have made the Xbox button launch a mini-guide, as the Xbox 360 did so handily, but what's the point in putting tools in people's hands?
And yet, if you double-tap the Xbox button on the home screen, you enter Snap Mode. Yes, Snap Mode is higher up the short-cut pecking order than the game or app you've chosen.
Crammed within the remaining slither of home-page space is... another Snap Mode icon. It's apparently vital that you have more ways to access this feature, especially on incredibly limited dashboard real-estate.
Then there's the games and apps icon. The Xbox One's library of media apps and games isn't automatically available on the home screen. I mean, why put them there, right in front of you? How about instead you enter the 'app' app (yes) to find the app you want?
As a bonus, the app drawer itself is chaos. Browsing it is akin to rummaging through a suitcase on vacation. The Achievements app is next to Skype, next to Friends, next to YouTube, next to Settings, next to Twitch. Xbox doesn't make a distinction between system-wide services and entertainment applications, and the result is as dumbfounding as it sounds.
The remaining tiny letterbox of home-page space is reserved for your four most recent games and apps. Sony launched the PS4 with a large strip of ten of these stretching across the centre of the homepage, and after taking feedback from users, expanded that to 15. Xbox One, by contrast, has no space to go beyond four. Bear in mind that even the most basic features, such as friends and achievements, are now designated apps that will also barge their way into this small space.
Adjacent to your four recent items is the disc icon, which displays media content currently populating the Xbox One's Blu-ray drive. Yet bizarrely, the game populating the disc icon (which, remember, is fixed in place) also appears in the recent icons. That's two windows of the same game, sitting next to each other, on severely limited home page space. It's the kind of UI oversight you might expect from Chinese bootlegs and hacked systems, and quite stunning to see it on the real thing.
Previous Xbox 360 dashboard layouts, from the blades right through to the end, would be a welcomed upgrade.
It is a Herculean endeavour in itself to complete a full list of the Xbox One's operating system problems. The store layouts are confusing, it's not clear how one switches between Snap Mode and the main picture (double-tap the Xbox button and follow the instructions, fyi), and keyboard typing hasn't moved on from standards set in 2005. The YouTube app's on-screen keyboard, by the way, is a mind-boggling single-file ABC-strip. The fastest time anyone in the office could type the word "the" was 4.3 seconds.
Some would argue that these problems can be overcome by pinning your apps to a dedicated space, situated just left of the home screen. It is true, to a point, that having your own hodgepodge of pinned apps eliminates the hassle of finding those ones in particular. But even with these handy shortcuts, navigating the system is a unenjoyable inevitability.
Elsewhere there's an extraordinary absence of on-screen directions too, which means the handy tricks found by pressing the 'options' button is never referenced, while modes of navigation are hardly ever mentioned. This, coupled with the OS's general lack of intuitiveness, means that pathways around the system are naturally forgotten. You'll recall seeing the installation queue before, somewhere, but can't quite remember how you got there.
...But the System is Improving Faster Than Any Other
In what is telling of both Microsoft's problems and its determination to overcome them, more than one hundred tweaks and new features have been applied to the Xbox One in its first year alone. In fact, the system is updated with improvements and features every month, and in June Microsoft opened a dedicated feedback site for customers to request specific fixes.
The exhaustive list of changes can be found here, and the improvements are hardly trivial. Among the additions are necessities such as a battery power indicator and storage management access, while the key perks include custom background options, external hard-drive support, pre-ordering and pre-downloading options, as well as DLNA and MKV support.
The Xbox One may be flawed throughout, but its manufacturer has shown a commendable perseverance in turning things around.
Note those last two additions specifically, because those are features that you won't find on the PlayStation 4 or Wii U, and don't expect this will be the last update with that distinction.
The Xbox One may be flawed throughout, but its manufacturer has shown a commendable perseverance in turning things around. Sweeping changes will be required for the system to catch up with the PS4 in terms of usability, but if Microsoft sticks to the path that it's on, don't be surprised if it eventually achieves that goal.
Games With Gold is a Small Plus...
The influence of PlayStation Plus, and its big-hearted monthly offering of free games, has left Microsoft needing to add more value to Xbox Live Gold in order to remain competitive. As a result, Games With Gold is a monthly perk that gives subscribers a free Xbox One game each month.
Yet comparisons to PlayStation Plus remain unflattering. Xbox One's range of free games is obviously a pleasant bonus, but not to the extent that a free copy of TowerFall, Spelunky or Pix the Cat would be.
...But EA Access Helps
EA Access was initially intended to arrive on both PS4 and Xbox One, but due to Sony's assertion that it "doesn't represent value for money", the service is now exclusive to Xbox One, offering a small-but-constantly-expanding library of games that will be permanently available to subscribers for $5 a month.
Ironically, in some respects it offers better value than PS Plus. Players can try EA games several days prior to launch, at no additional cost, as well as take advantage to discounts across the publisher's entire range of games. The vault of free games is rather small right now, featuring the likes of Battlefield 4, Need For Speed Rivals and Peggle 2, but EA insists these games will remain in there permanently.
Xbox One is a Fantastic All-in-One Media Player
Still reeling from that fateful day in May 2013, when Microsoft conjured a storm of outrage by introducing the Xbox One with games as the conspicuous afterthought, the corporation is still hesitant to flaunt the console's multimedia capabilities.
This does it a major disservice. The Xbox One is easily the most accomplished games console yet when it comes to watching media.
It plays CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays with no fuss, and yet perhaps the real coup is its DLNA and MKV support. It means that downloaded video files can be streamed via your PC or transported via external hard-drive and USBs.
Then there's the cable-box support, which is as unnecessary as its detractors claim, yet nevertheless a joy to control and pause with your voice alone. (In the UK, Microsoft has also released a Freeview adapter that everyone without Sky should consider--it's a delightfully convenient and feature-packed device, giving users HD channels by default, as well as the option to live pause and stream to tablets).
Its range of apps is fairly staggering too: In the US, video channels include Amazon Instant Video, CinemaNow, Comedy Central, Crackle, CW, ESPN, Fox Now, FX Now, GoPro Channel, Hulu Plus, Machinima, MLB.TV, Major League Gaming, MTV, NBA Game Time, Netflix, NHL Gamecenter Live, Starz Play, Syfy Now, TED, Univision Deportes, USA Now, Verizon FiOS, VH1, Vudu, the WWE Network, and YouTube. Meanwhile, UK specific apps include 4OD, Blinkbox, Demand 5, Eurosport, Netflix, Now TV, TED, Twitch, Wuaki.tv.
Its Twitch channel, meanwhile, plays all available content, while the PS4 streams are locked to PlayStation footage only. There's even a dedicated Vine app, and now, a HBO GO app too.
Xbox One's Game Library Edges Ahead of PS4
Although on face value there's a modest difference between the Xbox One and PS4 game libraries, Microsoft's exclusive content gives it a slight advantage. Forza Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive, Killer Instinct and Titanfall each stand tall within their own respective genres, and while Halo: The Master Chief Collection hasn't garnered universal acclaim, fans of the series have a bountiful haul of classics to indulge in.
Whether the aforementioned games stir an interest or not is probably more indicative of how invested you are in Xbox in the first place. These games represent the staple diet for westerners; feature-rich, visually plush and backed by Xbox Live's infrastructure.
It's also worth bearing in mind that Microsoft has made an extraordinary investment in servers, which is noticeably more stable than PSN. Some developers, certainly those governed by Microsoft, tend to make the most of the online infrastructure too, such as with Forza Motorsport 5's 'Drivatar' system, along with Killer Instinct's seasonal structure.
Microsoft Hunts Down Triple-A Exclusives...
There was an outpouring of shock and outrage over Microsoft's recent announcement that it had secured a timed exclusivity deal for The Rise of the Tomb Raider.
How exactly is this surprising from a company that paid for exclusive rights to DLC for both GTA 4 and the Modern Warfare series? Microsoft understands the power of the must-have exclusive, and indeed the timed exclusive, and has paid handsomely to secure such benefits with dozens of games, from Gears of War to Dead or Alive 4 to Dead Rising 3.
But because the market has undergone a tectonic shift from Xbox 360 to PS4, some fans now openly detest a business practice that once routinely rewarded them for their loyalty.
They'll need to get used to it; Microsoft has the money, the vision, and the thirst to secure exclusivity when it matters most. The Rise of the Tomb Raider may be the most controversial outcome of this, but only for now.
...But Indies Have Slipped Through its Fingers
The Xbox 360 exec team was either particularly shrewd or incredibly lucky for fostering breakthrough indie games on its platform, but that achievement only makes its subsequent paralysis even more unexpected.
In recent years, Sony has embarked on a major indie charm offensive, freely offering dev kits, readily supporting teams locally, and making its people easy to contact. Sony has moulded its policies and practices around making indie publishing as straightforward as it's ever been, and consequently, has made PS4 an obvious choice for game creators.
Microsoft, by contrast, remained silent for far too long about its indie games policies on Xbox One. Its eye-catching proposal, that every single Xbox One could also be a dev kit, has yet to materialise, and is no longer a priority.
Instead, the biggest noise generated by Microsoft's indie program has been its day-one parity clause, which demands that self-published PS4 games must arrive on Xbox One at the same time, or not at all. This policy, no matter how Microsoft attempts to justify it, has been roundly criticised and--perhaps even worse--ignored.
Games that have or will arrive first on PS4 include: The Witness, Nidhogg, TowerFall: Ascension, No Man's Sky, Transistor, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Hotline Miami 2, Rime, Velocity 2X, ABZU, DayZ, Hellblade, Nuclear Throne, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, OlliOlli 1 and 2, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Volume. As out of touch as Microsoft's parity clause has become, surely it cannot exclude a library of such applauded and highly anticipated indie games? That is a question no one appears to have the answer for, which makes it a dilemma that should linger in the mind of any would-be buyer.
That's not to say Xbox One will be bereft of indie games entirely (the likes of Ori and the Blind Forest, Below, and Cuphead each have tremendous promise in particular), but the sheer mass of indie games that are missing is still quite dumbfounding.
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VERDICT: Is It Time to Buy an Xbox One?
To be frank, no. While our analysis of the PlayStation 4 suggested that the system had all the right ideas in place, but wasn't an essential purchase, the Xbox One lags behind on too many key aspects.
That's not to say that all fans will be wholly dissatisfied. The Xbox One carries a superior first-party line-up of games that serves its core fans well. Meanwhile, its multimedia capabilities, and Kinect voice commands, are bonuses you can't find on another TV console. These are enticing, enjoyable aspects of Microsoft's system.
But while most of the Xbox One's inconveniences are forgivable on their own, the same can't be said for the package as a whole. The inferior hardware, however overblown, is an issue. The lack of support from the indie community, however redeemable, is an issue. The superiority of the DualShock 4, however slight, is an issue. Games With Gold, while certainly improving, is an issue. The user interface--every aspect of it--is an issue.
The most damaging issue of all is that these problems are not present on the PlayStation 4, despite Sony's system retailing at the same price. Ultimately, it makes the choice between the two fairly easy.
While most of Xbox One's inconveniences are forgivable on their own, the same can't be said for the package as a whole.
Better days lie ahead. Perhaps the most exciting prospect for Xbox One owners is that Microsoft's executives are demonstrably obsessive about reclaiming its crown. More than one hundred tweaks and improvements have been applied in the first twelve months. Do not be shocked if, a few years down the line, the operating system transforms into the best out there.
Microsoft is, remember, the corporation that spent $1 billion to resolve its RROD mess, and one that has shown a considerable willingness to slash system prices, no matter how costly the damage, and one that eagerly revises its hardware designs, and one that mercilessly axed Kinect for the greater good.
So, you probably shouldn't consider an Xbox One right now, but don't count it out in the future.