Saturday 25 October 2014

Xbox One review: 10 days with Microsoft's new dream machine

You can't buy one right now for love nor money but Ronan Price tells you what to expect if you want to get hold of the new Xbox One console

Published 29/11/2013 | 16:40

The Xbox One controller
The Xbox One console
The Xbox One console with Kinect

IT’S ALL about control. For you but also for them. Microsoft makes a big deal about the Xbox One giving you more power over your entertainment.

In the last generation, Sony vied with Microsoft to brand PS3 and Xbox 360 as living-room hubs, the controllers of your entertainment from games to TV. Sony went so far as to modestly proclaim: “It only does everything.”

This time around, it’s Microsoft aiming to dominate the living room by positioning its console as the heart of your TV set-up. Meanwhile, Sony has dialled back the scope and talks mostly about games, games, games.

Microsoft’s commitment is right there on the Xbox Ireland home page promising: “The all-in-one entertainment system. Where the best games, multiplayer, and your favorite movies, music, sports and live TV come together in one place ...  Where television obeys your every command.”

And if you live the US, all that may well be true. But here in Ireland the picture isn’t so pretty. The Xbox One is undoubtedly a powerful console with some damn-fine games – but the dream of a living-room hub is just out of reach. Software-wise, it will be at least next year before gamers in Ireland experience the full range of Xbox One services available in the US.

 

WHAT’S MISSING

  • Bizarrely, there’s no voice recognition in Ireland, something Microsoft tentatively rolled out with Kinect on Xbox 360. Despite the feature being fully enabled in Ireland last time out, the Xbox One ignores anything you bellow at it.

Xbox Europe boss Chris Lewis has admitted it could be well into 2014 before voice control is switched on here. That’s a terrible shame because when you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder how you could do without the time-saving and genuinely delightful function.

How do I know this even though it’s not available by default? Because it’s trivially easy to switch to the UK option in Settings and thus enable the full advantages of voice recognition. Alas, it creates a few problems such as when downloading anything from the Xbox Store but the switch is well worth the trouble.

Now you can simply holler “Xbox, turn off” or Xbox, go to Netflix”, or “Xbox, Skype Michael” – plus myriad other commands. The response is near-instantaneous and very satisfying.

Voice recognition also works amusingly well in games, such as in Dead Rising 3, where you can lure zombies into a trap by shouting “Over here!” Microrosoft offers a list of the voice commands available.

  • The seductive potential of TV integration has failed to materialise in time for launch too. In the US, you can plug your TV set-top box into the Xbox One and then use your voice to change channels, view a bespoke programme guide or control the volume.

Here in Ireland, the guide has no launch date in sight. So if you connect your Sky or UPC box, you can watch in split-screen mode but do little else. Even then, the picture can be a tad jittery.

  • The launch line-up of TV apps on Xbox One spans Eurosport, Machinima, MUZU TV, Netflix, TED and Twitch – but no SkyGo and no RTE Player. Word is that we’ll have to wait until sometime next year for Sky. RTE has no plans yet.
  • Facebook and Twitter are also missing in action but they’re no great loss given the awkwardness of using them on Xbox 360.
  • Xbox One doesn’t notify you when a friend has logged in, as the 360 used to. Now you have to manually check your friends list if you’re in a game.

 

WHAT’S NEW

  • Bragging rights and sharing great moments just got much easier with the Xbox One’s ability to record footage of gameplay. The console automatically records the last 30 seconds of whatever you’re doing (with voice control, saving it is as simple as shouting “Xbox, record that” – manual control is more fiddly).

Then you can edit it and add voiceovers, etc, before uploading the video to your Skydrive. Stupidly, you can’t send it straight to YouTube, though.

If you’re feeling really creative, you can choose to record the next 15 minutes of gameplay before chopping it up and making a masterpiece.

Unlike PS4, you can’t stream your gameplay live via the Twitch website, but that feature is coming in a 2014 update, apparently.

  • Skype video chat works a treat on Xbox One thanks to the Kinect camera, which can show your entire room or zoom in on just one person and track them if they move. It’s also simple to Skype and game simultaneously with the split-screen option named Snap.
  • Internet Explorer allows access to the full web but it’s generally an uncomfortable experience because of the difficulty of mousing around and typing with the Xbox controller.
  • Every disc-based game must be installed to the 500GB hard drive, so when that fills up, the oldest one will be thrown out (and you’ll have to reinstall it from the disc). That means a wait of several minutes for each fresh install. Mercifully, you can begin playing before the full installation is complete (or before a game is fully downloaded from the store).
  • Kinect’s usefulness goes beyond video chat and voice-recognition. It can recognise your face even if someone else is playing and will sign you in. Some games use it for nifty features such as leaning out from behind a wall in a shooter by tracking your body movement.

However, Kinect motion control using your hands is still as fussy as before, sometimes even failing to respond.

 

Watch Xbox executives demonstrate new features of the console

 

THE GAMES

We’ have separate reviews of the exclusive launch titles available but in summary you’ll find that the graphics are marginally improved in most cases. They don’t have the same stunning impact we saw in the transition from Xbox to Xbox 360 – where we were also moving very noticeably from standard-definition TV to high-def. Cross-platform titles such as Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty Ghosts look better on PS4 but several others are almost equal.

Launch titles in any generation are rarely the best examples of their platform, which will come later in the life cycle.

Microsoft has done a decent job, edging out Sony’s weaker line-up, but there’s nothing here that screams must-have or that genuinely achieves something revolutionary.

Titles such as Forza Motorsport 5 and Dead Rising 3 top the range of exclusives but even they aren’t system-sellers in the way that, say, a great Halo would be.

There’s also a bunch of very average downloadable titles such as LocoCycle and Crimson Dragon that you can easily ignore.

The full list is:

“Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag” (Ubisoft, Ubisoft)

·         “Battlefield 4” (DICE, Electronic Arts)

·         “Call of Duty: Ghosts” (Infinity Ward, Activision)

·         “Crimson Dragon” (Grounding/Land Ho!, Microsoft Studios)

·         “Dead Rising 3” (Capcom Vancouver, Microsoft)

·         “FIFA 14” (EA SPORTS, Electronic Arts)

·         “Fighter Within” (AMA Ltd., Ubisoft)

·         “Forza Motorsport 5” (Turn 10 Studios, Microsoft Studios)

·         “Just Dance 2014” (Ubisoft Paris, Ubisoft)

·         “Killer Instinct” (Double Helix, Microsoft Studios)

·         “LEGO Marvel Super Heroes” (TT Games, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment)

·         “LocoCycle” (Twisted Pixel, Microsoft Studios)

·         “Madden NFL 25” (EA SPORTS, Electronic Arts)

·         “NBA 2K14” (Visual Concepts, 2K)

·         “NBA LIVE 14” (EA SPORTS, Electronic Arts)

·         “Need for Speed Rivals” (Ghost Games, Electronic Arts)

·         “Powerstar Golf ” (Zoe Mode, Microsoft Studios)

·         “Ryse: Son of Rome” (Crytek, Microsoft Studios)

·         “Skylanders SWAP Force” (Vicarious Visions, Activision)

·         “Xbox Fitness” (Microsoft Studios)

·         “Zoo Tycoon” (Frontier Developments Microsoft Studios)

·         “Zumba Fitness World Party” (Zoë Mode, Majesco)

 

IN CONCLUSION

Any discussion of whether you should buy Xbox One or PS4 is largely academic for now because you will find it very difficult to find either in the shops before Christmas.

It’s probably no harm to wait a few weeks (or even months) anyway while the bugs get shaken out of the systems. Both Xbox One and PS4 have suffered a low percentage of failures for new owners – par for the course maybe but enough to give pause to delay a purchase.

We’ll have a review of the PS4 shortly. It costs €100 less than Xbox One’s €500 but it doesn’t include a motion-control camera similar to Kinect. That’s a €60 extra, bringing the prices much closer together.

Finally, don’t forget that some of the coolest features on Xbox One – including multiplayer, video sharing and Skype – require a €60 a year Xbox Live Gold subscription. The PS4 requires a subscription for multiplayer.

So that €500 price tag is really going to be €560 for most buyers.

The good: Excellent controller, useful voice control, lots of potential

The bad: The price, the missing features, the lack of killer games

The ugly: The design is so bland it doesn't feel like a desirable piece of tech

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