Xbox One - First Impressions
So what do the Xbox One owning members of the Games team think of the new console?
Join us for a back-and-forth (rambling and heavily edited) chat, conducted over the course of a week, gauging opinions on Microsoft’s recently released console.
Discussing the issues are Leon Matthews (LM), Manny Brown (EB), Ste Carter (SC), Mark Botwright (MB) and Steve Hill (SH).
Q - So who - other than Leon, obviously - chose a One and why?
SC - After much deliberating I decided to go for one. It was inevitable I would end up with both next gen consoles anyway at some stage. I've had both machines before and I enjoy first party offerings from both, so I didn't want to miss out on anything by just ordering the PS4. The reversal of Microsoft’s policies helped too, the UK (OK, just me) isn't ready for the online demands they initially outlined.
EB - I chose an Xbox One because I was curious, basically. I knew I'd end up with one eventually and I could just about purchase one without bankrupting myself, so I figured I'd jump in and experience the launch buzz/disappointment. It only happens every seven years, or at least that's the way I'm justifying it to myself.
SH - I had no intention of buying either a One or a PS4. I have just built a 6 core + Titan PC rig and would rather buy a second Titan then spend money on a console...Then I started reading all the release day threads; I won’t rule out being in the next gen club by the December podcast.
MB - I caved, I knew I would in the end, but mine won’t be here until Chrimbo. Each time a new generation comes around I pretend I’ll stick with one machine, but inevitably I have to at least try both.
SH - I’ve just booked a Taxi to Bluewater. At least 5 stores there I can try...
*some time later*
SH - Bluewater is barren of Xbox Ones. This is because I said all branches of Game stunk of BO isn't it!? Back to slumming it on Battlefield 4 with my Titan.
So, what about the initial setting up of the machine itself. Any issues?
LM - All went smoothly over here, I was home by 12:15; set up has been pretty smooth; initial impressions are good.
SC - Mine won’t install or update the games when you insert them. It just freezes on 0%. That’s if you’re connected via Live, if you try offline then it will install the disc veeerrrrry slowly and won’t like it when you connect to Live and try to install the update via the internet. I might have to get a replacement unit... So yeah, next gen hits next week right?
EB - Youch! Is this a huge problem for everybody then?
SC - It hasn't just been me but I can't decide if that's good news or not. There are also stories of broken disc drives and bricking consoles.
EB - I had to redo the first update three times. It turned out it didn't like the IP and DNS details my router gave it. As soon as I manually set those everything went along ok.
*some time later*
SC - Just returned from the shops. Console swapped no hassle, time for round 2!
Now everyone’s got a working console, and the initial battering of the Live servers has subsided, what are your initial impressions?
Let’s start with one of Microsoft’s great successes, the pad.
EB - Generally excellent, familiar, comfortable. The sticks are a little taller than the previous 360 controller, but it works beautifully for the most part. The only reservations I have are with the D-pad, which is still too flaky to pull off combos in Killer Instinct properly, and the shoulder buttons, which feel cheap and are hinged a little weirdly towards the centre of the controller, meaning you have to push the outside edge with the middle of your index finger. Most people probably do that anyway, I just found it a bit strange at first.
MB - I'm surprised about the shoulder buttons, I wouldn't have thought they needed any tinkering.
EB - Yeah that's what I thought as well. They aren't horrible now, just different, not quite as tactile.
SC - The controller is near perfect to me, I have no issues with the triggers or thumbsticks and the only gripe I have is with the D-pad. It feels a bit cheap with the clicking every time you press one in.
LM - I actually don't mind the D pad, I thought it was pretty good and have been knocking out combos on Killer Instinct with it no problem. The rumble triggers seem to exist solely for Forza, but they make such a difference, giving a new dimension of feedback which makes it way more intuitive, so much so that games like Need for Speed feel in a way "dead" without it; rumble triggers have been unexpectedly fun.
EB - The trigger rumble in Forza is a thing of beauty, it's a subtle bit of feedback but makes all the difference in communicating tyre grip. Great stuff.
What about more contentious tech, like Kinect. Does it look like it’ll prove worthy of inclusion?
EB - I'm coming around to the voice commands for system-level stuff, amazingly. I'm not convinced by it overall, but it's been good to use it for Netflix, launching games and searching for bits and bobs over the past few days. Colour me an almost-convert at this stage. Just needs to be ironed out in terms of its responsiveness and fail rate.
SC - Kinect is a bit of a mixed bag; the voice commands are good but won’t replace functions via the controller. The only time they’re useful is during TV or video playback when you can’t locate the remote/controller and can change the volume via Kinect.
LM - It is tantalisingly close to being amazing, I would say it’s got about a 75% success rate depending on how well I shout commands. There is definitely a learning curve to using it, when it works - usually when I’m alone - it feels great and is actually quicker half the time; when it doesn't it is easily frustrating. I’m happy to persevere as I just like the idea of voice control and I’m confident it will be improved.
OS and Other Features
How about the OS, has that felt as slick as it needs to be?
EB - Hmmmm. It's in beta. Let's put it that way.
When it all works and Kinect recognises your voice commands and you're snapping the help guide or a Netflix video and carrying on your game at the same time, it's great. Launching an app with your voice and having your game pause in the background and pick up right where you left off is super useful, and the multi-tasking parallels the usability we've had in phones and tablets for years now, which is a good, good thing. It's pretty to look at and the “pins” and “recent items” lists are genuinely useful, as is the ability to follow people without them being friends, see their content, etc.
SC - It’s a bit tricky to navigate and could be smoother.
LM - The OS definitely needs work. The party chat is a bit confusing and getting into games with people is universally confusing at the minute, a lot of it seems to have been streamlined and removed from the user’s hands.
There are a lot of comparisons with Apple and iOS, and I can see that, but I would like it to change and I’m sure it will. In the same way the 360's dash evolved, I’m sure this one will too. So far it’s a solid grounding point and I’m enjoying the lifestyle change its bringing, saying “watch TV” and it flipping back and forth is a novelty that hasn’t worn off yet!
In the same way the 360's dash evolved, I’m sure this one will tooThe console’s advertised as multi-functional, so are there any additional features worth mentioning?
EB - The selection of apps is good for a launch system, with Twitch and Netflix particularly smooth and functional.
I have to mention the Upload and Upload Studio apps here, because I can see myself spending a ridiculous amount of time watching clips from other people on my friends list over the next few years; there are already a few moments of comedy gold on there. I love the ability to search for footage by game name as well, that was one of the few things I loved about the original OnLive service when it came out, it's easy to get lost in that stuff when you're just surfing around and want to watch footage of a specific game, see what people are doing with it, etc. Video quality isn't great, but that's the sort of thing you'd expect them to address over time.
SC - One great feature is Smartglass, thats excellent. Navigating via a tablet is brilliant and makes things like sending messages over Live much easier.
Niggles and TV Functionality
Are there any miscellaneous niggles or aspects of the design you find odd?
EB - Apps and games take *forever* to load off that 5400rpm hard drive if it's already performing another task (I suspect the PS4 will have the same issues without swapping out the drive). I have no idea what the logic is with going for a 5400rpm system in 2013, it's not like there isn't enough space in that box to cool a speedier disk and they cost pennies more nowadays.
As for other stuff, the One also completely removes access to things like the system storage and save files, and while I can see the logic in that for the average Joe consumer that buys the Xbox for TV and CoD, I really dislike not having direct access to that stuff. It makes me feel uneasy; if data gets lost I want it to be my fault.
And the touted TV functionality, has anyone used that much thus far?
EB - I piped my TiVO box through it yesterday but the quality was noticeably degraded (colours were over-saturated, the picture was fuzzier, motion was weirdly jarring), and the lack of surround audio processing has already been noted.
Snapping TV content to the side of the screen also resulted in a weird bug where it'd chop the frame rate of the TV content sporadically, so watching footy in a side bar is completely out of the question. Overall it's a horrible experience at the minute, and not the best demo for what they want that system to be.
Update - this judder effect is due to the refresh rate the console runs at being mismatched to the content viewed. More info here.
The Exclusive Games
That’s the techy stuff out of the way, what about the exclusive games? Let’s start with RYSE: Son of Rome.
LM - I'm very near the end of this now and I have been pleasantly surprised, yes it looks stunning, but it’s not as bad to play as was being implied post-launch. The combat could use some more depth and some more character models and executions would be nice, but as a popcorn thrill ride it ticks the boxes it needs to. Will I ever play it again after finishing the campaign, outside of co-op? Probably not, but I am enjoying my play through so far. It does require tackling in small chunks though, long sessions really bring out the repetitiveness of the combat.
SC - Given the very late embargo date, and well documented play tests, it was inevitable that it wasn’t going to be all that great. Usual Crytek though isn't it? Style over substance. It looks like it will be a decent showcase for the system which is good, indicating what the console is capable of. The setting intrigues me somewhat, although once the campaign is done with I think I'll be selling it on.
EB - Ryse is the one I'd single out as being the most next-gen in terms of wow factor. The gameplay is pretty basic and repetitive, but good golly is it ever pretty. It's one of those things you can't really appreciate in screenshots or YouTube videos, you have to see it running in the flesh on a big telly to get the leap. The overall image quality is easily on a par with current PC stuff on high settings, and I'd say it goes a fair bit further in a few instances. Lovely lighting, shadowing, texture work, AA and facial animation. Very atmospheric. Dumb as all arse.
SC - The graphics and audio are fantastic, you can’t help but admire some of the views on offer when travelling through the landscapes. It’s just a shame that it’s not a longer game and is as repetitive as it is.
How about Forza?
LM - This game has certainly taken the lions share of my time, the amount of feedback the rumble triggers provides cannot be overstated, they’re a game changer for me. Forza Horizon was a great gateway to the series for me, and with the visuals and the controller this is the first sim game to truly grab me. I enjoy the whole thing, even the music, it has a sort of reverence and love which is really hard not to get swept up in, and the Top Gear stuff is pitch perfect.
EB - Forza I'm not so much taken with. It's nice and sharp in the foreground but the compromises they must have made to get it up to 1080/60 are pretty evident. Also, GOOD GOD THE MUSIC IS TERRIBLE.
SC - The music for Forza is awful, really ill-fitting race music.
EB - The cars look fantastic, although that's kind of a given for a Forza game.
What I will say about Forza is that it plays absolutely brilliantly, especially with that controller. The trigger rumble is something else, it adds so much to the experience. I'm not sure if they've tweaked the handling model or just changed up the roster of cars, but it certainly feels different to 4. It's a lot more bouncy and slidey, which makes it superb fun in the older cars that struggle to keep grip around mild corners. The cloud-based Drivatar system is excellent as well, adding some real unpredictability to offline races, and it's nice to log in and see how my virtual persona has done for the day.
And Killer Instinct? I predict this is a question more for Leon.
LM - I would just like to say IN YOUR FACE to a certain Mr Ingber. I haven't forgot you denouncing this title on the podcast when it was announced, saying Double Helix were rubbish and the franchise wasn't that good.
I am loving it more than I thought I would and local matches have become an instant decision maker in my house: whose turn is it to wash up? “Xbox Killer Instinct!” Who is going to put on the kettle? “Xbox Killer Instinct!” Although it is light on content it’s really enjoyable and is just button mashy enough for drunken sessions with casuals and offers enough depth that me and a mate can have rounds which exist of combo-ccccccombobreaker-combo-cccccombo breaker until someone’s thumb falls off.
EB - Killer Instinct I've not played that much of, but I like what I have. It's not really next-gen as such (outside of some lovely particle effects here and there), but it's a fun fighter with a nice sense of style. Definitely recommended for a trial and doubly-so if you got that email from Microsoft that unlocked all the Season 1 fighters for nothing.
And lastly, the visuals-wise maligned Dead Rising 3, is it as much fun as it looks?
SC - Dead Rising doesn’t necessarily look next gen (given it was going to be a 360 title) but with the number of random objects you can pick up and how many zombies are on screen at one time, you realise there has been a step up in technology.
LM - I haven't played a great deal, maybe an hour or two in co-op. Thus far it’s more Dead Rising, but with an insane amount of zombie and more crazy weapons; so far so good.
So, any final thoughts on the One, where it's at and what lies in store?
LM - Maybe I am being too positive but for me there hasn't really been a lot to moan about; sure I have lots of little issues that could be considered death by a million paper cuts...
Party/private chat is unclear, party invites not standardised, no battery indicator, no storage management, DTS sound keeps going funny, my Google TV isn't really happy about being passed through, sign in stuff can be a bit weird when controller-passing with a few people signed in, they stopped mapping menu commands for Kinect about 4 menus deep, no Twitch, digital download pricing still sucks, I'm still not entirely sure how to - or if - you can stream audio in the background of a game, passive HDMI pass through is missing, I could go on.
But comparing a console at the beginning of its life cycle with an outgoing one at the end is just pointless. Remember when the 360 couldn't use flash drives? Remember when Arcade games couldn't be over 512mb? Remember blades?!
When push comes to shove and I’m playing a game, am I happy with the experience? Yes I am. The rest of it is just gravy; granted it's really tasty gravy which goes with my roast perfectly, and sunday dinners aren't the same without it... but gravy none the less.
EB - I should also say I'm super excited for this generation now. If I sounded tough on the Xbox on that first day, it was probably coloured by the botched patch, the console freeze and then having all the voice stuff completely break when my mates came round to have a look.
It's grown on me a hell of a lot though. I've not had much trouble since, and I'm considerably warmed to the voice commands now. I can see where that OS is heading, and it should be excellent if they can smooth over all the cracks.
Over to Sony! And then the Magic Steam Owl Controller and Oculus Rift next year.
SC - All in all I’d say it has been a worthwhile investment, so much potential for the future and enough to keep people entertained until Titanfall etc. next year.
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