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Xbox One Review: I'm Sorry I Raised My Voice

Xbox One
Microsoft

I wouldn’t say a lost my temper with the Xbox One. Because I actually, for the most part, enjoyed the experience. But I did raise my voice. And for that I apologize. 

Everything about Microsoft’s new game console, its first in eight years, is designed to make you do as little as possible. That means running multiple apps at the same time, a “snap” function to plop stuff on-screen into a picture-in-picture style, and–eek–a reliance on voice controls. 

I share the blame, Xbox One. I do. I am a mumbler. I have difficulty expressing myself at times. I rushed too quickly to say Xbox One, get it together, to which you pulled up the “weather” option. (Ha! Defusing the situation. You are too funny, Xbox One.)

Anyway.

We should let it go. Because I liked you, Xbox One. We should talk more. Later, though. Now’s a bad time.

How It Looks

Oof. All right, then. Let’s just get the worst thing out of the way. The Xbox One is a not-particularly-attractive behemoth of a game console. It’s the size of a small suitcase and heavy as one stuffed with sheet-metal. The shape is hard to describe beyond “box”–very few ridges, curves, or any other shapes to variate the monolithic design. It’s like a VCR that’s metastasized in your living room. I thought I had reserved ample room for any console, since that had been the case for any other console I’ve put there. That was not the case. If you are planning to travel with the Xbox One, remove those plans from your itinerary. Actually, whatever table or surface you place it on, be prepared to keep it there forever. Actually, just be prepared to die in whatever home/apartment/cavern you currently reside in. The Xbox One isn’t going anywhere.

There’s also a new controller. There are a list of changes Microsoft has been touting–like a vibrate function on the triggers, and a redesigned, less bulky spot for the batteries–and, yeah, it’s a little better. But the truth is in practice it doesn’t feel all that different, at least when stacked up to the more drastic changes Sony made to its controller for the new PlayStation 4. If you were a huge fan of the Xbox 360 controller, then fine, you’ll be happy with this. Otherwise, if you’re looking for huge changes in the console, you’ll have to find something elsewhere. 

Booting Up

If you’ve set up any console in your life, the Xbox One set-up will be painless: connect the wire in back to the wall, the other wire to the TV, etc. There is one extra step, though, that I’d recommend taking the time to do: the new Xbox can also be wired through your cable-box through HDMI, allowing you to watch TV by selecting it on the Xbox’s main screen. (Same goes for the HDMI-friendly media streamer of your choice; I used a Roku.) More on that in a minute. 

Here I should mention: I think but can’t readily confirm that I had a glitch with my Xbox. When I first booted up the console, it took me straight to the Xbox’s home screen, without the usual registration process. There, the controller wouldn’t function properly. I don’t know who, if anyone, will have this issue, but it was solved after a quick reset. 

Here I should also mention: the reset process takes forever. You boot up, are brought to the big, green Xbox One load screen, and then you go grab a snack or take out the garbage or something while you wait it out. Unfortunate, since the Xbox One home screen actually looks pretty nice after it’s done loading. Microsoft’s tile system, which is now loaded on every one of its devices, is here again, and doesn’t look too different from the last Xbox incarnation. Things are little more organized, and the Xbox automatically moves the titles for apps and games you played most recently to the front of the screen, assuming that those are what you’ll most likely use again. Notifications pop up on the bottom of the screen in much the same way as last time around, and there are the same slots reserved for places where you can buy games, apps, and music. (An image of an angsty Eminem promoting some tunes has been permanently etched into my brain.) But there’s a greater focus on features besides games. Which brings us to…

Ryse: Son of Rome
Crytek

Under The Hood

I said this in my PlayStation 4 review, but I’ll say it again: the specific technical details in a system aren’t as important as the functionality you get from those specs. That said, it has similar specs to the PlayStation 4: a combination of CPU and GPU processors meant to divide the work of processing graphics and other tasks. But the results are a little different: the biggest change behind the Xbox One–and the best one–is the ability to instantly stop playing a game with a single button and enter your home screen. No more save-and-quit, no more shutting off one thing to open up something else. The processors divert processing power to the game, and the rest goes to the ancillary apps. None of that affected the performance of either, in my experience. That’s a big deal. You can turn on a dime with the Xbox One, not feel stuck because you’re playing a game and suddenly realizing there was something else you wanted to do first. Then, once you’re done with your other task, you go back directly to the game, picking up exactly where you left off. 

Now I can simply run my Roku through the Xbox instead of going directly through the TV.

There’s also a new Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-capturing camera that comes bundled with the new Xbox One. And it’s better, with a wider range of vision and better resolution–enough to scan your face to sign you in. (I’ll go on record, again, saying this still gives me the heebie-jeebies. But it’s also undoubtedly cool tech.) As much as I disdain voice controls, the commands I sent to the Kinect worked okay. Not great, just fine. Although since certain functions, like the otherwise great “snap” function, which lets you pull up a separate window to multi-task, rely wholly on the technology, it should be flawless, even at a whisper. (Update for clarification: You can manually select the snap function with a controller on the homescreen, but, obviously, to switch between functions when you’re already doing something, you’ll need to use voice control.)

But I do love the option of routing my cable box or media streamer through my Xbox. Between multiple game consoles and a Roku, I’m already taking up a lot of wire and wall space. Now I can simply run my Roku through the Xbox instead of going directly through the TV. After that, just select the TV option on the Xbox home screen, and you’re directed to your TV. Maybe that’s not life-changing, but it frees up a wire and a little time if I want to multi-task between gaming and TV-watching. 

Games

Here it is! Games! For the game console. The PlayStation 4 lineup turned out to be incredibly underwhelming, but the Xbox One lineup, oh man, let me tell you: it is also incredibly underwhelming.

I’ll start with the positive: Ryse: Son of Rome, a semi-melodramatic sword-and-sandals epic, probably takes too much glee in its eviscerations of barbarians, but looks like it could be one of the bright spots at launch, as one of the only truly original properties in the stable. 

Now the bad: a digital title called Crimson Dragon is one of the worst games I have played in recent memory. You ride a space dragon that shoots, like, missiles at other space dragons. There’s some kind of government conspiracy. Or aliens? No, wait, you’re the alien. Maybe. I don’t know. 

There’s another installment in the Forza racing game franchise that certainly looks nice on the new system, but doesn’t seem to offer much beyond the standard racing game fare. There are a few new sports games, the animal-management bureaucracy simulator Zoo Tycoon, and a slew of titles that have already appeared on the last system. As disappointing as Sony’s list of games turned out to be, you’re not going to find much on Microsoft’s end, either. 

Should You Buy This?

No. Wait. You don’t need something to hook up through your TV right now, unless it has games to accompany it, and the Xbox One, as cool as some of its features are, has a dearth of games. You can wait. How long? That’s up to you: whenever there’s a sum of games that make it worthwhile to you, go for it. (That could theoretically be right now, but I’ll venture to say it isn’t, even for even the most die-hard gamers.)

Now comes the point where I tell you whether the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 is the King of the Console Generation. But I’m not going to do that–especially this early. I might sound overly diplomatic here, but there are reasons to root for both. I wasn’t a huge fan of the PS4, but at $400, it’s $100 cheaper than the Xbox One. The interface isn’t as forward-thinking, but maybe you want something that puts more focus on games. Maybe, too, you want something more mobile. 

Regardless, though, the most important part of a system is still games. And it remains to be seen which console will make the biggest leaps in that field. You can wait to find out. 

    



PlayStation 4 Review: A Lot Of The Same

PlayStation 4
Sony

Remember: you don’t really love your PlayStation. You love the games, and the PlayStation–now on its fourth incarnation–is the boxy black vessel for those games. You don’t love the box any more than a toaster that plays Netflix. 

This is important to remember, since the PlayStation 4 as a system feels so, so much like the generation before it. Imagine staring at both as they sit below your TV, then imagine Tommy Lee Jones sauntering in and Men In Black-style brain-wiping the last console out of your skull. You will not be able to determine The Future of Gaming and the soon-to-be obsolete. 

If you’re reading and comprehending this, you’re likely old enough to remember the PlayStation 3. And I’d guess you’ve changed a lot more in the past seven years than Sony has.

How It Looks

The PlayStation 4 is actually a radical departure in a few ways–it’s just debatable whether all of those ways are positive. On top, it looks half matte, half almost-laminated. A crack along the front contains all of the stuff, like the two USB ports where your controller can charge. To play a game on a disc, you insert it into the PlayStation 4’s gaping maw, like a sacrifice to the gods. The crack glows blue while it’s on, and orange when it’s in standby mode, waiting for your next commands. The whole thing is slanted in front, like it got stuck in a wind tunnel for an hour. 

Here’s the weird part: there are no buttons on the console. Like, at all. Not even a fake power sign you put your thumb over. You touch the top half of the crack to turn it on, and the bottom to eject the game disc. This is fine when you figure it out, but isn’t immediately apparent. I spent the better part of 10 minutes poking it like a Space Odyssey chimp at the obelisk. 

There’s also a new controller. Stacked up to the last generation’s controller, it definitely looks sleeker–a little less angular than its predecessor, which, when viewed from the side, looks like an uncomfortable high-heeled shoe by comparison. There’s a “share” button on this generation, which, when pressed, lets players share a screenshot or video clip (the PlayStation 4 automatically records the last 15 minutes of play, just in case something happens that you have to show around). A lot of real estate in front is given to a touchpad. There’s a little mini-game loaded on to each PlayStation that uses this, but I haven’t quite figured out why it exists besides that.

Also: the controller-to-TV sensor on the front glows different colors. I like this. I do not understand why. 

Booting Up

After you’ve cracked the mystery of How to Turn on the PlayStation, Nancy Drew, and added all of your information–Wi-Fi password, email address, etc.–you will be directed to the home screen. (Sold separately: the PlayStation Camera, which scans your face and detects when you’re around, and can be used to identify you automatically. For those worried the era of constant surveillance we’re living in hasn’t gone quite far enough yet.) 

If you have a PlayStation 3, you will immediately understand almost everything about the navigation screen, because disappointingly little about it has changed, at least on the main screen. You click on the same cartoonish little icons to navigate: a smiling house-shaped box for your profile, two smiling squares to see the friends you’ve added. (The best one: a “messages” icon that features both an envelope and a speech bubble. Either would’ve done, but here you get two-for-one.) Tiles with real images on them also appear to take you to announcements about new games, info about games you’ve played, a web browser, and a feature where you can stream what you’re playing over the service Twitch and invite other people to watch.

You can also check out what your friends are doing, in a feature that, for better or worse, looks like a social network. See what your friends have been playing, what they’ve accomplished in their games, and so on. This isn’t a particularly beautiful interface, either: it’s a stream of faces and text-snippets floating down for as long as you feel like scrolling. (I’ve just previewed this last part–it wasn’t fully available for review.)

I was really hoping Sony would do away with the wavy blue background on the interface that makes you feel like you’re getting seasick on the digital ocean, but alas, it makes its return. 

All in all, you can’t help but feel that a regular-old-update to the PlayStation 3 could’ve given us nearly the same interface, which is a bummer.

Killzone: Shadow Fall
Guerrilla Games

Under The Hood

You’re probably either the type of person who cares about every spec in your machine, or you don’t care about them at all unless they translate into practical applications. Personally, I’m in the latter category. But in short: the PS4 is faster, able to render images better, and, yes, has some practical bonuses because of that.

In short, there’s a combination CPU/GPU system that splits up some of the work in the PS4. What does that mean? Mostly, that’s how we’ve got features like faster video processing. Also, the PlayStation 4 has an option for background downloads. Rather than sit and wait for a download to finish before you can start playing the game, you can hop right in after a certain percentage of it is finished. It’s like video buffering: you start watching before the entire video is really ready to be watched.

Also on board are two USB 3.0 ports. Here’s the biggie with those. The PlayStation 3, in some kind of egregious oversight, didn’t allow controllers to charge while the PlayStation 3 was turned off. Here that’s remedied. Even better: the battery life on the controller looks like it got an upgrade. I’m still waiting for mine to kick hours after a minimal charge. 

There’s also a voice-control option in the PlayStation Camera you can use to start games or other features. Say, “PlayStation,” then the name of the game or certain functions and it’ll pop up. I’m not sure I totally understand the point of features like this. The last thing I want to do is exercise my vocal cords to select a game, especially when it’s a mere push of the control stick away. But there it is.

Games

Games! Games. The most important part of any game console. The selection of titles available at launch is… pretty sparse, honestly. They’re almost exclusively sequels or games that are also appearing on the PlayStation 3. 

The selection of titles available at launch is sparse.

Sony made a big deal at its announcement about the imminent arrival of the PlayStation 4-exclusive game Killzone: Shadow Fall, a new installment in the popular sci-fi shoot-’em-up franchise Killzone. Now it’s pretty apparent why: it’s the best representation right now of what the PS4 can do. The figures and landscapes on-screen are sharp, fully etched-out, even if it’s not as dramatic of a leap as PlayStation users saw between the PS2 and PS3. It just looks like a really lovely PS3 game. (I won’t go into too much depth on these, but especially not on this one, since the gameplay isn’t as breath-taking as the graphics. “Press R2 to kill him!”)

On the other end of the spectrum is a PS exclusive called Knack, which looks like something inspired by Pixar. You control a smart-mouthed monster called Knack. Knack punches out robots. It is fun. But also, definitely a game that could’ve easily appeared on the PS3 with very little lost. The characters and gameplay are like a high-quality animated movie, and no one would bat an eye seeing it on a past console.

Rounding out the launch-day lineup is the reliable B-list of gaming. You will find:

  • Madden 25: the 25th (!) installment in the football game franchise
  • Battlefield 4: the fourth installment in another shooty franchise
  • Need For Speed: Rivals: the umpteenth installment in the racing game franchise
  • And my personal favoriteJust Dance 2014, where people just dance to very recent pop hits, judged by the PlayStation’s Eye of Sauron. The newest songs include hits by Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame, and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Send this game to Mars. For one, it will no longer return to haunt us, and two, it will give future Martian settlers an exact idea of what life was like today.

One great thing Sony is doing now, though, is selling all titles as digital downloads the same day they sell them as discs. The future!

Should You Buy This?

Unless you are desperately jonesing to play a game like the new Killzone, then no, or, at least, you should wait as long as you can. This doesn’t feel like a step forward; it feels like a step sideways. A nearly identical interface, a slew of sequels, and a design that’s not all there. (I was more fond of the Wii U, which turned out to be a complete commercial disaster, because it at least felt like something different.)

At some point, if you’re regular gamer, you’ll probably have to bite the bullet. A game will come out that you’ll have to play, and you’ll buy the console to play it. But remember: you’ll be doing it for the game, not the console.