Test-driving the new Xbox One

CorrespondentNovember 28, 2013 

GAME CONSOLES OUTLOOK 2

The Microsoft Xbox One.

HANDOUT — MICROSOFT

The recently released Xbox One ($499.99) plays video games. This isn’t news. As the successor to the Xbox 360, one of the most wildly successful video game systems of all time, it kind of has to. It even does a pretty good job of it.

But what’s interesting about Microsoft’s approach to the Xbox One so far, however, is that its game-playing capabilities seem almost secondary to its role at the center of the living room. The aim here is for the Xbox One to make our entertainment-focused lives easier.

First impressions: First impressions aren’t great, because there’s nothing easy about setting it up. The Xbox One itself is huge – about the size of the original PlayStation 3 models – and it can’t be set on its side. The packed-in Kinect peripheral is beefier than the previous model as well, and gracefully finding a way to hook everything up without turning the entertainment center into a mess of wires feels unnecessarily challenging. This is the future, after all, and the future should have fewer wires, not more.

Once you turn it on, though, it kind of feels like magic.

Voice control: Perhaps most successful is the One’s voice control system, a part of its improved and expanded Kinect capability set. Given the system’s inability to play last generation’s Xbox 360 games and the small number of games available at launch, perhaps the most useful thing about the system is the way the Kinect enhances your TV-watching experience. Using the HDMI input cable, you can run your cable box through the Xbox One, and simply say things to it like “Xbox, watch ESPN” or “Xbox, show guide” instead of using your remote.

It may not sound like much, but sometimes it’s nice to not have to remember the three- or four-digit number that’ll get you to Showtime.

The voice controls are good for more than just TV, too – a little bit of practice, and you’ll be watching Netflix, calling someone with Skype, or keeping an eye on the television while you play a game through the sidebar-esque “snap” function. The voice control is as nimble and useful as any I’ve seen, and is certainly the most impressive part of the system so far.

That said, chances are that nobody’s going to drop 500 bucks to turn their TV into a voice-activated smart TV. The real question is what the next generation of gaming looks like.

Graphics: The verdict so far is mixed. It’s definitely “next-gen,” but that means more than just better graphics. Granted, there are better graphics: “Forza Motorsport 5” looks so slick and polished that you almost have to squint at it, “Ryse” does human models that look far beyond anything the 360 or the PS3 could have hoped to spit out, and the speed-without-loss-of-detail of the new, downloadable “Killer Instinct” is awfully impressive.

Microtransactions: The money to pay for all of that flashy presentation has to come from somewhere, though, and for Microsoft, the answer to this appears to be the presence of microtransactions. Once you spend money for Xbox games, you are then presented with the option of spending even more money for the promise of more stuff. You get more characters in “Killer Instinct,” more experience in “Ryse,” more cars in “Forza.” Do you have to pay for the extras? Absolutely not, though the feeling that you’re not getting the complete experience is prevalent in some of these games.

No doubt this is the pricing model of the future, the way to finance experiences that are as close to lifelike as we’ve ever seen. Whether games can pull this off without leaving a sour taste in gamers’ mouths remains to be seen.

Bottom line: In the wake of its heavily-hyped release, it’s difficult to see with clear eyes whether the Xbox One will truly revolutionize our living room or be overwhelmed by its own sense of novelty. Either way, it’s fun to try it out and get a glimpse at the ways we may or may not get along with the machines in our living room as the future all-too-quickly becomes the present.

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