On November 22, Microsoft will try to change the gaming world with the next version of its Xbox gaming platform. But what does it actually play like? For that, we went hands on.
This week, Microsoft gave journalists the first chance to get their mitts on the next six or seven years of gaming for the Xbox brand, arriving in the form of the Xbox One.
Already nicknamed “Xbone” by many in the gamer community, the console is powered by innards which make it surprisingly close to a well-spec’d computer, yet fashioned in a body that looks closer to a video game system.
Inside the new console is a eight-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz, with 8GB RAM, a 500GB hard drive, Blu-ray drive with the ability to playback movies, support for 7.1 surround sound, and a new operating system and dashboard that borrows elements from the Windows 8 system.
Being supplied with the Xbox One is a new Kinect, a more advanced version of Microsoft’s motion controller. T
he first version used a combination of cameras, microphones, and 3D depth sensors to track the position and movement of people in the room.
Now in the new version, those features have been upgraded, the microphones changed to a longer array, and the technology is now vastly superior, incorporating a 1080p camera you can Skype with, a new depth sensor able to discern the difference between more objects in the room and point out more minor changes, a night vision camera, and a vast array of tracking features which can work out the difference between up to six people, assign controllers to them, work out their moods, and how much weight they’re shifting to each side.
That’s not just something to gloat about on paper, because this week, we saw all of these demonstrated, and while much of this was a technical demo, seeing the evolution of Microsoft’s Kinect and what it was pointing out the difference between is very, very impressive.
Over on the Xbox itself, we saw some very well programmed features.
One of these is about game recording, and that’s something the Xbox One is always doing, recording five minutes of your game continuously.
When you decide you want to record a section of a game you just played with, you can bring up the video studio in a split screen very similar to how it appears on Windows 8 (remember how we said the Xbox One uses elements of Windows 8?), and cut a small video from what has been recorded.
Gamers eager to show how they executed a fighting move, a boss fight, or even what they’re making in Minecraft will no doubt find this awesome, but what’s even better is that you can watch the video and go straight to the game from that point, no longer just reliving it passively, but engaging and re-engaging with the game from an interactive viewpoint.
We’re really curious to see just how far you can take this feature, and since we know – and Microsoft knows – that gamers will be sharing videos about their exploits online, are keen to see whether these can be downloaded and if gamers will be able to enter the game from those video save points, just like the person can on the local Xbox.
Microsoft didn’t have an answer for us on how that would work, but when day one comes, you can bet that will be one of the first things we’ll be playing with.
Other things we’ll be playing with will be the games, because – let’s face it – you generally buy an Xbox for the games.
First up, we played Killer Instinct, a title which this writer remembers pumping quarters into arcade machines to play when he was living in America. Later on, when he returned to Australia, he would play against his brother on the Super NES.
It was one of those fighting games you just had to love, because it wasn’t so much about the button mashing, but about how many punch and kick combos you could do to nail your opponent.
Over in the Xbox One, Killer Instinct is returning as a free game to all who buy the console. It’s not technically free, mind you, and yet it also is, acting as freemium, and providing you with one or two characters to fight with. If you want more, you’ll have to shell out cash, making it a decent demo, and one that you can probably win the game with if your combos are good enough.
Despite being in a world of 3D fighters, Killer Instinct on the Xbox One is a 2D fighter with 3D graphics, looking great and responding very quickly, and forcing us to remember the sheer amount of combos that the characters had. We didn’t, but hey, we still beat the opponent we were playing against. Twice. Yay.
Next up was Forza 5 which, as many can expect, is Microsoft’s Gran Turismo killer, sporting sexy graphics of photorealistic cars with lovely cockpits and excellent driving mechanics.
This is a launch title, and with less than 60 days before launch, it looks positively wonderful.
Cars have shiny and speckled surfaces, lighting looks superb, and when you get in the race, driving through either the cockpit, above the bonnet, or direct to the windscreen all look amazing, and make us yearn for a curved screen or VR headset.
Microsoft have also made improvements to the Xbox controller, making what feels like a compromise between the original and the 360 model.
The shape is all 360, and the weight is a little lighter, as the wireless control has been built into the controller itself, with the battery pack no longer an accessory, and microUSB ports making the wireless controllers wired whenever batteries are an issue.
The directional pad is a little firmer and closer to what it was like on older console gamepads, while the analog joysticks now feel tighter.
Most of the same design is here from the last 360 controller, though, and you get bumpers, four buttons, triggers with rumble and haptic feedback behind them, and a grip that is much more comfortable than the PS3 controllers we’ve been wishing Sony would redesign for years.
One thing that might bug gamers is the port choice on the Xbox One controller for accessories, because it no longer supports your accessories. In fact, headsets, keyboards, and anything else you’d normally plug in here will definitely no longer work, as this is an entirely new proprietary port.
Oh well. Time to pony up for more accessories.
At least you won’t have to buy the Kinect, though, as Microsoft’s motion controller is part and parcel of the package, and while you don’t have to use it, you will want to with some of the titles.
One of these isn’t a launch title, with Kinect Sports Rivals actually arriving in 2014, but promising some very cool uses of the Kinect motion capture technology.
For starters, this game can scan you look into the game.
While other games have promised this by taking a photo and mapping it to a head, Sport Rivals goes one step further by analysing your facial and body characteristics, and creating a digital avatar in that image. This writer has a beard and moustache, and did quite a good job getting the look and shape right. In fact, we want some tips on how to trim it the way it suggested we look.
As this scan is going on, you can see parts of the new Kinect in motion, with blocks and shapes forming your onscreen digital DNA, and displaying your head in 3D glory. From here, you can see the Kinect can watch your eyebrow movement and lips, doing more than the basic head movement that the first Kinect had.
Once the avatar is created, though, it’s time to go in game and see how you perform.
We played two sports, since the rest aren’t finished, with a motion-based version of jet-ski racing (like N64’s Waverace, actually) and then a two player rock climbing, with each of these demonstrating how the Kinect has improved.
Over in the jet ski world, turning your racer is no longer made from giant sweeping motions, and while this was necessary on the Xbox 360 Kinect racing games, here on the One, it will just land you in a wall, or exploding as you crash into a ship.
The motion tracking appears to have been tightened dramatically, and as you start the second lap, you begin to realise that Microsoft has made waves (no pun intended) of work and research into refining this.
Another new feature of the Kinect is to pick up on what the fingers are doing, because in the 360, it was simply about hands.
When you play the rock-climbing title, which has you reaching for a rock, letting go of the other, over and over again, you realise quickly that the camera is watching out for the movements of your digits, not just the placement of your hands, all the while tracking your feet, because if you decide to jump, you’ll jump ahead and push your way up the rock face quickly.
The last game we checked out was Capcom’s Dead Rising 3, which promises to let you go on a zombie killing rampage in one of the most entertaining ways you’ve ever dreamed of.
We spoke to the developers of the game, fresh from Capcom’s studios in Canada, who told us that the sheer amount of technology inside the new Xbox console is what is making these games bigger, increasing the size of the titles and also how much they can do.
“The big thing for us on Xbox One has been that we can take the density that Dead Rising is known for with zombies, weapons, items, physics objects – just stuff on screen – and now make a fully streaming open world without sacrificing the density,” said Mike Jones, one of the producers of the new Dead Rising title at Capcom in Canada.
“Previous games we always had to have smaller little environments, we had to partition it with loading zones. Now we’re able to make it fully streaming, we’ve got way more memory budget, more horsepower, and we can make it prettier.”
The result is a zombie game that features more polygons and figures on screen than this writer has ever seen before, with hundreds of zombies all fighting to take a piece of you and lots of little things which you can use as weapons to take a piece of them first.
If you know video games and the sort of hardware requirements that have held back immense amount of activity at once, looking at what Capcom has been able to accomplish with Dead Rising 3 is insanely impressive.
That feeling of being impressed was one that spread to most parts of the Xbox One play that we had, but there was one thing we felt a little bugged about, and that’s the missing backwards compatibility.
When the PS3 came along, there was limited backwards compatibility for the PS2, and then it was killed altogether when it pretty much never worked. At the time the Xbox 360 launched, Microsoft seemed to get the message a little better, providing some more backwards compatibility for original Xbox titles, and rolling this out eventually in the form of online downloads of games.
And yet here in the Xbox One, Microsoft seems to have gone back on its position of understanding the need for compatibility, with Sony offering it in the form of online streaming of older games when the PS4 does arrive.
But there might be a solution, and it’s one that surprised us considerably.
One of the hardware features of the Xbox One is the inclusion of an HDMI input, meaning you can plug another entertainment device into the new Xbox and use it there. Theoretically, this means you could leave your Xbox 360 around, keep it plugged into the Xbox One, and use it when you want to go back to the vast collection of 360 titles that you’ve probably amassed, which is the same boat we’re in.
It’s not perfect, but at least it’s a solution.
Regardless, Microsoft’s Xbox One will be heading to stores in Australia from November 22, 2013, with a recommended retail price of $599.