Microsoft unveiled its next video game console, the Xbox One, on Tuesday. Unlike Sony, which spent two hours at its PlayStation 4 reveal in February showing just about everything BUT the console, Microsoft put the console, its re-designed controller and updated Kinect camera at the heart of its presentation. Microsoft said that the Xbox One is a cloud-based video game system … but it’s also one that runs disc-based games and acts as a cable box. It looks to the future but also remains in the present.
Available “later this year” (but with no pricing or specific models detailed), the Xbox One is more than a video game system: it’s meant to run your entire entertainment experience. In fact, video games were almost an afterthought at Tuesday’s presentation, as the first half-hour of the presentation focused on just about everything except games. So what makes the Xbox One something you should care about or, more importantly, spend several hundred dollars on later this year?
A Complete (and Simple!) Entertainment Experience
Whether you’re playing games, watching TV, surfing the web or Skyping with friends and family, the Xbox One is there for you. Looking to simplify things even further, the Xbox One can be controlled almost entirely through voice commands (via the re-designed Kinect), and can be powered on simply by saying, “Xbox on.” This command brings you to a personalized home screen, bringing together your games, movies, music and more.
You can say, “Xbox, watch TV” and you’ll be transported to live TV instantly. The presentation went off with very few (if any) hiccups, but it’s impossible to tell whether or not it’ll be this smooth once the box is in your living room. The live TV will work with Comcast – this was pointed out during the presentation – but no other providers were mentioned by name, so those possibilities are up in the air. Also featured is a cool Xbox Guide, that lets you browse what’s airing live and also lets you see what the most popular trending shows are both live and On Demand.
You’re also able to switch from TV to games to movies and back – again, instantly – by saying phrases like “go to game” or “go to movie.” The seamless transitions were almost impeccable.
If you’re familiar with the Windows interface, you’ll be right at home here. The console’s user interface is sort of a hybrid between the Xbox 360’s and Windows 8, offering a tile-based experience. The Xbox One also gets Snap, one of the most convenient recent additions to Windows. Watching a movie but want to browse the web? Tell your Xbox to “snap to Internet Explorer” and it’ll open up a sidebar for you to browse the web while running your movie. Very cool.
Skype is also at home on the Xbox One, offering calls (including group calls) through the Kinect. You’re able to take these calls either in full screen or snapped to the side while doing other things.
One surprising point of emphasis throughout the presentation was the incorporation of ESPN Fantasy Sports stats. While watching sports on ESPN – or watching a football game, now that the NFL is an official partner of Microsoft – you’re able to keep track of your team’s fantasy points in real time. That’s pretty cool, but they seemed to play it up more than was necessary (and this is coming from someone who loves fantasy football and baseball).
Specs, Specs, Specs!
Microsoft didn’t spend a ton of time on specs – it was more interested in highlighting all the content the Xbox One will provide, rather than showing off the engine behind it.
But that’s not to say that Microsoft completely glossed over the punch that the new Xbox One will pack. The Xbox One will have 5 billion transistors (they didn’t really talk about what this actually means) alongside 8 GB of RAM. It also features USB 3.0, integrated Wi-Fi (802.11n), a Blu-ray player (finally!) and HDMI in/out (which will be necessary to utilize it to watch live TV).
The new Kinect was also a primary area of focus during the presentation. Completely re-designed, it’s far more powerful than its predecessor and will be able to recognize you within 13 billionths of a second (is a timeframe like that actually measureable?). The Kinect has a 1080p wide-angle camera and will be far, far better at detecting slight movements (which anyone who used the original can admit is very much needed). It can also read your heartbeat, which is creepy and cool.
The Kinect will also recognize when you pick up the controller (which features 40 design tweaks of its own), which is cool. The controller was “designed by gamers, for gamers” and features “dynamic impulse triggers,” which I hope translates into more responsive shoulder buttons. We’re also getting a new D-Pad, which is good, because the one on the Xbox 360 is pretty much garbage.
The Xbox One will also have heavy SmartGlass interaction, which is expected, as that’s where things are heading. But SmartGlass on the Xbox 360 isn’t great, so we’ll see what that actually yields.
What About Used Games? And Always-On… Or Not?
The rumor that most frightened gamers leading up to the Xbox Reveal was that Microsoft would block used games and require an always-on connection. According to The Verge, you can stop worrying:
Microsoft says that while the Xbox One requires an internet connection, “it does not have to be always connected.” The difference means that Xbox One players won’t be restricted from gaming if a connection drops. “We are also designing it so you can play games and watch Blu-ray movies and live TV if you lose your connection,” says Microsoft.
But according to an advance, in-depth look at the Xbox One on Wired, that always-on future may be coming incrementally. How so? First, it’s important to look at how the Xbox One handles game discs, which is something Microsoft didn’t touch on at all during the Xbox Reveal. According to Wired:
There’s one feature of Xbox One from which we can infer quite a few conclusions: You can install any game from the disc to the console’s hard drive, and then play that game whenever you like without having to put the disc in.
Wired asked Microsoft if installation would be mandatory. “On the new Xbox, all game discs are installed to the HDD to play,” the company responded in an emailed statement. Sounds mandatory to us.
Since it seems mandatory to install games to your console, Wired (smartly) presumed that it must be tied to an Xbox Live Gamertag, otherwise you could buy one disc for you and everyone you know to share. So what happens when a friend wants to try out your copy of Halo? The Wired article continues:
Microsoft did say that if a disc was used with a second account, that owner would be given the option to pay a fee and install the game from the disc, which would then mean that the new account would also own the game and could play it without the disc.
But what if a second person simply wanted to put the disc in and play the game without installing – and without paying extra? In other words, what happens to our traditional concept of a “used game”? This is a question for which Microsoft did not yet have an answer, and is surely something that game buyers (as well as renters and lenders) will want to know.
So how does the always-on functionality come into play? This is where you can start to get scared.
Xbox One will give game developers the ability to create games that use Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service, which means that they might be able to offload certain computing tasks to the cloud rather than process them on the Xbox One hardware itself. This would necessitate the game requiring a connection.
Are developers forced to create games that have these online features, and are thus not playable offline? They are not, Xbox exec Whitten said to Wired — but “I hope they do.” So the always-online future may come in incremental steps.
So, bottom line: not always-on… yet. But probably someday.
Living in the Cloud
One weird phrase that stood out to me during the reveal was when someone described how many servers will power Xbox Live. It’s gone from 500 at launch to 15,000 today and will hit over 300,000 when the Xbox One launches. This, they said, provided more power than the entire computing world in 1999. Are you really using a 14-year-old baseline to show off new technology, Microsoft? Kurzweil would not be happy.
But the cloud is also where your dedicated game DVR will live, similar to what Sony did with the PS4. The Verge thinks that Sony will have the advantage when it comes to game video sharing, but it’s good to see that Microsoft incorporated the feature on the Xbox One.
Also: You can now have up to 1,000 friends per Gamertag (up from 100). There was no mention of Xbox Live subscriptions, but it appears to be the case that your Xbox Live Gamertag (along with your subscription and Gamerscore) will transfer over. But those Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade games? Sorry, folks. They’re stuck on your Xbox 360 forever. Microsoft said it isn’t worried about reaction to this, though, as it’ll continue to support the Xbox 360 with new games and apps, even after the Xbox One is released. But for someone like me, who has spent thousands of dollars on games — both physical and downlodable — on the Xbox 360, it’s a little frustrating. I’m already out of HDMI ports on my receiver… and I don’t even have the Xbox One or PS4 to plug in yet. It’s not the end of the world — I rarely played original Xbox games on the 360, even though I could, so how often will I actually want to play Xbox 360 games once I start buying Xbox One games? — but it’s not ideal.
What About the Games?
Leading up to the Xbox Reveal, it was clear that Tuesday’s hour-long presentation was going to be about the console, not games. The games, everyone said, would be highlighted at E3 (in June). But that didn’t mean that games were completely absent from the One’s reveal.
EA’s Andrew Wilson took the stage to show off new iterations of Madden, FIFA, NBA Live and UFC, all running on a new engine: Ignite. They all look really pretty, but coming from someone who plays a lot of Madden (and sports games in general), I don’t care how it looks – I want it to play well. EA had a really rough start when the Xbox 360 first launched, and couldn’t put together a good NFL game for a few years. I don’t want to go through that again on the Xbox One.
The first exclusive game that Microsoft showed off (of which there will be 15 launching in the Xbox One’s first year, including eight brand new franchises) was Forza Motorsport 5. Forza’s one of my favorite racing franchises out, and this one looks even more beautiful than the last. Color me excited. It’ll be available at launch… whenever that is.
Remedy, the studio behind one of my all-time favorite games Alan Wake, showed off another exclusive: Quantum Break. It looks like a little girl can control time, or at least can crash boats into bridges. I’m not sure exactly what was going on, but I’ll probably enjoy it. We’ll see more of Quantum Break at E3.
The last game to be shown off was Call of Duty: Ghosts. Activision revealed this game a few weeks ago and has teased some details in the time since, but we got out first good look at it today. I’ve never been a fan of the Call of Duty series, but just about everyone else on Earth is, so there’s that. Like previous Call of Duty titles, Ghosts’ first downloadable content will start off as an Xbox-exclusive. Sorry, Sony.
Also, one other note: games rip automatically to your hard drive, and you can begin to play them before the installation has finished. It’s the future!
Entertainment is More Than Just Games
Everyone knows Halo. Halo is the reason that Xbox Live is the juggernaut it is, and is one of the main reasons the Xbox survived its otherwise rocky start. So what will the Xbox One’s relationship with Halo be? Why, a TV series directed by Steven Spielberg, of course! As great as Spielberg is, and as much as I love the Halo games, I won’t be watching this. They didn’t dole out too many details, but we know it’s a thing that’s happening.
As mentioned earlier, Microsoft teamed up with the NFL, which was highlighted toward the end of Tuesday’s reveal. The biggest perk when it came to the exclusive content Microsoft was providing seemed to be fantasy football integration, which is boring. I’m sure they’ll come up with better, cooler stuff in the future, but for now it falls a little flat. But NFL and Xbox: hooray!
It’s weird to watch a presentation that gets you both more and less excited for something than you already were, but that’s what happened for me on Tuesday. I’m going to get the Xbox One because I love buying new technology and I love video games, but I still felt the presentation fell a little flat.
A bunch of new things were shown off and it should be very cool, though, so I’m setting my sights on E3, at which point I’ll bubble over with excitement. Hopefully.
Also, want to sign up to be notified when the Xbox One is available for pre-order? Click here. You also get $10 to the Microsoft Store online, so it’s a win-win.