More than most gadgets, the Xbox One is a snapshot of our times. No other piece of technology released this year quite encapsulates the promise and potential peril of the age we're living in. Microsoft's new console, ostensibly a device for playing video games – but which aims to be much, much more – offers conveniences that are literally only a spoken word or hand gesture away. Yet it also hovers a metaphorical axe over ownership and privacy rights we have long held, and perhaps even take for granted. It's a product to be rightly excited for, but it's also one to be profoundly nervous of.
This paradox is of Microsoft's own making, presaged by the console's disastrous introduction earlier this year when the company alienated its core customers with a plan to effectively curtail the resale of used games, a scheme it was eventually forced to recant after the resulting backlash. The Xbox One, when it arrives this Friday, was supposed to be the company's forward-looking, digital-first device, but it turns out that people weren't ready to go along with that vision. So, at least for now, it's a product that straddles the old and the new eras of gaming, with one figurative foot in each.
Microsoft also chose to initially spotlight the console's television and video capabilities first, rather than the products – you know, the games? – that made the Xbox a household franchise in the first place. Gamers can be forgiven for believing they aren't the desired end audience; that all along, they were perhaps just the Trojan horses through which the company would execute its real plan of conquering the living room.
Months later, the Xbox One is almost here and the fears about games taking a back seat can be put to rest, at least for the time being. Of the two next-generation consoles launching this fall, Microsoft's product easily has the better initial lineup of titles – more on that below. The console is in fact a fine games machine – one that will continue to improve as developers get comfortable with its nooks and crannies, the same way they did with its predecessor.
The spectre of those other things, however – a paradigm shift to a world where publishers and content creators hold all the cards, as well as a potential privacy miasma – is still there. Indeed, those issues ooze from the console's mechanical pores, making it hard to shake the feeling that the company is just waiting for the right time to flip the switch and end everything we've become comfortable with over the past few decades.
The Xbox One thus delivers an uncertain future – this device could make gaming better, but it could also make things worse. That's why it's exciting and worrisome.
Outside the box
The design seems to be a subtle message that the Xbox has grown up. The console itself is a black slab, shaped more like an actual box than either of its progenitors. It's purpose is to be the central focal point of the living room – your "one" device. Gone are any cartoonish trappings that might identify it as something intended to play something as sophomoric as a game. Instead, it's as non-descript and "adult" in design as any Blu-ray player or PVR. For something built for fun, it certainly isn't playful looking.
When fired up, the console's innate clashes between old and new paradigms become even more obvious. You might think for a second that you've turned on a PC, as the interface very much resembles a Windows 8 machine. The grid of coloured app tiles is the same as that found on Microsoft's tablets, computers and phones. While none of those devices have become hits in their respective markets, it is at least a familiar and slick look that also feels like a natural progression from the Xbox 360, which in its later updates came to resemble Windows 8.
Multitasking is a prominent feature on the Xbox One, with Windows 8's "snap" capability looming large. It's a way of dividing up the screen real estate, adding a vertical bar along the right-hand side that simultaneously runs an app – say a game or Netflix – while the bulk of the screen is used for a main task, such as having a Skype video call. Finally, the dream of watching TV and playing video games on the same screen has been accomplished.
It doesn't take long before the most controversial part of the entire product – the Kinect sensor – comes into play. The peripheral is contentious for a few reasons. For one, it's a mandatory purchase, and boosts the overall cost of the console up to $499, or $100 more than Sony's rival PlayStation 4.
While the original Kinect broke the Guinness World Record for fastest-selling gaming peripheral upon its release in 2010, it was shunned almost as quickly by game developers and core players thanks to its wonky motion control and inaccurate voice commands. Microsoft promised that the Xbox One version would indeed be new and improved, but many gamers will resent being force fed the bundled camera bar.
The new Kinect is intended to be more of a control vehicle for the console itself than a gaming attachment, with voice commands being front and centre at launch. The good news is they work exceptionally well. You can tell the Xbox to switch between apps and games, perform Bing searches for movies and music to buy (or that are already in your library), record a clip of your gameplay and upload those clips to social networks, among many other actions.
The key to gauging the efficacy of any alternative input method is its success ratio: it needs to work often enough so that the user doesn't get frustrated and return to the more reliable standard input, which in this case is the hand-held controller.
The new Kinect amply satisfies this ratio; Over the course of a few days of testing, I found my natural resistance to voice commands ebbing. It's surprisingly accurate for navigating around the console's interface, perhaps not to the point where it can be used in mission-critical game situations, but you'll experience only the occasional glitch. It's simply easier and more comfortable to lie back on the sofa and talk to the Xbox, instead of sitting forward, controller in hand.
But here's the part that makes me nervous: Telling the console to turn itself on. It inevitably complies, which means it's always listening. Microsoft vows that passive or active data gathered by Kinect, whether voice or visual, will never be uploaded to its servers. Perhaps, but there's always the possibility – or even likelihood – that the device will get hacked, its data somehow stolen or abused.
The paranoiac solution is to simply unplug the sensor. But if that's the answer, why spend the extra $100 in the first place? Kinect may be destined to walk that fine line between convenience and controversy.
It's worth noting that Canadians are missing out on what is supposed to be Kinect's killer voice app: verbal command of television navigation. U.S. users can pipe their cable or satellite signal directly into the console through its HDMI input port, then change channels with voice commands. Canadians can still have the same connection and tell the Xbox to switch to TV and back, but they can't flip channels. Microsoft Canada executives say they're working on it, but there's no time frame for adding the feature just yet.
Regardless, the Kinect does still bring the "gee-whiz" since its facial recognition software is also greatly improved. It's a novelty at this point, but having a welcome message pop up on screen whenever a registered user walks into the room is pretty neat, and it's a faster way to log in. The ability to scan one's full facial image into a game – coming next year, Microsoft says – also opens up some exciting possibilities.
What Kinect's supposedly new and improved gesture recognition can really do as a gaming device is still largely an open question. A sliver of the upcoming Kinect Sports Rivals – a jet ski race – is available as a free download, while the launch title Xbox Fitness tracks movements in time to workout videos. Both work accurately, but neither feature very fine-grained gesture recognition.
Speaking of games, Microsoft has done a good job of pre-empting critics with a solid lineup of exclusive first-party games. There is the obligatory car racing game in Forza Motorsport 5, a genre that is rolled out with any new console launch to show off graphical capability. There is also Ryse: Son of Rome, an action-adventure brawler set in ancient times – be sure to check out individual reviews of both in the coming days – as well as a few family friendly downloadable titles, such as Zoo Tycoon.
The Xbox One also has the best next-generation launch game in the form of Dead Rising 3, from Capcom Vancouver. More than just pretty graphics, the zombie thriller showcases the console's processing horsepower by shoving more characters on screen than has perhaps ever been seen before. While other launch games on both new consoles do a great job of polishing up eye candy, Dead Rising 3 is a hint of the much bigger things to come.
Kinect aside, these core games play well with the new controller, which features a few slight modifications from the Xbox 360's model. It's slightly bigger with thumbsticks that are just a tad bit smaller, and the triggers also vibrate now. On the downside, it still takes AA batteries rather than being rechargeable and it feels a little more plasticky than the 360's controller.
That uncertain future
Perhaps the most interesting and potentially worrying of the launch titles is Killer Instinct, a reboot of the classic fighting game. It's available as a free-to-play download, which heralds the arrival of intriguing new business models on the Xbox One. The core download is as scanty as it comes – players get just one character to play, with the idea being that if they like what they see, they can spend money to download additional content.
New characters are $5 each while a deluxe pack featuring eight of them runs $40. But even then, the game lacks a story mode and has fewer features than similar releases in the genre. All told, fans of this type of game look to get better value from a full game in a retail store at $60, which they can ultimately resell to recoup some of that cost. While there's no certainty that Killer Instinct's pricing experiment will work, it does raise the spectre of publishers trying to sell lesser-featured games that can't then be resold, which is that bothersome vision of the future that gamers revolted against earlier this year.
Therein is the bigger worry – in the case of both Ryse and Forza, I had to install the games on the console before playing. As a result of the used game backlash, Microsoft is allowing those discs to be resold as they always have been. But the mandatory installs seem just a shade removed from a day when with a simple flip of a switch these tradeable games can be DRM'd into oblivion. Again, there may be benefits to such a new paradigm, but no one has convincingly argued them yet.
As it stands, the Xbox One is a gateway between worlds. Its ties to the current generation of consoles – and how the business of entertainment content is transacted around them – are evident. Yet it also seems poised to leap beyond those well-defined limits and remake the console world the way Microsoft originally intended, but was forced to temporarily scale back.
The Xbox One is a device and a strategy that is eyeing when – not if – it will plunge its users into a new economy of entertainment consumption. The only real question is how long it will take gamers to accept that paradigm and go along with it? Will they ever? The Xbox One's present is well known, but its future is more difficult to predict.