​The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

Microsoft has had a noisy year. The response to the Xbox One's unpopular always-online DRM was deafening. The response to the eventual reversal of those policies was even louder. In the midst of all the noise, beyond the cancelled policies and muddled messaging, lies a video game console. What's that thing all about, eh?

Last week, I spent two days at a Microsoft press event in a large rented space in San Francisco's tech-friendly Dogpatch neighbourhood. Microsoft had invited the press down to check out the Xbox One's launch lineup, around 20 first- and third-party games spread over a three floor space festooned with green and black decorations, free coffee and food plates. (The sandwiches at these things are never much, but the cookies are often excellent.)

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

The first day was a sort of open house, with stations open throughout the venue for anyone to play and chat with PR and developers. On the second day, I went in to sit down for multi-hour "deep dive" previews with three of the Xbox One's core first-party exclusives: the wacky open-world zombie game Dead Rising 3, the 300-meets-Gladiator actionfest Ryse: Son of Rome and the racing game Forza Motorsport 5.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about a similar event that I attended for the PlayStation 4. While playing through the PS4's launch games, I said I found a reality less exciting than the enthusiastic PS4 hype would indicate. (After writing it, I also learned that the word "laconic" doesn't mean what I thought it meant.) Directly comparing the two events is a bit apples and oranges, so this isn't meant as a direct comparison. The Xbox One event was massive and loaded with third-party games, while the comparatively humble PS4 event was almost exclusively first-party. Xbox exclusives like Ryse and Dead Rising are made by third-party studios and have been essentially bought by Microsoft for launch, while the PS4's Killzone and Knack were developed by in-house Sony studios. But even without making a direct event-comparison, the games have something to say about the consoles on which they'll be played, and what it'll be like to own one or both of them at launch.

I came away from the Microsoft event with several unanswered questions, but generally feeling a lot more positive on Microsoft's console and its launch lineup than I had been. Given that we're so close to the launch of the Xbox One itself, and that Kotaku will have a full review of it and these games within weeks, I thought I'd focus on breaking down the individual things that stuck out to me.

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

Ryse is better than I thought it'd be, but seems repetitive.

I don't think anyone has been expecting much from Crytek's Roman-themed stab-em-up Ryse: Son of Rome. So when I started playing, I was pleasantly surprised to find that on a basic level, it's pretty fun. You hit one button to bash with your shield, one button to slash with your sword, and a third button to block. Combat is a rhythmic thing, where you move between dudes while bashing and slashing and blocking and working up a high combo multiplier. It's super violent, and that starts to feel weird after a while.

It also looks good: Ryse is the Xbox One's big graphical showcase, and it is, at times, gorgeous. Pretty though it might be, after playing a couple of hours and jumping through a few chapters, I'm concerned that the game doesn't really evolve or get any deeper as it goes, and that it'll become boring after a while. The story also didn't connect for me — some lovely, stylised cutscenes, but nothing fans of Gladiator and the cinematic adaptation of 300 haven't seen done better before. We'll see when the full game comes out.

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

Dead Rising 3 was fun, and I want to play more.

There's been some concern over Dead Rising 3's new, darker look. People fear that the series has ditched its sense of goofiness in favour of a boring, gritty tone. After playing a couple of single-player missions and pantsing around in the game's zombie-infested open world, I don't get the sense that this is the case. Dead Rising 3 is still awfully goofy, and despite the higher-res, higher-contrast visuals, your character can still put on a massive pair of spiked gloves and do a (literal) shoryuken into a group of zombies, or don a tux and go for a ride in a flamethrower-equipped motorcycle/steamroller.

The main character appears to be a likable enough dude, and the supporting cast all seem cheesy but memorable, in that early 90s B-movie kinda way. The world is dense, though not as big as I was expecting. And boy oh boy, do they get a lot of zombies on the screen at once.

It's a sharp-looking game, though it doesn't look to be running at full 1080p HD and, when the action got intense — say, 150 zombies on screen exploding at once — the framerate did get a bit unsteady. That said, I was more impressed with how it looked after spending an hour playing than I had been watching over someone's shoulder earlier in the week.

As a launch game, Dead Rising 3 occupies a valuable spot for the Xbox One: It's the console's meatiest core game by far. A Capcom producer said it'd take 15 hours to blow through the story, but could easily take dozens more if you played it more thoroughly. It also looks to have a great deal of replayability, with multiple gameplay modes, tons of collectables and rare craftable items, a hardcore Dead Rising classic real-time mode, and seamless multiplayer that lets other players drop in and out of your game by taking on the role of another character in the story. All good stuff.

While Dead Rising 3 was the most substantial action game at the event, it wasn't the most technologically impressive game there. That honour goes to…

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

Forza 5 is playing with some very cool ideas.

I'm not much of a racing guy, but I've always had a fondness for Turn 10's Forza Motorsport games. They're so clean, you know? Consistent, too. So I'm not surprised that Forza 5 is, well, more Forza. In a good way. However, I wasn't expecting the game to be experimenting with some of the neatest next-gen ideas I've yet seen.

The coolest of these concepts is the new "Drivatar" feature. Stephen's already gone into depth about it, so if you want to know more, I'd suggest starting with his article. The short version: The game studies your driving habits and compiles an AI-controlled Drivatar (a goofy name combining "driver" and "avatar") that is then sent out into the world to automatically race on your behalf. As you play the single-player game, your races will be populated by other players' Drivatars from around the world, each of which will behave in a way dictated by the driving habits of the players who created them.

(Pause: This is a freakin cool idea, you know? As-yet unproven, but very futuristic.)

As I braked and accelerated through the demo last week, my races appeared to be entirely populated with other players' Drivatars. It was nifty, though I couldn't tell how different the game felt from how it'd play with normal AI. Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt told me that he's begun to see competing cars pull surprising moves, things he and his team didn't program the AI to do. He described a Drivatar-controlled car offering him an opening, then closing it off right as he pulled up to pass — a crafty, human move that he said it could only have learned from its master.

As Greenawalt went on to explain, the concept of cloud-AI-driven enemies is fine for a driving game, but it could also be applied to other genres. Imagine a cooperative shooter where, when your friends can't be around, your teammates are instead controlled by their well-studied AI stand-ins. Or a football game that lets you take on your friends even when they're not online. It's one of the only ideas I saw at either the PS4 or Xbox One events that actually feels new and interesting, and I'd love to see it applied to more games.

Past that, Forza 5 appears to be a sturdy, shiny-looking driving game. It runs in 1080p at 60fps, and the cars look more or less like real cars. As with the rest of the games from last week's event, this is a game that we (and our friends at Jalopnik) will have much more to say about in the very near future. For the time being: I enjoyed my time with it. Like Dead Rising 3, it's a deep, fully-realised launch game that'll give people a crapload of stuff to do while they wait for more new games. And one of the neatest features…

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

That Xbox One trigger-rumble? Also cool.

The Xbox One's controller works more or less like an Xbox 360 controller. The shoulder buttons are a bit softer, which I either didn't like or just haven't gotten used to. The D-pad is a clear improvement over the 360, not that that's a hard bar to clear. But the one characteristic that really sets the Xbox One controller apart from its predecessor (and from its competitor, Sony's Dualshock 4) is the fact that its controller rumble now extends independently to the right and left triggers.

I'm… a big fan of the trigger-rumble. That sounds silly. It's a little thing, for sure. But in practice, it's very cool. The games I played on the second day used the trigger-rumble in different ways. In Ryse, you'd draw back an arrow and feel the trigger rumble as the string snapped tight. In Forza 5, trigger rumble lets you know when you're beginning to have tire lock while breaking (LT) or spinout while accelerating (RT). I found the rumble to be quite effective in Forza — it made taking turns tactile in a way that helped me drive better, and made me feel connected to the game.

As with the Drivatar idea, I already find myself thinking about the small but cool ways trigger-rumble could enhance games in other genres. The click of a trigger, the rhythmic stride of a horse, the impact of a punch… all small touches that could make games that much more physically immersive. Back in May, our friends at Gizmodo had a chance to check out a demo of various trigger-rumble applications, and came away impressed.

I did not expect to find myself excited about the fact that a video-game controller's triggers vibrate. And yet here we are.

The menus and user interface had a lot of empty holes.

During both days, I saw bits and pieces of the Xbox One's underlying interface in action, but not enough to get a sense of of how it'll all work on launch day. Most Kinect voice-control wasn't turned on, and I didn't get to use most of the dashboard features. We've already gotten some decent looks at the OS in action, though a lot of the functionality just doesn't seem to be turned on yet. While playing Ryse, I kept unlocking achievements, but when I'd hit the middle button to check out the Achievements page, it looked unfinished. A rep for the game hurried over and assured me that the achievements are working in their current build, but had been left out of the build I was playing.

Generally speaking, the OS looks clean and seems easy enough to use, more or less like a console-ized version of Windows 8. Given the fact that we've recently heard from sources that the Xbox One software has been having some issues, it doesn't surprise me that things might be unfinished. Whether the operating system will come together in time for the November 22 launch remains a question mark. Speaking of question marks...

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

I still haven't seen any big ideas for the Kinect.

Microsoft's event was strewn with dozens of Xbox Ones, and each console had a Kinect camera attached to it. While the camera is doubtless much improved over the Xbox 360 version, I still didn't see any big new ideas to go along with the tech upgrade. The event's first day had the usual Kinect Sports and Just Dance games hiding about, but nothing in those demos looked all that revolutionary.

In Dead Rising 3, you'll have to shake the controller to fight off zombies. Rather than detect your motion through the controller, the Kinect detects your movement and cues your character to shrug the zombie off. (If you're playing without the Kinect plugged in, it'll just be a regular button-prompt.) The Kinect shake is perfectly functional, but small potatoes compared with the "you are in the game" future-stuff that the Kinect has always promised. In Ryse, I'd sometimes have to give my archers commands by yelling at the Kinect. It, too, was functional, but it did not make me feel like a mighty Roman centurion. It made me feel like a dork. Forza 5 has a head-tracking feature that lets players look around the inside of their car, but it didn't appear to be turned on in the version I demoed.

All of those features could've (and even have) been in last-gen Kinect games. I didn't see anything that blew my hair back or said, "This is what the future of Kinect is all about." Despite the fact that it makes their console more expensive, part of me is glad Microsoft is including the Kinect with every console, if only because it increases the chances that somewhere down the road someone might actually develop an interesting, game-enhancing use for it. Until then, well, it'll probably still be useful for pausing movies.


As I said at the outset, last week's event and the games I played there made me a lot more positive on the Xbox One than I had been. Back at E3, my colleague Jason Schreier pointed out that Microsoft had some pretty cool stuff going on in their booth, but it was getting drowned out by all the talk of their DRM policies. At last week's event, I felt like I finally had a chance to focus only on the console and its games, with none of Microsoft's unfortunate (and now laid to rest) policies or controversies getting in the way.

Looking past the PS4's launch hype meant embracing a console release that probably won't be quite as exciting as the hype may have indicated. Looking past the Xbox One's launch hype takes an opposite trajectory but arrives at more or less the same place — this release likely won't be as bad as the hype may have indicated. That said, with all their missteps and bad decision-making over the last year, Microsoft hasn't earned the benefit of gamers' doubt to the extent that Sony has. That they've corrected the bulk of their recent mistakes doesn't mean they won't make more in the future.

 The Xbox One Launch, Minus The Hype

Plenty of questions remain about the Xbox One. What's the story with its performance, and how much will it matter that, as our sources tell us, the PS4 is the more powerful system? How will that power differential, whatever it winds up being, play out over the lifespan of these consoles? Are multiplatform games going to be noticeably inferior on the Xbox One? How will the OS come together, and will the new Kinect ever feel essential? How much of a difference will it make that the Xbox One costs $US100 more than the PS4, and when will Microsoft cut their price?

Some of those questions will be answered in a few short weeks. Others will linger. As I said when talking about the PS4, new gaming hardware represents a promise. Microsoft hasn't handled the run up to their console release with anything resembling the finesse and focus that Sony has displayed, but they've made it here nonetheless, and they've arrived making promises. Once the noise fades away, the console comes into focus: It's a pretty good-looking device, with some fun games, a nifty rumbling controller and a distinct lack of distracting, always-online-sized problems.

Events like last week's can feel strange, given that in short order, we'll have a full review of the Xbox One as well as better answers to several of the questions I'm posing here. We'll be able to evaluate the entire situation, and not just the bits of it that Microsoft PR wants us to see. But we're not quite there yet, and so we run the preview gauntlet one last time.

To re-quote my boss Stephen Totilo, whose console-launch wisdom remains as true today as it was the other week: "Consoles don't really launch, not in the way that a rocket takes off, shitting fire and screaming into the sky. They wake up, slowly stretch their legs, stand up. Pause and yawn. Make their coffee and maybe a few hours (read: months) into things, they kick into gear."

Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are going to be getting out of bed soon. At this moment, in the deep breath before the plunge, Microsoft appears to have found a decent footing. Whether that will still be the case in the weeks, months and years to come remains to be seen.


Comments

    Now they've changed their stance on a lot of things, I'm still torn over which console to eventually get first, the XBO or the PS4, I'm going to get both eventually. However one thing is for sure, I'm just not that excited about this new generation of consoles? Is anyone else feeling that same way? Like we're not seeing *that much* of an advancement, like we did with the PS1 - PS2 - PS3 or Xbox - 360

      It’s weird. So many other things in my life I’ve grown to be much less excited about over time, but I am seriously pumped up for these new consoles. Not sure why, I think it’s the length of the current gen but I’m as excited for the Xbone now as I was for the Dreamcast back when I was in high school.

      I think the Xbone launch line-up and controller are better so I’ll be buying that at launch. Probably look at getting a PS4 sometime in 2014.

      Last edited 07/11/13 1:18 pm

        Sadly all my friends have jumped on the PS wagon which almost forces me to get one if i want to play with my mates. It seems that the early problems with the xbox have severely hurt its sales.

        Overall i have no idea which console will be better but i am normally an xbox person. Sony no love me.

        WiiU it is :D

          There is a big enough community seriously keen on the XO1. I don't think their sales will be hurt in anyway. major retailers in the U.S and Australia have expressed concern on whether they will have enough stock to cover launch day. I think I read somewhere that the XO1 is on back order till early 2014. Take it for what its worth.

      I'll go the same way I did with the current generation, I'll buy whichever one has the first Bioware exclusive.

      Fortunately there's sod all interesting on the horizon on either console as yet so I can afford to wait which is handy since I can't afford either.

      I agree, I think it's the lack of advancement that's driving my excitement down too. Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to setting up my shiny new PS4 on launch day, but I find myself looking forward to getting the new Zelda 3DS XL more lol

        I agree, I think it's the lack of advancement that's driving my excitement down too. Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to setting up my shiny new PS4 on launch day, but I find myself looking forward to getting the new Zelda 3DS XL more lol

        So you think there's a lack of advancement in the PS4 and XBoxOne.... YET... you're excited for a handheld console that probably could have been made about 10 years ago... Hilarious.

          10 Years ago is a bit of a stretch... I guess it's mainly due to the fact that Nintendo games are quite enjoyable none-the-less, and I don't expect huge advancements in the handheld market. When it comes to consoles (which release about 6 years apart) though, I find myself expecting a little more... the jump from this generation to next just doesn't seem like a big one, in some ways it even seems like a step backwards....

          Dude he likes mobile gaming apparently......me to : ) For me Im happy to wait a while before I jump on the next gen bandwagon. At the moment Im more excited about going to Japan at the end of this month and getting a PS Vita TV and buying some old school consoles and games in Tokyo.

      I'm getting an Xbox one, it will be the first time I haven't got a Sony Console at launch since the PsX/ PsOne... The PS3 and Vita have really dissapointed me

      And Xbox had me at Forza5 and Ryse
      Plus that rumble trigger my god!

        Wow you must be the first person I've heard of that's switching in THAT direction.

      yeah im the same.
      i will get both eventually but i decided on PS4 solely based on streaming all games to the vita.
      i will use that feature (i just hope it works as well as implied)

      Yeah I want to see some games that really push things. This whole 'playing it safe' thing that the execs are doing with games now is really starting to piss me off. They don't understand the cycle is self-perpetuating. Nobody will buy a Vita because there are no good games, there are no good games because nobody is buying Vita. At some point someone has to say 'well shit, we are going to be brave here and put some serious money / development time into making a game that people buy the Vita for'.

      We're seeing the same thing with these 'Next-Gen' multiplatform titles. By hedging their bets and making the game run on current gen consoles, they are killing the selling points of next-gen consoles. Consumers need to see something decisive and innovative, something that makes them go 'wow'.

      There's no other way to sell new hardware, the fact that these executives haven't worked that out yet makes me wonder how they got so far in the games industry to begin with.

      The sweetest fruit is on the furthest branches, and sometimes you have to risk falling off those branches to get there.

      You should probably go with the PS4 first, price and game selection over everything.

      I'm getting XBOne, but that's only because I've got my Gold subscription for the next few years already paid, plus I prefer the controller.

    So freaking excited for the Xbone launch. Comparisons between consoles, launch line-up and whatever totally ignored, there’s going to be some seriously cool games to play come November 22.

    Forza looks great, Dead Rising looks new and interesting, I can’t wait to try the new controller and I’ve been holding off on current gen-crossovers like Battlefield and Assassins Creed IV.

    Same here this is my first launch console, got Forza5, Dead Rising 3, Battlefield 4 and Ryse preordered and paid for, I'm starting to think I may have too many games, with Fifa free and Killer Instinct aswell.

    Reading that stuff about the trigger rumble, I continue to be amazed that people can say rumble is a useless feature.

      It is - I switch it off almost instantly :P

      Why ruin your precision gaming by making it vibrate - it's not sex we're talking about here ;)

    I was aiming for both but after the always online stuff with xbone, I was put off buying one. Now they have taken that back, I may consider getting one but not for awhile yet.

    Neither console really have anything decent coming out at launch which is a shame. I only kept my ps4 pre-order due to the number or consoles being made available. I just made the launch date window as it was.

      I trust MS even less after the 180. Not only were they prepared to introduce heaps of anti-consumer features, but they also lied about how it was "part of their vision". If that was true, they never would have changed their minds.

      I don't like how quickly most people have been at forgiving MS. All they hear is "Forza" or "Halo" and recent history goes out the window.

        What makes you say that was a lie? I have no doubt that it really was their vision, they just completely failed to show off any of the benefits. Digital gaming is where consoles are going. I'd be very surprised if both Microsoft and Sony don't re-introduce similar features by the end of this generation.

    What's the status of "Xbox On" for Australia now? We weren't getting it, and then we were. I'm really looking forward to my Tony Stark moment of turning on my whole entertainment system with a single voice command :). It should be interesting to see how Windows 8.1 integrates with the Xbox One, hopefully they do a good job.

    Only have multiplats pre-ordered at the moment, battlefield and AC, considering Forza but I don't know how long it will be until a decent steering wheel with clutch and if not H shifter, at least sequential shifter is released. Mad Cats is flappy paddle only :(. I'm most excited for Titanfall though, can't wait for that!

    I'm looking forward to the Xbone on launch day too, been waiting for B4. And I've been without B3 for about 3 months now, I'm getting twitchy!

    I'm loving the idea for saying "Xbox On", but am I right in assuming I'll also have to switch my TV on (with a remote - gasp), and change to the appropriate channel?

      The Kinect has an inbuilt IR blaster afaik so I assume it can turn on the TV and set the channel too...

    http://marvel.com/news/story/15147/enter_marvel_vs_capcom_3s_shadow_mode

    Drivatars are so revolutionary!

    I'd be looking forward to DR3 more... I'm hoping it gets a PS4 (re)release sometime.

    I tried to cancel my Xbox One preoreder last Friday but hilariously the Microsoft call centre hung up on me when I said I was sure I wanted to cancel! I took this as a sign I should keep it and have ordered the PS4 Killzone bundle as well. No fanboy rubbish for me, I'll get the best of both worlds :)

    Last edited 07/11/13 5:55 pm

    The Kinect will never amount to anything because the stupid asshole "gamerz" who post comments to sites like Kotaku scream bloody murder every time a "hardcore game" is meant to support it, and with marketing departments being driven by "social buzz" rather than anything that reflects the real, actual, world we live in, they shitcan all the creative ideas, and soon enough those developers go "fuck you and fuck the marketing department, I'm going indie and developing for mobile".

      If first party games can't make decent Kinect titles, then there is no hope anyone else could. That's the end of the line. MS should have thrown every cent at making a killer Kinect title, but they have not. And if they could not, what hope are for third parties ?

    Xbone can do more then a PS4 in terms of being a media centre.

    Xbone appears to have much cooler titles coming for it then the PS4 eg; Titanfall (that's if your not getting it on PC like myself) and other titles like Halo 5, Froza, Project Spark and the whole Xbones promises to release new a tonne of new exclusive IPs so my eyes are fixed on Xbone in terms of games)

    While sure the PS4 puts out 900p res and upscales it to 1080 unlike the Xbone which is still 720p upscaled to 1080 (in other words worse then the PS4), after seeing games on PS4 vs Xbone there really isn't the much of a difference as both consoles have disgusting anti aliasing, couldn't they have not used AMD and gone with Nvidias built in AA which is really quite something else. Not to mention they could have had shadow play built into consoles to record videos of gameplay and export it to a PC/Mac.

    For me personally there is just no killer app eg; must go out and buy a PS4 asap to play that game. So I will maybe wait for a price drop for the new Xbone and wait until next year when a lot of cooler titles are out (provided they are Xbone only exclusives and not on PC)

    Personally I really do not see how these new consoles are "true next gen", No SSD, pretty average "PC specs" the only thing that is next gen is some of the games being developed but then again some of the biggest more innovative titles are coming to PC eg; Star Citizen.

    Am I the only one the feels that it does not feel "next gen" at all?

    Last edited 07/11/13 10:36 pm

      We were always going to get to a point of diminishing returns in terms of purely graphical output. The 7th to 8th gen transition was never going to look as impressive as the 6th to 7th. But I've been given the impression that the increase in power is going to manifest is other ways: more objects/characters on screen, reduced/eliminated load times, bigger worlds, background computing etc. I think in this way we are definitely heading to next-gen.

      Plus look at all the auxiliary features like social media, gesture controls and voice activation, 2nd screen tech etc. etc. and you'll see some strong differentiators. Some or all of these features may not appeal to you, but I think they represent enough of a change to justify calling it "next-gen".

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