The first date I ever had with the girl who is now my wife was a complete disaster.
She was late and I was awkward. I was rude and she, despite being teetotal, somehow got drunk. It was about as far removed from love at first sight as you could possibly conceive.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is this: making some sort of definitive value judgement on a brand new console a week before its release is about as useful as choosing a life partner based on one terrible, awkward first date.
This is the console you’ll live with. The console that will become part of your life. You’ll build a home together, share experiences. You will change, you both will. Your expectations will evolve. As the years drift past you’ll become different people; the initial passion will fade and transform into something more rewarding. You will become inseparable and you will learn to love each other’s flaws.
But right now the Xbox One and I are on a first date. The Xbox One is drunk. We’re arguing over who is going to pay the bill and the whole thing just feels tremendously awkward. Is there potential here? Are we about to embark on a tremendous love affair for the ages? Who can tell? It’s impossible to tell. Who goes home from a first date ready to commit to a long term relationships with babies, mortgages, matching bathrobes and all the responsibilities that come with it?
Idiots. That’s who. Idiots and barefaced liars. At this point I’m not ready to be either.
So the Xbox One and I had a bad first date. Terrible, even.
It started with an update. A sizable update. A mandatory update I spent my first night with the Xbox One unsuccessfully trying to download. I’ve since been informed that the public update most likely won’t be as large or as painful as mine, but it would be amiss not to report that my experience was large and indeed painful.
There will be an update and you will have to download it. That is certain. You have no choice here. And if there were server issues when a few hundred journalists tried to update, it would be reasonable to expect there’ll be teething problems when hundreds of thousands of consumers all decide to start downloading the same thing on the precise same day.
I started and restarted that download about 50 times. At one point I got to 94% before stalling. Probably the closest I’ve come to launching a brand new $600 console over my balcony.
Like I said, a bad first date.
The morning after was a little more tolerable. After another handful of attempts, I finally managed to download and install the update on my Xbox One. I had trouble getting my Xbox LIVE Gold account working but before long I was traversing the Xbox One’s new user interface with merry abandon.
As mentioned before, an early, pre-launch console review is about useful as a first date (or the proverbial chocolate torch) when it come to choosing a generation long gaming partner. Attempting to create some sort of definitive, objective review of something that will evolve and, in some cases, completely transform during its lifespan is about as close as we get in this business to a genuine logical fallacy. What I want to do is present how, for the past week, the Xbox One has managed to fit into my life. Hopefully there’ll be some sort of crossover. Hopefully that will be of use.
Let’s start with the bad. Kinect.
Kinect isn’t great.
I was heavily critical of the next generation Kinect a couple of months ago after an early hands on at a local Microsoft event. Now that the device has infiltrated my home (and been slobbered upon by my 10 month old son) my opinion hasn’t changed. It remains clunky, temperamental and, worst of all, frustrating.
Kinect, as a technology, can be a beautiful and revolutionary thing. It has the potential to literally change lives. As part of a piece of consumer technology it’s an irksome pain at best. As part of a video game it’s a liability.
I don’t know how plainly I can put this: Kinect only does what it’s told about 60-70% of the time. During voice control, with my accent, that percentage drops to about 50%. In demos, with a well-rehearsed Microsoft rep barking the instructions in a clear practiced voice, sure, Kinect works well. In real life situations, even when you do know what you’re supposed to be saying, it’s not even close to being reliable enough.
There’s a harsh inconvenient truth here: mainstream controller literacy is increasing at a far faster rate than Kinect’s tech. Kinect is legitimately difficult to use. I can’t think of a single group of people – besides the disabled – who would find it easier to navigate the Xbox One’s user interface using Kinect instead of a controller, and that includes all of my Grandparents. It begs the question: who is Kinect for? What is it for? And why are we paying a premium for it on a games console?
I can only think of one reason.
Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly depending on your perspective) Kinect’s one, solitary killer app has nothing to do with video games.
Using Skype via Kinect is a revelation, to the point where I now find it incredibly difficult to use the program on any other device. For my own personal situation it is a godsend. Your mileage may vary.
Every Saturday morning — after my son wakes up at some ungodly hour — I Skype my parents in the UK so they can see their grandson. Trying to maintain a slobbering 10 month old, keeping him in shot whilst holding a tablet/phone/laptop is a generally painful experience. Having Kinect track my movements across the living room, with my parents on the television screen, giving them the opportunity to watch my son crawl across our living room with a dramatically expanded field of vision is a beautiful thing. It has already genuinely improved a small part of my life that’s important to me.
And that’s almost enough to justify the existence of Kinect as a non-negotiable part of the Xbox One package.
Okay now for the games. Yes. The video games. The Xbox One will have video games. Of course it will.
Much has been said about the Xbox One’s focus on attracting a mainstream audience and how the PS4 is ‘ALL ABOUT THE GAMEZ MAN’. It’s all a little bit silly. The only real difference between these two consoles is the manner in which they are being marketed. A handful of exclusives aside, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 will play the same games, with largely the same experience and the world will continue to spin on its axis. Yes, the PlayStation 4 appears to be a little more powerful. Yes, early ports appear to run smoother on that machine, but I’d suggest these differences will become increasingly imperceptible as time passes.
My point is this: as long as there are people playing video games on consoles, there will be video games available on the Xbox One. This is not a Nintendo console. Third party games will be available. Developers will place a priority on them. These games will be good. And you will play them. It is all but a guaranteed certainty.
But what about the here and now? Well that’s a different matter entirely. As of November 2013 we have hit a quandary. The best games available on Xbox One are already available on Xbox 360. This will no doubt be the case for the next six months as the gaming public makes the slow transition towards the next generation.
This is what you, the player, have available at the moment: smoother (in some cases) higher resolution versions of games you could play on a console you already own, a handful of passable exclusives and (depending on your tastes) one unmissable launch title in Forza Motorsport 5.
Now this makes the Xbox One seem like a flaccid, flawed proposition, but for many it will be more than enough, myself included. I’ve been holding out on many of this year’s big releases (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, FIFA 14) because I want to play the best versions of those games and I get the distinct feeling I’m not alone. All things considered, there will be plenty of very good video games for you to play in the lead up to Christmas and beyond.
(At this point it’s my duty to state for the record that Ryse is a very mediocre video game. Forza Motorsport 5, on the other hand, is the best launch title you will play this year — on any console.)
The Xbox One is big. Very big. To the point where I wonder exactly how it will fit into my entertainment unit. The Xbox One looks nice. It looks modern. It makes a really nice noise when it turns on and an equally nice (but different) noise when it turns off. After a week of use I am not bored of turning the console on and off again to hear those noises. Neither is my son. That’s the reason why my Xbox One is covered in tiny, grubby little fingerprints.
But the build quality feels… I wouldn’t say ‘bad’, but a little flimsy. The console is heavy. There is no way it could suffer being dropped from even the smallest of heights. There are parts of the console I feel like I could rip off with my bare hands if I had the inclination (I don’t) and a couple of sections that feel a little bit shoogly (it’s a technical term) for my tastes.
Mostly it’s just too darn big, particularly when you also have a power brick to contend with. Particularly when the PS4 — a more powerful machine — somehow manages to be dramatically smaller and have its power supply unit placed inside the machine.
If Microsoft designed shoes we’d all look like clowns.
But let’s talk about the Xbox One controller, which is basically the greatest thing ever designed ever in the history of ever. As someone who was already deeply in love with the Xbox 360 controller, I’m in awe of how Microsoft somehow managed to take something perfect and make it more perfect.
It feels leaner. In a good way. Some will no doubt argue that the triggers feel a little less malleable and less flexible. I like the change. The addition of ‘rumble’ to the triggers is a legitimate stroke of genius. Forza Motorsport 5 in particular — and all future racing games I suspect — will benefit from this addition. It sounds like hyperbole but there really is no other way to say it: the two extra motors adds an extra dimension to rumble. It feels more delicate, it adds depth and subtlety to the effect. It’s not only my favourite thing about the controller, it may be my favourite thing about the Xbox One as a package.
The Xbox One is desperately trying to worm its way into different areas of my life and, so far, it has done so with varying degrees of success.
As a pure gaming machine the Xbox One is already worthwhile. I genuinely believe that. As an all-in-one device using the ‘magic’ of Kinect to bring us together in a merry multimedia ring of roses I am far from convinced. No doubt this is the area where the Xbox One will see the most dramatic evolution in the years and updates to come but, for now — in Australia at least — it’s not quite there yet. We have less stuff. Speaking to our US Kotaku buddies there is a gulf there. 'Xbox Watch Comedy Central,' they say and, bingo, you are watching Comedy Central. 'Xbox watch HBO'. One day we will be afforded similar luxuries and a similar wealth of content but today is not that day.
The Xbox One feels like a walled garden in an era where consumer choice is paramount. I can’t stream content from my computer to the Xbox One. Why not? The Xbox 360 already allows me to do this, as does the PlayStation 3. For me, personally, this is a deal breaker. For now it feels as though I’m limited to expensive video rentals and a music service I don’t want to be a part of.
What Microsoft (and Sony and everyone) needs to realise is that most of us have already made consumer decisions about what we want to watch and where/how we want to watch it. I listen to music using Spotify. I like to stream television from my computer to my television. If the Xbox One wants to be a catch all device it should work as a conduit for all these things instead of trying in vain to funnel us down a path that most of us, quite frankly, have no desire to take.
Does anyone want to use Bing when we already have Google? Stop trying to make ‘Fetch’ happen. It is not going to happen.
The first date I had with the Xbox One was a disaster.
The update wouldn't work and I got impatient. I wrote furious, hurried notes onto my iPhone like feverish entries in an angry teenage diary: "UPDATE WON'T WORK". "KINECT DOESN'T WORK". "HAS NO GAMES". "DON'T WANT TV". Soon that furnace of rage was beat into submission by a console that didn't do everything I wanted to do right now but at the very least had the potential to be the 'centre-of-living-room' device Microsoft so desperately wants it to be.
There's a sense of the inevitable about it: the Xbox One is a device that will most likely become a part of my life whether I like it or not.
And that's essentially where the relationship analogy breaks down. Because our relationships with consoles aren't really similar to the relationship you might have with a boyfriend or girlfriend. You don't really have the breadth of choice — you're stuck with them. There are not plenty of fish in the sea. In that sense the relationship is more like one you might have with an irritating brother or sister. They may do things you don't like, they might frustrate the hell out of you. Yet in the end you have no choice but to love them or, at the very least, tolerate them. The amount of time you actually end up spending with them, of course, is up to you.
So in the end I think I might love the Xbox One. But at one point I might just have to sit it down, in a quiet room, away from the crowds. A safe space. It will bound towards me enthusiastically with a hug that lasts too long and a kiss that feels uncomfortable.
"It's not you it's me," I might find myself saying. "I think I love you more like a brother or a sister."
I think I just friend-zoned the Xbox One.