Image: Alex Walker/Kotaku
Every generation of consoles has its ‘default’.
Sometimes that default is difficult to define, other times it’s clear as day.
PlayStation 2: default. Obviously.
Super Nintendo? Probably default. A close run race. Plenty had Mega Drives. Blood in the playgrounds that one. A dark time for the empire.
PlayStation 1. Default.
Xbox 360. Default.
Being the default console for an entire generation is more than a numbers game. Sales plays into it obviously, but it’s a cultural thing. Default means you have the controller everyone’s used to. It means that when buying Call of Duty or FIFA or that game you play with your mates who play video games for one month of the year, you buy it on default.
Crucially, nowadays it means you have the User Interface people are more used to.
It’s no secret Microsoft has had a tough go this time around. I think we can be honest about that. From the day it was announced the Bone has been mired with controversy. Always online, Kinect. Rioting in the streets. Incredibly Microsoft made the precise same mistakes Sony made from their default position. “We’ve got the gamers cornered, let’s go for the mainstream, let’s get that living room”. It backfired. Obviously. Hindsight is 20/20.
It was bizarre in a sense, the 360 snatched Microsoft its very first default title when Sony made similar mistakes. Somehow Microsoft decided they’d repeat history by making the precise same mistakes they capitalised on 10 years earlier. Round and round we go. Incredible when you think about it: gigantic tech corporations are just as prone to ignoring history as regular people.
Only now it’s a little different. The stakes feel higher. Last generation spanned longer than any generation I can remember. 10 years give or take. This generation might last even longer. Consoles are different now – less of a discrete concrete object, more of an evolving brand. Not only are we watching our consoles update and change in real time, we’re buying new versions of them. Xbox One S, PlayStation 4 Pro…
The game is changing, but the changes are more incremental, they come faster but somehow slower. We have every reason to believe that the boxes sitting under our TVs right now might the same ones sitting there ten years from now. Evolved, slightly different maybe, but most likely an evolved version of what we already have.
One thing for sure: the future is less certain. And the battle for default is a battle Microsoft may have already lost.
I guess you could say I’m reviewing the Xbox One X, but I’m really reviewing my own hardwired preferences.
I’m sitting with the Xbox One X and it’s a beautiful piece of kit. The original Xbox One was clunky, heavy, bloated with its own hubris. The ‘X’ is sleek, smaller, almost apologetic. A shrunken exercise in humility.
It’s black. It’s shiny. It fits neatly with the consoles in my entertainment unit. The original Bone was picking fights like a hormonally charged elephant, The Xbox One X just wants to get along.
But it’s powerful too, that’s obvious from the get go.
As someone who recently bought a 4K OLED, I’ve become addicted to the ‘holy shit’ moments that come with crystal clear resolution, deep blacks and an increased colour range. The Xbox One X has delivered many of those moments.
Forza 7 is the one I remember most fondly. I was in shock for the first five minutes, before remembering I actually hate racing simulators and can’t drive for shit. I found myself wondering: “what if I actually cared about this game?”
Jesus Christ, I might never leave this chair.
FIFA 17 looked great. Assassin’s Creed: Origins looked great. Everything I downloaded and played looked great, regardless of whether I enjoyed the games or not.
I quietly wondered what it would feel like when the dizziness of new technology faded. I shook those thoughts out of my head and went back to enjoying video games. Because the Xbox One X is very good at running video games in all their splendour.
And it plays 4K Blu-rays, a wrinkle that feels important right now, but might diminish in importance as internet speeds and an abundance of streaming content have us relying less on physical media.
Still, nothing I’ve streamed on Netflix looked as good as Planet Earth II and I suspect it will be a long fucking time before anything on any other streaming service comes close.
In short, the Xbox One X feels like a console made for a person like me, with my current circumstances: a brand new TV, a lot of games to play, and horny as fuck for black levels and HDR content.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you the story I’ve been telling everyone when they ask my about the Xbox One X.
It was the first time I turned the thing on. Fresh from plastic, cardboard strewn throughout my living room. It’s 2017. Times are different. I know the drill. I knew my Xbox One X would start life downloading and installing a meaty update. I wasn’t offended by that.
I was, however, troubled by the user interface.
The rigmaroll of updates done and dusted, I decided to explore the settings, to check I was at the right resolution, that HDR was working, that everything was to my liking.
It took me 15 minutes to find the settings in the Xbox One X.
15 long frustrating minutes.
The Xbox One X review unit came with around a dozen game codes, which I was keen to start downloading. I queued up around five or six meaty 40-50GB downloads. Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Forza 7, Gears of War 4…
This’ll be a while I thought. Perfect time to check out Planet Earth II in glorious 4K resolution. I put in the disc.
Which wouldn’t run until I went to the store and downloaded the Blu-ray app. This elected an actual, legitimate weary sigh from me. Incredible that a console like this, with 4K Blu-ray at the heart of its proposition, wouldn’t play discs straight out of the box. Utterly mindblowing. But sure, never mind. Let’s download the app.
Of course I’d forgotten that the app was now queued behind five ponderous 40GB downloads. I might be waiting a while.
The solution was obvious right? Just pause the other downloads and get the Blu-ray one finished quicksmart, right.
Right, except that it took another ten minutes for me to find exactly where that download queue was.
A couple of days later I decided to play the games that had been quietly downloading over the past 48 hours. I was keen to start enjoying this console for what it presumably did best – play video games.
It took me an uncomfortably long time to find those video games.
Things I stumbled across before finding the video games I had downloaded and therefore owned: Netflix apps, movie content, app store… Random Twitch streams featuring random Twitch streamers playing the video games I should have been playing at that precise moment.
It seemed like a perfect illustration of skewed priorities. Of an interface more concerned with what it could sell than providing a clean, workable service to the user. I don’t consider myself a tech savant, but I’m not an idiot either. If I can’t find my games, what chance does a casual user like my wife have? Or my four-year-old son, who has no problem navigating the Nintendo Switch or the PlayStation 4?
I’m finding it difficult to rationalise. Every time I tell this story I get mixed responses. Some agree, “yes, the Xbox UI is brutal and impossible to penetrate.” But a few other: “I find it more accessible than the PlayStation 4”. I’m unsure if the Xbox One user interface really is as bad as I think it is, or if I’m simply a victim of my own preferences.
Either way, it feels like I’m in the majority. With the PlayStation 4 I feel comfortable. The controller sits easily in my hand and I navigate tabs with ease. But each and every time I turn on the Xbox One X there’s a learning curve, and habits too stubborn to break.
It might be unfair (actually it is unfair) but that’s the advantage that comes with being default.