The system had a rocky start. Following significant controversy, Microsoft reversed the console's always online and used games policies, and since that point the system has been slowly gaining ground on its rival. Read on for our initial impressions of the new console.
Out of the box
Microsoft's boxy new console is significantly larger than its rival. While the power supply is built into Sony's PlayStation 4, the Xbox One, like its predecessor, comes with external power brick. Given the overheating problems that plagued the Xbox 360, it's likely that Microsoft put cooling before size on the new system.
The console is a little larger than the original Xbox 360 that launched back in 2005, and despite the system's size, the split matt/glossy design looks extremely slick. The console is also quieter than we're used to, and even when running demanding games, the system's fans were almost silent, a welcome change from the launch 360 system.
While Sony chose to completely overhaul its controller this time round, Microsoft's changes are a little more conservative, internalizing the battery pack, redesigning the D-Pad, shrinking the thumb sticks and putting rumble motors inside the triggers. All of these changes are for the better, with the new D-Pad and "Impulse" triggers being the most noticeable changes. Microsoft has improved on the already excellent Xbox 360 controller, with great results.
As stated above, the system is a lot larger than the competition. We can't show you a direct comparison with the PS4 as we won't be getting our hands on one until the European launch date next week, but you can see comparisons with the Wii U and PlayStation 3 slim below.
A bumpy start
The first thing you'll need to do with your new Xbox is download a fairly hefty day one update. This seems to be becoming the norm in the industry, with both the Wii U and PS4 requiring similar patches. It's a minor annoyance that makes the first hour or so with the new system ever so slightly anticlimactic. Once the update is complete, set up is fairly quick and you'll hit the system's dashboard within a couple of minutes.
The user interface on the Xbox One is extremely slick. The tile design makes a lot more sense for the Xbox than it ever has on Windows 8, and moving between applications is quick and visually pleasing. Yes, everything looks very square and unavoidably blocky, but it also looks beautiful.
This is where Kinect steps in. After surprisingly little set up time, you're able to start using voice commands to order your new console around, although the results aren't always stellar. Though voice control does work the majority of the time, there were occasions where I had to repeat myself numerous times to get the system to respond. Kinect is also surprisingly strict in what it will recognize as a command at this point. You won't be able to say “Xbox home” instead of “Xbox go home” and it will only recognize full game titles. Saying “Xbox go to Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag” gets old pretty quickly.
That said, when Kinect works, it feels like magic. I quickly got into the habit of telling the system to “Snap TV” whenever I found myself staring at a load screen or waiting for a multiplayer match to start, and I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of walking into the living room and saying “Xbox on."
Game installations are mandatory on the Xbox One, but I also found that every title I played required a fairly large update. Not only did this mean that I spent a large part of my first day with the system waiting around for updates and installations, but due to the lack of a separate download progress bar, I was left completely in the dark as to how far through the process I actually was. There's also, quite bafflingly, no way to look at how much space is left on your system's hard drive.
While the console might falter a little out of the gate, the system's gaming experience is extremely solid. Historically, it's fair to say that console launches only hint at a system's potential – just look at the quality of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 launch games in comparison to recent titles like Bioshock Infinite or GTA V. With this in mind, I'm happy to report that looking forward, the Xbox One is in a pretty great position.
Generally speaking, the jump in quality was more significant than I expected. While cross-generation titles like Assassin's Creed IV or Fifa 14 have been upgraded for the next-gen system, it's the titles that were made for the new hardware that really justify early adoption. Dead Rising 3, Capcom's humorous take on post-apocalyptic California packs so many Zombies into its streets that it's inconceivable to imagine it running on last-gen systems. And although the visuals aren't mind-blowing, they're still a step up of what was possible before.
Despite differing opinions on the gameplay in Ryse: Son of Rome (I'm personally a fan), the game is a graphical marvel. Considering that this is a launch title for the system, what developer Crytek has delivered with Ryse is breathtaking. Facial animations and movement are disturbingly lifelike, and textures and environments are detailed, smooth and convincing.
In the case of third parties, what's on offer at launch is about what I would expect from PC versions of multi-platform titles (these are usually the versions I pick up), while first party games (in particular Ryse) take things a step further.
TV integration and One Guide
The Xbox One has an extra HDMI port on the back that lets you run your cable or satellite box through it. This allows you to control what you're watching with voice commands and provides instant switching between games, TV and other media.
This is one of the system's killer features. It feels great telling your console to “go to TV” while you're waiting for a game to install, or to jump into a game during an ad break. Unfortunately, the system's OneGuide, an electronic program guide (EPG) that pools together TV channels and on-demand services into a single interactive guide wasn't available in the UK at launch, meaning that my experience of the system's media functionality is a little incomplete.
That said, I was able to set up the console to control my LG TV and ran my Sky+ HD box through the HDMI in with no problems. Even without OneGuide, it really adds something to your entertainment set up.
Microsoft is trying to do something bold with the Xbox One. The console doesn't just want a place in your entertainment set up, it wants to be central to it. It wants to control your TV and your cable/satellite box and it wants to give you new ways to use them. It's a compelling vision, and it's one that the Xbox One comes extremely close to realizing.
As a gaming system, Microsoft's latest is very, very solid. The performance and variety of launch titles is impressive and anyone harboring concerns over the system's power relative to the competition should spend a little time with Ryse: Son of Rome.
It's in the console's extra features that the cracks start to appear. Kinect voice control is too hit and miss at this point, and its interpretation of commands is too strict to feel user friendly. The UI's lack of both storage and downloads utilities is confusing and at times frustrating, and the lack of OneGuide support in Europe (and other markets outside North America) is disappointing – Microsoft has confirmed it won't be arriving in the UK until "next year."
However, none of these issues are unfixable and given the improvements we saw in the Xbox 360's interface during its lengthy life span, it's likely that Microsoft will be active in working out the kinks. Additionally, due to the system's great gaming performance, the other issues tend to fade into the background. It's also worth noting that using extra features like the HDMI passthrough and Kinect are completely optional, though you might resent the system's high price tag if you end up disconnecting the Kinect.
Overall, at this point, it's easy to recommend the Xbox One. It's a great gaming machine and it really adds something to your entertainment setup. The Xbox One is available now for US$500.
UPDATE (March 18, 2014): Microsoft has announced that the Xbox One will be available in 26 additional markets in September this year.