Xbox One raises the bar

LEE HENAGHAN
Last updated 12:14 03/12/2013

Xbox One hands-on review. Out now: $749.

The waiting is over: after months of rumours, hype and speculation the next generation of gaming is finally here. Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4 are out in the wild, and the first key battle in the latest war between the two tech giants will play out on a global scale over the Christmas period.

I'll be giving you the lowdown on the PS4 in a future column, but first, let's take a closer look at the first box out of the blocks: Microsoft's all-singing, all-dancing entertainment unit, the Xbox One.

The console

They say in America everything is bigger and that's as true for US consoles as it is for everything else. Even by American standards, the Xbox One is super-sized - by far the biggest, heaviest console ever released.

There's nothing subtle about its styling; it's a black behemoth with sharp angles and bold lines accented with silver trim. With boxy aesthetics more reminiscent of an 80s VCR, it's a million miles away from the soft curves of its predecessor, the 360.

The Xbox One is Microsoft's attempt to dominate the living room; designed to work in tandem with your TV, instead of competing with it. Route your set-top box through it and you can switch between game and TV instantly, or even watch both at once. Skype, video streaming and multimedia apps are also "snappable" to any game window.

When it's all hooked up, the Xbox One becomes the centre of your home entertainment system, allowing you to control anything on screen simply by talking to it. You'll never have to root around behind sofa cushions for a lost remote control again, and there's the added bonus of feeling like you're on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

The controller

As silly as it seems, for a lot of people their choice of console comes down to which controller they prefer; so getting the buttons right is almost as important as the machine itself.

If you were happy with the 360's controller layout, you'll be right at home here as its design has been refined, rather than revolutionised.

The main differences include a new "grippy" feel to the sticks, as well as slightly raised edges, making your fingers feel more secure. The shoulder buttons have also been revamped; they're less clicky, more responsive, and contain independent vibration motors which add a whole new dimension to racing games as you physically feel the tyres squealing round corners.

Overall, the Xbox One controller is a joy to use - it's solid without being bulky and feels satisfyingly slick at all times, which is all you can really ask from a control pad. Then again, sometimes you get the impression Microsoft wants us to put down our controllers altogether.

Kinect 2.0

Which brings us to the Kinect; Microsoft's attempt to jump on the motion control bandwagon. Its camera and microphone track the player in real time, allowing you interact with games using your body and voice.

In theory, it's a great idea. In practice, the first version of Kinect on the 360 didn't quite work as advertised. The good news is that the updated and upgraded Kinect sensor is a huge step up on the original. As well as tracking individual limbs, the camera is now so sensitive it can monitor heart rate and facial expressions.

Voice control has also been vastly improved, with everything from menu navigation to TV channel-hopping designed to be speech activated. Unfortunately, the system hasn't yet been calibrated to handle the "Iks-bawx" Kiwi twang, but I was able to test it by using my Pommie accent and setting my region to UK.

It's surprisingly accurate and responsive -picking up voice commands about 95 per cent of the time, even with background noise. The possibilities and potential for controller-free gaming are huge with a Kinect that actually works.

Performance

All this updated technology is only impressive if it's put to good use, and while the multimedia options are all well and good - this is a games machine first and foremost.

Space restrictions prevent me from going into too much detail here (see the games section on Nelsonmail.co.nz for full reviews) but the launch lineup seems designed to cover all bases with more than 25 titles across action, driving, sports and shooters.

Graphically, it's a huge leap forward from the current generation - with deeply detailed visuals and lush textures particularly noticeable on Forza 5and Ryse.

Its beefy processor is also capable of doing more than ever; hundreds of zombies crowd the screen in Dead Rising 3 and FIFA 14 renders a stadium of 80,000 individual fans without any noticeable slowdown.

One downside is that these bigger games require a lengthy install before playing. Some involve a download and patch of up to 6GB, which could lead to some Christmas morning frustration.

Overall

It's hard not to be impressed by the Xbox One. It's an incredibly ambitious attempt to push gaming into the next generation and represents a bold leap forward in multimedia entertainment.

While its features aren't quite fully functional yet, and there's clearly some roughness around the edges, the potential for greatness once the wrinkles have been ironed out is exciting.

The Xbox 360 of 2013 bears little resemblance to the 2006 launch machine as it has been continually improved and updated through system updates. If the Xbox One follows a similar trajectory, it won't be long before it's firing on all cylinders.

Whether Microsoft has done enough to outshine the PlayStation 4 remains to be seen, but they've certainly raised the bar with their latest big black box.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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