Sunday, November 24, 2013

Xbox One

I preordered the Xbox One Day One Edition just as soon as they rolled back their completely asinine policies. I had a few options available, many that would allow me to pick up the console on midnight of launch day. However, after attending the midnight launch of Halo 4 last year, I just feel like I'm getting way too old to deal with large, loud crowds for a video game. So I decided to preorder the console on and let them ship it to me. While it may seem trivial to skimp on shipping costs on a $500 item, money hasn't exactly been in strong supply lately, so I just couldn't bring myself to forgo the Super Saver Shipping. Besides, I rationalized, I could wait the extra 5-8 days, see what other people get and enjoy, and then pick up those games when my console finally did arrive.

I was fairly surprised, then, when the week of the console's launch arrived, and my shipping status updated to say I would receive my package the very day after launch. Maybe the fact that I had some other items on order had something to do with it — if they were ready to ship, Amazon's shipping algorithm might have just decided to release the Xbox One with it, since it was there and ready to go as well. In any case, it's not worth over-analyzing, because that just gets in the way of enjoying the fact that my Xbox One is here.

The Pros

Setting the console up was pretty straightforward. The initial 500MB download completed a lot faster than I expected for being on the day right after launch — it was done downloading within 10 minutes. (Still, extrapolate that to a 35GB game, and that would be over 11 hours — which is why I would never go all-digital when discs are still an option.) Even setting up my family was a lot easier than I expected. The Kinect sign-in function is amazingly quick, about as good as advertised. Someone will walk into the room, and the console will very quickly greet them, no matter what else is going on at the time. (I haven't quite figured out how logging out works, though, because when said person walks out of the room, their icon still appears on the dashboard, and it doesn't re-greet them when they walk back in.) Time will tell how well the Xbox identifies who's in control and to whom it should listen, and if my boys will play nicely together or be involved in a constant power struggle over control of the system.

Snap is a very nice feature. The ability to have an app snap to the side is one I can see using quite often. In some cases, it's like having the Xbox Guide in a persistent sidebar, like when you snap party controls. You can see instantly who is talking (theoretically — more on that later) and switch in and out of party chat very easily. The console responds pretty quickly and seamlessly to voice commands. I was originally worried that it wouldn't be intuitive how to switch control from the main to the snapped screen, but the solution of double-tapping the Xbox button is pretty easy to pick up.

Besides snap, the voice commands in general react pretty snappily, though sometimes you do have to repeat a command. I've noticed that happens most often when you're talking to someone else, like the console tunes you out and needs an extra pause and insistent "Xbox" before it realizes, "Oh, you're talking to me!" It's actually a pretty good safety — I've been able to have a conversation with someone and tell them about some commands like "Xbox Turn Off" without the console mistaking that I was talking to it instead. Also, once it decides to listen, it's been really good at listening only to one speaker for that moment. I tried starting the "listening" state and having my son try to give it a command, and it won't listen to him until it "times out" listening to me.

Video recording is extremely simple. All you have to say is "Xbox, record that", and the last 30s of video are stored as a video clip for use later. (There is a snappable app that gives you more advanced control of recording, if you so choose; but I haven't played with that yet.) Right now, it seems that it is only able to upload to SkyDrive, but it's pretty trivial to go to a PC and share that out to YouTube, Facebook, or wherever. Like so:

My wife was really impressed with the Xbox's ability to control our 8-year-old stereo system. After I told my Xbox what kind of receiver I had, I could just say, "Xbox, volume up" or "Xbox, volume down", and the Xbox blasted the IR remote signal to the stereo. (Reports say it uses the Kinect to do this, which I find really impressive, since the Kinect is about five feet directly above my stereo and still has no problem controlling it.)

I only have two games for the Xbox One so far. Killer Instinct looks and plays pretty good, I suppose. I wouldn't consider myself an aficionado of fighting games, so I can't really say it looks amazing or disappointing. Forza 5, on the other hand, looks spectacular. It also plays really well, not requiring intimate knowledge of how downforce from a precisely-tuned spoiler affects handling to have fun playing. (The last Forza game I played was Forza 2, which seemed to go way over my head when it came to playing the game to its fullest potential.) The "Drivatar" system is a pretty cool idea; I've been able to race against a lot of people on my friends list. The game also really shows off the new controller features. Feeling a very specific rumble in a trigger as you accelerate around a turn or the antilock brakes kick in is very immersive.

The Cons

Reviews of the console and the dashboard abound, so I won't go into too much detail about how it looks or works. It definitely looks nice, but it feels hard to find things. I think part of the problem is that it's rather familiar to the Xbox 360 interface, so mentally, I expect to find certain things in certain places. However, there are enough differences that, when I try to look for something, it's not where I expect, and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out where things are.

The Xbox One reports my network as a "strict NAT", which typically is not a positive when it comes to online gaming. I find this rather odd, though. My router has a uPnP service running, which should allow any device to request a port be opened for external connections. This service has served the Xbox 360 well — usually, the 360 only reports a problem if the uPnP service has crashed, and all I have to do is restart it for everything to be fine again. Indeed, if I check the log files, I can see that the Xbox One does request ports be opened using the uPnP service, and I can even verify that the ports do in fact get opened as requested. So why the Xbox One would think my NAT layer is "strict" is beyond me. It may or may not also be the cause of some of the problems that follow.

Party chat has been problematic. When I have tried using a party, selecting "Start Party Chat" will either put me in party chat but unable to talk to or hear anyone, or it will say "Cannot start Party Chat, try again later." It is nice that you can be in a party without requiring a connection to party chat, but the fact that it isn't working for me makes it difficult to coordinate a match.

Skype is definitely an option to work around that, except that it only appears to be half-baked. It doesn't appear as a snappable app, which means you can only use it on the main screen. It will, at least, run in the background, so you can use it to talk while doing other things. However, it does not suppress game chat while using Skype. That could be good or bad, depending on your specific situation; but when a friend and I were chatting with Skype and managed to get in the same multiplayer lobby, we were talking to each other both on Skype and in the game, and heard each other echo — not exactly ideal. And then there was the little problem that, after failing Party Chat and wanting to go back to Skype, it refused to start up, stuck on the "Skype blue" starting screen. (Perhaps the "blue screen of death" isn't gone after all.)

Speaking of half-baked and crashing apps, the Netflix experience has been less than ideal so far. The app itself takes an abnormally long time to launch. (Once, the Xbox actually came up and said "Netflix has taken too long to launch and will be shut down." Even the Xbox lost patience with it, apparently.) As the family and I were watching a few episodes of a Disney show, after the fifth episode, I got a message saying "Netflix has encountered a problem and will be shut down." Back at the dashboard, I tried to launch the app again, but it took only a few seconds before it apparently crashed and the dashboard reloaded.

We were able to use the Party feature successfully for joining the same Forza 5 game, but Killer Instinct refused to cooperate — although the console notification said the other player was added to the game, the game never seemed to acknowledge this. How the game permits this seems to be very game-dependent (Forza 5, for instance, popped up an in-game prompt asking if I wanted to join the game that another party member got into), so whether this is a system failure or a bug in the game itself, I'm not sure. It does seem like it's a little more complicated than the old system of just finding a friend and saying "Join Game" or "Invite to Game", like they tried to automate the procedure. From my very limited experience so far, it seems like it's going to be harder to deal with.

When Party Chat was failing, I reverted to sending a standard message to my friend to try to coordinate. I was a little surprised to see that I could only send a text message — the option to send a voice message is nonexistent. I haven't yet set up my network to allow SmartGlass to work, so I couldn't use my phone as a keyboard (my phone was in another room charging anyway). Some kind of predictive text entry like they have on the Windows Phone, or even Bing-powered voice-to-text (again, like they have on the Windows Phone), would be more than welcome here. I've gotten used to having my Xbox 360 Chatpad, and that doesn't work with the One.

There were a handful of launch games, but some of them were released digitally, like LocoCycle and Crimson Dragon. If these are representative of the future of digital titles, it makes me a little concerned. The games are $20 each, more than typical of what we've come to expect from the Xbox 360 Live Arcade (although those titles seem to have been migrating towards the $15 average instead of the $5–$10 where it started). What's even more concerning, though, is that none of them seem to offer a free trial. One of the benchmarks I used to use for XBLA games is that I would download the trial version, and if I felt myself continuing to come back to it over some period of time, I'd decide to buy the full version. Can't do that with any of these titles. Maybe demos and trials will come back when developers aren't rushing to get their titles out for launch, but it's not a good sign.

The software seems to take this idea of "apps" to an extreme. When I want to view my friends list, it's not a function I just call up and get a list on the screen; I have to launch (or snap) the Friends app, which gives me full-screen-sized pages of information. It seems like overkill. What's even worse are notifications and achievements. Get the bleep-bloop and want to see what it was you just did to unlock that achievement? It suspends the game as it pulls up the full-screen view of the achievement, downloading a full picture to display with it. It's very pretty, sure, but again, when all I want is just to quickly see the description of how I just unlocked whatever it was, it feels like I have to completely step outside of what I was doing to launch this full-screen app just to do that one little thing.

The Conclusion

The Xbox One has a lot of potential. Being able to multitask and snap different apps, and a Party feature that is more aware of what game you're playing, gives just a taste of how well it can work. But it doesn't feel quite finished. Features are missing (like the ability to snap Skype or to stream gameplay), and some just don't work quite yet. Still, Microsoft has established a history with the Xbox 360 of being able to evolve and improve the console over time, and I think the majority of these complaints will just be early adopter woes long forgotten. And, to be honest, I knew I would be seeing these early issues by jumping in on day one. Still, I look forward to seeing this system evolving and getting more comfortable with it myself, and I can't wait to play Titanfall and Halo 5 on this baby next year.