The console barons must have a sadistic streak to launch with winter knocking and temperatures plummeting (I know, get out your violins and play me a song — I live in Michigan). If you’re a northerner like me and stood in line to pluck an Xbox One from its hidey-stack in some midnight-retailer’s backroom last night, I was up watching the launch events and wishing you an abundance of warmth.
With the Xbox One’s arrival (my review is here), the companies who made us wait seven or eight years for new hardware — take a bow with Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony — are finished marching their armies onto the field. It’s a very pretty field, for those that care about stuff like “procedural generation” and “ray-tracing with parametric surfaces” and four-figure resolutions that end in ‘p’, and like most launches, there’s not much else to care about at this point.
But the Xbox One is more than just a horsepower showcase, so the buy-or-don’t arguments are a little trickier. Last week we walked through a few reasons to buy or not buy Sony’s games-focused PlayStation 4. This week, let’s do the Xbox One version.
Starting with the pros:
Three words (or two and a number): Forza Motorsport 5.
I’m not a race sim guy, but I’m smitten with Forza 5, though not for the reasons you’d guess, e.g. hundreds of gorgeous cars bolting around photorealistic courses at 1080p and 60 frames per second. You see, Turn 10’s snuck a little A.I.-related feature into the game it calls Drivatars. Before you stick your finger down your throat — and yes, that is a corny portmanteau — hear me out.
Drivatars are computer-controlled racers that learn to drive based on how you or your friends drive. After they’ve assimilated your driving quirks, they’ll head off to Xbox-land and race on your behalf in friends’ races (and vice versa in yours). As I wrote in my impressions piece: “Drivatar behavior isn’t anything like as generalized or random as I worried it might be; it’s discernibly specific, repeatable (just restart a race to see this) and in that sense, crucially, predictable. Scrutinize these behaviors, whether during a race or outside one (in replay mode) and you’re suddenly formulating how to approach each Drivatar tactically, how to use other cars in a hairpin turn (or coming out of one), exploiting a Drivatar’s quirks and miscalculations.”
You’re committed to cable/satellite TV.
And, crucial corollary here, you want to control your TV box with your voice and never have to switch inputs again, all your content harmonized by a single media-juggling master appliance (that happens to include a slot-loading Blu-ray player). The Xbox One is a cable/satellite signal vacuum: plug your TV box’s HDMI cable in (it has to be HDMI — RF won’t do) and presto, your provider’s been assimilated by a glorified IR blaster. The best part? The ease and speed with which the Xbox One’s Windows 8-style interface multitasks, swinging from game to TV show to browser and back effortlessly.
SmartGlass second-screen gaming.
No one’s said much about this Wii U GamePad-like feature, perhaps because it’s more intrepid than most realize: a few of the Xbox One’s launch games lack essential features when played standalone on the console. If you want to see those features, say metrics like where you’re at in a game’s collectible hunt, you’ll have to add a second screen: an iOS or Android or Windows RT/8 device running Microsoft’s free SmartGlass app.
The downside is that these games aren’t really standalone games (and Microsoft’s not making this clear, which is a problem); the upside, if you buy the second screen argument, is that you’ll actually use that second screen, accessing crucial information simultaneous to playing a game.
You want the Star Trek version of next-gen.
Microsoft sold a lot of first-gen Kinects to whimsy-struck buyers, but the novelty motion-tracking sensor fell off gamers’ radars in recent years, grabbing media attention more for eccentric Windows-side hacks like battling Jedi-bots or playing dress-up with yourself.
Kinect for Xbox One is a different animal: a more responsive, broadly integrated, deterministic animal. If you want to leave your TV remote parked in a drawer and speak your way through the whole interface, Forza 5 to Doctor Who, this finally does that. Not perfectly, mind you, but reliably enough to make it faster in virtually all circumstances than reaching for something with buttons.
You love Windows 8’s Metro interface.
Welcome to your tile-driven Windows future, a melange of colorful, orthogonal slabs that slide around like one of those picture-block puzzles. If you’re a Windows 8 or RT fan, you’ll be right at home here.
You’re certain consoles have a future.
You like tablets, and smartphones, and maybe even own one. But you’re not convinced tablets and smartphones will ever surpass set-top machines for sheer oomph — that, and you see this all as complementary, mobile and stationary devices living in peace and harmony.
And now the cons:
You hate Windows 8’s Metro interface.
Do you prefer OS X or Windows? iOS or Android? Interfaces matter — they’re not just cosmetic overlays you shrug past as you might have when the trickiest part about loading a game in a console involved blowing across its connector pins. The Xbox One’s Metro interface is a busy, busy beast, littered with squares and rectangles and its own unique modus operandi for getting around.
It’s also a secretive beast, hiding things you might otherwise expect to have access to, say how much free space your 500GB hard drive has remaining (obscured, says Microsoft, to streamline your experience, i.e. don’t worry, be happy…until the low-space klaxons start going off). If you want old-school visibility into every facet of the Xbox One’s architecture, or can’t stand Metro, this one could be a deal-breaker.
You don’t care about cable/satellite TV.
Hello cord-cutters, the Xbox One’s TV-watching features are utterly meaningless to you. Yes, Netflix and Hulu Plus and Amazon are present and accounted for, but that selling point — plugging an HDMI cable/satellite box into the Xbox One and driving everything monolithically — has precisely zero cachet if you’re not set up for TV (or you’re using an RF-only TV box).
Forza 5 aside, there’s no must-have game here.
I might buy an Xbox One on Forza 5‘s merits alone, but nothing else leaps out here, including what I’ve played of Ryse: Son of Rome (not bad, but not great), Crimson Dragon (terrible controls) and Dead Rising 3 (again, not bad, but not great). You could almost make an argument for Killer Instinct, but then you’d have to be pretty into Killer Instinct to drop $500 for that alone.
If you’re thinking multi-platform, there’s Assassin’s Creed IV, hands-down the strongest launch lineup game on both consoles, and the respective sports titles, but they’re available for the Xbox 360 and PS3, too, and nothing I’ve heard about the next-gen version upticks in parameters like physics or A.I. come anywhere near must-have buy status.
$500 is $500.
For this, you could buy a new iPad Air, or pamper yourself at a posh bed and breakfast, or pick up a PlayStation 4 plus a game or two, or just bank the money for a rainy day. When all’s said and done, your outlay for games and accessories is probably going to approach $600 or $700 with the Xbox One, which is pricey business in this age of powerful computing for cheap.
A 500 GB storage ceiling sounds a little cramped in 2013.
Sony lets you upgrade the PS4’s hard drive at leisure, just as it did the PS3’s. Being able to upgrade your storage space is a big deal. Your PC lets you. Valve’s Steam Machines will let you. But the Xbox One won’t let you, or if iFixit has this right, it will, but you’ll void your warranty doing so. The Xbox One may support external storage through its USB ports down the road, but that’s just speculation: at launch, you’re stuck with 500 GB.
You see consoles as dinosaurs in the shadow of mobile’s killer asteroid.
The day may be coming when annually (and sometimes semi-annually) refreshed tablets and mobile phones catch up to static set-tops (or outright bypass them). That, and there’s gaming in the cloud to consider, say someone figures out how to stream games and video with pristine fidelity, no compression and zero meaningful latency, at which point devices become dumb terminals — cheap portals into a mainframe-like universe of content.
(MORE: Watch TIME’s behind the scenes coverage of the Xbox One Launch Event)
MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full