Xbox One review roundup: Critics praise ambition, question Kinect

Nov. 21, 2013 | 9:44 a.m.

The Xbox One hits stores on Friday, and the reviews are pouring in.

Game critics are weighing the pros and cons of Microsoft’s next-generation video game console, and, much like last week’s reaction to Sony’s PlayStation 4, the reviews are overall positive, with a few notable shortcomings.

Critics praised the Xbox One’s ambition, its relatively seamless integration into existing media centers, its launch game lineup and its potential as an all-encompassing media hub, while complaining about its seemingly uncreative console design and several flaws with the Kinect’s voice-recognition capabilities. Reviews were divided on the elegance and functionality of its new user interface.

The Times’ own Todd Martens notes that the PS4 and the Xbox One focus on different aspects of a video game console’s potential.

“Their presentation — the arguments they put forth about how games can and should be integrated into our lives — varies greatly,” Martens writes. “Sony’s PS4 takes a targeted approach by emphasizing games and the places players go to talk about those games. … The Xbox One has sharing abilities as well, but its system places broader, non-gaming ambitions front and center.”

The Xbox One game console. (Microsoft)

The Xbox One game console. (Microsoft)

Console design

The design of the console itself has been met with a critical shrug. While reviewers were pleased with practical additions — a Blu-ray player, three USB 3.0 ports and more-than-adequate heat ventilation — they were unimpressed by its size, its unimaginative shape and its bulky power brick.

Polygon’s review dubbed the Xbox One’s silhouette “inoffensive.”

“There’s no sugarcoating the console’s lack of visual flair. Microsoft has created a system designed to blend into the other components of your home entertainment center, and it does that … for better or worse. The console lacks the profile and space-saving considerations of the PlayStation 4 – or even the original Xbox 360.”

The Verge’s David Pierce, Sean Hollister, Ross Miller, Andrew Webster and Nilay Patel called the console “a triumph of function over form.”

“It’s not attractive by really any definition: it’s a big, black box about the size of an old-school VCR and with about the same amount of design flair,” they write. “The One isn’t designed to stand out, like the sharply angled PlayStation 4; it’s designed to disappear into the stack of black rectangles next to or underneath your television.”

Engadget’s Ben Gilbert complained that the console’s shiny black plastic gets dirty too quickly, and Joystiq’s Ludwig Kietzmann, while satisfied with the console’s “low on frills” design philosophy, lamented its “bulky footprint.”

For a system so elegant in appearance, the Xbox One is not the simplest to arrange in your TV cabinet,” Kietzmann writes. “The Kinect, which peers in parallel to the television’s screen, has a large footprint of its own to consider, and is too heavy to rest on an LCD or Plasma television.”

Sony's PlayStation 4, left, and Microsoft's Xbox One. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Sony’s PlayStation 4, left, and Microsoft’s Xbox One. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Controller

The new Xbox One controller — essentially an updated version of the widely praised Xbox 360 gamepad — was almost universally lauded. The controller features a new, more “clicky” directional pad, grips on the analog sticks and rumble features on the triggers, dubbed “impulse triggers” by Microsoft.

“The Xbox One controller is absolutely superb. It is, perhaps, the best console controller I’ve ever held,” raves Greg Kumparak of TechCrunch. “The Xbox One controller is essentially a 360 controller refined, scrubbed of its flaws.”

Critics loved the new vibrating triggers.

“The triggers offer new feedback to the player and an instant means to respond,” Engadget’s Gilbert writes. “It’s hard to demonstrate their importance through words: You simply have to feel them in action. Use it once and the potential becomes obvious.”

Reviewers were less happy with the new  bumper buttons on shoulders of the controller.

The only issue in an otherwise superb controller is at the top: the bumper buttons are too high and too stiff, and pressing them means you have to tighten your grip on the whole controller,” writes Joystiq’s Kietzmann.

But across the board, critics praised the controller’s battery life, with two AA batteries lasting for upwards of 25 hours.

“We haven’t been able to fully deplete a charge on our controllers in a week and a half of constant play,” Polygon writes. “One of the most exciting additions to the controller is actually behind that unusually long battery life. The controller works in coordination with Kinect to monitor its use. When you put the controller down to watch a movie, it enters a low-power state.”

The Xbox One game controller. (Microsoft)

The Xbox One game controller. (Microsoft)

User interface

The user interface is where many critics split in their assessment. Some loved its Windows 8-inspired design, and others found it cluttered and confusing. Critics were impressed by Kinect’s voice and facial recognition abilities but also expressed concern about the its reliability — it works, they said, but it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Overall, reviewers loved its media center integration, though they were split on features such as “snap,” which allows gamers to use multiple apps simultaneously.

The Times’ Martens wrote that the Xbox One’s operating system “has a refreshed look that closely resembles the latest Windows devices. It re-imagines the television as something that can more closely align with the smaller mobile and tablet screens that increasingly occupy our time. A swipe of the screen right brings you to a store full of apps as well as music and movie options. A swipe to the left brings you to your own personally curated screen of entertainment choices, be it your favorite games, television shows or apps.”

Eric Limer of Gizmodo agrees, calling the update “fresh, but not alienating.”

From the moment the Xbox One wakes up, everything is right at your fingertips,” Limer writes. “Apps, games, notifications, and yeah, a couple of ‘featured items’ that Microsoft would be more than happy for you to purchase. The whole thing can feel a little busy, but it’s easy to pick up and use.”

The Xbox One Kinect sensor. (Microsoft)

The Xbox One Kinect sensor. (Microsoft)

The Verge was less impressed by its design, but said the Kinect made up for its defects, saying, “The Xbox One is a smorgasbord of colored Windows 8-style tiles in seemingly arbitrary locations. …The upshot is that you can go anywhere, do practically anything in the user interface with your voice alone — when Kinect works as it should. When Kinect works, it completely makes up for the Xbox One’s obtuse visual interface, because you don’t need to think visually anymore.”

The problem, however, is that the Kinect doesn’t always work, The Verge writes.

“Often, I felt like I spent more time screaming at the Kinect to follow my commands than it would have taken to just pick up the controller. I begged, I pleaded with the device to do what I wanted in the most commanding yet humble tone I could muster, and on many occasions it indeed felt like I had the robotic butler of my dreams. Most of the time, though, it felt like my butler was a little hard of hearing.”

READ MORE: PlayStation 4 review roundup

Other critics had little trouble with voice commands.

“Issues aside, it really works,” Polygon writes. “In fact, the fastest way to navigate the Xbox One’s user interface is via the incredibly robust suite of voice commands. The friction that limited voice commands on the Xbox 360 with Kinect is all but gone. Now you can order the system to go from one app to another from anywhere — whether it’s to watch TV, start Netflix or boot up a game. There’s little perceptible lag from finishing a command and the results on screen.”

Polygon also praised the Kinect’s fast facial recognition for sign-in. Face the screen, and the console will sign you in and say hello. Controllers will sync with the users holding them. Play at a friend’s house, and the console will sign you in so you keep your game progress and achievements.

“There was a frequent sense of “holy crap” among Polygon editors regarding the Xbox One,” Poylgon writes. “We were constantly surprised by what the system could distinguish, by all the small but smart usability enhancements provided by Kinect. It feels futuristic and cool in a way that little else about the new consoles does.”

Critics were impressed by the console’s media integration; The Xbox One can manage streaming video, cable TV, Blu-rays and more.

Microsoft has every intention of making the Xbox One the centerpiece of your living-room entertainment experience. And its first shots with the system are remarkably successful,” Polygon writes. “It’s not just that Microsoft is more aggressively courting video content and providers with Xbox compared to the competition. With Xbox One’s TV integration, their plan seems to be that you’ll never need to switch away from the system for all the entertainment you’re already consuming in your living room. It becomes a part of the television experience seamlessly and drifts into the background until you’re ready for it — or, say, when you receive a game invite or Skype call. … All of this depends on the system’s seamless suspension of in-progress games and apps. This makes swapping between functions of the Xbox One a pleasure, rather than a chore.”

Engadget also praised the console’s multitasking abilities.

Shortcomings and oddities aside, the multitasking on Xbox One is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition,” Gilbert writes. “The Xbox One handily switches between several apps and a game at once, whereas the PlayStation 4 works with two at most (including one game). It’s a credit to Microsoft’s software prowess that the console can handle so much at once.”

Sharing

The PlayStation 4 made sharing on social media a key feature. While the Xbox One boasts some of the same features, like recording gameplay video , it lacks Sony’s integration with existing social media networks, like Facebook. Reviewers noted some enhancements to Xbox Live, including a raised maximum number of friends (up to 1,000 from 100), and “following” — a Twitter-inspired feature that doesn’t require two-way authorization.

“A notable disappointment is the absence of real-name support at launch,” Polygon writes. “One of the PS4’s most enjoyable enhancements has been postponed for Xbox One until an unspecified future date.”

Critics also complained that the new user interface makes it more complicated to find and follow friends, but seemed hopeful about the console’s cloud-sharing abilities.

“Microsoft has embraced the cloud — a reported 300,000 servers have been dedicated to supporting everything from cloud-based saves to actual computational assistance,” Polygon notes. “It’s a big, somewhat opaque strategy that may take time to fully realize. … Microsoft has committed to unlimited storage for its users — though specific games will likely enforce hard limits on this end. These saves are automatic, whether you’re an Xbox Live Gold subscriber or not. It removes the complication of selecting storage mediums or manually bringing your progress to a friend’s house.”

A scene from "Forza Motorsport 5." (Microsoft Studios)

A scene from “Forza Motorsport 5.” (Microsoft Studios)

Launch games

Overall, game critics seemed happier with Microsoft’s launch offerings than with Sony’s, while acknowledging that a console’s best games are rarely released at launch.

“Console launches are notorious for lacking quality games,” Kotaku’s Hamilton writes. “Happily, the Xbox One bucks this trend.”

Most reviewers praised two of the biggest games — “Forza Motorsport 5″ and “Ryse: Son of Rome” — with The Verge calling them “true cinematic spectacles.”

They’re gorgeous games that really look next-gen and won’t take a lot of training for someone to jump in and play,” The Verge writes. “‘Forza,’ especially, doesn’t feel like a launch game built for an unproven console — the attention to detail is phenomenal, and there aren’t really any performance issues we saw. ‘Ryse,’ meanwhile, is essentially the movie ‘Gladiator’ with simple controls and a focus on narration and dismemberment.”

Some of the smaller games were less impressive. The Times’ Martens said of the dragon flier “Crimson Dragon” and motorbike fighter “LocoCycle”: “I couldn’t uninstall fast enough.”

A scene from "Crimson Dragon." (Microsoft Studios)

A scene from “Crimson Dragon.” (Microsoft Studios)

Polygon also panned those games, saying “Crimson Dragon” was “disappointing” and “LocoCycle” was “reprehensible in almost every way — it’s racist, sexist, amateurish and monotonous.”

But Polygon went on to praise “Dead Rising 3″ as, though badly-written, “a truly next-gen experience,” “Zoo Zycoon” as “flawed but compelling” and “Powerstar Golf” as “delightfully approachable.”

Microsoft has managed to complement an otherwise competent collection of third-party releases with a strong lineup of games that are only available on Xbox One,” Polygon writes.

To buy?

As with the PlayStation 4, many game critics are advocating a “wait-and-see” approach.

“Its sheer speed, versatility, horsepower and its ability to turn on and off with words make it a relatively seamless entry into our already crowded media center,” Engadget’s Gilbert writes. “What determines whether it stays there is the next 12 months… For broader success beyond just the early adopter’s living room, the NFL crowd must buy in to Microsoft’s $500 box. But will they? That remains to be seen. What’s there so far is a very competent game box with an expensive camera and only a few exclusive games differentiating it from the competition.”

The Verge praises its ambition, but says the battle is far from won.

The new $499 console is still very much a gaming device, but it’s more than that: it’s a sprawling, ambitious attempt to be the most important thing in your living room for the next decade,” The Verge writes. “When Microsoft says it’s building a console for the next decade, it’s not lying. Where the PlayStation 4 is designed to simply become an ever-better version of itself, the Xbox One is poised to turn into an entirely different, entirely unprecedented device. It may not only supplement, but replace your cable box; it could have a rich, full app store; games are only going to get better, more impressive, and more interactive. The blueprints are all here. Virtually everything Microsoft is trying to do is smart, practical, and forward-thinking … But nearly everything that could be great someday isn’t great right now.”

People line up to buy the Xbox One console on Nov. 21, 2013, in New York. The console will be released at midnight. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

People line up to buy the Xbox One console on Nov. 21, 2013, in New York. The console will be released at midnight. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The Verge goes on to note the user interface’s shortcomings, specifically the Kinect’s reliability issues, concluding, “Whether or not the Xbox is better than the PS4 is entirely subjective: if you’re committed to buying a console this holiday season, buy the one with the games you want. It’s too soon to make a call on almost any other feature. Don’t buy an Xbox One expecting to immediately throw out your entertainment center. The Xbox One is here for a decade. If Microsoft can deliver on all its promises in that time, it will have built a console truly worthy of Input One — but that’s a big if.”

Polygon admitted the Kinect “isn’t a fully realized product yet,” but praised the console’s “bold direction for hte future.”

“The Xbox One is an impressive marriage of software and hardware that raises the bar in terms of what we expect from a living-room machine,” Polygon writes. “Looking forward more than it looks back, the Xbox One feels like it’s from the future.”

And the Times’ Martens urges caution in buying either console at launch, but admits the Xbox One has already insinuated itself into his daily media consumption.

“Here’s a confession about living with the Xbox One for a week: I turn it on constantly,” Martens writes. “I turn it on if I am watching basic cable. I turn it on if I am using the Wii U. I turn it on if I am using the PS4. I have six devices capable of streaming Hulu to my TV, but I turn on the Xbox One for Hulu. Why? The voice commands. Volume up, volume down, mute, pause, rewind, turning the TV off and on, etc. It’s that simple. The voice recognitions features aren’t always perfect … but even with some kinks to work out the Xbox One already feels integrated in my day-to-day life.”

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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Comments


3 Responses to Xbox One review roundup: Critics praise ambition, question Kinect

  1. Frustrated Reader says:

    You would think someone proof reads this stuff before they publish it, but its riddled with mistakes. Ughhhh!!!

  2. Fad says:

    Great summary article.

  3. RPutnam says:

    While playing Need for Speed the Kinect arbitrarily picks up commands from random conversation or comments in the room. Unfortunately, that seems to occur during a highspeed chase or evasion. Suddenly you are doing a "look around" of your vehicle at 200 mph and by the time you can get it to stop, you are over a cliff or into a chaser. It would be nice to be able to choose which voice commands are "disabled" and which ones you want to use. That way, if the command is giving grief, it can be disabled.

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