Tag: xbox (page 1 of 12)

The Unbelievable Xbox One

tl;dr – The Xbox One is a good console marred by frustrating usability issues and a lacklustre set of launch games. Wait 6 months, let some of the issues get addressed and choose between a PS4 and Xbox One after E3 in June 2014.

It’s been over three weeks since the Xbox One launch, the start of next gen console gaming (sorry Nintendo) in the UK. This time I’ll be smarter I said. This time I’m only buying one console (I had the 360 and PS3) as my gaming time has reduced and the first party titles will dictate the platform, not the hardware.

On paper, and from initial reviews of hardware and games, the PS4 is superior from a hardware perspective. Third party games on the PS4 look better and also perform better however looking at launch titles, the only first party game I wanted to play was Forza 5 and looking ahead, Titanfall and Halo 5 are also must haves. Coupled with the 360 being my console of choice for the last few years, Live being a far superior online experience and most of my gaming buddies plumping for the Xbox One, the choice was obvious and the Xbox One was ordered. While I’m not regretting the choice, the Xbox One is unbelievable in so many area’s.

Hardware
The Xbox One gets off on the wrong foot straight out of the box. The hardware is big, boxy and can be best described as industrial. Even ugly. The console is big and the power pack is external…and surprisingly it’s bigger than the 360’s power pack too. Bitten by the red ring of death, I think Microsoft have greatly increased their engineering tolerances with the One.

Unfeasibly large Kinect 2

Unfeasibly large Kinect 2

Also huge is the Kinect 2. Not just the camera and sensor itself, but the cable connecting the Kinect to the Xbox One. It’s so thick! It’s as if Microsoft found a job lot of RGB scart cables and decided to repurpose them. Worse, Microsoft are using a proprietary connector for the Kinect, which is really just USB 3, to stop you plugging it into a PC. That’s the only reason I can see and smacks of the same attitude when the original Kinect was launched.

Thankfully the Xbox One pad feels great in the hand. It’s seen small improvements over the 360 pad and is really comfortable. Rumble in the triggers is a really nice addition and thankfully they haven’t tweaked the layout too much. The dpad is much improved and even the addition of ridges on the sticks really helps.

Switching on the Xbox One and it’s pleasingly silent, well my second box was, more on that later. With it tucked away under the TV the offensive design is hidden from my eyes and instead I’m left with a powerful console that promises much. Microsoft are focussing the One not just on games, but as your entertainment hub. While this sounds good in principal and the demo’s of the voice controlled TV channel switching are compelling, in practise the UK isn’t supported at launch and even without the voice and channel integration, the Xbox One doesn’t play well with 50Hz UK broadcast signals. Oh dear.

Hardware Issues
Before going on to the operating systems and games a word on the hardware. After a couple of hours a noisier than expected fan was becoming annoying. I thought this was the Xbox that was silent? Over the launch weekend it didn’t get any better so after seeing an MS rep asking people with noisy fans to get in touch I raised a support call. 10 minutes of chat and troubleshooting (which involved rebooting the Xbox – that was it) and I was to raise a ticket and a new Xbox would be dispatched. The new one is certainly a lot quieter but with a few reported cases of really noisy drives it’s disappointing that hardware issues continue to affect Microsoft consoles. My pad also disconnects but not consistently. Sigh.

Setup and OS
Switch on the Xbox One for the first time and you’ll be asked to download the day one patch. At 500mb it’s not too bad but once downloaded it takes a few minutes to install. With that done the home screen is finally launched. Well this is different but familiar at the same time. Random tiles placed around the screen with no order to it. Move right to the store or left to your pins. Microsoft hasn’t learned from Windows 8 and instead has extended tiles to the Xbox platform and rather than touch is hoping that voice commands will be used to drive the console.

Are they insane?

The Xbox One's home screen

The Xbox One’s home screen

To be fair, navigating around via the pad is fine. The pins make sense although I’m sure they will get quite messy over time as more games and app’s come out. However it is a quick way of getting to a new demo for example which in the latest 360 dashboard is a navigation nightmare. By reducing the UI to 3 top level screens it’s also made it quicker to jump to various app’s and features, with the home button on the pad always taking you home.

Kinect voice commands

Kinect voice commands

Navigating via Kinect isn’t as successful. You can use voice commands or gestures to swipe and select. This doesn’t feel comfortable at all and is still pretty inaccurate. When voice works it works really well. The One is always listening so saying Xbox followed by a command will, as long as your voice is recognised, launch that action. So ‘Xbox record that’ will record a 15 second game clip, ‘Xbox Go Home’ will take you back to the home screen and ‘Xbox Snap [app]’ will snap an app to the right of the screen. Some of the phrases don’t make sense to me though. ‘Xbox show my stuff’ takes you back to the Home screen. Show my stuff is the best they could come up with? ‘Xbox On’ will wake up the Xbox, ‘Xbox off’ will switch off the Xbox. Actually, no – it’s ‘Xbox turn off’ to switch it off – why not turn on and turn off – why the difference? Why is there no ‘Xbox Eject’ to eject a disk? ‘Xbox Mute Chat’? ‘Xbox Screenshot’? It all feels a bit rushed and for me I have real difficulty in getting voice to work reliably. I’m Scottish. Cue Burnistoun.

Trying to get voice commands to work while friends are listening and shouting 11 clearly doesn’t help. Funny, but irritating. Navigating a UI via voice which only works every third or fourth attempt leads me to never trying voice and relying solely on the pad for navigating around the UI. A UI that has been developed to encourage voice and gesture not control via the pad. This doesn’t feel like a step forward, more like a design that forces you to use voice even when it isn’t reliable. Frustrating.

The dash performs quickly enough although it can stutter from time to time and some app’s can take a while to launch. A real step forward is that the One can multitask and while this is a benefit I’m sure some of the stutter and slower launches are down to the app’s or games that are currently running in the background. The multitasking is best seen with Snap. You can snap an app, web browser, party to the right hand side of the screen while your game or video is displayed on the rest of the area. This is handy but on first use it can be tricky to get rid of the snapped app – say Xbox Unsnap or press B and the snap will be removed.

I was surprised at how apps work on the Xbox One. Want to play a Bluray movie? Download the Bluray app. Same for music cd’s – there’s an app for that. You’ve recorded a game clip and now want to share it with the world – download Upload Studio. Third party app’s, games, demo’s etc are expected in the store but not some of these app’s which I see as core functionality. A strange decision from Microsoft.

One final point to touch on is the boot time for the Xbox One – it’s long. You have two options regarding power management. You can select a standby mode where updates are downloaded while the One is switched off but the reality is that the console isn’t really off – it’s in some sort of low power mode. The advantage is that boot times are far reduced, around 15-20 seconds but I don’t want my Xbox to be on all the time especially as updates aren’t that frequent so I opt for the full off option and that means boot times are around a minute. Ouch.

Live
The Xbox has always offered the best online console experience. Matchmaking was better, party chat saved many of us from the inane drivel from countless Americans and with everyone having a headset it made for a more collaborative experience in comparison to the PS3. How would Microsoft improve Live for the Xbox One?

They haven’t.

Parties are now difficult to setup and manage compared to the 360. It is bizarre that on joining a party you then have to go into party options and enable chat. WTF? I joined a friend on Fifa last night after receiving a party invite and it involved so much faffing about while I was playing another match that I was almost dropped from the game. He even felt the need to send a message in case I’d missed the party invite as thats been the norm over the last couple of weeks but getting that message wasn’t easy either. For me the biggest step back is around Friends.

The Friends application shows your Friends and your Followers. Followers are new, so like following someone on Facebook rather than friending you can keep up to date with what they are playing and doing on their Xbox. For me though the main point of the Friends app isn’t to see what my friends have been playing over the last few hours but to quickly see who is online and then making it easy to start a party with a few of them. However Friends starts by displaying notifications, not who is online. So it’s a list of crap like Cheesy was on his dash. Cheesy played Forza 5. Cheesy won a race. Cheesy is playing Battlefield 4 and so on. But is he online? Thats all I want to see. So I have to select Friends, wait for that to load and then I can see who is about. Microsoft is promoting notifications so again this has moved front and centre of the application but for me it’s step back.

There is also no notification that a Friend has come online. I’m assuming they have switched of these notifications as you can now have 1000 Friends, so if you do have that many there will be constant notifications as you are playing a game or watching a movie. But it now means that we could be playing a game and have no idea that a couple of friends have come online and we should invite them in to the game. Compare to the 360 – a friend comes on and we can quickly and easily send them a party and game invite as we know straight away that they are on Xbox Live. At least give the user an option to disable notifications if they are annoying.

It says a lot that the easiest way to invite friends and create parties is via SmartGlass which is an app for your iOS, Android or Windows tablet or smartphone for controlling your Xbox One. Well done Microsoft. Well done.

The one fear I did have, using Skype for voice over Live, has proven to be unfounded. The quality is a step up from the 360 and it hasn’t failed once. Well done Microsoft. Well done.

Games
So far, so average. Surely the launch games will lift the mood? The launch games were fairly disappointing to be honest. The one true next gen game looked to be The Division which was put back until 2014. With Titanfall also not due until March it was left to Forza 5 to be the main launch title on the Xbox One.

Forza 5

Forza 5

Forza 5 looks and sounds great. 1080p, 60fps and the tracks and cars (interiors too) look gorgeous. The handling is great and the new force feedback triggers really add to the game. However so much feels missing compared to Forza 4. It feels like tracks have been halved as the list of missing tracks from Forza 4 is extensive – Nurburgring, Nurburgring F1, Road America, Suzuka, Maple Valley, Mugello, Sunset, Camino and Fujimi. Worse is the grind and payment model that has been added. Car rewards that permeated the previous game have been removed, or so it seems so far. Cars have to be bought using in game credits or tokens and while credits are earned at a steady rate, you need to own a car to play it online and earn more credits and you start with one or two cars only. If the game was free and being funded by in game purchases I would be more comfortable with the model but Forza 5 is a full price game with a ridiculously expensive method of purchasing content built in.

The first online challenge was only available if you bought the first downloadable content at £7.99. For 6 cars. Fuck off Turn 10 and Microsoft. I won’t be buying tracks either as I’m sure thats why so many have been dropped. While they have retained the great tuning and livery editors they have removed the auction house. Again, I’m not sure if this was all to meet the Xbox One release date and we’ll see those features added but it’s a strange omission. Forza 5 – a good enjoyable game marred by grind and in app purchase issues. Thankfully some of those issues may start to diminish as the first patch due soon will increase credits you can win at each race, reduce the price of cars and add a couple of game modes. Add in a track or two for the next patch and all will be well. One special mention to the day one patch you get when running Forza 5 for the first time. It’s 6GB in size. That is ridiculous and hopefully it’s a sign that the console release date was brought forward and it’s not a sign of things to come going forward.

The two other games I picked up were Battlefield 4 and Fifa 14. Battlefield looks great (not as great as PS4) but has been marred with bugs, admittedly across all platforms, so it’s still early days. I’ve been impressed with the maps though and it looks significantly better than the 360 version.

Fifa 14 feels like a 360 game with better animation. Stadiums have improved as has the overall presentation of the game but on the pitch it feels quite different, more realistic, a more fluent game than the previous versions. Corners and free kicks are noticeably different too – more than one defender challenging for a header for example. Small differences but they all add up to a more enjoyable experience. The crowds in the stadium are excellent and audibly react to the game. Nothing beats silencing a home crowd by scoring in a game. So not a huge step up but it has made a great game even better.

A final concern with these first releases is pricing. The next gen platforms has seen games move to a £50 – £60 RRP price which has meant Fifa 14 costing £47 on Amazon for example. That feels steep, but not as steep as the digital pricing for games. Both new platforms allow you to purchase and download games digitally. However with Fifa being priced at £55 on the Xbox One and £60 on the PS4 why would anyone bother? Some of the games come in at around 40GB too so its not a trivial download. One bizarre price is Angry Birds Star Wars – £35 on the Xbox One. £34 – £33 more than the iOS and Android prices…for the exact same game! Unbelievable and hopefully sales have reflected the ripoff pricing. Microsoft tweaked the pricing for launch titles in the last week…upwards. The reason – digital content pricing is subject to change. No shit.

Wrap-up
The Xbox One is a good console marred by frustrating usability issues and a lacklustre set of launch games. Over time I’m sure the UI will improve as will Kinect voice commands and much of the frustration in using the One day to day will disappear. The PS4 seems to be more powerful/easier to program for than the Xbox One and that is something Microsoft will have to address going forward. Stating that ‘the power of the cloud’ gives the Xbox platform an advantage reeks of bullshit.

Due to the lack of true next generation games I’d recommend holding off from buying either the Xbox One or PS4 right now as there is nothing that jumps out as being a must have title. That hasn’t stopped both consoles selling out and there is no doubt there is an appetite for next gen machines….there’s just not much to do with them right now. Let 2014’s E3 take place and decide on a platform based on the games that are out and are announced. If you are desperate for one right now and don’t have any allegiance to a platform then try and get the PS4. Good luck and happy gaming – there’s lots to look forward to.

The birth of xbox live

Great article from Russ Pitts at Polygon that details Xbox Live and the bets that Microsoft made all those years ago.

I still remember getting on the beta service for Xbox Live. Moto GP was the game and that first time on Xbox Live felt so alien. With the headset on I could hear others but talking felt wrong. I quickly realised it’s potential as the first couple of sessions saw me racing the Moto GP developers. Xbox Live was awesome!

A couple of hours later and Live’s true future was realised when I heard the words ‘get out the way ya fannie’. Two young Glaswegians were also on the beta and thought it was hilarious to curse and swear to everyone in the room.

The highs and lows of Xbox Live.

Next Gen

Four weeks from now will see the new consoles available in the UK from Microsoft and Sony. I’m looking forward to seeing what both offer and to wet the appetite both companies have started their advertising blitz.

Sony

Perfect Day and focuses purely on games and people playing them. It’s a core theme that Sony has been consistent on throughout the year and pushed again with a UK ad to celebrating 20 odd years of the PlayStation.

Microsoft

Microsoft focus on the different capabilities of the console. Games first but then watching TV and movies and Skype chats with friends. Much better than their showing at E3.

Who Wins?
The adverts highlight the clear difference between the two. Sony is all about games and Microsoft is games first but so much more…but more that a lot of people will not be interested in. Despite the missteps from Microsoft over the last few months there really isn’t that much between the two new consoles.

If I had to decide based on the adverts above I’d be picking the PS4 as it focuses on the games and for me thats still what a console is all about. Ironically though the first party games on the PlayStation look to be weaker than those on the Xbox and online which is important for me still looks to be better on Xbox.

Both adverts also show that Titanfall and Driveclub were both expected to be launch title exclusives that have missed their date. Shame, although for Driveclub it may be a blessing as Forza 5 looks so much better.

So four weeks from now I should have an Xbox One and at the moment I’m picking up Fifa and Forza only. I’ll decide on Battlefield or COD nearer the time. At the start of the year I said I wouldn’t be buying a PS4 but I can see that changing over the next 12 months as there are loads of indie games that look to be Playstation only. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything new in consoles so it’s great to say there’s less than a month to go. Can’t wait.

New Xbox Experience

On November 19th (just three short days away) all Xbox 360 owners will get a new dashboard delivered to them – the strangely titled New Xbox Experience. I was selected in the latest round of previews so I’ve had the dash since Friday. So what can you expect later this week?

The dash does a quick install followed by a reboot. You then download the new dashboard which took me under two minutes. You then watch a swanky video before your presented with the avatar creation screen. Microsoft are chasing the Wii market so everyone has to create an avatar. The creation options are pretty varied – a lot more than I remember on the Wii but I found it harder to get a character that was a look alike despite the greater options. It’s no surprise that an avatar specific store is also on it’s way which would explain why the clothing options were underwhelming. They had lots of options but you couldn’t change the colour of any of your choices. Cha-ching! The avatars can be used within games but I’d expect to see that in Arcade titles only. With the avatar creation out of the way your dropped into the new dashboard.

Dash

Instead of blades and moving right to left through options you move through a vertical list. The animations are very quick and it’s easy to get around. It’s a lot more visual than the previous dash so it’s good to see the speed is there with all the extra gloss. The first, erm, folder (not sure what the proper name is) is Welcome which introduces the new dashboard – this menu can be disabled – as far as I can see that’s the only one that can be removed or customised in any way. These folders look as if they are based on Coverflow as seen in OS X. The other menu’s are as follows:

My Xbox – For me the hub of the system and will become the most used menu. Access the current game, access other games installed on your hard drive, media libraries and your 360 settings.

Friends – Shows your friend list. This is really well animated and highlights the avatars well. However it is slower to see who is online as you can only see a few friends at any one time. However it display friends parties really well and it looks easy to join parties from here (based on the Microsoft video detailing the party feature as I don’t know anyone else with the new dash).

Party

Inside Xbox – shows you stuff from Microsoft – behind the scenes videos and other stuff like that

Game and Video Marketplace – A really nicely animated menu for the marketplace content but you can also browse via a three screen system which makes finding content in these large folders a lot easier. At the dashboards official launch you can also browse the marketplace content from the xbox.com website and seemingly tell your Xbox to download any content you select.

Browse

Events – For special one off type events and more social gaming

Spotlight – Combines bits from other menu’s and shows you the game in the disc drive, lets you access your gamercard, see achievements – all standard stuff. You also get to see adverts and not just for games – anything could appear like the Subway advert in the above screen.

There’s also a couple of missing menu’s for Europeans. We don’t have Netflix here so don’t get any of those features and also Primetime is missing, rumoured to be delivered next Spring. Primetime is where Microsoft hope to provide more social gaming akin to the Wii with games like 1vs100. Not a big miss for me and something to look forward to next year.

I had reservations before getting the dash but I really like the new system for everything apart from the friends list which feels slower to access the same information as before. However the blades haven’t gone away entirely. Hit the guide button from the dash or in a game and you access a blade based menu that gives you quick access to…well, everything. Friends lists, messages, party setup, media playback, marketplace and system settings. So the best of both worlds.

Guide

This menu is called the Quick Launch Bar and is really snappy to use. However a couple of times I’ve had issues getting back out of the QLB. Pressing B should take you back a page but I’ve had it hang for 5-10 seconds a couple of times. Not sure if that was due to the game running in the background or not but it was a bit annoying.

This update doesn’t just change navigation options – there’s a few new features that should have a big impact on how I game. The first is Parties. You and up to seven other friends can create a party. The party can then move from game to game as a group or just chat privately while each group member does there own thing – play different games, watch movies etc.

Party Options

You can set the party up so that you need to invite friends or just allow friends to join without invites. The party feature is a godsend as the amount of swearing, screaming, shouting and singing on Live can be intolerable. Certain games seem to attract a higher amount – Fifa for example. It will be great to setup a party and then play Fifa as our club without constant interruption. This is another feature I couldn’t test as no one I know has the dash.

The second new feature is game installs. You can now install a game fully to the Xbox hard drive and play from there rather than the disk drive. This allegedly makes the game quicker to run but without a stopwatch I couldn’t tell. The biggest impact is on noise – the disk drive on the 360 is noisy as hell and not having that spin makes the 360 a lot quieter and allegedly less hot too. This is such a big deal for me, so much so that I bought the 120GB hard drive so I can take full advantage of installing. So far it’s been excellent. I’ve installed Fifa, Gear of War 2 and CoD:World At War and all work well. The installs take anything from 5 to 15 mins depending on game size. While installing though you can still access the guide menu which is nice.

I noticed a few other things in the last couple of days. Launch a game and you’ll get a pop-up telling you that friends are also playing the same title. I also turned off auto playing of games when inserted so that I could play the game from the hard drive – even though the game in installed you still need the disk to verify that you own the game. One other issue is with NAT settings. After installing I had some issues getting into Fifa games. Only a couple worked out of 20 or so attempts. On checking my NAT settings, which were previously Open, they had moved to Strict. The advice was to reboot my router which I thought strange but that worked so I’d advise you to reboot your router after upgrading or at the very least check your NAT settings. The check was also a lot faster than on the old dash. Thankfully video and music playback from the Mac still works as does selecting custom soundtracks in game.

So overall a very nice upgrade. The dash looks a lot nicer than the old one and if your put off by it’s looks you’ve still got the old blades available via the guide button. In fact the guide button is a lot more useful than it is today. I would have liked to see some more new features like the ability to take pictures in game rather than each game providing it’s own functionality, take video’s in game and upload to Youtube or a Microsoft site.

What’s surprising is that we are getting this new look and extra features without having to buy a new console. Usually this type of upgrade would only come with new hardware so it’s nice to see Microsoft not resting on it’s laurels and trying to innovate and improve the dashboard further. On improving the dashboard it also widens the lead that it already had on the PS3. Sony really need to take a long hard look at it’s own dashboard system and hopefully learn from the 360’s better features. Here’s hoping that the upgrade goes well for all on Wednesday and we don’t experience any Live issues which would be a real shame.

Geometry Wars 2

I loved the first Geometry Wars (Retro Evolved to give it it’s full title) which has been out for ages on XBLA. The sequel came out on Wednesday and it easily surpasses the original. Geoms are now dropped by each shot enemy which changes the gameplay ever so slightly. Collect geoms to increase your multiplier. There are also a couple of new enemies. Rockets fire both horizontally and vertically across the playfield which I’m sure is added to stop you rolling clockwise through the game racking up points. Local multi-player has been added but the biggest addition is there are now six different game modes.

  • Deadline: Score as many points in three minutes. You get unlimited lives but if you want a decent score don’t die.
  • King:One life and no bombs. Safety zones appear randomly which enemies cannot enter while the player can only fire and cannot collect Geoms while inside a zone. The zone shrinks and disappears a short time after it is entered, forcing you to move zone to zone. Think strategic chicken.
  • Evolved: Similar in style to Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, score as many points as possible with no time limit. The old classic but with more enemies on screen than before. I think.
  • Pacifism: One life and cannot shoot. Fly through gates to destroy nearby enemies, and earn extra bonus points by flying through gates in rapid succession.
  • Waves: You have one life and must avoid and destroy waves of rockets that fly horizontally and vertically from the edges of the playfield.
  • Sequence: Twenty levels, each with a predetermined pattern of enemies. You have thirty seconds to destroy all of the enemies in each level. If the player loses a life, they are taken directly to the next level, but the game ends if the player loses all of their lives.

Each of these is pretty unique and add’s a depth and variety that the first game didn’t have. Also polished is the graphics and sound. Screenshots are pretty pointless as they don’t show the game in motion. When the screen is busy the game looks amazing. So colourful, no slowdown, all in HD. Sound has also stepped up from the original – each mode has it’s own soundtrack which fit so well, especially deadline.

However Geometry Wars claim to fame was it’s gameplay and that’s been retained…in spades. Even more so with the new modes which only add to it’s charms. There’s also some subtle little touches that add to the game. It supports online scoreboards which can be accessed as usual but while playing each of the modes your friends highest scores, not yours, alongside their name is displayed at the top right of the screen. Just to niggle you that bit more as you try and better them. Genius.

This game is like a drug. Each and every time you have just one more go, each and every time thinking you can better that score. For me it’s as pure a game as you can get. Simple, addictive and great to play. Remember that this only costs 800 gamerpoints…£6 or so. Unmissable.

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