Microsoft Xbox One: Canadian Preview

Microsoft Xbox One retail box
On Tuesday, November 5th, in Toronto, Microsoft hosted a preview session with its new Xbox One game console, for Canadian media. The event was typically crowded, rushed and chaotic. But there were some interesting revelations available to be dug out. Here are a few of my first impressions…

The intro was mercifully brief. Somebody said something about “breathtaking cinematic experiences,” and “a new way to play games.” After that, I got to wander the kiosks, try things out and chat with the developers. (Most titles were demonstrated by their producers, or by similarly in-the-know individuals.)

The games on display included:

  • Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ubisoft (Montreal, Singapore studios)
  • Battlefield 4, Electronic Arts (DICE)
  • Call of Duty: Ghosts, Activision (Infinity Ward, Raven, Neversoft, Treyarch)
  • Crimson Dragon, Microsoft (Grounding, Land Ho!)
  • Dead Rising 3, Microsoft (Capcom Vancouver)
  • Forza Motorsport 5, Microsoft (Turn 10)
  • Just Dance 2014, Ubisoft (European studios)
  • Killer Instinct, Microsoft (Double Helix)
  • Kinect Sports Rivals, Microsoft (Rare)
  • Ryse: Son of Rome, Microsoft (Crytek)
  • Skylanders SWAP Force, Activision (Vicarious Visions)
  • Xbox Fitness, Microsoft
  • Zoo Tycoon, Microsoft (Frontier)

All of these are slated to be available when the Xbox One launches, November 22.

Here are a few of my overall impressions from the Xbox One Canadian preview event. None of this is final or comprehensive, obviously. But it does give some indication of where Microsoft is headed with this new games system.

 1. The Graphics Are Nice

Ryse Son of Rome artwork (cropped)This is the most superficial observation, but it’s important. Everything at the session was running at what looked convincingly like full 1080p, with lots of detail to fill up the big flat-panel screens. The visuals were a very obvious step up in resolution and realism compared to the previous generation of consoles.

Several of the publisher reps mentioned 60fps as a target, and again, there wasn’t much doubt it was being hit. Everything looked very fluid at the chosen levels of detail. You have to believe that the new hardware leaves more headroom; it didn’t look like the software was fighting quite so hard just to look decent.

That said… the graphics will hardly come as a revelation to PC gamers, who’ve been routinely experiencing this level of visuals for some time. (Though rarely on a 50-inch screen.) Furthermore, from ten feet away, in the heat of battle, the extra immersion factor is going to be subtle at best. There’s no question we’re at a point of diminishing returns in this department.

Bottom line, a) the HD tick-box is well and properly ticked, and b) it’s still about the gameplay.

 2. Paradigms are Not Shifting

When it comes to gameplay, it has to be said that every single one of the games on display was painfully familiar. Run, shoot, jump, hack, slash… been there, played that.

Sure, lots of gamers will be excited about yet another installment in the Call of Duty series, or the Assassin’s Creed series, or the Forza series, or the Dead Rising series… or even the Killer Instinct series, or the Zoo Tycoon series. The games that didn’t fit into an established series were decidedly in the minority.

Nowhere in this welter of franchise sequels was there any evidence of new depths of gameplay, that might truly justify the hot new hardware platform. The virtual worlds weren’t bigger, the AI wasn’t smarter, the options weren’t wider. Or not by very much.

What we saw was a bunch of good games. Some of them, maybe very good. But not game-changers. If there’s a quantum leap coming on this generation of consoles, there’s no indication yet. (It’s more likely to come from upstart independent publishers than the big first/third party studios represented at the preview.)

 3. Generation Stagnation

Part of the reason for the conservative game designs is that many of the big franchise titles on Xbox One (and PS4) this Christmas will actually be targeting previous-generation hardware. Assassin’s Creed IV launches almost simultaneously on PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U. Ditto Call of Duty: Ghosts. And Battlefield 4.

One of the developers on Call of Duty: Ghosts mentioned that they were shooting for “a consistent experience” across next- and previous-generation consoles, as well as PC. Obviously, that approach guarantees that improvements in the next-gen versions will be mainly cosmetic.

You can’t fault the publishers for playing it safer than with previous console launches. Those older systems have had a long run, and amassed huge, voracious installed bases. Whereas the new systems will draw the thin wedge of early adopters who still have a few hundred bucks to spend in today’s dismal economy.

 4. Kinect Sidelined?

Considering Microsoft’s initial ballyhoo over the new, more-sensitive Kinect, voice and motion input were surprisingly absent from the spotlight at the Xbox One preview. Like previous specialty controllers, the Kinect seemed to get sidelined to a few specific game genres: fitness (Xbox Fitness), dance (Just Dance 2013) and lightweight sports anthologies (Kinect Sports Rivals).

In the mainstream games I focused on, I saw only very limited Kinect use. In Forza 5 you can look out the side windows… not by turning your head, but by leaning your torso. It’s a nice feature, but the approach is odd, considering the precise ‘skeletal tracking’ that’s been touted for the new system. Battlefield 4 also has some limited head-tracking, but it didn’t work very well in my (admittedly very limited) test.

Kinect motion control was particularly conspicuous by its absence in the melee combat of Microsoft’s exclusive Ryse: Son of Rome. In Call of Duty: Ghosts, you can control an attack dog by speaking commands at it. (“Rover: kill!” Or something like that. Nobody attempted it in the noisy demo space.)

One reason for this might again be sideways compatibility. Publishers who want their titles to sell well on multiple platforms may be reluctant to make one particular version look conspicuously better than the rest. Or they may simply be reluctant to invest in re-engineering input mechanics for each platform.

Or, could it be an admission that motion control is just never going to be a big thing for most gamers? (Just as 3D isn’t a big deal for most movie buffs.) There’s certainly a physical limit: with motion control, long game sessions become exhausting.

Or, maybe developers didn’t feel comfortable enough to bank on the technology at launch. Maybe the second wave of Xbox One games will exploit the new Kinect more confidently. Something to watch out for, either way.

 5. The Role of Exclusives

Microsoft showed a pretty good balance of exclusive and cross-platform titles. But on the whole, the exclusives probably have a more limited appeal.

For example, Xbox Fitness looks like a good product, but it ‘fits’ a non-gamer niche. (As Nintendo demonstrated, to its cost. Gamers don’t exercise, and fitness buffs don’t buy games.) Ditto for Just Dance 2013, which may be a big seller, but is unlikely to be a primary driver of system sales. Forza is a given, but will be matched by Sony’s own driving franchise, so that’s a wash.

Bottom line, the biggest, splashiest, mainstream titles at the preview were non-exclusive. (Non-exclusive even to next-gen platforms, let alone the Xbox One specifically.) Ryse: Son of Rome was probably the biggest exception: the one high-visibility ‘hard-core’ exclusive, a title that might actually tip undecided gamers in favor of the Xbox One. (If it’s actually as good as it looks, which remains to be seen.)

6. The Box

Microsoft Xbox One controller - angle view

Microsoft Xbox One controller features smaller sticks, spongy d-pad

Finally, the hardware. The Xbox One is vastly more attractive than the odd stepped-on shape of the Xbox 360, or the later angular one. The Xbox One actually looks like a $500 piece of AV gear, not just a toy. The top grille does waft a fair bit of heat, so users will need to arrange their ventilation accordingly.

The new Xbox One controller feels pretty sharp overall. Rumble on the triggers takes some getting used to, but should be worthwhile. The thumbsticks seem smaller than before, and a bit rougher on the fingers, but they work well. However, the D-pad remains spongy, though it may be better than the horrible one on the Xbox 360 controller. (Hard to be worse.) A minor issue either way, as it will mostly affect simpler games.

One other minor point: load times seemed remarkably long for all games. I guess I’m used to PC games that just fly off my fast hard drive or SSD. (Or load from cached memory, in the case of casual titles that I play often.) With console games getting more massive and moving to Blu-ray delivery, this could be an increasing annoyance.

Adding it Up

Overall, Microsoft put on a pretty good showing. They’ve got a good spread of launch games that should appeal to most of the key gamer demographics. The system looks and feels solid.

The biggest stumbling block will be the price, $100 more than Sony’s PlayStation 4 mainly owing to the inclusion of the Kinect motion and voice controller. Microsoft insists that the Kinect is an essential part of the Xbox One experience, but nothing I saw at the preview convinced me of that.

See my separate post for specific observations on the games themselves.

About fung0

Long-time tech journalist. Contributor to numerous periodicals, online sites and TV productions in the US and Canada. Author of several books on computing topics. Graduate mechanical engineer (Queen's U).

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