As much as we'd like to think it is, the Xbox One isn't radically different from one year ago. It's still Microsoft's ambitious all-in-one media center that has hopes for conquering your living room. It's still got the better console-exclusive games and paid online service. But it's also improved since then, too. It's $150 cheaper if you're buying a system without a Kinect and the changes to Snap, Game DVR and the interface were all welcome, coherent upgrades.
It's still not perfect, though. At its core, the Xbox One is an Internet-dependent box that needs a subscription to Xbox Live Gold to get anywhere in most games. Destiny and Titanfall, two of last year's stand-out games were completely sterile experiences without an Xbox Live Gold subscription. And while the constant updates from Redmond have given gamers good reason to choose Xbox over Sony, I have reservations whether any software - DirectX 12 included -will be able to improve the inferior hardware. Decoupling Kinect and the $150 price drop will ultimately save the system, but doing so was a slap in the face of early adopters.
Being four million units behind in sales has put a fire under Microsoft, leading to more updates and more exclusives than its closest competitor. So, you ask yourself, is it worth jumping in now at $349 or wait just another six months to see if I can get a cheaper bundle down the road? Let's break it down.
Even though Sony has the market cornered on the whole "for gamers, by gamers" phrase, Microsoft makes a pretty compelling case for the title. With more platform-exclusive games, an eye on the indie scene and its promotional Games with Gold deal, the Xbox One is a game console any gamer could love. Games like Forza Motorsport 5 and Sunset Overdrive are a visual feast with plenty of depth and pair nicely with the Game DVR feature, and upcoming games like Halo 5: Guardians and Crackdown have us on the edge of our seats with anticipation.
One of its biggest strengths is that the One has tapped into the social media zeitgeist where we want to share, upload and promote everything we see and do on a console. Plus, with Twitch we're able to stream to our heart's content, all without the need for peripheral hardware.
The Xbox One feels more like a media titan today than it did 12 months ago, and that's something everyone involved should feel good about. That's due, in part, to Microsoft lifting the Xbox Live Gold requirement to access apps like Netflix, HBO Go and Amazon Instant video. That said, Xbox One is the best place to see TV alongside streaming media. Being able to perform a Bing search for a show and see when it will be on next as well as the places to rent or buy it is fantastic. There's still a ways to go here, but the fact that we can seamlessly switch from streamed content to live TV to live streaming our own gameplay all in a matter of 30 seconds is no small feat.
Finally, exclusive deals with EA and Activision have given gamers who swore fealty to Shepard or feel the need to be the first to play Call of Duty's new maps a place to call home. EA Access offers tremendous value for those of us who don't mind playing some older titles, and gives you access to certain titles five days ahead of everyone else.
We don't don't know about you, but we're not in love with the idea of monolithic system taking up a quarter of our media cabinet. The Xbox One is big, bulky a looks like it was designed to replace the VCR, not the Xbox 360. The controllers, thankfully, are much different story. They're loads better than they were before, both tightly tuned and laser precise. What's lacking, though, are built-in rechargeable batteries and visual indicators of who's who on the controller itself. It's easy to forgive Microsoft for forgetting these one or two minor details, but the fact that the solution - a play and charge kit - is out there and they charge an extra $25 for it, is slightly insulting.
But the controller debacle is only half as insulting as the way Microsoft handled Kinect. Once a mandatory pack-in, Microsoft heralded Kinect as the future of gaming and a vital part of the next-gen experience. Nine months down the road however, Microsoft chops the Kinect from the bundle, tells us that it actually frees up some extra memory and puts a new package, sans Kinect, for $100 less.
Moreover, Kinect commands in general are very rigid and only helpful once you've taken the time to learn the syntax verbatim. We weren't expecting Siri, but you have to talk to it in very precise, often unintuitive ways to make it understand.
Xbox Live hasn't improved much since the Xbox 360, and too many of the Xbox's best games are walled off if you're not a Gold subscriber. Xbox Live Gold is so essential to the system that it should almost be mandatory at checkout. And, if you're not already a member, Microsoft won't let you forget about what you're missing. You'll find advertisements plastered all over your dashboard that have the same message: Get Gold and you'll have a better time.
It also doesn't help that the system constantly needs to update something. It seems like every time we go to turn it on, it needs another 70-plus MB update in order to watch a simple YouTube video. Of course the point could be made that we can always leave the system in standby mode to circumvent all the updates, but honestly, a system shouldn't need an update every two days.
Last but not least, some third-party titles run in 720p or 900p and suffer from pop-in and stuttering, and that simply shouldn't be the case on a next-gen system. You might need to pause the game and have a look to tell, but there are noticeable differences between Xbox One and PS4 versions, with the PS4 coming out on top.
Xbox One is finally picking up steam. It's moved to sell at $350 and there are a plethora of great, platform-exclusive games ready to pick up right now, not down the road in 2015. It's the best place for media enthusiasts with DLNA support, removed Xbox Live Gold requirements to access streaming services and the much-improved OneGuide. There's still a lot of potential locked away inside the hardware of the system that developers are just beginning to figure out. So while PlayStation might have the upper hand for now when it comes to certain third-party titles, it may not always remain that way.
In truth, Microsoft hasn't had the best year. But progress is painful, and that's what we've seen. Thanks to reduced pricing and clearer consumer messaging it's likely that Xbox can brush the dust off before entering the next year of its lifecycle, which will be full of great new games like Halo 5: Guardians, Evolve and Fable Legends. Microsoft, at least in the gaming world, started with nothing and made it this far, so anything and everything is possible if it's motivated to see it through.
The world is yours, Xbox, all you need to do is reach out and take it.
First reviewed November 2013