Today I managed to attend one of the Xbox One tour events near Liverpool Street in London. Despite not being entirely convinced by the Xbox One online previews so far, I was looking forward to seeing it in real life as I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the Xbox 360s I've owned (when they haven't RROD'd on me). However, I'm now surer than ever that I won't be picking one up at launch or for some time after.
Ignoring most of the problems that have beset the launch of the Xbone so far, there are a couple of areas I really feel need highlighting. Firstly, pre or post NSA scandal, the idea of a camera permanently mounted in my living room potentially recording my family isn't something YOU could pay ME to install, yet alone me shell out £430 for the privilege. I know Microsoft have said you can operate the console without the kinect and that some third parties are launching privacy covers, but from what I've read the kinect is so essential to the Xbone experience I'm sure using one without a kinect is likely to be a frustrating experience.
Secondly, "resolutiongate" is annoying. Really annoying. Considering I started off gaming on the NES and have nearly always owned the latest of Nintendo's home (and handheld) consoles, I have grown accustomed to Nintendo's focus on gameplay over graphics. I'm not saying I always like it (the Wii and Wii U have been underpowered) but they drew a technological line in the sand a long time ago which everyone now is more willing to accept (or go elsewhere). However, I expect Microsoft and Sony to play by different rules; to charge a financial premium to deliver a visual premium.
The fact that in late 2013 Microsoft is launching a console for £430 that struggles to reach a consistent native 1080p is borderline insulting. Microsoft established 720p as a visual gaming norm eight years ago when they launched the Xbox 360. A lot has happened since then; both in technological terms and in customer's expectations. Sure, there'll be better lighting effects and more going on at any one time on-screen (not necessarily a good thing, but that's an aside) but we're now living in a retina/HiDPI age and selling a new product with old visual capabilities doesn't sound like a good deal. I haven't owned a desktop PC for some years but I bet you could probably buy one now for half the price of an Xbox One and expect to get 1080p from the games. No one wants to buy new tech and not feel impressed by what they've spent a lot of money on.
The argument that "720p is enough" doesn't really wash as we fast approach 2014. Most experts agree that you can't really notice the difference between 720p and 1080p on a 32 inch television or smaller but I'm not convinced 32 inches standard-DPI is the norm any longer in a lot of people's living rooms and we're seeing HiDPI hit laptop, tablet and smartphone markets hard. Is Microsoft really planning for no further advance in resolution over the Xbox One's lifespan? The advance is already happening and has been for years; higher resolutions aren't something on the horizon.
Back to my time with the console today; I'm not saying the Xbox One looked bad, as the demos I experienced were visually attractive. But notably all the games at the Xbox One tour today were on small-to-medium sized televisions. I wondered if this was to minimise any resolutiongate scrutiny. While the graphics were an improvement I wouldn't say it was a day-and-night difference between itself and the Xbox 360. To me, there wasn't a next-generational jump in quality. That certainly was the case from a gameplay perspective; most games felt like attractive tech demos, but to an extent you'd expect that with launch software on most platforms (with Nintendo perhaps proving an exception).
The Xbox One controller has been attracting a fair amount of praise and I understand it'll take a little time for folk to get used to the new feel, but a few things bugged me about it. It felt narrower in the hand and the edges felt a little sharper whereas I like the curved feel of the 360 controller. The analogue sticks felt more precise; perhaps more akin to those on the PS3 joypad, but again I wouldn't say I preferred the feel as they felt less forgiving and harder. I'm also not sold on the new d-pad. As a fighting game player I felt especially aggrieved at how bad the d-pad was on the 360 controller, but while the new d-pad feels better I still wouldn't call it brilliant. It's very flat against the body of the pad and I feel a lot of fellow fighting game players would've preferred a little more feedback from their digital inputs.
Talking of controls; Microsoft had Killer Instinct at the event and yet no arcade sticks to play the game with! The game was very popular with those at the event and it would've gone a long way to sell the title (and console) had they shelled out to have the game hooked up to proper arcade controls.
While Killer Instinct was good it certainly wasn't any Super Street Fighter IV; in fact I thought the most impressive title at the event was FIFA 14, and yet I was mostly impressed that the next gen version of this series ran smoother with a little more visual polish rather than show anything I know to be impossible on any current generation console.
Other than all that *deep breath*, the Xbox One is a chunky monkey (very boxy) and seemed to run quite hot (after resting my hand on top of one of the display units). I certainly wouldn't call it a "sexy" bit of kit and I'd imagine a year or so down the line we'll see a sleeker version. By that time I'm sure the games will start to prove themselves too.
It'll be interesting to see how the Xbox One sells during the first six months. Nintendo's Wii U has attracted a lot of criticism following poor sales and yet if I were to buy any of the three next generation consoles this Christmas it'd be the Wii U (based off the strength of their games). Having said that, Sony have appeared quietly confident throughout each pre-launch setback Microsoft have suffered; punters will find out soon enough if there's good reason for that or whether they've nothing to really shout about.