Friday, 27 December 2013

Xbox One Review - Part 3: The Games

So here is a rundown of what I’ve experienced on the games front so far with the Xbox One.

My two choices on buying the console were Battlefield 4 and NBA 2K14 and I picked up Ryse: Son of Rome soon after.

Having completed the single player campaign on Battlefield, I can say it is good fun, not over-reliant on set pieces and the visuals are amazing. Multiplayer, now with up to 64 players is on a scale we haven’t seen before on consoles. The maps are huge and the action is furious. Team work, as ever, is the key in Battlefield following in Battlefield 3’s mighty footsteps, I believe this is the best multiplayer out there right now.

But…… the ability to squad up before a match is missing, as is customising your soldier unless you boot up the new Test Range feature or adjust your loadouts with the Battlelog app and the game has been plagued with other issues since release. Sound drop outs and corrupted saves. Dice are working on updates and a few have already been released, improving the performance of the game each time. 
NBA 2K14 will take time to get into as its controls are many and complex, even if you are a veteran of the series, but as sports games go, this is as close to the real thing as it gets. Superb commentary that puts EA to shame, amazing broadcast quality and stunning visuals. It’s like you’re watching a real-life game. 

Now I’m not a football fan, but have owned a few FIFA games over the years. FIFA 14 on the Xbox One is as smooth a game of football as I’ve ever played. Player collisions are no longer a mess and everything is super fluid and responsive. 
When I first saw Ryse: Son of Rome I was impressed by the visuals, but I was worried the combat would too much of a button-basher. As it turned out, the combat, is deeper than it looks. A variety of enemies will ensure you need to change up your tactics, blocking, dodging and attacking from different angles. Well timed button presses will ensure gruesome executions and a counter system not-unlike what we have seen in the Batman series and Sleeping Dogs, keeps the action fluid.

The story is decent and the length of the game and variety of combat available is just enough to ward off repetition. And the visuals? The best I’ve seen. But then it’s Crytek; it was always going to be a visual marvel. Buy it, if only to show off what your new console can do.

Elsewhere on the console there is the free-to-play fighter Killer Instinct in which you get a couple of modes and one character to use, unless you opt to buy more.
Kinect Sports: The Rivals was delayed into next year, but you can download a demo of the jet-skiiing portion of the game and it is immedietly obvious the the Kinect sensor is vastly improved on its predecessor. And the game looks great too.

Kinect can also be used in Battlefield 4 to lean and peek around corners or look around with a turn of the head if you’re in a vehicle. You can also call for a medic, ammo or issue orders in multiplayer, even with your headset mic muted.
In FIFA you can make substitutions, formation changes and play style decisions with voice commands and it works really well, providing you can pronounce the name of the players!

So that was my 3 part-intro to the Xbox One and what it currently has to offer. I'll be reviewing Forza Motorsport 5 separately as I've only just got it, but in short, it is definitely worth your time.
The Xbox One needs improvement in some areas, but I believe the console is not only a great leap from the Xbox 360, but also lays the groundwork to build a great entertainment package on over the next decade.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Xbox One Review - Part 2: The Console

Having queued up the night before to get my Xbox One, I awoke early on Friday morning like a child on Christmas Day. The console is arguably the most well-packaged product I’ve ever seen, with not an inch of space in the box wasted.

The Kinect sensor is bulkier than its predecessor; it no longer has a motorised hinge mechanism and generally looks and feels better quality.

The console is large, but not as big as photographs of it make it appear and it sports a half matt, have glossy finish. Elegant, but not showy; designed to blend in with other devices in your living room.
With the Xbox 360 controller regarded as the best on the market, the Xbox One version was never going to be a great difference in design. With the battery packs now slotting inside the controller, it feels lighter. The thumbsticks are smaller and feel more precise, the bumpers have a crisp click to them while the triggers have opted for a much lighter pull. 
The triggers also have vibration mechanisms built into them. Called “Impulse Triggers”, developers will be able to use these to further enhance the gaming experience. As an example, when your right front tyre brushes a curb on Forza Motorsport 5, the right trigger will vibrate. Bounce a ball with your left hand in NBA 2K14 and the left trigger will buzz along with it.

Setting up the console is straight forward. Get all the cables plugged in (Kinect no longer has a plug, it is powered by the console), and then you will be taken through the setup process on screen. This will involve an update, signing in with your Xbox Live ID and calibrating Kinect (though you can choose to do this later).

And then you’re away. There are a number of videos available to you on the dashboard that will show you the new features – How to Snap, how to upload video, how to use voice commands and where you will find the store and new apps.

To get gaming as soon as possible, I suggest either putting in a disc and set it off installing, buying a digital version of a game from the store or using a code for a free game. This game will now be installing as you carry on exploring the console. You can queue up apps to install and you can switch the order that things are installing if you’re impatient. The apps available in the UK at time of writing include 4OD and Demand 5, Netflix, LoveFilm, Twitch, YouTube, Internet Explorer among others. You’ll also want to install the Blu-Ray and Audio CD apps.

All apps and games can be pinned to your home screen for easy access, but once you get used to the voice commands, you can open anything from anywhere. The Snap feature is particularly good, allowing you to open 4OD for example while you’re playing a game, or your Activity feed so you can see who is online and what they’re doing.

Let’s look at a few things that need improvement:

There is currently no way to tell how much battery life you have left in your controller.
You are no longer notified when Friends arrive online and your Friends are mixed in with the people you follow (a new, Twitter-like system, where you can see the activity of others who aren’t online Friends).
There are currently no game-wide defaults, so if you’re an invert your Y-axis kind of guy like me, you’ll have to switch it for every game.

One of my favourite features of the console is the Upload Studio. On a basic level, this allows you to record the last 30 seconds of a game simply by saying “Xbox – Record that”. You can then edit these videos with commentary, video of yourself or different skins. With Game DVR, you can record 5 minutes of gameplay, which has seen some creative use in the community. In Upload Home, you can view featured clips, official videos and your own creations or those of your friends. Saving your clips to the excellent SkyDrive app will allow you to take these clips anywhere, though there isn’t currently a simple YouTube upload option.

Navigating the console with the controller is fine, but even the Kinect-cynics will find Voice Commands to be a lot better. As mentioned, you can quickly go to any app or game from wherever you are and if you’re still learning the commands, there are shortcuts and lists to guide you. 

Kinect is a lot better than the first version and only rarely mishears or ignores you. Once you have the timing and tempo of the commands down, you’ll have no trouble with it. If you have a family member signed up to your console, Kinect will see them and say Hi when they walk in the room, which they’ll either find delightful or creepy.

Kinect can also be used to turn the console off and if it is in Instant On mode, it will be listening for the “Xbox-On” command to boot up again in a matter of seconds.

In Part 3, we’ll be looking at what brought us to the dance in the first place – the games.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Xbox One Review - Part 1: Before....

To say the Xbox One didn’t have the greatest start in life is a bit of an understatement. Announced in the summer, Microsoft chose to focus their event on the TV and entertainment aspects of their new console, rather than on the games. With E3 just around the corner, it was easy to see why they had done this, choosing to hit us with the software at the expo; nevertheless, the Internet boiled over with concern that the Xbox was no longer a console for gamers.

Things only got worse in the coming days when it was revealed that the Xbox One would need to connect to the Internet once every 24 hours to update and that you wouldn’t be able to lend, trade or sell your disc-based games.

At E3, Microsoft came out all guns blazing on the game front and put on a good show, but they were quickly put back in their place by the PlayStation 4. Sony did little to show off their own console, but what they did was react to the negative press Microsoft had received. They assured the gushing crowd that the PS4 did not need to connect to the Internet and you could trade or sell games as you pleased. Also the price. Having learned from over-pricing the PS3, Sony announced their console at $399, a whole $100 cheaper than its rival.

Within a week, Microsoft had back-tracked on a number of their policies. The console no longer needed the 24-hour check-in and you could lend, sell and trade disc-based games as you would the Xbox 360. Things were looking up and it was evident as the months progressed that the Xbox One had the better line-up of games compared to the PS4.

Still, the Internet roiled with keyboard warrior bile and there were several further hits along the way. The PS4 fanboys rejoiced when Activision announced that Call of Duty: Ghosts would run at 60 frames per second on both consoles, but at native 1080p on the PS4 and 720p on the Xbox One – upgraded to 1080p. “The Xbox One can’t do 1080p!!!” they exclaimed, slavering over pictures of their horrendous Dualshock controllers. It mattered little to them that NBA 2K14 and Need for Speed: The Rivals were sporting native 1080p gameplay on the Xbox One or that Xbox exclusive Forza Motorsport 5 was native 1080p and 60fps. Nor did it matter that the framerate of the PS4 Ghosts turned out to be terrible, while smooth as yoghurt on the Xbox. The Sony fanboys simply didn’t care that not even an owl could tell the difference between upgraded 720p and 1080p.

With the Internet being the vilest thing on Earth, even the PS4 - atop this nauseating wave of greatness - had its own knocks to deal with as the console launched on November 15th. The aforementioned framerate issues; the PlayStation-network going down; reports of consoles arriving dead on arrival; and Knack. First-party title reviews were nearer the middle of the road than the fast lane, the console can’t play CDs or MP3s and the only way to capture video from it is to plug it into an Xbox One and record through that. Not to mention the day one update that quietly removed all the nasty game-trade/selling/lending restrictions Sony claimed they didn’t have. The bunch of slimy bastards.

Neverthless, it was clear to any of us in the Xbox camp that the PS4 was going to sell big. Having categorically lost the 7th generation and on it’s arse financially, Sony was back with a vengeance. They had something to prove.

As the weeks to the Xbox One launch turned into days, however, there was a change in mood. Despite all the rumours and the Internet hate, there was a growing surge of excitement. Mega-bucks advertisements started to saturate television. The hype-machine had begun and it would lead us, in our millions, to midnight, Friday 22nd November……..