Despite some raised eyebrows, critics seem to like the Xbox One so far.
The Xbox One launches Thursday at midnight, but tech and gaming critics have already spent the past two weeks toying around with Microsoft's new video game console. Now that rival Sony's PlayStation 4 launch has come and gone, what do they think of Microsoft's entry into the next decade of the console wars?
The Xbox One will undoubtedly sell a lot of launch units considering that pre-orders sold out weeks ago. Based on early reviews that trickled in this week, people seem to be pleasantly surprised by the console — while remaining wary of some of Microsoft's promises about conquering the living room.
If it ain't broke…
Pretty much every review I've found so far agreed about one thing: the Xbox One is a gigantic, ungainly beast of a console. As The Verge put it: "It's not attractive by really any definition." Many writers lamented having to reconfigure their entire TV setup just to make room for the thing. But as Kyle Orland of Ars Technica noted in his review, the trade-off that Microsoft made in building such a monstrosity is that it's incredibly quiet. Given how loud the current-generation Xbox 360 and PS3 can be when struggling to keep recent high-end titles like "Grand Theft Auto V" running smoothly, this was a much-appreciated improvement.
Critics were unanimously confused by the Xbox One controller, which many saw as a needless update of the already-stellar model that Microsoft had created for the Xbox 360 — though, as Ludwig Kietzmann of Joystiq noted, the new directional pad was a welcome improvement. Others like Ars Technica's Orland were disappointed that Microsoft, unlike Sony, refuses to make rechargeable batteries for the controller a standard feature rather than a $25 upgrade.
Bells and whistles, or game-changers?
Reviews for individual launch games aren't as readily available, but in general the consensus seems to be that Microsoft provided "a strong, diverse lineup at launch," to quote USA Today. Many reviewers praised the stunning graphics on "Forza Motorsport 5" and "Ryse: Son of Rome," and Polygon's Chris Plante practically died of a cute overload when playing "Zoo Tycoon."
Then there's the Xbox One's much-vaunted entertainment capabilities and other ambitious features such as voice-activation and facial recognition with the new Kinect camera. Outlets like The Verge found the new Kinect a compelling piece of hardware, and Polygon said the peripheral "feels futuristic and cool in a way that little else about the new console does."
The problem about promising the future, however, is you have to be able to deliver it. And that's where the Xbox One seems to run into a problem. Critics found the voice recognition to be convenient when it worked, but the parameters in which it did work to be frustratingly limited — having to say "Xbox, turn off" instead of "Xbox, off," or "Xbox, play Forza Motorsport 5" rather than just "play Forza."
The TV features similarly raised eyebrows. Rolling Stone enjoyed the ability to plug a cable box into the console via an HDMI input, saying that the Xbox was "essentially upgrading its brain." But other reviews found the console's new first-party TV Guide service, "OneGuide" to be lacking. Gizmodo called it "molasses slow." Engadget was more sympathetic, but still cautioned that Xbox fans shouldn't "expect the OneGuide to take over your TV-viewing experience."
Critics liked the idea of multitasking abilities made possible by the new "snap" feature that creates a smaller pane on the right side of the screen to, say, watch Netflix while playing a game, but found it inconvenient because of many technical hurdles. As Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku said: "it's not there yet."
Which is, honestly, a good way to describe pretty much everything about the new console. Much like the PS4's early reviews, the main thing critics seem to agree on is the Xbox One's potential. But potential has to actually be realized. Until then, as Joe Bernstein wrote in BuzzFeed, all gamers have are "black boxes, lists of specifications and fine-difference features that promise a lot and reveal very little."
Read our review of the new Xbox here.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.
First published November 20 2013, 6:07 PM