It’s been three and a half years since Microsoft released the Xbox One. Launch titles have earned sequels. The controversial Kinect, once bundled with the gaming console, is now a separate accessory. Yet the One still struggles to find the same success that some of its competitors have long enjoyed.
The truth is that, compared with the PS4, the Xbox One doesn’t have nearly as many exclusive titles and the user interface is much less user-friendly. It doesn’t help that Microsoft isn’t pursuing new technology as aggressively as its competitors are. For example, while Sony’s PlayStation VR has already been out for half a year, Microsoft’s VR headset is still merely a rumor, which might be released alongside Microsoft’s latest console, the Xbox Scorpio, as soon as the end of 2017. Lastly, instead of creating a proprietary TV service like Sony’s PS Vue, Microsoft’s solution was merely to route your cable through the Xbox. However, with its ever-growing library of backward-compatible games and the best controller you’ll find in a video game console, if you’re shopping for a new entertainment hub, the Xbox One is worth considering.
There are more than 250 different video games in the One’s catalog, and over 50 of them aren’t available on other consoles. Plenty of lackluster games make that list, of course – movie tie-ins, buggy releases and floundering launch titles like Ryse: Son of Rome. For all those failures, dozens of superb games have helped define the Xbox One’s place in the living room.
Early on, the game Titanfall and its nimble antics proved that Microsoft could deliver something different and wonderful on its new console, while showcasing the continued brilliance of Xbox Live multiplayer. Gears of War remains the best cover-based shooter on the market, and its recent Ultimate Edition rerelease gave the modern classic an HD tune-up. Halo defined first-person shooters on console when it appeared back in 2001, and though Halo: The Master Chief Collection had its fair share of bugs on release, the four-game compilation has been polished up since. You can now experience the quintessential Xbox series in 1080p at silky-smooth 60 fps frame rates.
Naturally, all the nonexclusive titles you expect from a major video game console are here. Star Wars Battlefront, the Assassin’s Creed series, Far Cry Primal, Fallout 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider and much more – most of today’s best games aren’t exclusive to one system or another. Indeed, where the Xbox One shines isn’t in its modern exclusives so much as its back catalog. Thanks to an increasingly large backward-compatible library, you can now download and play a bevy of Xbox 360 games on your Xbox One, experiencing old favorites like Mass Effect with fresh eyes.
Microsoft’s online network is a brand unto itself, offering access to multiplayer gaming, direct downloads, online streaming services, music and much more. It’s also a source of controversy, since you don’t get too much of that for free.
To be fair, the cost per month is far cheaper than streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. If you just want to listen to music or watch movies on your console, you can stick to a free account. On the other hand, if you want to party up with friends and play multiplayer games, you need a Gold membership, even if the game you bought is online-only like Star Wars Battlefront. Since Microsoft gives away one or two games to Xbox Live Gold members every month anyway, the charge is easily forgiven. It should be noted that Sony does the same thing for its consoles: The PlayStation Network has both free and paid components, but players must subscribe to the paid service if they want to enjoy multiplayer games on the PlayStation 4.
Full-bodied yet sleek, simple yet precise – the Xbox One controller is probably the best gaming system peripheral ever made. Really, it’s just an evolution of the Xbox 360’s gamepad, a polishing of tried-and-true design. There’s nothing ingenious about its layout; for example, it doesn’t have any extra features or special buttons for sharing content like you find on the PlayStation 4’s DualShock controller. But when PC gamers want a console-style controller to play games, they buy the Xbox One gamepad. When Oculus wanted to include a standard controller with every new virtual reality headset it sold, it went with Microsoft’s design. Simple it may be, but the One’s controller is eminently comfortable, with buttons and thumb sticks that offer just the right amount of feedback.
Even the gamepad’s shoulder buttons are much improved over its predecessor. Where once there was a bit of sponginess to the buttons before they succumbed to your fingers, the One’s shoulder buttons offer crispy, mouse-like clicks. If they were a bit easier to reach, they’d be capstones on an ergonomically incredible device; as it is, their semi-awkward positioning is a tiny grievance.
If you fancy yourself a professional gamer – or, perhaps, are aspiring to become one – Microsoft released the Xbox Elite wireless controller, a customizable variant of its stock gamepad. The Elite retains the same basic shape of the default controller but introduces a swappable D-pad and thumb sticks so you can customize its feel. Four optional rear-mounted paddles let you replicate the function of the face buttons without taking your thumbs off the control sticks, and customizable button bindings let you remap every input to suit your needs. Even the triggers, which usually have a full range of motion, can be switched to hair-trigger mode, reducing their travel and responding the moment they’re squeezed.
There’s a cost for it, of course, and most gamers don’t have much use for rebinding buttons or switching out thumb sticks. Still for those hardcore few that crave speed and customizability, the Elite takes an already best-in-class gamepad and elevates it further. No other console has anything similar.
Nor do other consoles have the Kinect, Microsoft’s motion and voice controller. When the One was released, every copy was bundled with the Kinect, a sensor bar that you set beneath your TV. The Kinect is really just a fancy camera and microphone, but it opens up some interesting control schemes for games. You can tell your Xbox to turn on or off by speaking to it, direct your troops around the battlefield in compatible titles and even use hand gestures to move around the menu. You can also fire up a movie or start playing music without picking up a controller. It can be helpful if you want Netflix to start playing a movie and your hands are still all greasy from dinner.
Kinect is far from perfect, and its inclusion in the original Xbox One bundle pushed the console’s price up. Microsoft has since unbundled the Kinect, and it’s now available separately at an additional cost. It’s still buggy, which is a concern; you may find yourself saying, “Xbox, turn off!” over and over, louder each time, until the console complies.
Whether you use your voice to fire it up or rely on its tried-and-true gamepad, the Xbox One is as much a media player as it is a gaming system. You can watch Blu-ray and DVD movies; listen to music CDs; and fire up Netflix, YouTube or Plex as easily as you might drop into Forza Horizon 3. The CW, Fox Now, the NFL and others are partnered with Microsoft and offer exclusive access, but the real gem here is the One’s TV integration.
Using connectors on the back of the console, you can pipe your cable box through the Xbox One before it reaches the TV. Given a compatible cable box, something worth checking on before you make the investment, you can change channels using the Xbox controller, flip back and forth between TV and games, and even snap a channel into an on-screen sidebar, letting you watch TV and play the latest games at the same time.
The Xbox One’s CPU is custom-made by AMD, packing eight cores clocked at 1.75GHz. An octa-core setup is still impressive by today’s standards, though more modern processors are clocked at much higher speeds and can pump out more computing per core. On the same custom chip is the GPU, which boasts 768 shader cores. This translates into some impressive combined processing power that gives you gorgeous, near-realistic graphics. However, the PS4 Pro still has better graphics handling.
Also tucked into the Xbox One are 8GB of system memory and a 500GB hard drive. That hard drive is critical; while you can, of course, still go out and buy Blu-ray copies of the latest games, they’re also available for direct download. This is convenient, but games take up space, from less than half a gigabyte for various indie games to over 60GB for Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Once the hard drive is full, you can uninstall games you’re not playing anymore to free up space for new ones, and you always have the option of reinstalling those games later. You can plug an external drive in if you want more storage, though unlike other consoles, you can’t switch out the One’s internal drive for something bigger.
The war between Xbox and PlayStation is a philosophical battle between hardened fans, both sides staunchly believing that theirs is the best game console. Both have legitimate strengths, but in the case of the Xbox One, it’s all about comfort and feel-good gaming. Halo, Forza, Gears of War – the Xbox’s exclusives are classics in their own right, but backward compatibility really helps the Xbox One shine. Match it with cross-platform blockbuster titles and the world’s most beloved gamepad, and you’ve got a gaming experience deserving of such a rabid fan base.