Microsoft has had a noisy year. The response to the Xbox One's unpopular always-online DRM was deafening. The response to the eventual reversal of those policies was even louder. In the midst of all the noise, beyond the cancelled policies and muddled messaging, lies a video game console. What's that thing all about, eh?
Last week, I spent two days at a Microsoft press event in a large rented space in San Francisco's tech-friendly Dogpatch neighborhood. Microsoft had invited the press down to check out the Xbox One's launch lineup, around twenty first- and third-party games spread over a three floor space festooned with green and black decorations, free coffee and food plates. (The sandwiches at these things are never much, but the cookies are often excellent.)
The first day was a sort of open house, with stations open throughout the venue for anyone to play and chat with PR and developers. On the second day, I went in to sit down for multi-hour "deep dive" previews with three of the Xbox One's core first-party exclusives: the wacky open-world zombie game Dead Rising 3, the 300-meets-Gladiator actionfest Ryse: Son of Rome and the racing game Forza Motorsport 5.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about a similar event that I attended for the PlayStation 4. While playing through the PS4's launch games, I said I found a reality less exciting than the enthusiastic PS4 hype would indicate. (After writing it, I also learned that the word "laconic" doesn't mean what I thought it meant.) Directly comparing the two events is a bit apples and oranges, so this isn't meant as a direct comparison. The Xbox One event was massive and loaded with third-party games, while the comparatively humble PS4 event was almost exclusively first-party. Xbox exclusives like Ryse and Dead Rising are made by third-party studios and have been essentially bought by Microsoft for launch, while the PS4's Killzone and Knack were developed by in-house Sony studios. But even without making a direct event-comparison, the games have something to say about the consoles on which they'll be played, and what it'll be like to own one or both of them at launch.
I came away from the Microsoft event with several unanswered questions, but generally feeling a lot more positive on Microsoft's console and its launch lineup than I had been. Given that we're so close to the launch of the Xbox One itself, and that Kotaku will have a full review of it and these games within weeks, I thought I'd focus on breaking down the individual things that stuck out to me.
I don't think anyone has been expecting much from Crytek's Roman-themed stab-em-up Ryse: Son of Rome. So when I started playing, I was pleasantly surprised to find that on a basic level, it's pretty fun. You hit one button to bash with your shield, one button to slash with your sword, and a third button to block. Combat is a rhythmic thing, where you move between dudes while bashing and slashing and blocking and working up a high combo multiplier. It's super violent, and that starts to feel weird after a while.
It also looks good: Ryse is the Xbox One's big graphical showcase, and it is, at times, gorgeous. Pretty though it might be, after playing a couple of hours and jumping through a few chapters, I'm concerned that the game doesn't really evolve or get any deeper as it goes, and that it'll become boring after awhile. The story also didn't connect for me—some lovely, stylized cutscenes, but nothing fans of Gladiator and the cinematic adaptation of 300 haven't seen done better before. We'll see when the full game comes out.
There's been some concern over Dead Rising 3's new, darker look. People fear that the series has ditched its sense of goofiness in favor of a boring, gritty tone. After playing a couple of single-player missions and pantsing around in the game's zombie-infested open world, I don't get the sense that this is the case. Dead Rising 3 is still awfully goofy, and despite the higher-res, higher-contrast visuals, your character can still put on a massive pair of spiked gloves and do a (literal) shoryuken into a group of zombies, or don a tux and go for a ride in a flamethrower-equipped motorcycle/steamroller.
The main character appears to be a likable enough dude, and the supporting cast all seem cheesy but memorable, in that early 90s B-movie kinda way. The world is dense, though not as big as I was expecting. And boy oh boy, do they get a lot of zombies on the screen at once.
It's a sharp-looking game, though it doesn't look to be running at full 1080p HD and, when the action got intense—say, 150 zombies on screen exploding at once—the framerate did get a bit unsteady. That said, I was more impressed with how it looked after spending an hour playing than I had been watching over someone's shoulder earlier in the week.
As a launch game, Dead Rising 3 occupies a valuable spot for the Xbox One: It's the console's meatiest core game by far. A Capcom producer said it'd take 15 hours to blow through the story, but could easily take dozens more if you played it more thoroughly. It also looks to have a great deal of replayability, with multiple gameplay modes, tons of collectables and rare craftable items, a hardcore Dead Rising classic real-time mode, and seamless multiplayer that lets other players drop in and out of your game by taking on the role of another character in the story. All good stuff.
While Dead Rising 3 was the most substantial action game at the event, it wasn't the most technologically impressive game there. That honor goes to…
I'm not much of a racing guy, but I've always had a fondness for Turn 10's Forza Motorsport games. They're so clean, you know? Consistent, too. So I'm not surprised that Forza 5 is, well, more Forza. In a good way. However, I wasn't expecting the game to be experimenting with some of the neatest next-gen ideas I've yet seen.
The coolest of these concepts is the new "Drivatar" feature. Stephen's already gone into depth about it, so if you want to know more, I'd suggest starting with his article. The short version: The game studies your driving habits and compiles an AI-controlled Drivatar (a goofy name combining "driver" and "avatar") that is then sent out into the world to automatically race on your behalf. As you play the single-player game, your races will be populated by other players' Drivatars from around the world, each of which will behave in a way dictated by the driving habits of the players who created them.
(Pause: This is a freakin cool idea, you know? As-yet unproven, but very futuristic.)
As I braked and accelerated through the demo last week, my races appeared to be entirely populated with other players' Drivatars. It was nifty, though I couldn't tell how different the game felt from how it'd play with normal AI. Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt told me that he's begun to see competing cars pull surprising moves, things he and his team didn't program the AI to do. He described a Drivatar-controlled car offering him an opening, then closing it off right as he pulled up to pass—a crafty, human move that he said it could only have learned from its master.
As Greenawalt went on to explain, the concept of cloud-AI-driven enemies is fine for a driving game, but it could also be applied to other genres. Imagine a cooperative shooter where, when your friends can't be around, your teammates are instead controlled by their well-studied AI stand-ins. Or a football game that lets you take on your friends even when they're not online. It's one of the only ideas I saw at either the PS4 or Xbox One events that actually feels new and interesting, and I'd love to see it applied to more games.
Past that, Forza 5 appears to be a sturdy, shiny-looking driving game. It runs in 1080p at 60fps, and the cars look more or less like real cars. As with the rest of the games from last week's event, this is a game that we (and our friends at Jalopnik) will have much more to say about in the very near future. For the time being: I enjoyed my time with it. Like Dead Rising 3, it's a deep, fully-realized launch game that'll give people a crapload of stuff to do while they wait for more new games. And one of the neatest features…
The Xbox One's controller works more or less like an Xbox 360 controller. The shoulder buttons are a bit softer, which I either didn't like or just haven't gotten used to. The D-pad is a clear improvement over the 360, not that that's a hard bar to clear. But the one characteristic that really sets the Xbox One controller apart from its predecessor (and from its competitor, Sony's Dualshock 4) is the fact that its controller rumble now extends independently to the right and left triggers.
I'm… a big fan of the trigger-rumble. That sounds silly. It's a little thing, for sure. But in practice, it's very cool. The games I played on the second day used the trigger-rumble in different ways. In Ryse, you'd draw back an arrow and feel the trigger rumble as the string snapped tight. In Forza 5, trigger rumble lets you know when you're beginning to have tire lock while breaking (LT) or spinout while accelerating (RT). I found the rumble to be quite effective in Forza—it made taking turns tactile in a way that helped me drive better, and made me feel connected to the game.
As with the Drivatar idea, I already find myself thinking about the small but cool ways trigger-rumble could enhance games in other genres. The click of a trigger, the rhythmic stride of a horse, the impact of a punch… all small touches that could make games that much more physically immersive. Back in May, our friends at Gizmodo had a chance to check out a demo of various trigger-rumble applications, and came away impressed.
I did not expect to find myself excited about the fact that a video-game controller's triggers vibrate. And yet here we are.
During both days, I saw bits and pieces of the Xbox One's underlying interface in action, but not enough to get a sense of of how it'll all work on launch day. Most Kinect voice-control wasn't turned on, and I didn't get to use most of the dashboard features. We've already gotten some decent looks at the OS in action, though a lot of the functionality just doesn't seem to be turned on yet. While playing Ryse, I kept unlocking achievements, but when I'd hit the middle button to check out the Achievements page, it looked unfinished. A rep for the game hurried over and assured me that the achievements are working in their current build, but had been left out of the build I was playing.
Generally speaking, the OS looks clean and seems easy enough to use, more or less like a console-ized version of Windows 8. Given the fact that we've recently heard from sources that the Xbox One software has been having some issues, it doesn't surprise me that things might be unfinished. Whether the operating system will come together in time for the November 22 launch remains a question mark. Speaking of question marks...
Microsoft's event was strewn with dozens of Xbox Ones, and each console had a Kinect camera attached to it. While the camera is doubtless much improved over the Xbox 360 version, I still didn't see any big new ideas to go along with the tech upgrade. The event's first day had the usual Kinect Sports and Just Dance games hiding about, but nothing in those demos looked all that revolutionary.
In Dead Rising 3, you'll have to shake the controller to fight off zombies. Rather than detect your motion through the controller, the Kinect detects your movement and cues your character to shrug the zombie off. (If you're playing without the Kinect plugged in, it'll just be a regular button-prompt.) The Kinect shake is perfectly functional, but small potatoes compared with the "you are in the game" future-stuff that the Kinect has always promised. In Ryse, I'd sometimes have to give my archers commands by yelling at the Kinect. It, too, was functional, but it did not make me feel like a mighty Roman centurion. It made me feel like a dork. Forza 5 has a head-tracking feature that lets players look around the inside of their car, but it didn't appear to be turned on in the version I demoed.
All of those features could've (and even have) been in last-gen Kinect games. I didn't see anything that blew my hair back or said, "This is what the future of Kinect is all about." Despite the fact that it makes their console more expensive, part of me is glad Microsoft is including the Kinect with every console, if only because it increases the chances that somewhere down the road someone might actually develop an interesting, game-enhancing use for it. Until then, well, it'll probably still be useful for pausing movies.
As I said at the outset, last week's event and the games I played there made me a lot more positive on the Xbox One than I had been. Back at E3, my colleague Jason Schreier pointed out that Microsoft had some pretty cool stuff going on in their booth, but it was getting drowned out by all the talk of their DRM policies. At last week's event, I felt like I finally had a chance to focus only on the console and its games, with none of Microsoft's unfortunate (and now laid to rest) policies or controversies getting in the way.
Looking past the PS4's launch hype meant embracing a console release that probably won't be quite as exciting as the hype may have indicated. Looking past the Xbox One's launch hype takes an opposite trajectory but arrives at more or less the same place—this release likely won't be as bad as the hype may have indicated. That said, with all their missteps and bad decision-making over the last year, Microsoft hasn't earned the benefit of gamers' doubt to the extent that Sony has. That they've corrected the bulk of their recent mistakes doesn't mean they won't make more in the future.
Plenty of questions remain about the Xbox One. What's the story with its performance, and how much will it matter that, as our sources tell us, the PS4 is the more powerful system? How will that power differential, whatever it winds up being, play out over the lifespan of these consoles? Are multiplatform games going to be noticeably inferior on the Xbox One? How will the OS come together, and will the new Kinect ever feel essential? How much of a difference will it make that the Xbox One costs $100 more than the PS4, and when will Microsoft cut their price?
Some of those questions will be answered in a few short weeks. Others will linger. As I said when talking about the PS4, new gaming hardware represents a promise. Microsoft hasn't handled the run up to their console release with anything resembling the finesse and focus that Sony has displayed, but they've made it here nonetheless, and they've arrived making promises. Once the noise fades away, the console comes into focus: It's a pretty good-looking device, with some fun games, a nifty rumbling controller and a distinct lack of distracting, always-online-sized problems.
Events like last week's can feel strange, given that in short order, we'll have a full review of the Xbox One as well as better answers to several of the questions I'm posing here. We'll be able to evaluate the entire situation, and not just the bits of it that Microsoft PR wants us to see. But we're not quite there yet, and so we run the preview gauntlet one last time.
To re-quote my boss Stephen Totilo, whose console-launch wisdom remains as true today as it was the other week: "Consoles don't really launch, not in the way that a rocket takes off, shitting fire and screaming into the sky. They wake up, slowly stretch their legs, stand up. Pause and yawn. Make their coffee and maybe a few hours (read: months) into things, they kick into gear."
Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are going to be getting out of bed soon. At this moment, in the deep breath before the plunge, Microsoft appears to have found a decent footing. Whether that will still be the case in the weeks, months and years to come remains to be seen.