I
remember the day my brother got the original Xbox. He sold the family’s N64 to my sisters and we spent the next week fighting through the campaign of Halo: Combat Evolved and trying to make sense of the colorful but strange Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee. You ever play that one? You control Munch, one of the last Gabbits, a species of frog-like creatures that have been hunted to near-extinction. Anyway, we played until our senses dulled and our eyes rolled back in their sockets. The plot didn’t matter. Something about interacting with the story — not just reading about it, or watching it, but playing it — pulled us in. We were happily addicted. We couldn’t stop.

When I got the Xbox 360, I played Batman: Arkham Asylum with such zeal that, for three months afterward, I had dreams that I was a caped crusader. Never mind that my college thesis languished on my desk: the Joker had to be stopped. Finally, in order to escape, I took the 360 and pawned it for a quarter of its worth.

The Xbox One ($500), which comes out Friday, promises to be more entertaining, more immersive and more addictive than its predecessors. But how much more entertaining? Will all aspects of the game-rendering, movie-playing, internet-surfing, friend-connecting, shopping-enabling entertainment system pull their weight? Will the games serve as playable works of art? How much more immersive could they be? Will the Kinect 2.0 build upon the groundbreaking recognition technology of its predecessor? Will the machine seamlessly integrate all our disparate media and create a monster — an addictive one? Perhaps the last question is the most important, but really, at its current MSRP of $500, they all are.

Three GP staffers, all casual gamers, had the chance to test the Xbox One this weekend, and, in general, it lived up to expectations. We played it for over 14 hours straight; we came away with a severe lack of sleep and plenty of strong first impressions. Addicted? Clearly. Here’s what we remember.

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Setup

In its most basic setup, the One’s four cords — power, two HDMIs, and one for the Kinect — run straight to their sources. It’s no harder to set up than its predecessor, the 360, in this regard. Even for the technologically unsavvy, the labels and pictograms make setup fairly foolproof.

NOTES FROM A STRUGGLING SETUP PROCESS

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“10:40 p.m. First consultation of Xbox One manual. It’s quickly put away. Auxiliaries continue to best us. Key and Peele audio continues to entertain us ‘direction specialists’ while the others struggle to make Xbox One audio come through the speakers. Xbox, which is showing up on the TV screen, commands me to press the A button. Commercial audio commands me to buy a Mazda6.” - Chris Wright

The only problems arise if you keep your cable box in a distant media cabinet, such as our test location did. The challenge then becomes gaining access to both the Kinect and your cable box. At this point, you only have two options: buy a longer HDMI cable or keep your Xbox next to the cable box and forego Kinect. After several hours of struggling and more than a few beers, we finally got ours set up. Still, this won’t be an issue for most users; in any case, it’s not an issue with the Xbox.

Once the box has power, the ease of use continues. After connecting to wi-fi and updating, there’s a quick pump-up video (cue nerdy excitement) and then prompts for email addresses, gamertag, screen resolution settings, etc. The Kinect also calibrates, which is a wonder all its own: though the camera made us look like we were in Paranormal Activity, the system recognized our faces and asked which one of us was the owner. It makes the system feel surprisingly sentient, and is also absolutely impressive.

NOTES FROM A TECH INCOMPETENT

Chris Wright majored in history. I majored in English. It’s not that we’re terrible with electronics, but…we’re both pretty bad with electronics. We pawed at the One like Hansel from Zoolander until resident tech-guru Henry Phillips arrived and stopped us from smashing it on the ground to retrieve the files inside.

Even so, after Henry left, I figured out how to hook up the One by myself. The fact that I worked it out is a testament to the Xbox One’s simplicity. - K.B. Gould

After this initial set-up we finally made it to the home screen (read on for more on this). Buying games is insanely easy. Remember going to a game store to buy discs? How old-fashioned. Now, as long as your Xbox is hooked up to your wi-fi network, you can buy games from the comfort of your living room. Alternately, you can buy games in the form of QR codes and then hold them in front of the Kinect’s camera; it nearly instantly recognizes them. With either option, the games start downloading instantly. It’s almost like Microsoft wants you to blow massive amounts of money during overdoses of Mountain Dew in the wee morning hours.

One cool feature of the download process is that you don’t have to wait until the download finishes to start playing — while waiting for the 19GB Dead Rising 3 to download, we started campaign mode, and a pop-up warned us to wait a bit when we tried to progress past “undownloaded territory.”

Design/Construction

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Microsoft has made sure to craft the Xbox One, aesthetically, as part of the high-end home media setup. In our testing apartment, the One melted right into the handsome media center, looking no different than any other set-top box or receiver. The console is larger than the 360 (and its competitor, the PS4), but not by too much; its lack of curves and more professional straight lines give it a serious air. The whole attitude shifts from one that suggests game-obsessed tweeners to something young businessmen turn to for shooting/racing/killing zombies with their friends after work. The Kinect, too, keeps up the “dark and quiet” theme. Overall, it’s a more mature console.

One of the best pieces of the One puzzle is the new controller. Remember the original Xbox’s Large Marge controller? Microsoft’s truly given it the Shallow Hal treatment. Where the 360’s controllers were trim but slightly rounded, the new sets are entirely angular and even slightly more slim. In the hands, they feel light, a perfect fit. We also quickly noticed a difference in the triggers, which are less clacky than their forebears, and the sticks, which have just enough texture around their edges for the thumbs to grip. In games, the “rumbling” feedback has gained new levels of precision (more on that later). Outside of these subtle changes, the layout is all exactly the same as its forebears. Microsoft has had three chances at design, and this time around, they’ve nailed it.

User Interface

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With the Xbox 360, a “home base” felt unnecessary. When we wanted to play a game or watch a movie, we put in a disk. Why go through an intermediary home screen? Sure, it offered the Xbox Marketplace, but what was there to buy, anyways? In all our years of Xbox ownership, we don’t think we used it once.

The Xbox One marks a transition from “Game Console” to “Home Entertainment Center”, making home base an essential. Turning on the Xbox One brings you directly to this home, where your games, apps and other clickables are laid out in the intuitive tile system that dominates most of the newer products in Microsoft’s wheelhouse. From the home screen, you can play, buy and download games, watch TV or movies through Netflix, Hulu Plus, and even the NFL Network, interact with friends…in other words, the home screen allows you to access all of the Xbox One’s functionalities; there are a lot of these. The tiles are customizable, so you can order your home in any way you like. From the first second, this screen feels easy to use, the perfect tool for navigating the One.

One of the new Xbox’s greatest features is the ability to multi-task, which is where “Snap” comes into play. As shown in a video released by Xbox, Snap allows you to play Forza 5 while simultaneously surfing the web for cheat codes, or split screen realty between a video game and ESPN. Simply say, “Snap to Internet,” or “Snap to TV,” and the Kinect picks up your command. (Speaking of which, the One’s voice control system is excellent.) Snap also allows you to jump between games with minimal load times — remember the frustration of waiting three minutes every time you opened a door in Morrowind? Another great feature is Microsoft’s full use of Cloud gaming, which allows users to access their own profiles from their buddies’ Xboxes — a pleasant way to bring those loads of media with you.

Although the childish, Wii-esque avatar that represents you on the home screen seems like a relic that refuses to die. Other than that, we had few gripes with the beautiful new user interface.

Gaming

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We didn’t get to try all of the One’s games (launch or otherwise), but we got to try a few. Some we can’t talk about yet; some disappointing and downright weird; others were fantastic and eye-boggling (including the one we can’t talk about yet). On the whole the crop is middle of the pack, but we’re not concerned. Get back to us in a few days when some blockbusters come out (ahem, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4). On the console’s end, games ran smoothly and load screens were swift; in many instances, load screens were almost nonexistent.

Dead Rising 3
What’s more satisfying than killing zombies? Killing zombies with a lightsaber made from recovered gems and a flashlight, or a combination bulldozer/motorcycle that also shoots fire. In Dead Rising 3, you get to use both, as well as over 370 other creative, gratuitous weapons.

LATE-NIGHT NOTES ON DEAD RISING 3

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“2:38 a.m. Dead Rising is a bit scary, fun, creative. Graphics are amazing. Ridiculous intro scene. Sandbox. Normal zombies become quickly less daunting. Crazy karate character just decapitated himself, which was cool.” - Chris Wright

Is the game ridiculous? Yes. How does drinking orange juice restore your health? And why does a government employee run around in a skimpy outfit and fondle her breasts? These questions are never answered. But plot has never been a strong suit for any of the Dead Rising games. Unadulterated gore, on the other hand, is the game’s raison d’etre.

You play as Nick Ramos, a mechanic trying to escape the fictional, zombie-infested Californian city of Los Perdidos. While there are missions to complete, it’s more fun to scrounge the city for blueprints, which allow you to build powerful weapons. Then, you run/drive around and use them to kill zombies. Lots of zombies. Taking full advantage of the Xbox One’s new processors, the game generates three times as many zombies as any previous iteration in the franchise.

Additionally, the game takes advantage of the Kinect’s voice commands—yelling, “over here” makes the zombies walk toward you, and “calm down” causes a deranged pseudo-Taoist to stop throwing smoke bombs at you (for a time).

Though the novelty wears off quickly, the game is fun, and brilliantly demonstrates the Xbox One’s processing capabilities.

Forza 5

Forza 5 is easily the most impressive game we played, visually, and there’s an argument to be made that its gameplay is the best of any racing game, ever. We were hooked right about when the sun flared against our windshield as our ’69 Chevy Camaro SS crested a hill in the Swiss Alps and we slammed it into fifth with a throaty roar. In three words, one from each tester, Forza is “gorgeous”, “silky”, “tactile”.

LATE-NIGHT NOTES ON FORZA

“12:19 a.m. Forza. It’s beautiful. Jeremy Clarkson and huge glares. Hands reflected in windows. Exteriors, sound, driving feel are superb. Kenny drinks while driving.” - Chris Wright

Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Top Gear team show up right off the bat, adding serious cache to a breathtaking game. The single player campaign takes you across the world, earning points for racing and buying new cars. That single player mode also has one of the cooler gaming innovations we’ve seen, called “Drivatars”: that is, the game takes other human players’ driving styles and integrates them into the AI competitors in single-player races. It really works, and it makes single player all the closer to racing against real people. Of course, there’s also Xbox Live for that.

Also of note are the driving feel, enhanced by the Xbox One’s controllers and tactile feedback, and the level of control racers have over driving aids and AI skill levels. Whereas in past games you were either smoking the AI or being lapped by them due to “easy, medium, hard” type settings, Forza goes out of its way to ensure any player, terrible or far too good, has a fun time. We only drove a handful of the 200 cars (though we did drive most of the 14 tracks), but each one had a distinct driving feel; the screams, screeches and rumbles of our track runs were pure and immersive.

Lococycle

Lococycle is illogical and upsetting. It opens with a live-action introduction mini-movie that we couldn’t last through (we tried, but why would you do something like this and make it over five minutes long?), and the gameplay is a clunky frankenstein mix of motorcycle racing down straightaways against nobody and button-mashing fight sequences where you use the mechanic you’re dragging behind you as a weapon. We didn’t last through a level, so we’re not sure if the game developers did, either.

Crimson Dragon

This rail shooter has some things going for it, like the fact that you’re riding a dragon and a world full of vivid colors, a la Avatar (though it’s far from matching the visual beauty of that film). Otherwise, the strange mix of semi-controlling your dragon — you’re stuck within a small pre-set flight path — and a storyline that seems to already know it’s bland didn’t provide much excitement. There’s something to be said for bringing back arcade-style games, but this game isn’t speaking the right language.

Xbox Fitness

It may not be a game, but we tried it nevertheless. If you’ve got Xbox Live Gold many of the over 50 workouts are free; if not, this isn’t a very cheap way to work out. For those with subscriptions, there’s a lot of good news. Workouts are split up into sections like “No Equipment” and “Under 10 Minutes” (there are also workouts between 10 and 20 minutes, and some over 20 minutes). After entering vital info, the Kinect takes a second to measure you’re heartbeat through your face and remind you we live in the future. Workouts are simple, as a trainer prompts you while a small Kinect mirror panel shows you working out and a score multiplier bases points off of your form. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad, either.

Conclusion

We dropped off one by one between the hours of 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. Later we woke up and, dark circles under our bloodshot eyes, we played some more. We were back in our marathon weekends of Halo: Combat Evolved — it was just like the good ole days.

The Xbox One succeeds in combining disparate media devices into one sleek package. It remedies so many of the “gee, I wish this would…” feelings we experienced with its predecessors, most notably the ability to perform multiple functions at once and to easily access data from a friend’s device. A few of the current games show off its processing power and prove it’s ready to push graphics and game engines to the next level, though we’re looking forward to more (and more exciting) titles. Five hundred dollars might be a steep price tag for the casual gamer, but those who spring for the system won’t be disappointed. We may have come a long way since pong, but at its root, the pure pleasure of gaming sure hasn’t changed. Microsoft has distilled this joy to another.

Additional contribution by Chris Wright.

METHODOLOGY: Our three testers were locked in a New York apartment for over 18 hours and tasked with exploring the new Xbox One. 14 hours in to the test the last GP staffer collapsed, leaving a warm Xbox One, a heaping pile of espresso pods and daylight streaming through the shades.

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