Some are calling it the best E3 in five years – others insist it's the best of all time. But whatever hyperbole gets attached to last week's gaming conference, we can all agree on the focus: Xbox One v PS4.
Amid the chaos of the LA convention centre, Microsoft and Sony pitched their stands barely feet from each other, separated only by a sliver of carpet, a no-man's land of technological rivalry. The two companies then spent three days hurling PR at each other, deafening attendees with their arsenals of mega hype. It was confusing, it was enraging, it was console war – and the first casualty of console war is sense.
So, what did it all mean? Who won, who lost? What do these machines actually do? Here is a quick guide to the next-generation as it currently stands, complete with hardware, services and game announcements. Next stop: release dates and a shift of the skirmish to a hundred thousand shop shelves. This fight has only just begun.
This article has been updated to include a section on second screens.
Well, black is certainly back, as AC/DC once sort of nearly put it (or Public Enemy, for that matter, but we're getting off the point now). For this generation we have two rather large slabs of dark plastic, one shaped like an early eighties video recorder, the other slightly slanted to give a hint of dynamism. They are monolithic, almost architectural, and they are designed to slide in under your living room TV and then command attention from everyone in the room.
Technically, they are hugely similar: eight-core processors (both reported to be running at a frequency of 1.6GHz), custom AMD graphics processors, Blu-ray drives. But there are some fundamental differences. The two GPUs employ AMD's latest Graphics Core Next architecture, which is divided into working blocks known as Compute Units. The PS4 version has 18 CUs generating 1.84 teraflops of processing power, while the Xbox one has only 12 CUs; which, in theory , gives Sony's machine a 50% advantage in terms of raw shader performance (for example, lighting and other graphics effects). It's never quite this simple because other design and technical elements of the SoC can affect performance, but it's certainly an indication that there is more graphics grunt there for PS4.
Sony's machine also uses 8GB of GDDR5 memory with a bandwidth of 176GB/sec, which should make it speedier than Xbox One with its 8GB of DDR3 RAM (though it commits Sony to a more expensive manufacturing cycle). It's worth reading detailed overview of the technologies at AnandTech, though; the exhaustive article points out that the Xbox One architecture is designed with other considerations beyond gaming – especially implementation with other MS platforms – and this shows in the tech specs.
The Xbox One ships with the updated Kinect device, which now tracks six people at once and copes much better with smaller, darker rooms. Its 3D scanner can identify much subtler movements, and it can recognise voices and faces. Microsoft is also telling journalists that the device's IR camera will detect changes in blood flow beneath the skin, thereby working out your heart rate – if you're out of breath, scared or stressed, Xbox One will know. Oh and there's a 1,080p colour camera for video chatting. Meanwhile, the PlayStation Eye will come as a separate purchase, and works with the DualShock 4 controller to track the player's movement in 3D space. Sony isn't saying much else, apart from showing off a range of compatible mini-games at E3. Clearly, while Kinect is at the very epicentre of the Xbone experience, Eye is currently barely squinting.
With its new touchpad, the DualShock 4 is the most obviously changed of the two joypads, and Sony has also added a speaker for up-close, player-specific audio. Also important is the new Share button which will let PlayStation gamers record footage of their virtual feats with which to impress/spam their friends.
The Xbox One controller, which apparently went through over 200 prototype stages and features 40 improvements, is more subtle – it has improved triggers that boast greater analogue sensitivity as well as their own dedicated rumble packs. Meanwhile, the D-pad is now a cross shape (good for fighting games) and the sticks are more comfortable to grip. Oh and there's a headphone socket, too. Both controllers look and feel really nice, and while the DualShock has more gimmicks, the Xbox equivalent features smart ergonomics and great gaming comfort.
As we move into an era of distributed computing power, it's no wonder that the next-gen consoles want to capitalise on the power of the cloud. Microsoft has claimed that developers will be able to harness three times the power of a single Xbox One, thereby bringing extra oomph to physics and AI processing. We're also promised vast persistent online worlds that evolve as play continues.
Forza Motorsports is even offering a Drivatar, an AI bot that learns your skills and tactics then goes off and represents you in online bouts. There are doubts about the veracity of Microsoft's claims, though, with latency and bandwidth issues likely to make things difficult.
PlayStation 4 promises cloud computing too, but the technology provided by Gaikai will also allow immediate playable access to digital titles – so as soon as you select a demo or full game on the PlayStation Store, the first chunk will be accessible. In theory. It will also be possible for players to remotely gain control of a pal's game, perhaps to help them out of a difficult puzzle or boss fight. Microsoft promises a similar remote playing feature via Xbox One utilising its Skype service.
All the claims are intriguing, but we've yet to see any of it in practice. Furthermore, some worry about the longevity of cloud-supported titles: i.e. what happens to a game that relies on the cloud for computational support when that online infrastructure is withdrawn? Publishers can't support every game forever. Alongside restrictive DRM, the cloud is another indication that the game disc as self-contained functioning product is history.
Both the Xbox One and PS4 will offer 'second screen' interaction: the former though tablets and smartphones running SmartGlass, the latter through the Vita handheld console as well as smartphones and tablets. With both machines you'll be able to use your phone or tablet as a companion display in supporting games, perhaps showing map or inventory information, for example. But through Sony's Remote Play technology, PS4 owners will be able to access and play their games via their Vita – so if you're sitting in a cafe with a Wi-Fi connection, you can grab your handheld and play DriveClub on its lovely little 5-inch display. And unlike with PS3, Remote Play is built into the PS4 infrastructure so all games (except those requiring extra peripherals like the PS Eye) will support it. Although Vita has not sold astonishingly well so far, this is an interesting USP, and maybe a PS4/Vita bundle pack would highlight the possibilities of these intertwined systems.
Both Xbox One and PS4 will have the following titles at launch: Assassin's Creed IV, Call of Duty Ghosts, Watch Dogs, Fifa 14, Madden 14 and Lego Marvel Super Heroes. PS4 will add DriveClub, Knack and Killzone: Shadow Fall as exclusives, as well as the free-to-play MMOFPS, PlanetSide 2.
Xbox One meanwhile, will have Forza Motorsports 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Kinect Sports Rivals. Arguably, Microsoft just shades it there, with some heavyweight third-party support, courtesy of Crytek and Capcom. But in generational terms, this is a relatively strong opening.
So after the fanfare and bluster of the launches, what can gamers expect next from their chosen machine? Well, Xbox One is promising Respawn's Titanfall in 2014 as well as Crimson Dragon, Below, and Sunset Overdrive, not to mention new outings for Minecraft and Halo.
PS4 is lining up Infamous: second Son, The Order: 1866 and Deep Down, with a new Gran Turismo on the slate as well. Plus, Sony has all those indie developers that it's been courting, adding Mercenary Kings, Daylight, Don't Starve and Transistor to the line-up. And both schedules will be enlivened by multi-platform blockbusters like Star Wars Battlefront, Destiny, Final Fantasy XV, The Crew, Tom Clancy's The Division and EA's Mirror's Edge reboot. Much of the battle will be down to any timed exclusives or unique features the manufacturers can prise into the third-party offerings.
Multimedia and social features
Both consoles will have varied video-on-demand support, involving multiple content partners. Xbox One looks to have the most advanced and ambitious offering, allowing owners to feed in their cable/satellite channels and then control them via the Xbone voice and gesture controls. Microsoft's machine will also allow seamless movement between TV, video content and games, while premium TV content such as live sports will be augmented with exclusive social and gaming features – which haven't yet been properly explained (or clearly rolled out beyond US-centric deals). And of course, both machines allow you to watch Blu-ray and DVD movie discs, and both support 4K output when that becomes an issue. Will that ever become an issue?
Backwards compatibility, pre-owned sales and DRM
Uh-oh, here we go. Neither machine allows straightforward backwards compatibility with previous consoles – however, it's likely that both will eventually offer retro titles via emulation and digital download. Microsoft has plans to control the sale of pre-owned titles (or at least allow publishers to charge a fee to purchasers of second-hand titles) and also wants to limit how many people you can lend your Xbox One games too. This looks to be because all Xbox One titles have to be fully installed on the hard drive before they can be played, and Microsoft doesn't want people installing the game, then giving it to all their mates.
Although the restrictions are currently unclear, it seems you'll be able to give old games to just one person, who needs to have been on your friend list for more than 30 days. However, you will be able to access your library of games from any machine you sign in on. Your console will need to authenticate itself online for every 24 hours of play; so in other words, you can only play a game without a net connection for a whole day, but then the machine has to skulk back online and explain itself to the servers. PlayStation 4, though, offers no such restrictions – games can be sold and exchanged freely and there's no daily online authentication.
The PR war
In short, Microsoft lost. The internet reacted with savage fury to the pre-owned sales limitations and authentication requirements, while analysts have criticised Microsoft's TV-focused strategy. Sony twisted the knife with a confrontational E3 press conference and a viral video lampooning the Xbox one sharing system. A recent poll by Amazon, asking readers to suggest which machine they would be buying, went overwhelmingly in PS4's direction – although there could be an element of protest voting here.
And Microsoft factions are fighting back. A post on Pastebin, reported to be from an anonymous Microsoft engineer, tries to explain the DRM and pre-owned systems, telling gamers they will benefit in the long run, by cutting profit hungry retailers like Gamestop out of the loop. Game designer Cliff Bleszinski has also waded in to defend the Xbox One setup. For their own part, Microsoft execs have gone rather quiet and are no doubt planning a new public relations offensive in the run up to launch.
Launch details and prices
Microsoft has committed itself to a November launch date, Sony has said nothing else except for 2013; though the smart money has to be on November too. Retailers probably won't allow a simultaneous roll-out (imagine the chaos) so expect one to go early in the month, and the other toward the end. Xbox will retail at £429 ($499), PS4 at £350 ($399). However, as noted above, the PlayStation Eye won't be bundled with the console, unlike the Kinect with Xbox One. Both systems will charge an annual subscription for multiplayer gaming access, with PS4 requiring a paid 'PS Plus' membership.
A winner?! Before the consoles are even launched? I don't think so. The history of the games industry is littered with consoles that should have won but didn't; where all the signs pointed in their direction, but turned out to be wildly misleading. And similarly, machines that were expected to dive, turned out to be successes. No one expected the Mega Drive to take off like it did in the States and Europe; and before anyone saw it, almost everyone wrote off the Wii after the under-performing GameCube. Then the Wii Remote was revealed and suddenly the story changed.
Right now, the signs point toward early success for PlayStation 4: on paper, the hardware is more powerful, it has popular support, Sony has said what gamers want to hear. But Xbox One has some great games and there is time for Microsoft to explain and re-spin its business models. The company wants to change the way the games industry works; that's a tough sell to gamers, who are, ironically, an extremely conservative customer base.
What's fascinating is that the whole consumer world is watching. For years, mirthless middle-aged pundits in their global financial research companies have been predicting the death of consoles. These hulking machines are no longer relevant, the kids want to play on tablets; everything is going free-to-play. But it isn't, not yet. Play The Last of Us for 20 minutes and you know why Angry Birds won't somehow replace narrative gaming – as some bean counters have tried to assert.
The first casualty of any console war is sense – everyone seems to lose theirs. No one wins until the launch titles are in the disc trays, or on the hard drives; no one is finished until the last major developer abandons the platform. But it is fun, isn't it, to watch it unfold? Let's not forget the fun part.
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