Xbox One, the latest games console from Microsoft, faces stiff competition from Sony's PlayStation 4 this Christmas. When Xbox One was first unveiled to gamers in May, Microsoft nearly blew it by focusing on the console's wider entertainment features.
We were told we would be able to plug in our satellite or cable TV services and control all of our entertainment – TV, video, music – on one device. Games would be delivered mostly in digital form, with Microsoft controlling how we would share and sell them on. That wasn't what the Xbox core demographic wanted to hear.
There has been a reversal and explanation since, and Xbox One has clawed back some of that gamer goodwill, but internet rage lingers on.
If consumers do embrace the Xbox One, they will have to put it down pretty quickly: it is extremely big and heavy. Comparisons to an early VHS video recorder are a little unkind but have some truth. It is a monolithic black box designed to hunch beneath your TV and look powerful.
When you switch it on you discover it is mercifully quiet, and all it wants to do is help you. The user interface is a huge improvement over Xbox 360's mess of content. The main screen has all the key options, an area to the left allows you to pin a selection of your favourite games, music, movies or apps, and the digital store is on the right.
More impressive is its ability to quickly switch between different tasks. If a friend calls for a Skype chat while you're playing a game, you can take the call and pause the action. If you want to browse the web while watching a movie, you can open up Internet Explorer in a smaller window. It's all very smooth and seamless, though doesn't quite have the flashy vibrancy of the PS4's interface, which feels like a social network mixed with a high-score table.
The controller has many clever design improvements, as has Kinect, the motion-sensitive camera that can track body movement and understand voice commands. This little device has been a major battleground for gamers who recall how annoyingly useless the tech was on Xbox 360. Here, though, it works well, recognising individual gamers and responding quickly to your voice. Movement-based titles such as Kinect Sports Rivals and Just Dance 2014 will get interesting things out of it. The Xbox Fitness app even senses your pulse by monitoring fluctuations in skin tone. It's weird to imagine how that will be used in horror games.
On the subject of games, the launch lineup ranges from mediocre to pretty good. Forza Motorsport 5 is a beautiful driving simulation, but the zombie thriller Dead Rising 3 struggles to match the fun of its predecessors, and the graphically rich but interactively limited Ryse: Son Of Rome feels like a Zach Snyder action movie in search of a game. Conversions of recent big recent releases such as Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed IV and Fifa 2014 are fine, but few try anything apart from adding visual detail, and in this area PS4 has edged ahead.
Although both machines feature eight-core processors and similar graphics engines, Sony's employs a faster form of computer memory and its architecture is more straightforwardly powerful. It seems developers will have to work at Xbox One to get similar results.
There is much potential here in this big black slab, and there is a lot of functionality still to discover. When big new titles such as Titanfall, Halo 5, Fable Legends and Minecraft creator Mojang's Cobalt arrive, Xbox One will start to look extremely enticing.
But something about PS4 feels fresher, more seductive, and Sony ended this generation with one of the true great games, The Last of Us. The momentum is there. While Xbox One seems like the underdog, it has come a long way since May. It can go the distance.
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