Microsoft Xbox One review: Updated for 2018
The Xbox One strikes back.
The Sega Dreamcast started the sixth-gen console race early (in 1999) but its paltry sales proved it to be a misfire. As the 21st century dawned, Nintendo and Sony battled for supremacy. But then an unexpected upstart arrived: Microsoft’s Xbox. Globally, it arrived two years after the Dreamcast and the same year as the GameCube, but it would go on to sell better than Sega and Nintendo’s offerings. Ultimately, it was a strong start for a Sony/Microsoft rivalry that would span console generations.
The Xbox One was a bulky beast, but it did have one iconic launch title (Halo) and later mastered online gaming in the console space with Xbox Live. Halo 2 revolutionised online gaming for consoles, with a matchmaking system we still use today. Still, there was room for improvement. Cue the entry of the Xbox 360 in 2005. The PlayStation 2 might have outsold the Xbox six times over, but Microsoft’s second effort in the seventh console generation narrowly lost the race against Sony’s third platform (by 1.2 million units).
The Xbox 360 was more than a contender with easily expandable storage, a vastly improved controller (that didn’t require giant hands), and the robust online networking of a refined Xbox Live. Then something went wrong. The Xbox One was initially spruiked in terms of its TV capabilities. Kinect was too much of a focus and it took up precious resources. Where multiplatform games had looked better – and reportedly, had been easier to develop for – in the Xbox 360 vs PlayStation 3 comparisons, the tables had reportedly flipped.
Despite improvements to the performance and user interface (bear in mind that the PlayStation 4 UI has remained mostly the same since launch), as well as two console refreshes, the Xbox One still proves to be a divisive console let down by its lack of first-party games and exclusive third-party offerings.
Chat to Microsoft about the Xbox One sales lagging behind PlayStation 4 sales and you’ll likely hear about how the Xbox One is (or, at least, it was) outselling the Xbox 360 on a side-by-side timeline. While an important internal measurement of success, it doesn’t change the reality that PlayStation 4 is estimated to have sold more than twice the number of Xbox One consoles. Because of this, Sony seems happy to offer sporadic sales updates for the PlayStation 4, but Microsoft doesn’t release figures.
Looking at just the Xbox One, its success compared to the Xbox 360, ironically, can likely be put down to the success of Microsoft’s last-gen console. Despite the TV-heavy narrative surrounding the Xbox One pre-release, and other minor pre-launch controversies, the launch Xbox One sold one million units in its first 24 hours. Moving forward in the timeline, it’s also theorised that the success of the Xbox One S is partially attributed to its 4K Blu-ray drive which, at the time of release, was one of the cheapest ways to watch UHD movies on a 4K TV.
Despite the launch of the Xbox One X in November 2017, the PlayStation 4 consoles still outsold Xbox One consoles.
Microsoft still has an uphill fight for the future of the Xbox One. Though the Xbox One S and Xbox One X were both steps in the right direction, this console generation has, once again, become a three-sided battle. The Nintendo Switch launched in March 2017 and sold 10 million units in its first nine months. Compared to Microsoft’s flagship Xbox One X, the Switch is the more affordable console. Considering the lack of games available in the first few months of the Switch’s availability and the impressive range of titles available now (and in the future), Nintendo has a real contender on its hands (unlike the Wii U). It doesn’t help that on the other front Sony continues to emphasise its incredibly healthy and diverse line-up of exclusive titles. In 2017, the Xbox One had 67 exclusive titles (just one ahead of the newly launched Switch), while PlayStation 4 owners had 103 to choose from. At the time of writing, in terms of quantity, things are still not looking good for Xbox One exclusives in 2018 when stacked next to Nintendo and Sony.
Despite playing second fiddle to the PlayStation 4 in terms of sales, the Xbox One still has some unique features that are definitely a feature in the cap for Microsoft. There’s been a push towards the digital space, with a firm focus on ID@Xbox and the Game Preview program. In terms of ID@Xbox, this has allowed the distribution of quality indie games. Game Preview has borrowed from the popularity of Steam’s Early Access program on PC.
This means that games are made available to Xbox One owners as they’re being developed, which includes currently exclusive offerings like the massively popular battle royale game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, dystopian horror game We Happy Few and sci-fi survival game Subnautica. While players do have to put up with pre-release bugs and content changes, the community of players is actively helping with the development of these titles, just by playing them.
Then there are the Xbox One exclusives that offer a compelling reason to own Microsoft’s new-gen console. Cuphead blew away critics and consumers when it launched last year. The Gears of War franchise is in safe hands with The Coalition after a long run with creators Epic Games. Driving fans can continue to expect quality entries from Forza, whether they’re chasing the core Motorsport or spin-off Horizon varieties.
Ori and the Blind Forest, a Metroidvania platformer that’s universally adored, is set to have a sequel that’ll be a console exclusive on Xbox One: Ori and the Will of the Wisps. 343 Industries had some slip-ups with Halo 5: Guardians, but the core multiplayer offering is tight and the ownership over narrative missteps is promising for the inevitable future of Halo 6. It also helps that Halo Wars 2 is both a great game and the best example of a console RTS to date.
Then there are the left-field exclusive titles, like ReCore and Quantum Break. Quantum Break is the only way for console fans to experience Remedy Entertainment’s latest narrative trip. The Finnish creators of Max Payne and Alan Wake have a knack for engaging storytelling, and while there’s no talk of Quantum Break 2, Quantum Break offers tight third-person gameplay (read: time-warping gunplay) and mind-bending storytelling. If you don’t own a PC, the Xbox One is the only place to play it.
If you do own a PC with Windows 10 installed, your Xbox One game purchases go a lot further. As of the release of Gears of War 4 in 2016, every purchased Xbox One game that’s published by Microsoft is available to play on Windows 10 PC, free of charge, as part of the Play Anywhere program. This also applies the other way to compatible Microsoft-published games that are purchased in the Windows Store on PC. As if that’s not cool enough, your save game data is shared automatically via Xbox Live across devices, meaning you can start a game on Xbox One then pick up where you left off on Windows 10 PC (or vice versa).
Then there’s the exclusive hardware. Prior to the release of the Xbox One X, the Xbox One S was the only console on the market with a 4K Blu-ray player. It helps that the Xbox One S is a lighter and slightly zippier version of the Xbox One, too. But for those who want bragging rights to the most powerful console ever made, that’s the Xbox One X, and we’ve yet to see its full power so early in its lifecycle. Not only is it capable of 4K native gaming at 60 frames per second, it’s also compact and quiet and it’s the only other console (outside the S) to offer 4K Blu-ray playback.
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For fans of multimedia, there’s an HDMI in port for connecting other devices for playback through your Xbox One (like a Foxtel box).
Then there’s the Xbox One Digital TV Tuner peripheral that can add free-to-air channels to your console, complemented by OneGuide, which lets you view content across channels and streaming services. If you’re a fan of downloading absolutely everything, all Xbox One generations support straightforward expansion with USB 3.0 external drives. Moving items between internal and external storage is a cinch, too.
On the gaming side of things, Xbox One owners also have access to EA Pass and Xbox Game Pass. Both services offer an updated and rotating roster of Xbox One games for a monthly subscription, including backwards compatible titles.
On the topic of backwards compatibility, the ever-growing list of Xbox 360 and, more recently, Xbox One titles that can satisfy a nostalgic hit on is growing every month.
As for Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft recently announced that newly released first-party games like Crackdown 3 and Sea of Thieves will be included day-and-date on the service, which is a budget way for players to try new games. Outside of the consoles, Microsoft has also released the best controller ever made: the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller. It’s not cheap but it offers a number of customisation options that range from personal preference to measurable online performance enhancers.
The real issue with the Xbox One today is what it’s been since the start: a lack of exclusive games. Despite the TV memes, the Xbox One does an admirable job of being a multimedia entertainment platform, which combines streaming services, downloadable TV and movies, free-to-air TV (via adaptor) and games. But while the Xbox One isn’t short on multiplatform titles, it is behind the ball when it comes to exclusives that validate owners of the console and entice others to buy in on Microsoft’s platform.
The fact that the Nintendo Switch, the newest console on the block, has more easily identifiable exclusives than the Xbox One is telling. The Xbox One has been on shelves since 2013 and the biggest detractor – the lack of exclusives – is still the easiest criticism to level against the console. It doesn’t help when exclusives are cancelled, either: Fable Legends and Scalebound were two distinct titles, both of which suffered the same vapourware fate.
But while the lack of exclusives is the biggest con, there are smaller issues that hold back the Xbox One. Since launch, both PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch consoles have come with rechargeable controllers, and the necessary means to recharge those controllers. Xbox One controllers, regardless of whether they’re bundled with a console or you’re forking out extra for the Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, come with AA batteries. Admittedly, battery life is great, but you have to cough up an extra $30 for a rechargeable battery.
Despite this, Microsoft is still convinced that bringing back the Duke – that divisive and bulky controller for the original Xbox – is more of a priority.
In terms of other peripheral concerns, there’s no VR option at this stage, which is a noticeable con when stacked next to PlayStation VR. Virtual reality has now moved beyond first-wave shovelware and into the second-wave of engaging gameplay experiences, and it’s odd that Microsoft hasn’t offered something for the Xbox One, especially considering the PC-exclusive Oculus Rift VR headset ships with an Xbox One controller. You can also stream Xbox One games to the Oculus Rift, but that still requires a PC. HoloLens looks incredibly promising – especially because it’s a step beyond VR in the augmented-reality space – but Microsoft has been mostly quiet on it since its admittedly amazing demo at E3 2015. In this respect, it’s like what Kinect was to PlayStation Move and Wiimotes: an iteration of a zeitgeist technology that moves beyond the obviousness of a straight rip-off of what the competition is doing. Hopefully, it doesn’t suffer the same fate as Kinect.
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Speaking of Kinect, it’s understandable that Microsoft has performed a mercy killing of the peripheral. It’s no longer being manufactured, and both the Xbox One S and Xbox One X don’t include a dedicated Kinect port. If like me you still had Kinect plugged into your original Xbox One console, there’s the creepy reality that it’s always watching you, and the phantom recognition and subsequent signing in of people who aren’t in your house adds to the weirdness.
On the software side of things, the Xbox One is inexplicably incredibly slow to update and, at least in my experience, it can be finicky with auto-update settings for both games and dashboard patches. Sometimes games automatically update or download, and other times I have to perform it manually (despite having triple-checked the auto-update options). There’s also the sporadic issue where there’s no Internet connection after powering on the console in instant-on mode, and these networking woes are something that have repeated for me across Xbox One, S and X.
There may be a lack of exclusives, but if you have a hankering for certain franchises and types of game, the Xbox One is still an appealing gaming destination for Microsoft-published titles. Halo 5: Guardians was a mix of disappointing campaign and frantic multiplayer, but Halo: The Master Chief Collection is a fantastic remaster that offers tons of content. Plus, it’s the best version of the best Halo games. Halo 5 might have been a mixed bag, but 343 Industries and Creative Assembly knocked it out of the park for Halo Wars 2.
Sunset Overdrive has a colourful take on the apocalypse and boasts an incredibly addictive gameplay loop. Cuphead is easily the biggest win for Microsoft in 2017, given the long-gestating buzz actually resulted in a punishing indie platformer that met high expectations. Quantum Break looked great at launch and plays/looks even better on the Xbox One X with its enhancements. Servers might not be as populated these days, but the fact that Microsoft bagged the future of Call of Duty in the original Titanfall was a massive win in the console wars (at the time).
While the fighting world debates the winner of the battle royale between Tekken, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Injustice, the Xbox One is the only console where you can play the brilliantly executed Killer Instinct. It’s a fighting game that packs a high-speed, combo-heavy punch.
Gears of War 4 is a solid continuation of what Epic Games started with the franchise, now in the hands of The Coalition. The campaign is satisfying (and better in four-player co-op), the high-frame-rate multiplayer is brutal and intense, while Horde 3.0 is a fantastic extension of the popular wave-based co-op mode.
Racing fans shouldn’t look beyond the Forza games, which are now winning the race against Gran Turismo, if popular opinion is to be believed. Even if you’re more of a casual fan, both Forza Horizon and Forza Motorsport series accommodate a shallower learning curve with the right assists on. Strangely, the biggest win for Microsoft is the Ori franchise, with Ori and the Blind Forest blowing away critics and consumers when it released in 2015; there's a sequel coming in 2018.
Xbox One games on the horizon
Before E3 2018 hopefully announces more exclusives set to land on the Xbox One in 2018, there are some promising titles already slated for release on the Xbox One. Though delayed, Crackdown 3 still promises to scratch the itch of players seeking wanton open-world destruction with a supremely overpowered playable character. The cloud-based physics for multiplayer matches promises the 100% destruction of a playable area, and that sounds like an incredibly appealing proposition.
Sea of Thieves has shown plenty of promise in pre-release form and is poised to pit cross-platform pirates (Windows 10 and Xbox One) against each other when it sails onto shelves in March.
Showing that Microsoft has a diverse range of exclusives up its sleeve, State of Decay 2 is a promising and punishing zombie survival game. Unlike other zombie games, State of Decay 2 seeks to endear players to characters, then force them to make tough choices that will inevitably have a lasting impact because of character permadeath. It promises to be a better execution of the interesting idea presented in the original game.
The battle royale genre has been super-popularised by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on PC, and the Game Preview version of PUBG on Xbox One is anticipated to launch properly in 2018. Considering it’s already sold 3 million copies in its buggy current form, it’s already off to a great start. Darwin Project is another battle royale game coming to Xbox One, although a smaller murderous affair, with a neat twist: a director role controlled by a player, who can directly influence the mayhem in positive or negative ways.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps hasn’t had a lot to show, to date, but it doesn’t matter: the hype is strong for this one and given the beauty of the first game, it’s easy to see why. Other projects are also anticipated to leave Game Preview and enter full-fledged release such as Subnautica (which, granted, appears to be a timed exclusive), as well as digital card game Fable Legends.
Hidden gems on Xbox One
With so many games released each month on Xbox One, it’s easy to forget about the ones that flew under the radar. These include free games like Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition, which is an old-school turn-based fantasy game. For those who like the setting but prefer their battles in real-time, Path of Exile is an isometric action-RPG that often plays second fiddle to Diablo III. It really shouldn’t, though, and you can play it for free.
Games don’t have to be perfect to deserve respect, and if ever there was an imperfect game that still deserves a play-through it’s Ryse: Son of Rome. Admittedly flawed, especially at launch, there’s no denying that the odds were stacked against this Kinect-turned-full-fledged title. Yet it somehow manages to be a whole lot of fun, mixing the brutality of sword-and-shield combat with some surprisingly beautiful storytelling. Oh, it’s gorgeous to look at, too.
In more recent terms, ReCore copped a bad rap at launch, but mostly because the number of bugs suggested that it was rushed out to meet an arbitrary launch window. Fast-forward to today and the Definitive Edition delivers what was originally promised. Fans of Metroidvania games will be right at home here, and if you missed it at launch, it’s definitely worth playing here. If you played (and ditched) it at launch, it’s well worth a second shot.
It’s a similar thing with Killer Instinct. At launch, it felt like a game that had one of those free-to-play models that are all about grabbing your hard-earned cash. Today, after several seasons of releases, Killer Instinct is a fighting game that’s punching above its free-to-play entry barrier and is a genuine contender against some of the bigger names in the genre. Give it a bash with the free character and if it grabs you like it should, throw down some cash for a whole lot of awesome fisticuffs (Shadow Lords mode is awesome).
Xbox One evolution since launch
The Xbox One has come a long way since launch, in terms of both software and hardware. Kinect has gone the way of the dodo, which was both a mercy killing (it was never really properly integrated) and a way to free up system resources for games with fewer compromises.
The bulky design of the original Xbox One with its external power supply was shrunk down for the Xbox One S: a mid-cycle refresh that’s smaller has a 4K Blu-ray player and sports HDR capabilities. Microsoft’s latest achievement, though, is the Xbox One X, which rightfully earns its title as the most powerful console ever made. If you’ve got the budget for it, it’s the Xbox One to own.
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The state of Xbox Live
Unlike the core console offering, Xbox Live continues to be the most robust online platform available on consoles today. What started with the original Xbox and improved with the Xbox 360 has been honed into an even tighter offering for Xbox One. This is an important consideration given the increasingly online nature of console games today, including those that only offer single-player campaigns.
While strange that it doesn’t apply to the system updates (see above), download speeds are fast across Xbox One versions. There’s a transparency about those speeds, too (unlike the PlayStation Network), and my tests regularly run at around 90% of my maximum bandwidth, across Xbox One console variants. Congestion can slow things down but, assuming it’s working for you, leaving your Xbox One in instant-on mode with the right automatic update options selected will keep your games up to date when you’re away from your console.
In my comparisons, Xbox Live is consistently and noticeably faster than the PlayStation Network (both consoles have ethernet connections on a 100Mb/s connection).
Accessing your XBL friends list to see which games are being played, to create a party or to send a message is all an Xbox logo press away. And it’s offered in overlay form these days, meaning you don’t have to bounce back to the dashboard to interact. It’s a cinch to create or join a party and, assuming the party members have the right equipment and connections, chat is both clear and responsive. Xbox Live also offers Clubs and Looking for Group options these days to help expand your friends list, or just to find people who are looking to play the game in the same way as you.
If you encounter people who aren’t adding to a positive online experience, they can be reported or rated (which impacts reputation) in a straightforward manner. The main way that Xbox Live is let down is the number of titles offered as part of Games with Gold. Clearly started as a way of competing with the monthly PlayStation Plus selection, the Xbox Live offering is often of better quality, but there are noticeably fewer titles when compared to PlayStation Plus monthly offerings (with free games across PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita).
The Xbox One is by no means a bad console, and it’s gotten better as time has passed. It was always going to be fighting an uphill battle after the PR disasters and its pre-release controversies. But under new leadership, the image of the Xbox One has improved. Kinect proved to be a doubled-down step in the wrong direction, where its biggest conveniences and selling points were outside of gaming applications.
Judged as a multimedia device, the Xbox One is fantastic, with great bonus features like an unnecessary-but-awesome HDMI in port, the optional Xbox One Digital TV Tuner and an easy way to browse video content across apps (via the handy OneGuide feature). That said, the Xbox One is not, first and foremost, a multimedia device: it’s a gaming console. It may boil down to personal preference but, as far as I’m concerned, Microsoft wins the new-gen controller battle, from bundled Xbox One controller through to the premium Xbox One Elite Wireless Controller.
Despite its biggest evolution to date, Sony just hasn’t iterated enough on the core DualShock design, whereas Xbox controllers improve with each upgrade. The biggest letdown, though, is one you’ve seen touched on in this review multiple times and one that’s been shouted about since the launch of the console. There simply aren’t enough exclusive games, first- or third-party, to convince fence-sitters or Sony fans that the Xbox One is a must-buy console.
If you’re a fan of the IPs that are exclusive to the Xbox One, the chances are good you already own one. If you don’t and if you own a decent enough PC with Windows 10 installed, you don’t need to buy an Xbox One because of the Play Anywhere feature. Play Anywhere is a great and generous program, but it’s a disincentive for PC players who otherwise might have been tempted to buy a console.
That said, for anyone interested in the Xbox One, it’s an exciting time to buy. The Xbox One S is the comparative budget offering for entry-level Xbox One gaming, and it’s a notable improvement over the launch Xbox One. If you’re after true power, though, the Xbox One X is the best investment. There’s an ever-increasing catalogue of games that are being released or retroactively enhanced, and supersampling means you don’t need a 4K TV to appreciate the power of the Xbox One X (though it certainly helps).
The Xbox One is in a much better position than it was at launch, and as developers tap into the full fidelity potential of the Xbox One X’s power, it’ll no doubt entice existing owners to upgrade and newcomers to try 4K gaming in the lounge at a fraction of the cost of buying a souped-up PC.
Xbox One price in 2018
A refurbished, pre-owned original Xbox One console will set you back $228 for a 500GB model, or $247 for a 1TB version. (The original Xbox One console was discontinued after the launch of the Xbox One S in August 2016.) You can purchase an Xbox One S 500GB version with a bundled game for $329RRP (refurbished for $278 with no game). The 1TB Xbox One S consoles start at $399RRP but also include a bundled game (refurbished, no game, for $298). There’s also a rarer 2TB refurbished Xbox One S available for $328.
The Xbox One X costs $649RRP for a 1TB console without a game, while refurbished costs $598 (also sans game). Compare this to the Switch, which tends to come bundled with one game or two amiibo, at a starting price of $489RRP and $469RRP respectively (or $428 for a refurbished model). This means, outside of the Xbox One X, you can own any version of the Xbox One, in new or refurbished form, for up to $200 cheaper than Nintendo’s new console.
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