Xbox One Report Card

To mark the start of GameSpot’s Game of the Year 2015 series, over the following four days we will publish annual performance reviews of all the home game platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, and PC.

We start with Microsoft’s once-divisive home console, which has undergone a striking transformation since its launch in November 2013. Below you’ll find a collection of headline observations that defined the console’s performance and evolution in 2015, followed by a final verdict for the year.

The Graphics Gap Is Closing

PlayStation 4’s raw power advantage over Xbox One is either an overblown triviality or an unassailable upper-hand, depending on who you ask. In either case, and as we predicted last year, the performance gap between both systems is narrowing.

Numerous launch window titles, such as Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4, rendered at 1080p on Sony’s system and 720p on Microsoft’s, which for some fans represented a meaningful difference (although as explained in a recent Reality Check video, below, it may not be so easy to discern platforms from the naked eye alone). But for those who swear they can see the glimmer of all 2.1 million pixels gazing out from their TV sets, it’s worth noting that the calculable visual difference between both systems is smaller than ever, as some key 2015 games demonstrate below:

In fact, a growing number of major games have begun to display at the same resolution on both systems (such as Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) albeit with minor frame-rate and performance issues lingering on Xbox One. On rarer occasions, such as with FIFA 16, there is no difference.

That’s not to say the Xbox One has reached hardware performance parity with its counterpart. The answer to the question “which console is more powerful” will always be PS4, and that is one reason behind its extraordinary popularity. But Microsoft–which in the past 18 months has freed up more of the Xbox One’s GPU memory, along with its seventh CPU core–wants to ensure people won’t be able to answer that question from perception alone. We expect that, by this time next year, it will be within touching distance of that goal.

The New Dashboard Misses Its Chance

Change was necessary; the Xbox One’s original front-end was a mystifying mess. It is replaced, unfortunately, with a rearranged mess. The home page retains its measly list of five recent apps, only now hanging in a more pleasant vertical strip instead of Metroed together, with your library and pins hidden beneath the fold. The absence of button prompts, which typically isn’t needed with self-explanatory interfaces such as iOS and Android, is again a necessity that is missing.

Fortunately, the glitchy Kinect gestures have been removed, and the snap-mode feature has been relegated, but other bad ideas have survived the nuke, possibly the worst being the frequently unhelpful and misleading language. “Movies From Apps” is a store, “TV Shows From Apps” is a store, “Content From App Channels” is a store, “App Channels” is a store. The search button, in most cases, is a store. Considering that all roads lead to a different store on Xbox One, it might be a useful word to employ. If Apple’s App Store (see what they did there?) and Sony’s PlayStation Store (now was that so hard?) demonstrate anything, it’s that customers aren’t allergic to the concept of spending money providing they don’t feel pressured. Being hounded to buy the latest romcom while you’re looking for your stored videos (seriously where does the console put them?) is a different experience altogether. It’s worth noting too that all of the Xbox One buttons mentioned above are featured on the OneGuide tab, not the three additional store tabs.

The new Dashboard, sadly, repackages the same problems in a faster, more attractive skin.

We’re also willing to bet that if you asked a thousand people which phrase is more helpful–“OneGuide” or “TV & Video Apps”–less than 50 would choose the former. The community tab, meanwhile, offers a Facebook-like feed of unimportant user-generated content such as achievement records, while video clips that people share are static unless activated (a concept which, in the age of autoplay on Facebook and Twitter, seems antiquated.)

Bright moments of common sense have managed to pierce through the miasma, however. The settings button is now conveniently placed, while arranging parties and messages is straightforward, even in-game, and a previous update has made taking screenshots far easier. Best of all is the clear improvement in speed throughout the operating system, which offers a good base for the Xbox team to now build on. In Microsoft’s eternal quest to deliver a useful and likable operating system, the New Xbox Experience is a tiny step, not the giant leap it needed to be.

Nothing Beats an Elite

The Xbox One Elite Controller is a dream come true for the video game obsessive. Do not listen to Microsoft’s line that it is designed specifically for the pro gamer; if you can afford this preposterously priced, magnificently crafted marriage of plastics then you should not hesitate.

This pad will sing in your hands and never stop. The quality of materials used throughout is obvious at first touch, from the soft non-slip finish of the case, to the excellent new rubber grips at the rear side of each handle, to the steel analogue sticks and D-pads. This is a Ferrari engine of a games controller, roughly 50 percent heavier than its vanilla counterpart, with thumbsticks that spring back to their centre with such heft that you can feel it reverberate. Do not worry about the additional weight; it is distributed so that the pad spreads into your palms and quickly disappears.

“If you can afford this preposterously priced, magnificently crafted marriage of plastics then you should not hesitate.”

As a bonus, four paddles can be attached to the back and sit under your middle and ring fingers, allowing access to the face button inputs without the need to take thumbs off the analogues. Another extra is the removable satellite-dish-shaped D-Pad, which is a blessing if you’re the type that knows your quarter-circle-forwards from your half-circle-backs. Meanwhile, two unobtrusive switches at the rear allows players to adjust the travel of the triggers, which works especially well in fighting games, and also FPSes where the left-trigger is used to aim down sights. Perhaps best of all, the Elite comes with the biggest omission from the standard pad; a 3.5mm headphone jack, which works with any iOS/Android headphone-mic combo, and can directly play game audio.

Granted, $ 150 (£120) for an additional pad is a lavish investment. But put it this way: You are at the mercy of a controller’s strengths and weaknesses every second you play games. If you can afford it, you deserve the very best.

Click on the thumbnails below for a visual tour of the Xbox One Elite Controller

Backwards Compatibility Is Uncommonly Generous

Backwards Compatibility is a fine demonstration of changing attitudes at Xbox under the leadership of Phil Spencer, who quite clearly is guiding his team under the philosophy of putting customers first. One cannot underestimate the technical difficulty of retroactively adding Xbox 360 software emulation to Xbox One, seemingly one game at a time. And in the context of that Herculean engineering and licencing effort (which, it’s worth noting, is all being implemented for free), it seems perhaps a little ungracious to scrutinise the initial hundred-plus Xbox 360 games now playable on Xbox One.

“Currently, Microsoft’s gesture is bigger than the feature itself, with a thin launch library and apparently no easy way to tell what digital licences players already own”

Currently, Microsoft’s gesture is bigger than the feature itself, with a thin launch library and apparently no easy way to tell what digital licences players already own. To be fair, the collection needs time to expand before it gets fair analysis, and Microsoft has little choice if publishers decide against adding the likes of Red Dead Redemption to the list. But even with these teething issues, Backwards Compatibility is already leagues better than PlayStation Now.

Install Times Continue to Lag Behind

It’s on the Xbox team’s list of priorities, but for now the Xbox One continues to install games noticeably slower than any other platform out there.

Metal Gear Solid 5 installed, to the extent that it was playable, in 16 seconds on Sony’s console (interacting with menus was possible within 40 seconds), while the Xbox One edition took about 6 minutes to allow players in. That gulf was even wider on The Witcher 3 (PS4 – 00:17; Xbox One – 11:16). Even Fallout 4, which gained attention for taking so long to install on PS4, was interactive at 23:43 on Sony’s system, which is still faster than the Xbox One version (30:36).

Though such comparisons are possibly a trivial matter, the complete install of games such as The Witcher 3 takes several hours or more on Xbox One. Unless the console team finds a way to optimise the process, this is a problem that fans will not likely grow more tolerant of in the years to come. In fact, like with the PS3’s onslaught of mandatory game updates, we suspect the complaints will only get louder if time passes without a solution.

Another Strong Year of Acclaimed Exclusive Games

It would be difficult for any platform holder’s slate of exclusive games to stand out in a year that featured the arrival of The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, and Fallout 4, but Microsoft has pulled off such a feat. It has done so, more or less, with time-worn IPs that by all rights would be outdated by now were it not for the passionate and talented teams who sustain their relevance. Rise of the Tomb Raider is arguably the best game in the series yet; a remarkable achievement the more you think about it, while the likes of Forza 6 and Gears of War Ultimate offer refurbished and refined iterations of familiar ideas. The biggest achievement of them all however is Halo 5, which revitalises its multiplayer with the fantastic Warzone mode, and takes the story of Master Chief through a less predictable path. The series seemed tired and tattered only a few years ago, which makes its successor’s award for GameSpot’s October Game of the Month that much more impressive.

Microsoft still needs to build new IPs, and draw in more indie developers, but nevertheless its console exclusive Ori and the Blind Forest is easily one of the most attractive and enjoyable games released this year. At the end of 2014 we concluded that Xbox One’s game library edges ahead of the PS4’s; this isn’t the case any longer, with Sony’s 2015 line-up delivering a more interesting and varied line-up of console exclusives and new IPs. But that doesn’t negate Xbox One’s achievement; it has delivered two sustained years of acclaimed console exclusives.

Other Matters, in Brief:

  • Windows 10 game streaming is surprisingly brilliant, mirroring the full console experience to another room with minimal lag (especially if you use a wired connection).
  • Kinect games released in 2015: zero.
  • You’re far better off with the 1TB version.
  • Games With Gold has had a far stronger year: Rayman Legends, Child of Light, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition.
  • EA Access has arguably had an even better year: Titanfall, Dragon Age Inquisition, Battlefield: Hardline.

Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, announcing backwards compatibility during Microsoft’s E3 2015 press conference.

Our Verdict Today

In our same Xbox One review article for 2014, we wrote that “while most of the Xbox One’s inconveniences are forgivable on their own, the same can’t be said for the package as a whole.” Of all of the Xbox One’s issues, the biggest was that most of those problems weren’t to be found on the PlayStation 4. [Further Reading: Xbox One – The Year One Review]

Things have certainly improved in 2015. “The fastest improving console ever” might not be the marketing line that the Xbox team had in mind at launch, but it’s the most accurate description of what you’re buying into with an Xbox One right now. This is a console that has been re-engineered with a faster operating system, reinvigorated with new features such as backwards compatibility, remastered with an industry-leading Elite controller, and reinforced with second annual wave of standout console exclusive games. The road is long for Microsoft, with its console still carrying underlying flaws and technical issues, but you can be sure that the Xbox One team won’t stop until it has crossed the line.

The Xbox One has overcome teething problems to become a capable, generous, cohesive console experience, with an even brighter future ahead.

The Good The Bad
  • Key improvements made throughout the system software.

  • Backwards Compatibility is a wonderful extra.

  • The Elite Controller is sensational.

  • A strong line-up of exclusive games.

  • The PS4/Xbox One graphics gap is closing.

  • The new Dashboard isn’t a major improvement.
  • Install times still drag.

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