Of all the writers reviewing the Xbox One, I am undoubtedly the worst at video games. In high school, my friends invited me over to play only when they needed a round number of participants; most of my recent gaming experiences have ended with me getting punted off a floating island after inflicting zero damage on my competitors, or else getting karate chopped to death by Oddjob, despite possessing the so-called Golden Gun.
In single-player mode, my relationship with any video game is the same as my relationship with "Gravity's Rainbow": I have never "finished" either, only gotten far enough in that I consider my experience complete and satisfactory.
Given this utter lack of gaming cred, it was kind of Microsoft to give me an early chance to try its new Xbox One, which on Friday will go on sale as the company’s first new game console since the Xbox 360 in 2005. I imagine I made the cut because, as Microsoft promised me, the Xbox One is less about video games than any previous video game console. Microsoft is pitching the Xbox One as a home entertainment system rather than a gamer's dream machine. It's an all-in-one media center that integrates video games, the Internet, your cable box and several streaming media subscriptions in one.
Even if you never figured out how to throw a forward pass in "Madden" or ever managed to shoot anyone at all in "Halo," there is supposed to be something here for you.
And lo! There is. Microsoft has built the most comprehensive, capable and roundly satisfying media box that you have ever plugged into your television. The Xbox One is easy to use and integrates all the services you would want into one place, in a way that no other device specifically designed for the TV has.
That’s a feat: The Xbox One is, simply, the new gold standard for black boxes. But though the Xbox One is the most impressive media center I’ve tried, it’s still too expensive for anyone who doesn’t also want to mash buttons. You better love playing video games, whether you’re great or you stink, if you’re going to plunk down $500 plus a $60 annual subscription for its best features — for this thing, as opposed to, say, $100 for a Roku or Apple TV.
Like those devices, the Xbox One connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable and lets you play certain streaming services on your television. Polished, speedy apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, ESPN and the NFL have all hit the Xbox marketplace; apps for the NBA, MLB and HBO are on their way. There’s also an Xbox storefront to download or stream movies and individual episodes of television shows, just as you would from iTunes or from a VOD service like Vudu.
Microsoft has the basics covered, in other words; but if you’re going to pitch yourself as the ultimate entertainment machine, you have to go beyond the bones and add some meat. Xbox One’s most impressive feature is its television integration: You can plug your cable box into the back of the Xbox, rather than into the television itself; after a two-minute setup, you can watch all your cable channels through the console, with a customized on-screen guide and everything.
Even better, you can just call out the channel you want — “Xbox, watch Bravo!” — rather than page through endless lists of shows you don’t care about. You can also control the volume and turn the TV on and off using your voice, and you never have to change inputs to go from, say, cable to Netflix to video games to the Internet Explorer browser.
This is how the modern television should work, and delightfully, it does work, mostly, on the Xbox One.
Neat tricks abound, but they don’t accumulate to $460 of value above the $100 you would spend on a Roku or Apple TV, alas. The Xbox One costs $500 to start, plus $60 a year for access to streaming apps. For that much money, I’d rather deal with finding my remote control and occasionally pressing the input button.
If you’ve got the money, no one has brought the various services you’d want on your big screen into a single-input package like Microsoft has. If you don’t have the money, the Roku 3 and Google’s Chromecast both cost less than a month of premium cable and will certainly be in stock, and in stockings, this holiday seasons.
As for the games: As many of my esteemed, nimble-fingered colleagues have noted, the lineup is somewhat thin at launch. Obviously this won’t be the case for long, and the selection will improve rapidly. This is why so many tech critics urge potential Xbox One and PlayStation 4 buyers to wait a year or so, for the great games and killer apps to land.
Of course, this is a boring way to live your life. So what are you getting on Xbox One, Day One?
The best game, by far, is "Ryse," in which you play a superhandsome Roman soldier tasked with killing barbarians in the most gruesome, gory way possible. Basically, you run around Rome, chopping off ruffians’ heads with your sword. It’s a lot of fun, and the graphics are stupendous and smooth.
I also enjoyed "LocoCycle," a simple adventure game in which you are a motorcycle trying to destroy other motorcycles and enemy cars by smashing buttons on your controller as hard as you can. The game gets a little repetitive after a few hours, but it’s solid, uncomplicated entertainment.
Elsewhere, there’s "Forza Motorsport," a racing game more concerned with lifelike graphics than fun; two races in, and "Forza" had me yearning for the cartoonish glee of "Mario Kart." "Killer Instinct" and "Crimson Dragon" similarly fizzle. I didn’t play "Dead Rising 3," a zombie game that got decent, though not ebullient, reviews. While we’re confessing our sins, I also haven’t yet checked out the $400 PlayStation 4, which ships with fewer media features and what my colleagues assure me is a less impressive slate of games.
For both the PS4, and the Xbox One, better games appear to be on the horizon; for now, your best Xbox option is the one where you stomp a bunch of Visigoths to death with your sandaled Roman foot. It’s so simple, even I was able to thoughtlessly murder 800 savages.
Do I enjoy my Xbox One? You bet. It’s a leap past any other streaming media box I’ve used, and the voice controls for the television will make you wonder why you’re buying AA batteries for your finicky remote every month. Still, at $560 for the full media center experience, you’re probably better off with one of the cheaper streaming boxes and a finger planted firmly on your “Switch Input” button.
And as for the gamers — well, you’ll probably love it, once the games that take advantage of the One’s processing power start to debut.
So get practicing: You’ve got hapless friends to humiliate. Anyone need a fourth?