Saturday, November 23, 2013

First Impressions of Microsoft's Xbox One Game and Entertainment Console

At E3 2012 the question of the Eighth Gen Consoles was jump-started by the presence of Nintendo's Wii U, and the fact that the Japanese electronics and gaming giant (actually if you think about it the company also has a major presence in Washington State, so calling it Japanese is not, strictly speaking, entirely the case) had basically beaten the competition to the market, being first to get its next gen console to the public.

The Wii U was all bells and whistles, and clearly as far as Nintendo was concerned it was ready to go, but the same was not true for both Sony and Microsoft's next gen consoles -- but for two very different and very good reasons.

In the case of Sony, the reason that their Next Gen Console -- the PlayStation 4 -- was not ready for public consumption, had a lot to do with the partnerships and support commitments the company made with the major game studios which supported its PlayStation 3 console.

In simple terms these creative companies had committed money, effort, and time (the typical modern console game has a minimum of three years of development time that goes into it, with all that that entails from the creative costs and promotion right down to paying wages) and the studios were not ready to walk away from that platform in 2012.

It is bad enough that game studios have to field multiple versions of their games for each platform, there is also the question of in-genre competition with other titles -- and Sony had committed to a firm support period in 2009/2010 that would see the current crop of game titles onto the platform.  

Even that is expensive without having to deal with a competing console from Sony and gamer feelings that a new gen console makes all games for the previous gen obsolete!

For Microsoft there was a similar issue with major studios bringing out major titles, and more than a few major series sequels, but a more compelling issue for the Redmond, Washington mega brand was the fact that the Xbox One was simply not ready - there were several technological features that needed to be properly polished up before the Xbox One was ready to reach the public...

22 November 2013: Launch Day

The morning of Thursday, 21 November 2013 was a blustery and cold one with sunlight that was tinged with shades of steel and a bite in the air.  

Into that hostile environment our brave and attractive assistant and personal care-giver Yvonne (who also serves as the enabler to our gaming addiction and the facilitator of obtaining our Zero-Day Fix for new game consoles this stellar Fall of 2013) was being dispatched upon a mission.

While it was not strictly necessary, due to the insurance of the pre-order process, a decision was made to send our well-armed agent to our local GameStop to pay the outstanding balance on an Xbox One that we were assured would be available after Midnight that night (or more accurately at 00:01 in the morning of Friday, 22 November, 2013).

This decision was based upon stories that cropped up about the PlayStation 4 launch the previous week, and claims that included pre-ordered systems somehow ending up sold to gamers who had not actually bothered to pre-order them.  

While GameStop was not part of that debacle and has always been an above-board, honest, and helpful supplier of all things required by a video game addict, we were not taking any chances.

Secret Agent "God is She Cute" obtained our reciept, marked "Paid in Full" and the cryptic instructions for her to return at 23:00 that evening, fully prepared to take posession of the box containing the Xbox One.  Can do!

Fast forward to 23:04 on the evening of 22 November 2013 and a crew of GameStop Gang Members (well they were all wearing identical colors and symbols, so what else do you call them?) was there to usher each of the lucky winners into a group inside the store, where they were taken one at a time to have their receipt code matched up to an Xbox One box with the corresponding serial number on it...

While our Secret Agent kept an eye peeled for Jabberjays, Monkey Mutts, and Tracker Jackers, they battled their way to the front of the line and, scoring their box from the coruncopia pile, fought through the tributes still waiting for their number to be called and made it outside.  

OK enough Hunger Games references eh heh.

Xbox One: First Impressions

The Controller
In addition to a new generation of game console, we also get a new generation of game controller in the form of the Xbox One Gamepad.

If you are familiar with the gamepad from the Xbox 360 the basic features of the Xbox One gamepad will be familiar to you, though there are some noticeable differences here.

The new gamepad is slightly smaller and flatter, lacking the slight curve of the one from the 360 -- and in addition to the shape difference the wizards at Microsoft's Xbox Division spent a lot of effort tweaking it to improve a number of features.

The rumble system is present, and all of the basic controls as well, with their familiar layout.

A new white glowing Guide/Home Button is closer to the back of the controller, and its bright white glow means you won't have any trouble finding it in the dark :)

The controller now includes force-feedback on the triggers.

The D-Pad has received a lot of love - first it is clicky now which gives a positive feedback to pressing it that lets you know you have actually pressed it. The responsiveness of its clock-hand-focused activation points seem to work much better than they did on the 360's controller.

The tether connection for the new gamepad is Micro-USB format.

Xbox One Gamepad on PC?
The presence of the Micro-USB slot made us wonder if, like the 360 this gamepad could be used on PC via Micro-USB to USB for playing PC games.

Sadly when we connected it the drivers for the old gamepad did not work and, when we loaded Fallout: New Vegas the controller was not recognized and did not work. Sigh.

It is early yet though, so there is every reason to believe that Microsoft will eventually get around to adding support for the device on Windows 8. We cannot wait.

Xbox One Kinect
A slightly thicker and more brick-like form is the first thing that sets apart the new Kinect which like the device on the Xbox 360 needed to be configured before it could be used.

Unlike the previous version of the Kinect, which did not work in the very small space available in my games room and the gaming area set aside for it -- which has about four feet of floor space -- the new Kinect worked very well in that abbreviated space, and as it turns out that is not an accident.

The new Kinect system has been optimized to function in smaller spaces, though it turns out that a four-foot section of floor is the basic minimum that is required for use of the device. Still, win-win since that is pretty much what we have, and that means that we will now be able to use our Kinect in the games area rather than having to use the Xbox in the living room when we want to play Kinect-enabled games.

The Xbox One
While there was a lot of controversy early in the PR and news run-up over the course of the last eighteen months with respect to the copy protection and online requirements of the XO, in the end the decision was made to require only a single connection to the Internet when you first configure the console, after which an online connection is not required -- though having one is generally beneficial to gaming.

After we plugged in the wires and properly installed the batteries in the controller the XO got itself online whereupon it demanded that we apply a mandatory online update -- which was painless and took less than four minutes -- after which we went through the usual form of setup, telling where we were, what our time one was and the like.

We spent a half-hour exploring the new dashboard with its familiar-but-different organization. While that process was going on we noticed something strange - the XO was not making any noise. Its Power Brick was not making any noise. This thing was NOT making ANY noise!

Considering how noisy the Xbox 360 is just at idle when it is first fired up, the fact that the XO was completely silent actually made us feel a little nervous! Was there something wrong with it?

No, it was not broken - it is simply not supposed to make noise - and how cool is that?

To get an idea of what the video playback would be like we quickly downloaded Hulu Plus (and it was quick - surprisingly quick) and we picked the most recent episode of scandal since we had not yet watched it.

It was shocking how clear and crisp and wonderful the video playback is -- even though we are used to HD -- as it seems to have improved the HD display of HD. In any case the video playback on the XO is far superior to that of the 360, so we now know which platform we will be watching our TV shows on!

The next test of the system was DLC Codes -- no joke, one of the more annoying aspects of the Xbox 360 and Live are the unexplained pauses when inputting DLC codes. On the 360 you entered the code, the console chomped on it for a few seconds, then you were shown the “download” meter.

At that point the meter pauses, starts to download, gets to around 50% or so, then pauses. After a five or ten second pause, it resumes downloading until it gets to 98% or thereabout, then again pauses for no clear reason.

After a pause of anywhere from 10 to 40 seconds, you get the expected “ding!” and the DLC has been applied.

For the Xbox One I am happy to say the experience is very VERY different! First, there is no meter. You enter the LC code or show the Kinect its QR code and the XO goes “Ding!” and the code has been added.

OK it is not really that simple -- you still have to confirm that you mean to add that code -- but the rapid process between when you confirm and when it goes ding! is really brief.

The lack of the meter does not mean that the code content is not being downloaded or that it was instantly downloaded -- rather it is being handled automagically as a background process. So depending on the size of the DLC anywhere from 10 seconds to an hour after you enter the code you get another ding! and confirmation that the add-on has been added on.

What Microsoft has done here is to remove the in-your-face process and turned it into a background process, and more significant to that is that they have reduced the level of awareness that you naturally devote to the process - and really that is a good thing.

Game Play & a Free Game
While a lot of emphasis was placed early on by Microsoft on the capability of the new console as an entertainment aggregation device that brings together the many entertainment options you have including Cable/Satellite or even Broadcast TV, for most gamers the XO is a game console. The rest of all that entertainment stuff is nice but what we bought it for -- and what we use it for -- is playing games!

For reasons that have more to do with work than anything else we did not pick up any games when the console was picked up -- though once the system was properly set up and after we spent an hour watching TV (and earning an Achievement for doing so much to our unexpected shock) we decided to download the free game that Microsoft emailed us about a month or so ago and then recently sent us the code for so we could check that side of the XO out...

Actually before we get to the game play experience that we had -- the unique and new game play experience -- I wanted to address the subject of that free game...

It seems that the criteria that MS used to decide who got the game -- Killer Instinct -- for free, and who did not, had to do with a couple of factors: a high Gamerscore and length of membership in Xbox Gold.

Right so my Gamerscore is pretty high - at least I think it is.... It is higher than almost all of the scores held by my mates, being north of 125K but not as high as some I have seen.

As for length of membership, well, I have only been a member for just under five years, so there is no telling just where the cut-off is.

Do I like the fact that the combination of my high Gamerscore (which is high due to my job basically) and my membership term (which is long again, due to my job)? Yeah, actually I think it is rather spiffy that they did that.

I don't undestand the negative reaction to that gesture by players who don't have a high Gamerscore of lengthy membership term -- those were the criteria used, it is not our fault.

Moving on...
On the Game Store screen the classic-style fighting game Killer Instinct was marked as available for Free - so we started the download process. Remembering that there was a free DLC code in our email inbox that we received earlier in the week from Microsoft, we checked that and tapped in the code, with the DLC being added while the game downloaded.

When the download for Killer Instinct hit 74% we received a pop-up notice telling us that the game was ready for play -- that's right, the XO determined that a sufficient amount of the download had progressed to the point that the game can be played, so while it finishes downloading the game we can start playing NOW!

Full TV Real Estate
The TV that I own is an HD flat screen that was manufactured and purchased way after the Xbox 360 was released, and as a result it included features that the 360 could not take advantage of. What that meant was that, even with some lengthy tweaking and having to learn a lot more about video modes and setup than we really wanted to, we were never able to use the entire screen.

The part we could use left us feeling like we were using a smaller TV that was sitting inside our larger TV, with that very easy to see (it screamed at you) black “frame” around the display that there was nothing we could really do about.

So you can probably imagine how pleased we were when the XO not only made use ALL of the available acreage but did it in a very crisp very impressive HD way. Now we knew what we had been missing and we can only imagine how nice it would have been to experience the Fallout Games and GTA this way...

On-Screen User Manual
As we started to get into the game it became obvious that we needed to check the manual for the different control and move combinations -- but of course this was a digital game, so no manual, right? Hold on, not so fast...

When we hit the Help option from the Pause menu the XO accessed the Internet, divided the screen with a fifth its width set aside on the right, and displayed the user manual in that fifth! Well how cool is that? Very cool indeed! Not only could we still see the game screen and the items it was commenting about, we could easily read the manual!

And that is another point that is certainly an improvement for the XO -- with the 360 we were constantly struggling to read the words on the screen because they were sort of small and fuzzy - but words on the XO screen are crisp and stand out, making it very easy indeed to read them.

Dashboard Drawbacks
While it is true that I have heaped praise above, that over-all glowing acceptance of the device glosses over a handful of fairly minor issues that exist with the Dashboard that detract from the otherwise glowing prospects for the console generally, though far from being a bug or error appears to actually be the results of an ill-advised strategy!

Microsoft has invested heavily in the notion that the typical modern Xbox gamer will be inclined to fully embrace the new Kinect and its voice control scheme -- in fact it appears that their expectations in that regard go so far as to curtail the variety of different options for tiles on the Dashboard.

A perfect example of this is access to the Settings and Configuration Menus.

While writing this post the XO went to sleep. As that is something that I never want it to do, I restarted it by pressing the Guide Button on my controller and then, after logging into my Gamertag I went looking for the tile that gave access to the configuration and settings only to discover that it was not there.

Tapping the Guide Button no longer takes one to the Blade Menus that are very much a shortcut still on the good old Xbox 360, but rather tapping the Guide Button on the XO simply takes you back to the Home Screen.

After a good ten minutes wasted looking through what was there, the realization struck home that while there certainly was such a menu, it was not to be found here.

After desperation struck I ended up experiencing something of an epiphany -- in a rather subdued voice I announced the following to the room in general:

“Xbox...” After a brief pause I then added, “Open Settings.”
If you guessed that my XO opened the Settings Menus which was just what I wanted and needed, well then you guessed right.

What I guess is that Microsoft is expecting us to do just that sort of thing -- and it probably has not occurred to them that old-school gamers would prefer to be able to navigate to that set of screen using the gamepad.

All in all first impressions of the XO are of a solid and bug-free console - though granted our game play experience in it has been very limited.

Media and apps are solid - the graphics are amazing - the only real complaint is the lack of comprehensive Dashboard navigation options that do not require the voice controls available via Kinect.

Wishes? We wish that the Live Arcade titles from the 360 were playable via One, but we get why they are not..

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A well Deserved Grats All Around to Our New Eagle Scout!

This evening in a culmination of years of hard work, effort, and dedication, my son Peter earned his Eagle Rank as a member of Boy Scout Troop 42, St. Anthony's Church, Teaticket, Massachusetts.  His Mom and I are very proud of him.

Peter worked hard on earning the Eagle rank, which is the highest rank that a boy can obtain in the Scouts program, but he simply could not have accomplished this without the active and incredibly valuable assistance of a number of people, most notably his Scoutmaster, Russ Brown.

Russ Brown - an Amazing Man and Scoutmaster!
Although he leads an incredibly busy - one is tempted to say hectic - life, Russ has been Scoutmaster of Troop 42 for as long as I can remember and not simply because his own two boys were members.  His son Lucas was a member of my WEBELOS Den in Pack 41 when Yvonne and I pitched in as Den Leaders, and Lucas was one of the wonderful group of boys who worked very hard to obtain their Arrow of Light Awards - and I know that that was a proud moment for Russ and his wife not to mention Lucas and his brother Jacob.

They say that it takes a village and it does, but we are so fortunate that our village is populated by people like Russ, the Carters, the Howlands, the Abrams, the Fullers, the Geisheckers, and everyone else from Troop 42 - you are all an amazing Village!

Yvonne and I want to thank all of you, but in particular we want to thank Russ -- thanks mate!

Peter at Scout Camp - Good on Ya Peter!