History may one day look back at E3 2013 as a pivotal moment in gaming history. At the show, both Microsoft and Sony took the opportunity to reveal to the world their brand new games consoles, both of which would be launching the same year, in time for Christmas.
Console launches are always a big moment, as they effectively decide the winners and losers for the generation - which companies, for the next five years, are destined to be successful, and which are set to struggle.
Given that in the previous generation, the Xbox 360 and PS3 had roughly remained level in terms of sales, the new generation was up for grabs. It was set to be Tesla vs Edison, Celtic vs Rangers or Blur vs Oasis for the twenty first century.
And then it was universally agreed that Microsoft had ballsed it up and that was that.
At the time, I was actually shocked to see the degree to which early, hardcore gamer reaction could shape purchasing habits. Within weeks of both consoles being available, it was clear that the PS4 was dominating sales, and that success this generation would be much more asymmetrical.
What was Microsoft’s crime that condemned them to this fate? It wasn’t even that bad: essentially fans judged that the company was putting too much emphasis on the Xbox One as an all-round entertainment machine, rather than as a device designed for gaming. And also that it was insisting on bundling the Kinect camera - which added to both the price and the privacy worries. It didn’t help too that in horsepower terms, it was widely believed that the PS4 was the more powerful console of the two. Perhaps only by a hair - but to hardcore gamers, this mattered.
By the time of E3 2014, Microsoft had done a complete 180, and attempted to reposition the Xbox One as a console that is all about games. The presentation that year was pretty much the definition of overcompensating. But the damage was already done - and gamers had voted with their wallets. The early-adopters had, by and large, declared the Xbox One inferior to the PS4, and thanks to the power of influencers and network effects (you want to play online with your mates, so you’ll need to get the same console they have), the die was cast for a generation.
I too wasn’t immune to this herding instinct. Despite having been an Xbox 360 gamer for five years previously, when it came time to upgrade I, like many others, also made the switch to Sony’s machine. My reasoning was simple: it’s best to buy the most popular console, as that will have the widest support from developers, meaning there will, in theory, be more games to play.
And people like me are perhaps one of the reasons why Microsoft has turned to the Xbox One X. Could a new, beefed up, Xbox, persuade me to trade in my Dual Shock 4?
Meet The Xbox One X
Rather than simply wait for six years before it can make another attempt at winning the gaming crown, Microsoft has instead created what would traditionally be called a mid-cycle upgrade: the Xbox One X.
By all accounts it is a more powerful machine than the PS4 Pro - 40% more powerful in fact, and there’s enough power under the hood to enable gaming in native 4K HDR for the first time. You can tell that Microsoft are excited about this fact, as the first thing you see when the console boots up is a loading animation featuring a chip emblazoned with “4K” along with lots of swooshy noises. This new console, Microsoft is saying, is all about the power.
And based on a week of using the console, I can confirm that it’s an impressive machine. While I dedicated most playtime to the new Assassin’s Creed, I’ve also tried everything from Forza to Super Lucky’s Tale to get a flavour of the console. At the time of writing, not every 4K patch has been pushed out, but even the games not currently Xbox One X-enhanced make use of the console’s extra power, with a wealth of improvements including 4K upscaling, better filtering, faster load times and smoother frame rates.
The first thing you notice is that games on the console look absolutely stunning. Yes, even in 1080p upscaled to 4K. Assassin’s Creed’s enormous sandbox feels denser and more detailed than ever. Textures are sharper, everything feels somehow… crisper. Standing on top of a pyramid you can see far into the distance. I was particularly impressed how on the river in the distance, individual boats can be seen gliding slowly across the water. Maybe this is the same as on the PS4 or the Xbox One S, but whatever is going on, Ubisoft has clearly done a lot of work getting the most out of the machine.
Shadows are particularly impressive - as a bush waves in the wind (foliage looks great too), realistic shadows hang below. As birds fly past, you can track their shadows along the ground. Perhaps earlier games could do this too - but I don’t remember them looking quite this lovely. Water is similarly great - it seems to behave like real water, and as you swim the sunlight will refract and bounce off of the surface, making it feel more real than ever. After sinking around a dozen hours into the game so far, I’m yet to notice anything just pop-up from nowhere.
It hasn’t been completely plain sailing though. There has been maybe three occasions where - inexplicably - the game has locked up and frozen for around 5-10 seconds. Like hitting the pause button, before working again. On one occasion, the game crashed entirely and the console let out a deafening noise as the sound broke. In that instance, the game closed entirely (once restarted it was fine). I’m not sure whether to pin this fault on Microsoft or (perhaps more likely), Assassin’s Creed, which is notorious for having bugs at launch.
To further show off the capabilities of the X, Microsoft included a UHD Blu-Ray of the BBC Nature epic Planet Earth 2 with the pack they sent journalists. After inexplicably having to separately download the Blu-Ray playback software (!), I can confirm that nature does look completely mesmerising. HDR makes it feel like the sloth swinging between branches is really there in the room with you.
The true benefits of 4K and HDR though are surely not yet realised. It is only going to be when games are built from the ground-up to specifically take advantage of the extra resolution and colours. Similarly, it will take developers time to learn how to best make use of the new hardware - so even though games already look gorgeous, we almost certainly have not seen these powers maxed out yet.
Aside from all of the shiny stuff, switching over to the Xbox One X - my first experience with any Xbox One console - was interesting... and one that was weirdly familiar. In fact, it felt a bit like using a Windows PC.
Under the hood, of course, the Xbox is indeed running a version of Windows 10, and design-wise it shares some commonalities. The way that it ‘feels’ when apps launch on the console, for example - such as the Store or even the games library - is much like loading up something in Windows.
It also feels like Windows in spirit: the interface is busy with various features, buttons and boxes. Feature-wise, things are obviously pretty analogous to the PS4, but initially it feels much less clean; Microsoft is putting it all up front. (It makes me wonder what the UI of an Apple-made games console would look like.)
Once my brain had reconfigured though, it was fine.
The controller was also interesting. Picking up the Xbox One pad, which is very similar to the 360 one, it reminded me just how much better it is than the PS4 controller. Sorry, Sony.
What’s important about the Xbox One X - and in some regards, the PS4 Pro - is that they don’t represent a half-hearted upgrade in the mould of the Mega-CD or Nintendo 64 Disc Drive of old. Instead, they represent the start of a new business model for games consoles.
With both of these more powerful consoles, Microsoft and Sony have separated their hardware and software platforms, so that the two can be incrementally upgraded independently. There will probably be another new Xbox One, that is even more powerful in a year or two. Same for the PS4. We’re going to start upgrading our consoles like we upgrade our phones.
Perhaps by the time an “Xbox One Z” arrives, there will be games that do not run on the original Xbox One, but will still work on the Xbox One X and the even newer console. Just like how there are some iPhone apps today will work on iOS10, but not iOS9.
For consoles, this means an end to “big bang” upgrades every five or six years. So rather than there being a moment for us all to choose whether to switch or stick with the brand we know, everyone will have to decide in their own time.
Making the switch will also, inevitably, become more costly. Switching from iPhone to Android may be annoying, but most apps can be re-downloaded for a few pounds. Replacing games - or purchasing them again on a new system - suddenly becomes an expensive endeavour. Not to mention that unlike, say, logging into Facebook on your new phone, switching gaming platform means losing all of your save data.
In other words, picking a ‘team’ for the future will be increasingly important, as you’ll have every incentive to remain locked in. Microsoft’s bet is that the Xbox One X will shortcircuit this - and that by remaining ahead in the horsepower race, it can convince the sort of hardcore influencers who hurt the console at launch, to give the Xbox One another chance.
As for me - would I make the switch? Should PS4 owners use the Xbox One X as an opportunity get back on board with Microsoft? Make no mistakes - the Xbox One is a powerful machine, capable of producing some beautiful visuals. But I’m not sure I would shell out an eye-watering £450 for the upgrade. Ask me again in a year though, when new games are truly making the most of the extra power, and the calculus might be rather different.