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Hands-On Impressions of the Xbox One

xbox one tour impressions

With the Xbox One release a month away, the focus shifts to its game lineup. (Photo by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

I played the Xbox One and some of its games for several hours, which launches in North America on Nov. 22. Even with the limited scope of the gameplay available, the launch games might change your perspective on Microsoft’s upcoming console.

On Saturday I tried the system on the promotional “Xbox One Tour,” which took place in Chicago at 1747 W. Hubbard St. Microsoft is going around various cities for people to test out the Xbox One and its launch lineup. You can find the rest of the locations here and here.

New Hardware

The first thing I noticed is how much better the new Xbox One controller is compared to previous Xbox controller designs. The Xbox One controller feels much more comfortable and natural to hold. It doesn’t have the bulky battery pack on the back of it, which gives you more room to place your hands. The second most noticeable difference are the new Impulse Triggers for the LT and RT buttons. These give a deeper rumble feedback when playing games like Forza Motorsport 5. It gives off a unique, pulsating feeling through your fingers during gameplay that I haven’t felt in a controller before.

The Xbox home menu almost melds right into the controller like it’s not even there, unlike the Xbox 360 version. It’s also above the start and select buttons so it can’t be accidentally hit. The analog sticks do feel a bit smaller, but not so much that they feel awkward when playing games. The directional pad is greatly improved over the poor design on the Xbox 360. The new pad felt like much stronger inputs when pressed in any direction. As for the console itself, it looks more like a cable box than a game system.

After playing Kinect Sports Rivals, which is in development by Rare, my view on the Kinect changed. It’s surprising how the new Kinect sensor recognizes a person’s motions so well. The demo featured a three lap jet ski race. It went straight into the demo with no personalized character creation.

You play the game by having both arms stretched out in the forward position, like when riding a bike. The right arm kept straight accelerates while the left turns. Moving your right or left arm back makes the jet ski turn in that direction. Moving either arm too strongly can cause the jet ski to veer off course and crash. It took half of my first race to get accustomed to moving them both back and forth correctly in sync to maneuver through the course. Stomping your foot does a speed boost and pulling your arms back does a boost off ramps. I stood somewhat close to the screen but far enough that it still picked up all my body’s movements.

It can get physically tiring holding your arms out for the whole race but it was a lot of fun. It does feel like you’re part of the game. One of the issues with Sports Rivals was that it’s hard to reverse if the vehicle drives into a wall or other obstacle. Rather than pressing a button to reverse, you have to keep moving your arms back and forth as the vehicle slowly turns in the right direction to get back into the race.

Kinect Sports Rivals would be a great launch game to show off the new device, but the game won’t release until spring 2014. Outside of Ubisoft’s Just Dance 2014 and Fighter Within, there aren’t any major Kinect games at the Xbox One’s launch. Microsoft still needs to develop deeper experiences beyond these party games, otherwise Kinect will continue to feel like an afterthought. Considering it’s an extra $100 to the cost of the system compared to the PlayStation 4, Microsoft still hasn’t proven why it’s worth that extra money from a gameplay  or user perspective.

The Games

Forza Motorsport 5, a first-party Xbox One exclusive, looked incredible. It was the best-looking game I played on Xbox One. Turn 10 Studios, the developer for the racing series going back to 2005 on the original Xbox, might have the must-play game at launch. I played several races with a handful of different cars. The new Xbox One triggers were the most responsive for Forza 5. Doing a hard turn or ramming into another car set both triggers off. It adds a lot to the gameplay experience, making it feel like you’re actually driving the car. The driving itself is smooth and what you’d expect from the franchise. Racing games have large mainstream appeal and Forza shows off both the console’s new graphical and controller upgrades.

Dead Rising 3 from Capcom is one of few exclusive launch games for Microsoft. It’s much different than the two previous releases in the franchise, almost night and day to the original 2006 Xbox 360-exclusive Dead Rising. The demo was timed for ten minutes in the city streets of Los Perdidos where you couldn’t die. Nick Ramos, the new main character, started off with weapons like a flamethrower, a huge electric hammer and dual wield guns.

Graphically it looks above an Xbox 360 title but still a lot better than previous Dead Rising games. However there’s so much going on during gameplay that makes it feel next-gen. There’s hundreds of zombies on the screen at all times. These zombies were all over the city. As you moved around on the street, large groups of zombies could be seen in the distance that didn’t need to load up when you actually got to them. There’s a ton of action happening on the screen with no stuttering, lag, or noticeable frame rate drops even during combat, which is surprising with the city’s scale.

There’s a large variety of weapons to play with, from guns to random items on the street. You can use them until they break or throw them at enemies. Picking a different weapon from your equipment is done in-game, which doesn’t give a lot of time to choose with so many surrounding zombies. Driving around in a bulldozer or sports car will squish a lot of the zombies with plenty of gore but also will eventually slow down the vehicle from all the blockage.

Since you’re constantly surrounded by zombies, there’s way more action than previous games. A cool detail is that zombies can slowly climb up the car as you’re driving and even try to open the door. A quick button press appears on the screen if they try to pull you out of the vehicle. Even with its darker visuals and atmosphere, the game’s humor is still intact. Pushing around a wheelchair with a zombie in it while mowing down others is just one of the ways Dead Rising 3 is still humorous through its gameplay. Switching out clothes into outfits like a Hawaiian shirt, tuxedo and even a shark costume are more ways to customize Nick and highlight the game’s personality.

With so many zombies constantly surrounding the player in Dead Rising 3, how this will affect the story mode where you can actually get a game over could determine if playing gets frustrating or not. Anything with zombies are extremely popular right now, so Dead Rising 3 should do well for Xbox One. Before playing Dead Rising 3 I wasn’t expecting much, but afterwards the game changed my view with how it shows the Xbox One’s capabilities. On a side note, it was the second game I played at the event, and glitched out into a weird split-screen view that forced them to restart the system.

After a disappointing presentation at this year’s E3, Ryse: Son of Rome by Crytek has a lot to prove in a short amount of time before launch. Ryse is especially interesting since it’s one of the few all-new IPs released on either the Xbox One or PS4. The demo was of the game’s multiplayer mode, which took place in a gladiator arena with waves of enemies and different objectives to complete. During gameplay Ryse looks better than Xbox 360 but not quite the full leap over to a next-gen release. The demo didn’t do the best job of presenting the game with its level on a smaller scale and no cinematic or story sequences. It also wasn’t made clear that the demo was of Ryse’s multiplayer and not part of the story mode.

Ryse’s combat isn’t extremely deep, but it works fine for a hack and slash game. At the beginning of the demo you could select abilities from four different gods, which gives you a special move to attack enemies. These might set them on fire or push them back in a stunned fashion. Combat alternates between the X and Y buttons, with A used to block and B to roll dodge. The better the combo and action against enemies, the more an audience interest meter increases. Killing enemies in a quick succession makes the crowd cheer, but running around to find the next soldier or taking too much damage makes them bored. The meter factors into your score at the end of the game.

Ryse does a different take on Quick Time Events to finish off enemies. Instead of big buttons appearing on the screen, the enemy will glow the color of the corresponding button press after initiating the sequence. The camera will zoom in on the enemy as they glow and also for your attack against them. Sometimes an enemy will glow red in combat, signaling to dodge them. These Quick Times are less intrusive compared to the standard of this generation and what Crytek previously showed for Ryse.

Enemies need different strategies to defeat them. Some might have a stronger defense and shield that leads to a slower-paced fight, while others just outright attack. Enemies can be set into traps throughout the arena, like spikes from the ground or in wooden barricades. This is a cool feature that would be great to use in the single-player. It will take skill to finish off all the enemies. You can’t just button mash in Ryse and expect to get far. There wasn’t a lot of blood and gore, which is especially odd with the brutal ways you can finish off soldiers.

I’m not sure if Ryse’s gameplay will hold interest for the duration of the story mode. The combat and finishing moves might get repetitive. I needed to play Ryse several times to get a feel for the combat and defensive elements. The game’s historical setting could lead to some fantastic moments in the story mode though. Ryse did show the most potential out of all the Xbox One exclusive launch titles. Much like Dead Rising 3, I’m more optimistic about the final game after actually playing it.

The revival of Killer Instinct on Xbox One from Double Helix Games and Rare is still weird to see because the last game released on the Nintendo 64 in 1996. There’s skepticism around its return, considering how long it’s been since the franchise was relevant and its free-to-play model. The four playable characters were Jago, Glacius, Sabrewulf and Chief Thunder, all returning fighters from the series.

Visually Killer Instinct looks fantastic and truly next-gen. Animations like shooting fireballs or Glacius’ body are well detailed and look amazing. As someone who is terrible at fighting games, Killer Instinct was welcoming enough while still offering more complex combos for skilled players. Fighter fans will probably love Killer Instinct but the true test is if people outside of the hardcore fighting community will buy any downloadable characters. Those concerned that Double Helix would ruin Killer Instinct don’t need to worry anymore.

DICE’s Battlefeld 4 was the most popular game at the event. Throughout the day the line for Battlefield 4 was always long. It played and looked like a better version of Battlefield 3 (2011). I was only able to play one round of an eight versus eight match that lasted 10-15 minutes. Everyone was into the match and it went down to a close finish. The one disappointment was that the game didn’t make use of the Xbox One’s Impulse Triggers. A game like Battlefield 4 needs that feedback. DICE’s shooter should be a deeper experience than the yearly Call of Duty and the go-to online multiplayer game until Titanfall releases in 2014.

Go Digital

There wasn’t as much interest in the Xbox Live arcade section at the event. Max: The Curse of Brotherhood by Press Play is a game that only had one system to check out but featured a lengthy demo. It’s a platformer that uses an interesting gameplay mechanic. To move forward in the game, the player needs to create objects in the environment by drawing or erasing them using the right analog stick along with the X and A buttons. At first I wasn’t sure what the game wanted me to do and it took a few minutes to get adjusted. Once I did, drawing became almost second nature.

You can trace out various designs throughout the stage, which took place in a jungle. One drawing might be the design of a tree vine to get across a lava pit or climb up a rocky wall. These creations needed to be designed fairly close to the size and shape of what Max would use to climb up. Vines can be shaped in different directions to connect them as a bridge to the other side of the stage. The game world felt big and colorful. Max could even be a good mascot-type character in contrast to most other games on Xbox One. The Curse of Brotherhood will release in early 2014 and is also coming out for the Xbox 360.

LocoCycle from Twisted Pixel Games, creators of ‘Splosion Man (2009), is another quality downloadable title for Xbox One. The game’s stations were running a cut-scene of the game that looked extremely rough, laggy and choppy. Seeing that had me worried, but playing LocoCycle didn’t show any of these problems. The demo left a good impression and is the game that early Xbox One adopters should download for the system.

In LocoCycle you’re racing on a motorcycle through a highway with bad guys trying to kill you. The main character is being dragged by the “Tron”-like motorcycle with a computerized voice guiding the directions. The character only speaks Spanish and has no idea why he’s being pursued, which made for funny dialogue between him and the computer. There’s an emphasis on combat and stringing together hits. I managed to get a 196 hit combo that featured attacks and counters pretty easily. The combat is fast-paced and goes well with the racing element.

LocoCycle didn’t necessarily feel next-gen but still will be the must-download game at the Xbox One’s launch. The demo ended right when a boss appeared, which was a bad time to cut players off. LocoCycle will cost $19.99 when it releases, and it’s another game that’s also going to appear on the Xbox 360.

Crimson Dragon, a digital launch game for $19.99, was a disappointment. Originally a Kinect-only downloadable game for the Xbox 360, the rail shooter from the team that also includes the original Panzer Dragoon creator felt outdated. It didn’t feel like a next generation game at all. Flying around the stage didn’t hold interest. The game’s objectives mostly consisted of collecting orbs and defeating other flying enemies. The music sounded weak and didn’t bring out the game’s action or environments. The dialogue from mission briefs, updates and tips also came across as generic. Like Forza 5, the right trigger pulsated during gameplay. This worked especially well since that’s Dragon’s main shooting button.

The game is challenging though, with special goals for each stage and rankings for each objective. Fans looking for that old school feel of those classic Sega Saturn games might be satisfied with Crimson Dragon. It was one of the Xbox One-exclusive games that I was looking forward to the most but after playing it my interest cooled considerably.

Final Thoughts

No particular game from the Xbox One launch lineup blew me away, but its solid group of exclusive games makes the console much more appealing than before. For those already with pre-orders and buying the console on Nov. 22, they should be happy with the selection of the first and third-party releases. The most popular games from the Xbox One Tour were Battlefield 4, then Killer Instinct, followed by Dead Rising 3 while Kinect Sports Rivals had the lowest interest. The Xbox One controller is a strong improvement, but only a few games supported the new rumble feature.

Without playing around with the new Xbox Live, cloud or Kinect features for specific titles, it’s difficult to judge each game’s key next generation features, but I did come out with a more positive view on the system’s launch lineup and the Xbox One console.

With all the negativity surrounding the Xbox One and confusing messaging from Microsoft going back to the system’s reveal in May, it’s going to take some work to turn things around. That image reversal will come from the games on Xbox One. It’s still hard to put out $500 for the console at launch, but actually playing the games makes that decision a little easier. Forza 5, Dead Rising 3, Ryse, Killer Instinct and Battlefield 4 should give the Xbox One a strong start against the PS4. 

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