Microsoft’s Xbox One is an imposing presence when it docks in your living room, ready for business and some serious entertainment.
It’s like an aircraft carrier poised to launch all manner of games in a looming, decadelong battle with Sony’s PlayStation 4 and a dozen other platforms fighting for the coveted and prosperous territory between you and your TV.
The effect is heightened by the Xbox One’s sturdy black case and Kinect sensor, which serves as a radar mast in your living room, bristling with sensors and always keeping a watchful eye on the surroundings.
Twelve years after Microsoft plunged into consumer electronics with the first Xbox, and eight years after the debut of the hugely successful Xbox 360, the company is launching the $499 Xbox One on Friday with a massive global launch.
The system will be available in 10,000 stores in 13 countries to start, feted at launch events in Paris; Sáo Paolo, Brazil; Berlin; London; Los Angeles; and New York.
Microsoft also is angling for position in China, which may finally allow the sale of foreign game consoles next year.
On the homefront, the Xbox One has another urgent mission. It must prove the value of Microsoft’s $10 billion-a-year consumer business to the company’s next chief executive, who will be pressured to sharpen its focus.
Perhaps that’s why the new console includes so many levers for Microsoft and its partners to pull and generate more sales on the platform.
It’s also likely a factor in Microsoft’s decision to put a premium price on the Xbox One, rather than take a big loss on the first wave of consoles.
The $500 price tag seems high, but entertainment is getting expensive. That’s what you’ll pay for a standard iPad or a few Seahawks tickets.
This holiday season Disney is offering an “Infinity” game bundle that costs around $300, sans console.
Then there’s the additional money you’ll spend on the platform. The key apps and services on the Xbox One require a $60-per-year subscription to the Xbox Live online service. This includes the slick, voice-controlled TV and entertainment guide, a signature feature of the new console.
As Sony is doing on the PS4, Microsoft is tinkering with the business model of games and inserting more opportunities for players to spend a dollar here or $20 there to upgrade games that may cost $60 to start. Both consoles won’t work with previous-generation games, so players have to rebuild their libraries.
The Xbox One TV guide also works best for people with digital cable packages. It worked well in demos on Microsoft’s campus, but I couldn’t get it to work with my budget “limited basic” setup at home.
Still, after testing the Xbox One at home, I think it might be worth the price for serious gamers and wired, affluent, game-loving families that use multiple online entertainment services.
There are some great games available now and more in the pipeline, though the Xbox One is oddly not launching with an exclusive shooting title such as the “Halo” games that anchored previous Xbox launches.
The bundled fitness app may be a sleeper hit. It includes workouts narrated by brand-name trainers such as Jillian Michaels and tracks your progress with the dramatically improved Kinect sensor. To get buns of steel, you’ll have to pay, though. Trial workouts are free, after which it’s $10 to $30 to unlock full exercise programs.
Voice controls work well on the system, giving it a sci-fi feel. You say “Xbox on” and the system starts up, then calls up your favorite applications when it sees your face. The trade-off is the unsettling feeling of having the thing always listening in your house.
Voice input and searching works so well that you come to expect it to work everywhere on the console, similar to the way tablet users may expect every screen to have touch controls. You wonder why you have to find and wake a controller to do things like begin Xbox updates.
Also like the PS4, the Xbox One is a work in progress. Microsoft will continue to tweak and adjust the system and add new apps and features as fast as it can.
“For us, launch is just the start of the console … we think about Xbox One as a living, breathing service that just gets better over time,” said Yusuf Mehdi, Xbox chief marketing and strategy officer.
One pending update is the ability to broadcast gameplay through the Twitch game service. You can do this on the PS4, but it won’t be ready on the Xbox One until next year.
The Xbox One does some sharing tricks out of the gate, though. It includes a “Game DVR” to capture video clips of game play. I found it a little tricky to activate the DVR until I realized you can just bark “Xbox record that” and it grabs a 30-second snippet, so you can share glorious virtual moments with friends.
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Unlike the PS4, the Xbox One also includes a video-editing suite that lets you overlay narration recorded by the Kinect camera. Clips can be shared online, via Microsoft’s SkyDrive online storage service, which is integrated into the Xbox One dashboard.
The flagship launch titles seem like perfect training for Steve Ballmer’s successor in Redmond.
For instance, in “Ryse: Son of Rome,” you play a seasoned general defending an ancient empire from wave after wave of invading barbarians.
“Ryse” also showcases the ultra high-fidelity of games built for the system, which is basically a supercharged, specially tuned PC based on 8-core AMD processors.
Look close and you can see whiskers, pores and sweat on the characters, as well as the scuffs and dents on their armor.
Ancient Rome is gorgeously depicted, and the game’s extensive dialogue sequences at times feel more like a movie than an action game. Fans of gladiator movies may like this, but die-hard gamers will probably want to get on with the action.
What gets me is the characters have English accents, even though the game is set in Italy, made by a studio in Germany and running on an American console.
In “Dead Rising 3,” you find your way through a town overrun by zombies. It’s set in California but in an opening sequence it looks just like downtown Seattle.
To thin the zombie horde, you get creative with tools at hand, fashioning weapons from items such as a sledgehammer and concrete saw.
If the zombies get too close, you wave your arms in front of the Kinect and your character hits and punches back at the zombies.
Best of all, though, is the glorious “Forza 5” racing game that’s all about acceleration and experiencing an incredible array of machines at your disposal on vividly rendered courses around the world.
It takes lots of time with the game to unlock that orange McLaren featured in the Xbox One ads, though, unless you pay another $20 to unlock the car right away.
I’m in no hurry.
While it was pouring in Seattle I was happy to drive the game’s freebie Miata around a track in sunny Abu Dhabi, hollering at the Xbox One to record my awesome passes and glad that I could edit out the parts where I spun into the guardrail.