If you take a short hop and a skip away from the Yonge and Bloor subway station in downtown Toronto, you'll see nestled cozily between ritzy clothing shops, upscale restaurants and high end hobby shops, there's a small, non-descript locale that highlights the Xbox One. This Xbox One "location", for a lack of a better word, was open early to the media to check out the Xbox One's launch lineup, but is also open to the public during certain hours if you happen to find yourself bumming around Toronto's fashion district.
At the media launch event on November 5, 2013, Microsoft did what I originally thought improbable if not impossible. They actually made me want an Xbox One. Forget about all the bad PR press coming out of E3, the 359 degree turn around on used games and DRM, and the other countless mistakes that Microsoft has been recovering from since their announcement of their upcoming console. This event was all about the games, and the games look very, very good, in more ways than one. When most of us get right down to it, isn't that the reason you buy a game console anyway?
The console itself seems very well designed, and isn't as enormous as the images on the web would have you believe. The size is slightly larger than the original Xbox 360 design, but looks sleek and clean. The controller is a nice subtle improvement over the 360 controller with a design that fits well in my freakishly large hands, and a much improved d-pad. The texture of the controller also feels well made and like it will stand up to many a gaming marathon. I was disappointed that the bumper buttons still feel spongy and don't stand up well to being held down to opening menus in game. That little hiccup aside, I have no concerns about the design, durability, and aesthetics of the new system. The integration of the Kinect sensor effectively turned the controller into a SixAxis controller as well, allowing for subtle motion sensing without being intrusive to the gameplay experience. Having played on a PlayStation 4 previously, I can safely say that both new systems have quality controllers that will only be discerned by personal taste.
My evening began with a lengthy hands on demo of Capcom's Dead Rising 3, which is another way of saying it was a very good start. While the original reveal of the game featured a new gritty and dark art style, allow me to assure you that this is the same goofy zombie slaying simulator with Japanese sensibilities that the series is known for, for better or worse. It was somewhere around the point where I was allowed to combine vehicles to make mobile death dealers that a stupid s***-eating grin spread across my face. The game allows you to combine almost any items with one another, so when I was able to combine a steamroller with a motorcycle and a flame thrower, I was in zombie squashing heaven. The boss battle against a psychotic Buddhist monk also shows that Capcom has put a lot of work into the combat to make it more seamless, fun, and far less cheap than the previous two installments. The new engine for the game supports up to 8,000 zombies on screen at once, and the graphics impressed enough to convince me that the visuals are not something that's possible on the current generation of consoles. Excellent facial animation, incredibly detailed texturing, destructible environments, and buttery smooth frame rate were all great to behold. This title would be at the top of my Xbox One launch wish list, which is just as well considering it's exclusive to the new system.
Next up was Battlefield 4, which was just... Battlefield. The graphics were by far the best I had seen at the event, but my time with the single player campaign felt like pretty much every other Modern Warfare shooter that we've all played over the better part of a decade. It was functional and polished, and even fun, but brings little new in terms of gameplay to the system. One thing I really liked was the motion sensing Kinect's ability to detect the position of my shoulders to allow me to lean around corners for a better shot. It worked stunningly well, and was a nice subtle way of integrating motion controls into a hardcore setting. I managed to blow up some tanker trucks, shot some faceless enemies, and found myself on the field of battle. With a title like Battlefield, what else can you ask for?
The next title I tried out was possibly the real reason to buy an Xbox One on launch day, which was Peggle 2. Yes, Pop-Cap's famous Plinko-inspired peg hitting simulation is a timed exclusive for the Xbox One. No iOS, Android, PlayStation, or PC version to be seen, if you want to play Peggle 2 first, it's going to have to be on Xbox One. Bizarre choice of platform aside, Peggle 2 brings some fresh wrinkles to the tried and true formula such as pinball bumpers, armored pegs, pegs that freeze the playing field, and a new orchestral score and fun animations for the 4 new masters to be found in the game. It's a good time, but considering how many millions of you have played the previous Peggle, you already knew that.
I next moseyed over to the Forza MotorSport 5 demo station and saw the future of driving simulators. Forza 5 is simply gorgeous, but that's par for the course for the series at this point. The cockpits in particular are rendered down to the finest detail, and somehow improved over the already gorgeous Forza 4 on the 360. The handling of the cars felt natural and smooth as well. In a discussion with John Wendl, content director at Turn 10 studios, he beamed with pride as he told us about the new cloud computing options with the game. While Microsoft may have backed out of their always online requirements for the system, it's becoming increasingly clear that even single players won't get the full experience of a title without a constant connection. In the case of Forza 5, the game will feature what Wendl called "Driveatars", which essentially uploads your driving style as you play the game to the cloud, allowing your friends to play an AI opponent that is perfectly modeled after your own play style, and allows you to download AI profiles for your friends to play with when they're not online. A very cool feature to say the least. There's 200 cars on the disc, which is actually 300 less than the previous Forza game, but that makes sense as the game was built entirely from the ground up to take advantage of a new physics engine that Wendl proudly stated takes into account the real world physical properties of over 1,000 materials such as fiberglass, rubber, asphalt, glass, grass, and so on. The result is a physics engine unlike any other, and it also gave the studio a chance to re-render the car models from the ground up for an even better looking game. More cars will obviously be available as DLC, which you've probably already made up your mind about your thoughts on that stuff.
I next gave a quick run through with Kinect Sports Rivals, which was demonstrating a jet-ski mode not unlike Wave Race. I found the new Kinect's responsiveness to be miles ahead of the 360 version, but the system still had trouble detecting my hands to navigate menus. Considering I was in a crowded venue with dozens of people walking to and fro behind me, it's safe to assume the new Kinect was not designed with that sort of traffic in mind. While I was playing, the experience was great and fluid though. I thought it was weird to see so much product placement for State Farm in a game designed for kids, but I guess insurance companies want to hook those kids on insurance while they're young?
Finally, I had a chance to try out the decade-long overdue new installment of Killer Instinct. The game was certainly fun and it was cool to take Chief Thunder out for a spin for the first time since the Super Nintendo days. I only played two matches, but I already started to pick up on the intricacies of the combo system, which feels a little more robotic than the one found in NetherRealm titles like Injustice and Mortal Kombat, but also has a greater emphasis on speed and reflexes. The game ran smooth and looked great, but was one of the few titles that I had trouble believing wasn't possible to accomplish on the current generation of hardware. If nothing else, it was great to hear that obnoxious announcer inform me that I had just pulled off a Killer Combo. It's fun, but it doesn't seem like a game that will be remembered for years to come either.
Other titles on display at the event included the highly anticipated Roman battle game Ryse (which I thought was fun and looked great, but involved too many quick time events), Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Crimson Dragon, Xbox Fitness, and a new Skylanders title.
When it comes down to the games, I have to admit that the Xbox One impressed me. There's a little something for most gaming tastes in the launch lineup. Despite all of Sony's PS4 momentum, it looks like Microsoft got the upper hand with their overall launch line up. Microsoft has come a long way since the disastrous E3 reveal, and shown at least this games journalist that the next generation battle may not be over before it already began after all. This launch lineup is a good start for Microsoft to meet their goal of having One Xbox to rule all the living rooms.