About a third of the way through the latest “Call of Duty” video game, I realized that I just didn’t care. My Xbox 360 and I have taken on the enemies of Western civilization every year since 2007; the thrill is gone.
It’s just as well that Microsoft Corp.’s new video game console, the Xbox One, has so much more to offer than the familiar simulated carnage. It’s meant to be an all-purpose living room media center, capable of delivering cable TV shows, Internet audio and video streams, and video conference calls via Microsoft’s Skype service. And instead of fussing with remote control buttons, the Xbox One tries to let you do all this with spoken commands and hand gestures.
I’ve spent a week with the Xbox One, and while it’s nowhere near perfect, Microsoft is well on its way to building a true home entertainment hub.
I’ve even enjoyed the games — especially “Ryse: Son of Rome,” a brutal, adults-only slasher in which you play a Roman centurion out for a bit of payback against the Emperor Nero. Swords make a nice change from machine guns. But what really impresses are the highly accurate rendering of human faces and body movements and the lavish visuals. With new consoles, you must usually wait a year or two to get some major eye candy. Not this time; “Ryse” is the best-looking video game I’ve ever seen.
My biggest gaming gripe is the tiresome installation process. Every Xbox One game I’ve tried requires a huge Internet download before you can play. “Ryse” required a one-gigabyte download, while the car racing game “Forza Motorsport 5” needed six gigs. So either install these games in advance, or expect tiresome delays on Christmas morning.
While you wait, you can watch some television. You plug your cable or satellite TV box into the Xbox One; it can take control of your home audio system as well. Instead of changing inputs to go from gaming to TV viewing, you just switch icons on the Xbox One’s start screen.
You can control the experience with voice commands, sort of. First say “Xbox,” then make a request. This feature even works with the console’s Internet Explorer Web browser. You can “click” text links on the pages by reading them aloud.
But you’ve got to use exactly the right words. Say “watch CNN” and up it comes, but say “turn to CNN” and the Xbox is clueless. Nor can you ask for a particular channel number, like Channel 7 or 25. And if the TV’s volume is fairly loud, voice commands won’t work at all.
The Xbox One also responds to hand gestures, but it’s a dicey system that only works if you hold your hands just so. It’s easier to grab for the cable remote — even with the Xbox One hooked up, the remote still works. And if you’ve got a digital video recorder in your cable box, you’ll reach for the remote again. For now, the Xbox One isn’t compatible with DVRs, though Microsoft plans to change this with a future software upgrade.
The much-admired “snap” feature lets you run a separate video stream in a small window, while viewing something else on the main screen. The window is too small for comfortable viewing. Still, it let me play a round of “Forza” while my wife listened in on the NBC singing competition, “The Voice.”
Microsoft’s making a play for a unified viewing experience. If you like the TV series “Revenge,” for instance, you can look it up using the Xbox One’s Bing search feature. You see when the next episode will be broadcast on the ABC network, but you can also look at past episodes on the Netflix streaming video service. If only the service worked consistently. Other TV shows available on Netflix didn’t come up during a Bing search. Why not? Beats me. The search service seems patched together, unfinished.
Then again, Microsoft has made big improvements to the Xbox 360 since it came to market eight years ago. In the next few years, I expect software upgrades for the Xbox One, including a smarter TV search and a voice control system that recognizes everyday English.
At $499, the Xbox One costs $100 more than this year’s other high-end game console, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 4. For gaming alone, the PS4 is a fine choice, but it lacks the Xbox’s advanced entertainment features. Not such a loss today, when Microsoft’s new machine is plainly a work in progress. But in a couple of years, when you’re as bored with shooting bad guys as I am, the Xbox One will be a much better deal.