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Xbox None

Ooooh guess what guess what? This week Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, hardware successor to the Xbox 360 game console. It’s been a long seven and a half years since the 360 landed in stores, and it’s probably been the game console that I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of (my SNES comes in at a close second). Over the years I’ve posted plenty of Xbox game reviews and discussions here on this site, a site which itself once slowly chronicled my transformation from elite PC gaming master race champion to die-hard Xbox fan. So you can well imagine that I gobbled up all the information I could get about the new Xbox’s announcement.

And I, um…

Hi, PC game master race? It’s me. Yeah, look, um…I know I kinda walked out of your place about a decade ago and left the door ajar and stuff. I hope you’re not mad. Can I come back in? Maybe sit down and relive the good old times? We’ll start with Doom, maybe some System Shock 2 and hey, I hear Black Mesa is great if you have a soft spot for Half-Life. And who doesn’t, right? Riiiiiight. Hey, what’s Steam got on sale today?

Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all conversational. But right now, as I sit here digesting everything we’ve collectively learned about the Xbox One this week, as well as the hints of detail that Microsoft wasn’t yet ready to spill in full, I admittedly find myself fairly underwhelmed. Actually, that’s the wrong word. The Xbox One has a lot going for it, packing an impressive array of hardware and taking a lot of risks to offer a unified experience for all purchasers right out of the gate (i.e., no more SKUs without hard drives or even SKUs without Kinect — every unit has everything). The better word, I think, is “forgotten”.

“Forgotten”, as in that’s what I feel like as a gamer who primarily (no, exclusively) uses his 360s to play games. You know, games. Those things which barely warranted more than a few minutes’ mention at Microsoft’s Xbox One press event. Most of the talk revolved around the new console’s TV integration features, multi-year deals with the NFL to bring you fantasy football whatever-the-hell, voice command stuff that lets you turn on your Xbox by yelling at it instead of just pushing a damn button, and on and on. Seriously, I don’t give a crap about this stuff. Which is too bad for me, because Microsoft has made this multimedia synergy a fundamental part of the Xbox One, right down to the actual name of the product. Xbox One, as in “One Box to Rule Them All”.

Except it can’t, not without a cable box from your Authorized Cable TV Provider™. Where’s the CableCARD slot? MIA, just like the CableCARD standard itself essentially is. That’s because your Authorized Cable TV Provider™ has spent a lot of time and money marginalizing CableCARD, mostly due to the fact that they didn’t like the idea of you owning your own set-top box and just renting a cheap card from them to stick into it. In order to wow you with its New TV Experience™, the Xbox One needs you to pipe video from your cable box into it before it can do anything. Such a requirement is very reminiscent of my old TiVo Series 2 — a box that I purchased a year before the Xbox 360 even existed. The future is here…I guess!

Naturally, an egregious amount of time was spent at the Xbox One presser discussing all of the TV-centric apps, live TV (with picture-in-picture) integration, social trend integration and so forth. Too bad that effectively all of it is dependent upon having cable service. Which I don’t. And which I probably never will again, having rid my household of it three years ago. So right there is a large chunk of the Xbox One event, and the Xbox One itself, which I can tune out.

So how about the games? Naturally, that’s what’s on the mind of most people who are interested in video game consoles, unless I miss my guess. Well, Microsoft didn’t have a whole lot to say about such trivialities, but wow, can you believe there is a Halo TV series coming from STEVEN SPIELBERG? Holy crap, where is my Game Fuel? Crank it up and charge! Any mention of more Halo games was absent, but that’s fine because we know they’re coming. …Right?

Moving on. How about all those conspiracy-theory rumors that have been swirling around the new Xbox during the past couple months? There was the one about the Microsoft executive who was fired after a bizarre Twitter rant in which he lambasted gamers who disliked the thought of a console that required an always-on Internet connection. Microsoft damage control promptly revealed that this exchange had been part of some kind of inside joke and that we had nothing to fear. Perhaps the bigger rumor, though, was the one about the new Xbox preventing used games from working, shutting out the preowned market entirely. But Sony had already revealed that they weren’t going to shut out used games during their PlayStation 4 announcement, so Microsoft couldn’t possibly be dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot like that, could they?

To be honest, we still don’t know the final answer to many these questions. But we do know that the Xbox One will require an Internet connection — though “it doesn’t always have to be connected” — and that Kinect 2.0 is also required in the sense that it is always on, always watching, and perhaps even listening to the ambient noise in the room even while the console itself is switched off. (This is so it can hear you say “Xbox, ARISE!” or whatever the keyphrase is for turning the console on by voice command.) I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I am made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by the idea that there is an Internet-connected video camera and microphone in my house, active at all hours with no way to shut it down, with the potential to monitor myself or my family without my consent — particularly if an unauthorized party discovers a way to gain control of it. I mean, maybe I’m having an Old Man Moment here, but Kinect 2.0 is probably the sort of device that I’d physically decouple from “the grid” when I’m done playing games on the console.

We also know that Microsoft appears to be preparing to upset the economy of used games as it exists today. Although they refuse to state anything for certain, it seems fairly clear that all games you play on the Xbox One will need to be installed to the console’s hard drive — without exception. Somehow, it’s believed that each physical copy of a game will be uniquely identified so that it can be “activated” against your gamer profile. That unique copy of the game can then no longer be played on another Xbox, presumably unless you are signed into your gamer profile. If a different gamer profile wants to play that game, they will have to pay a “fee” to unlock the game and install it to their own console — and there are rumors going around that the “fee” might not be far away from the game’s $60 retail price. So my friend at work who once went on a nostalgia trip and borrowed my copy of The Orange Box for his Xbox 360 so he could play Half Life 2 again would now be stuck paying a fee — potentially a substantial one — to get his fix.

Oh, and about that 500 GB hard drive that you have to install your games to? It’s not user serviceable, which is a fancy way of saying non-removable and non-replaceable. When your games come on 25 GB Blu-ray discs, I wonder exactly how many games you’re going to be able to fit on your Xbox One’s hard drive? Fortunately, to mitigate that, the Xbox One will allow you to attach any external USB 3.0 hard drive to expand your storage. This is a pleasant surprise, especially after all the grossly overpriced and pseudo-proprietary hard drives Microsoft has forced 360 owners to buy over the last eight years.

I might also mention that you won’t be able to play any of the games you’ve purchased or downloaded for your Xbox 360 on the new Xbox One, as there is no backwards compatibility layer being provided. Given the switch from PowerPC architecture to x86, this is hardly a surprise, but I don’t think it quite hit home for most gamers until the news broke that even your Xbox Live Arcade titles (i.e., Shadow Complex, Trials Evolution or Poker Night at the Inventory 2) won’t work. Literally the only thing that you can transfer from your Xbox 360 is your Gamerscore and list of achievements, both of which are useful only for nostalgic reasons.

Now, I don’t want to seem too much like a Negative Nancy. There are fair number of nifty features in the new Xbox One. If you like what the current Kinect sensor can do, you’ll probably be pretty impressed by all the improvements in Kinect 2.0, what with its higher capture resolution and wider field of view. The fact that the Xbox One acts like a “game DVR”, keeping a running capture of your gameplay sessions, is a dream come true for bloggers like me who would like to be able to capture clips and screenshots for reviews or even for casual tweets. I’m particularly impressed with the way Microsoft is leveraging their Azure cloud computing architecture to enable a total cloud-based gamestate saving system, so that you can save the state of your game anywhere, anytime and pick it up again on any Xbox One console. It’s like the Xbox 360’s current “Cloud Save” system that I love so much, but much more robust. Of course, to really reap the benefit of this, you need to have more than one Xbox One, and the hardware isn’t gonna be cheap enough for that to become reality in my household for some years yet!

But here is where I come back around to that “PC game master race” snark I went tangenting off on earlier. The more I look at the big picture here, the more I start to wonder if perhaps this isn’t the best imaginable time to re-embrace PC gaming. With no backwards compatibility and nothing transferring over from my Xbox 360 library, I’m forced into a clean break. I can look at standardizing on the PlayStation 4 for my next-gen experience, or perhaps more to the point, standardizing on a PC. If any console manufacturer wants to know how a video game economy should look, they need look no further than Steam. It’s the perfect mix of publisher control (it acts as a form of DRM, after all, but not an invasive one) and consumer benefit (in the form of massive price competition and a giant library of titles all available in one place). Even if Microsoft wants to reach into your wallet whenever you want to play a used game, this could be made more bearable if new games regularly went on sale for $20 or $30 off the retail price — and you could purchase, download and enjoy them immediately when they do.

But we’ve no evidence of that, so as I sit here today, typing on this computer which is almost as old as the Xbox 360 itself, I start to wonder if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to put together a new PC instead. Having recently dabbled with connecting my computer to my plasma TV, and having really enjoyed playing Portal 2 with an Xbox controller via Steam’s Big Picture mode, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that if the next generation of consoles gave me a choice between an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4 or a SteamBox, I’d take the SteamBox all day long. (Speaking of which, where is that thing already?)

The only problem with PC gaming is one of logistics. I need my PC to do other stuff, like compile code, edit audio and Do Photoshop™, which means it needs to sit in my office under my desk. Which means it can’t also be sitting under my plasma TV upstairs, waiting for me to enjoy my insanely-cheap and ridiculously good-looking Steam purchases in my cozy game room. This is a Colossal Problem®. My half-assed plan for solving it is to repurpose my current computer as a dedicated SteamBox of my own, leave the high-po graphics card in it, and then use my new build for work tasks while it makes do with a lesser GPU. It feels wrong on some level, but it’s better than what I have now.

Regardless, I do not think I will be pre-ordering a ridiculously expensive “forced bundle” of the Xbox One like I did with the 360 back in 2005. Like the more rational adult I’ve begrudgingly grown into, I’ll wait until the holiday launch hysteria is over and then consider whether the new Xbox or PS4 is something I want. In the end, I admit, I’ll probably want to get my hands on at least one of them.

In the meantime, though, I increasingly feel like it might be time to dig up the tube of thermal compound and go shopping at Micro Center for a new generation of hardware, built by my own hands — and available today.