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photo of Xbox One front left angle from above, on green background
One of Polygon’s launch Xbox One units, showing wear and tear from the past five years.

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Xbox One re-review, five years in

We look at how Microsoft’s platform has evolved since launch

It’s been a long, strange road for the Xbox One. From the ill-considered rollout at E3 2013 to the subsequent abandonment of Kinect, one of the system’s signature features, it’s hard to escape the sense that the past five years have been a pivot and a subsequent sprint away from much of what the planners of the console intended it to be.

Yet Microsoft has continued to update its box with an array of useful features, and great games for it continue to roll off the presses for its millions of eager owners, so let’s take a look at the ways that the console has evolved over the past half-decade.

photo Xbox One X left front angle from above, on green background
Since announcing the Xbox One X, Microsoft has constantly reminded players that it’s the most powerful console on the market.

Xbox One X: a super-console in search of an audience

At E3 2016, in what was partly an attempt to lift the cloud that had been hanging over the original Xbox One since launch, Microsoft announced two new versions of the system. The first of these was the Xbox One S, a slimmer, modestly upgraded version of the launch console that would go on to replace it in stores. The second was the Xbox One X (then announced as Project Scorpio), a much more powerful revision that would outperform Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro and give Microsoft a talking point of having the most powerful console on the market.

Now available, Xbox One X offers a less compromised take on 4K gaming than the PS4 Pro does. While the specifics vary from game to game, the Pro generally has to rely on upscaling smaller images, or using “checkerboard” 4K output so it only has to render half the scene at a time. The Xbox One X, in contrast, leverages its extra processing power — estimated as four times the power of the stock Xbox One by Digital Foundry — to achieve a native 3840x2160 (4K) image in many of its games. For example, recent visual stunner Assassin’s Creed Odyssey outputs at a dynamic resolution on both the PS4 Pro and the Xbox One X, but the window on Microsoft’s upgraded console is far higher than on Sony’s, running all the way up to native 4K.

Though the raw horsepower was never in doubt, the question still remains: Is the Xbox One X’s improved performance worth the extra $200 compared to an Xbox One S or a PS4, or an extra $100 over the PS4 Pro?

If you aren’t the kind of person who dwells on the difference between 30 and 60 frames per second, or if you don’t own a 4K display, the answer is probably no. Even if you do care deeply about performance and image fidelity, the fact remains that the $499 asking price (barring Black Friday deals) of the Xbox One X is dangerously close to that of an entry-level gaming PC, which can run the games just as smoothly, and which you could upgrade as the years go by. Of course, not everybody is interested in the effort of constructing their own rig and playing games on PC, but if you really care about visual quality, that’s the road that you’ll likely end up going down.

Still, while it might not stand up to the stoutest of desktop rigs, the Xbox One X has helped divert the conversation away from Microsoft’s dearth of high-profile exclusives by making Xbox the best way to play many third-party games on consoles. With no word of a PC port for this year’s barn-burner Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance, the Xbox One X remains your ticket to the smoothest horse-wrangling and saloon-wrecking experience that you can get, despite Sony inking a deal with Rockstar Games for timed-exclusive DLC.

For those who want a black box that can crunch the latest games with ease, the Xbox One X is a decent value proposition. However, in a market traditionally defined by two opposed poles — occasional users who just want to play the games, and enthusiasts who want to drink every last bit of value from them — the Xbox One X tries to split the difference, and it’s not clear how many people fall into that midway camp. If you’re absolutely determined to stick to consoles, you could do a lot worse, but you have to consider the wisdom of shelling out for today’s most powerful console when it seems the next generation is just around the corner.

Polygon’s Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launch units have taken similar amounts of damage.
Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

The library: an abundance of games, but the exclusives are lacking

At this point, even if you’re a hardcore Forza or Halo aficionado, it’s fair to say that Microsoft lags well behind Sony in the never-ending war of console exclusives. While the sci-fi wall-running of Titanfall and wacky rail-grinding of Sunset Overdrive initially wowed audiences, the crop of Xbox One exclusives has waned over the console’s life span to only a handful of notable releases a year, with few approaching the heady highs of a Breath of the Wild or God of War. With the exception of the annual Forza series, which swamps Sony’s Gran Turismo in quantity — and many would say quality — of releases, the pickings have been relatively slim for 2018. The zombified management sim State of Decay 2 and the jaunty open-world pirate caper Sea of Thieves have their appeal to certain audiences, but haven’t commanded industrywide attention. And others coming up, like the often-delayed Crackdown 3, have run into hurdle after hurdle before they’ve even gotten out the gate.

While Microsoft has poured billions into Minecraft, that hasn’t helped much on the Xbox exclusives front. And even the deal to make PUBG a console exclusive for a year didn’t pay off as well as it could have, with a bumpy launch that coincided with Fortnite’s ascent to the top of the battle royale genre.

But a console isn’t solely the sum of its high-profile games, and on the smaller side, there’s a deep roster available. The sheer variety and vitality of indie games on the market today offer all sorts of experiences, and the Xbox One is a ticket to a large slice of that world, including a handful of experimental games you can’t find on PlayStation, like the frantic #IDARB and the incomplete experimental adventure D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. And with other console exclusives, like the immaculate love letter to early animation Cuphead and the upcoming Soulslike Ashen, Microsoft has gotten closer to catching up with Sony in its indie lineup.

In terms of backward compatibility, the Xbox One stands head and shoulders above its contemporaries, though that’s still not anything to write home about. Like the Xbox 360 before it, it can only play a certain selection of previous-gen games through emulation, though these games sometimes play better than they did on the original hardware, as is the case with the enhanced SSX 3 port. It’s a treat to see these old games get a bit of love.

It’s clear that Microsoft plans to step up its lineup of in-house games over the next few years, with seven recent studio acquisitions. At the same time, the company’s decision to make most of its notable games playable on both your Xbox One and Windows PC with a single purchase — aka the Xbox Play Anywhere program — might gesture at a future where it doesn’t care as much whether you play them on an Xbox console.

Xbox Elite Controller White Special Edition image
The Xbox Elite controller allows players to swap out parts based on their preferences.

Xbox Elite wireless controller: a luxe gamepad at a luxe price point

From the zip-up carrying case to the matte black finish — grippy, but not too grippy — it’s clear that the Xbox Elite controller was molded with extravagance in mind. But beneath the somewhat ostentatious image lies perhaps the best gamepad that Microsoft has ever made, albeit at the faintly outrageous price point of $150, more than double that of its less-opulent counterpart. For those of a competitive bent, the swappable D-pad and analog sticks are quite helpful, each suiting different styles of game or player preferences. The controller also comes with a set of adjustable paddles on its back that are ostensibly designed for better gear-shifting in racing games but can be used in whatever way the player desires, with the help of software that allows you to reassign any function on the controller however you wish.

Taken as a whole, the value of the Elite controller ultimately lies in the hands of the individual — for example, if the asymmetric sticks that define the Xbox gamepad rile you up, the Elite isn’t going to bring you down. However, for deep-pocketed die-hards looking for a gamepad to give them a leg up over griefers everywhere, this is probably the product for you. Regardless of whether you’re personally willing to fork out that much cash for a controller, it’s interesting that Microsoft put in the resources to create a unique input device (and it’s not the only one) — a feat that Sony has yet to try its hand at.

Xbox Game Pass: the best way to play on Xbox

From GameFly on down, the idea of a “Netflix for games” is nothing particularly new, but Microsoft may be the first company to nail the concept. First unveiled in early 2017, Xbox Game Pass features a surprisingly robust list of current-gen games and Xbox 360 classics, the latter achieved through painstaking emulation. Better yet, from the very start, the service has allowed users to download the games onto their hard drives, avoiding the pesky latency issues that have been associated with streaming platforms since their inception. (It took Sony a while to catch up on this front, but as of September, it has finally followed Microsoft’s example.)

You might need an external hard drive to fully take advantage of the service, though, especially with the massive game sizes on the Xbox One X. And that’s assuming that you don’t have a strenuous data cap on your internet.

Still, for those who have kept up with the Xbox generations over the years, there’s another a great reason to invest in the Game Pass. As of January 2017, all first-party titles (i.e., Xbox exclusives) are available free on launch day to Game Pass subscribers, from the hunkered-down shooting of Gears of War to the retro thrills of whatever the new Battletoads is going to look like. The current lineup remains a bit thin, but if you’re determined to try everything, it’ll save you some serious money.

With this kind of access, it appears that Microsoft could be looking toward a model where games might be distributed entirely over Netflix-like platforms. While that seems like a far-off dream, it currently makes Game Pass one of the best deals in gaming, and a major benefit to the Xbox platform.

photo of Xbox One S front top angle
The Xbox One S has become Microsoft’s new default Xbox One unit.

The living room: a casualty of the era

Back in 2013, Microsoft tried to pitch the Xbox One as more than a simple video game console. Rather, it was a media center, the nexus for all your entertainment needs, the core of your living room. While you can certainly use it for that purpose today, the company’s messaging around the Xbox One long ago shifted toward a game-first perspective.

Still, vestiges of that philosophy still mark the Xbox One experience even years after launch, largely for the better. The lone exception is the console’s interface, which, even after several redesigns, still doesn’t compare to the ease of Kinect voice commands, which many new users will never try, given the death of the peripheral.

However, the mobile app SmartGlass seemed designed to function not just as a way to pilot your Xbox One from outside the room, but as a universal television remote, outpacing the functionality of the PlayStation app. Thanks to the Xbox One’s variety of streaming options, the console can serve as the center of your living room, but perhaps not to the extent that its original designers intended. In that sense, Microsoft’s turn away from what it viewed as one of the Xbox One’s core features comes across as a missed opportunity for the platform.

Network and operating system: an originator still puttering along

Microsoft’s online service set the stage for our always-online era over a decade ago, but besides a few blips, like the pseudo-Miis of the New Xbox Experience back in 2010, Xbox Live has remained a stalwart. The most exciting addition to the platform has been Games With Gold, an initiative that grants Xbox Live subscribers free games every month, provided they take the opportunity to claim them. This year has seen a particularly strong selection, from indie darlings like The Witness to AAA titles such as Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain.

Microsoft also took a stab at its own streaming platform with Mixer, but Twitch remains the predictable market leader.

Unlike the PS4, the Xbox One allows users to engage with another supposed Netflix of gaming, EA Access, which grants subscribers access to a library of games and trials of new titles for a monthly fee. Sony passed on it, feeling that it didn’t offer “enough value” to PlayStation customers to justify putting the service on its platform. While that’s largely up to the beholder, the service features substantially fewer titles than Game Pass — but it does include crowd-pleasers like Fight Night Champion, the Dead Space series and Titanfall 2, and comes in at a much cheaper $5 a month.

The first iteration of the Xbox One’s dashboard relied heavily on voice commands for usability, and thus Microsoft has tried to revamp it on numerous occasions, most recently last year. While some might prefer the PS4’s cleaner take on things, with categories and menus that fold and unfold into each other, the Xbox One’s interface feels more unified, especially thanks to the ability to buy games without having to launch a dedicated store app. It’s a small touch, but it makes the experience feel that more cohesive. It’s also more customizable than any other console dashboard out there.

To its credit, the Xbox platform has allowed cross-play with PC and Switch owners for some time now, a feature that Sony has tripped over until very recently. This was an easy win for Microsoft, as the perennial underdog of this generation. While this wasn’t ever going to sell many units by itself, it’s been a nice touch, and a gesture towards a more open ecosystem that comports with Microsoft’s recent moves toward unifying the PC and Xbox platforms.

close-up photo of Xbox power button on Xbox One S
Xbox One S
close-up of Xbox power button on Xbox One X
Xbox One X

Overall: a solid platform with few clear advantages

The Xbox One is a fine console in its own right, but the unfortunate combination of Microsoft’s initial business decisions and market positioning has put it in an underdog state. Yes, the Xbox One has several advantages over the PS4: a great high-end controller, backward compatibility, a more robust catalog subscription service, impressive power in the Xbox One X. But if you subscribe to the position that it’s the games that ultimately define a game console, there are only a handful of strong, compelling reasons to buy an Xbox One in 2018. If you have a gaming PC, you can already play most of the standout exclusives there, and the PS4 simply has a better slate of games across many popular genres.

For Xbox fans, it’s really not clear what the next iteration of the brand will look like. Based on its approach to the Xbox One X, Microsoft’s next outing may bring raw power to the fore, as well as a litany of macho-leaning franchises with equal legs in the single-player and multiplayer camps. And its recent studio acquisitions point to a more diverse lineup of exclusives in the years to come.

For the time being, though, one thing is clear. There’s not really a console war at the moment. Xbox lost this generation, and it’s up to Microsoft to turn things around in the coming years.

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