Xbox One Versus Playstation 4: A Level Playing Field?
The first shots in the next generation console wars were fired back in February when Sony announced the news we were all anticipating- that Playstation 4 would launch this year. All eyes then turned to Microsoft, as everyone waited to see what their plans would be. We all know what happened next, a reveal that alienated great swathes of their core fanbase, followed by a PR-disaster of an E3. Microsoft's Xbox One was associated with draconian DRM (digital rights management) and mandatory online check-ins. In the weeks following the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) it was looking increasingly like Sony had practically got the next gen sewn up, months before it even started. The PS4 was comfortably outpacing the Xbox One in the presales stakes, and the gaming news made grim reading for Bill Gates's boys.
All things considered, it wasn't therefore the biggest surprise in the world when Microsoft decided to try and salvage their reputation by scrapping the DRM and the 'always on' requirement. They were quickly rewarded by a huge spike in presales, that saw the XBO overtake the PS4 in the charts, at least for a little while. So, with the Xbox's biggest handicaps now taken out of the picture the next-gen scrap looks more like a fair fight. Subsequently Microsoft have also scrapped the requirement to keep the Kinect plugged in at all times, and opened the door to indie developers. But will the removal of the unpopular features make that big a difference?
Too Little, too late?
For some Microsoft's policy change has come too late.. They felt that Microsoft were abandoning their most loyal supporters. Their emphasis on entertainment and casual gaming at the unveiling, and their behaviour at and surrounding E3 left some long-time Xbox supporters jumping ship and turning to Sony. Others saw their about-turn showed that on the contrary, Microsoft was listening to their fans and was prepared to admit when they had gone wrong. There was even a petition for them to retract their U-turn.
When it comes down to the two new consoles will offer much the same. They're both powerful machines, considerably more capable than anything currently available. The PS4 appears to be slightly more powerful on paper, but it's pretty close-run thing.
Sony was able to gain the price advantage, undercutting Microsoft by nearly £100. Sony learnt the lesson the hard way at the start of the current generation, when the high price of the Playstation 3 put it at a distinct disadvantage. It's been suggested that Sony originally planned to include a camera in each box, and by scrapping the plan were able to offer a competitive price. On the other hand Microsoft’s Xbox One includes Kinect as standard, so that has undoubtedly pushed up the price of the new console. The mandatory nature of the Kinect HD is an issue in itself. Many gamers feel angered that it is being 'forced' on them, and that are being forced to spend extra for a function they don't even want. There has been suggestion that Microsoft could offer a cheaper model without Kinect at some point, but at present this is pure speculation.
You win some, you lose some..
Along with the unpopular DRM, Microsoft's change in direction has also seen them scrap some more promising features. Although the need to install games to play them was not well received, it would have given Xbox One users instant access to their game library without needing the discs. Most impressively of all, it would have allowed you to access it on any Xbox One console by logging into your Live account. It would have also been possible to share your library with select people using a feature called “family sharing”. Unfortunately, when removing the DRM, these nifty features- which would have distinguished the console from it's rival- are also gone. We might wonder why we can't have one without the other but the fact is that these capabilities are gone, possibly never to return. There has been some talk that they could return “when the time is right” but at the moment is all very much up in the air. Speaking of which..
Another key part of Microsoft's plan is “The Cloud”. Several games shown off at E3, including Forza 5 and the impressive looking Sunset Overdrive from Insomniac will utilize the cloud. This is theory could give it an advantage over the PS4, although Sony are also promising a Cloud Service from some time in 2014.
Before the new consoles were officially announced, there were many rumours about the features the next gen machines would have. Some of these rumours (such as the anti-used-game tech) would prove to be true, while others turned out not to be. One of the rumours that failed to materialise is that the Xbox would have no disc drive at all, and would be completely based on digital media. There was later suggestion that Microsoft would launch two separate models, one with a disc drive, and one without, but this idea was seemingly scrapped. Digital remains a big part of Microsoft's strategy going forward, and if anything the DRM débacle will likely only see them accelerate the plans. After all, people seem more tolerant of DRM when it comes to digital downloads. Publishers are also keen to embrace a digital future, as it means they no longer have to share precious revenue with retailers, and preowned would no longer be an issue.
If I were to put on my conspiracy-theory tin hat on for a moment, could it be that the Xbox One's restrictions on disc-based media was intended to make digital look more appealing? Yet it's likely to be some time before the majority of gamers are ready to give up their physical media. Many people do not have access to a fast internet connection, and it takes some time to download a full retail game- and for next gen games the file sizes will only increase. More importantly though, digital needs to learn to compete with price. At the moment there is little incentive to plump for the download version over the boxed version when they are the same price. In fact, with retailer discounts and promotions, the download version is often more expensive. If publishers were to offer download titles at a discount then maybe their dreams of a digital future would come true sooner rather than later.
Both consoles will have the now expected multimedia functions, but it is Microsoft who most seem to be courting a more general audience with these features. Boasting that Xbox “will change the way we watch TV” and “become the new Water Cooler” the One will offer connectivity with cable boxes. Seeing as you will need to plug your existing set-top box/DVR into your console, some have questioned how much use it will actually be. Not to mention that this feature will only be available in the United States, although Microsoft have entered a deal with Sky in the UK, which may offer a similar service.
Both companies are pushing the 'social' aspects built into their new hardware. They will both feature social networking features integrated into their operating systems- Playstation 4 has a 'share' button on the controller, and the Xbox has Skype. Both firms have signed deals with live-streaming companies so you can record gameplay- via Ustream on Playstation, and Twitch on Xbox.
A Fair Fight?
With more similarities than differences between the consoles- both machines are powered by AMD chips- it really comes down to a more personal preference. Sony's price is obviously much more tempting, although if you buy a Playstation camera (sold separately), they will work out costing much the same.
For some gamers of course it will be about brand loyalty. They are already firmly on Team Sony or Team Microsoft and there they will stay. Neither console will offer backwards compatibility, so that won't factor in any decisions. Even your Xbox Live Arcade games will not be transferable.
Fundamentally though, it will come down to those games.. The majority of games- like Metal Gear Solid V and Final Fantasy XV- will be brought to both consoles, and there will be little difference between versions. Both consoles will boast stunning graphics and jaw-dropping power. With that considered it might come down to which console's exclusives appeal to you more. Both consoles have a strong line-up, but it's a matter of opinion which is most impressive. Are you a hardcore Halo-head or a Killzone fan? Does Ryse: Son Of Rome have you more excited than The Order: 1886?
It's always a big deal when we enter a new console cycle, but this mighty showdown of the gaming titans looks set to be the biggest one yet. Competition is good for the consumer as it has pushed both companies to put out a better product. Whichever side you pick, one things for sure; it's going to be a pretty exciting time to be a gamer.