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Back in late 2013 when both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were brand new to the gaming scene, we recommended taking a wait-and-see attitude before diving into the new generation of console hardware. Even a year ago, we still said both consoles felt a little too expensive and a little too lacking in must-play exclusives. There was no need to run out and buy immediately.
Today, the “next generation” of consoles has been the “current generation” of consoles for more than two years, and it’s finally time for those who’ve been waiting to make the upgrade. Competition drove both the Xbox One and the PS4 to sell for $300 with included games this holiday season, prices that are likely to persist into 2016. Combined with an increasing lack of last-generation ports for many big-budget games and continuing improvements to both the libraries and features of the new consoles, there’s plenty of reason to take the plunge on a new system.
But which new system should you choose? A lot has changed in the battle between the PS4 and Xbox One since we last took a comprehensive look at the market, so here’s where things stand with the latest battle in the console wars.
Everything old is new again
Enlarge / Don’t question it… just do it!
Microsoft’s surprise E3 announcement that Xbox 360 backward compatibility was finally coming to the Xbox One was probably the biggest coup of the console gaming year. Sure, when the feature finally launched in November it only worked with a little more than 100 games. And those games can’t be purchased directly through the Xbox One just yet. And if you already own games for the Xbox 360, it’s not really that much of an inconvenience to plug it back in if you really want to play the occasional game of Gears of War.
Still, the addition of even limited backward compatibility says a lot about Microsoft’s continued commitment to improving the Xbox One. This is a free feature that no one really expected Microsoft to provide this late in the game, and it adds some real value to new and existing Xbox One hardware. Microsoft has also committed to expanding the list of backward-compatible Xbox 360 games going forward, and the company now gives gamers with Gold memberships at least two compatible Xbox 360 titles each month, helping players easily build a library of last-generation classics.
That progress stands in contrast with the PlayStation 4. Sony’s solution for PS4 backward compatibility has relied on PlayStation Now, a streaming service that lets you play select PS3 games running on remote servers. After launching as a ridiculously priced beta last year, that service finally introduced a feasible subscription program early in 2015. The list of available PlayStation Now games has ballooned to 200 titles in the last year, while the cost has dropped to under $9 a month (for an annual subscription), providing a pretty good value for the money. Our testing showed surprisingly good streaming performance, too, especially with a good wired Internet connection.
While this is a great new way for PS4 owners to catch up on the parts of the PS3 library they may have missed, it’s pretty useless to loyal Sony fans that already have a collection of PS3 titles. Those discs and downloads still won’t work on a PS4. Similarly, earlier this month Sony made a handful of PS2 titles compatible with the PS4 through emulation. Don’t expect to put your old PS2 discs in your new system, though; those games will only work if you buy them once again through the online PlayStation Store.
Both backward compatibility models have their pros and cons, but we have to give the edge to Microsoft. The Xbox One provides a much more flexible system that lets users get value out of an existing library and out of thousands of cheap used discs that can still be easily found secondhand.
Microsoft piles on the system features
Enlarge / The New Xbox One Experience makes navigating system menus a much smoother experience.
Outside of the new ability to play old games, Microsoft showed a lot more effort upgrading the Xbox One experience on a system-wide level this year. The new ability to stream Xbox One games to a Windows 10 PC over a local network is a nice bonus feature, and one that worked pretty well in our tests, especially if you have a wired connection throughout your house. If you have a roommate, child, or partner that’s constantly hogging the TV when you want to play Halo, now you have an easy way around the problem. The Windows 10 Xbox app lets you connect to your Xbox friends without having to start up the console.
(PS4 owners could already get similar in-home streaming if they own either a portable Vita or a cheap PlayStation TV set-top microconsole. That’s nice if you have or want either of those pieces of hardware, but Microsoft’s setup is more convenient if you already have a suitable Windows PC sitting around the house.)
Microsoft also unveiled a brand new system-wide interface late this year. The new setup feels a bit faster than the old Xbox One menu, making it easier to find many functions without shouting voice commands at the now-optional Kinect microphone. The small changes really shine in comparison to the PS4 interface, though. Sony’s system still arranges all your apps in one big, annoying line and buries many settings in a confusing list of dense text menus.
Microsoft has also made a few tweaks on the hardware-side this year. New controllers now sport a built-in standard headphone jack of the kind that PlayStation 4 owners have been enjoying since 2013. Microsoft also launched the Xbox Elite controller, which packs a number of welcome improvements into a pricey $150 package.
Even if you’re not willing to shell out that much money on a controller, the Xbox One now lets you remap controller buttons on the system level, a nice addition that can make many titles more comfortable to play. And for you cord cutters, Microsoft now offers an over-the-air tuner that lets you use the system’s impressive media functions with free terrestrial TV signals. Over-the-air users will also be able to use their console as a DVR starting next year, adding even more value to the media side of the box.
On Sony’s side, the only really important system-level change to the hardware was the addition of a suspend/resume function that Sony first promised back in 2013. It’s nice to see Sony living up to that promise, but it hardly serves as a major attraction at this point. When it comes to keeping hardware and system software fresh and updated, Microsoft showed a lot more effort in 2015.
Sony maintains its edge on exclusives
Enlarge / Bloodborne? Sounds like a game about illness. Yuk yuk yuk.
It’s worth stressing once again that a good 90 percent of the game libraries on both the Xbox One and PS4 overlap; the vast majority of games released on one console can also be purchased on the other. For the most part, those games look or perform slightly better on the PS4 thanks to some differences in the internal hardware. Many users won’t notice a tangible difference, but for those who want the absolute best looking experience, Sony’s system is the way to go.
This wasn’t a banner year for exclusive titles on either console, but there were a few standouts. Bloodborne is probably the best console-exclusive title to be released in 2015; an ultra-hard brawler in the tradition of From Software’s previous Souls games. If you have the patience to learn its brutal systems, the game will draw you into its dark world for dozens of hours. We were also intrigued by the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, an entertaining if flawed story-based horror mystery that helps the PS4 stand out.
On the Xbox One, Rise of the Tomb Raider impressed with some solid action and a well-structured story that built on top of an already strong 2013 series reboot. While you need an Xbox system to play the game now, Square Enix is planning to publish a version for the PS4 late in 2016. That makes it hard to recommend as a Microsoft system seller if you’re willing to be a little patient.
Aside from that, the year’s biggest Xbox One exclusives were largely expected sequels. Halo 5 and Forza Motorsport 6 are fine examples of their series, but neither one is all that transformative from the titles that have come before. Rare Replay is a well-made, Xbox-exclusive collection of some of gaming history’s finest gems, but it doesn’t really qualify as “new and exciting.”
The PS4 continued to have the edge in smaller, downloadable indie titles in 2015 (though many if not most of them are also available on the PC). On the PS4 this year, we were impressed by N++’s tightly designed 2D platforming, Volume’s stylized stealth action, Rocket League’s accessible-but-deep take on twisted sports (coming to Xbox One next year), and Axiom Verge’s Metroid-style retro throwback. On the Xbox One, indie game fans could point to Ori and the Blind Forest—an enchanting exploratory adventure game with stirring music and art—but little else to set the system apart.
What of the Wii U?
Enlarge / Splatoon is the perfect distillation of Nintendo design into a shooter.
For a system that Nintendo is working to actively replace in the next year or two, the Wii U had a pretty good year. Super Mario Maker is the kind of system-seller that highlights the potential of the Wii U’s unique touchscreen Gamepad better than any of the system’s launch titles three years ago. Splatoon is an intriguing take on the shooter genre that has fostered a robust online community. And exclusive games like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Xenoblade Chronicles X ably fill out their niches.
The Wii U’s impressive lineup of standout exclusive titles still isn’t enough to make the system a true long-term contender in the console wars, though. Third-party support that was already stagnant before 2015 absolutely fell off a cliff in the last year; Skylanders and a version of Minecraft are pretty much the only significant, non-Nintendo-produced games to be found on the console these days. While new Wii U owners will have Star Fox and The Legend of Zelda to look forward to in the next year or so (plus a deep library of family friendly favorites in the back catalog), it’s likely to be incredibly slim pickings after that.
Purchasing a Wii U at this point is like taking a turn down a charmingly idyllic, tree-lined street that you can see coming to an abrupt and dark dead end very soon. While the Xbox One and PS4 will continue offering new content for years into the future, Nintendo’s quixotic box practically has an expiration date printed on its side these days. If you don’t have one yet, we’d suggest waiting for it to drop a bit more in price and then snapping up some cheap classics secondhand.
Enlarge / Soon, you too will be able to look this stupid in front of your PlayStation.
Looking ahead to 2016, the biggest potential shake up in the console wars is probably the impending launch of PlayStation VR (previously Project Morpheus). The highly capable virtual reality headset is set to launch in the first half of 2016, and while there’s no official price yet, it’ll likely cost early adopters a few hundred dollars above the cost of the console itself (plus a bit more if you need to invest in a PlayStation Camera and/or motion-tracking Move controllers). All told, that’s still likely to be relatively cheap compared to the cost of the high-end PC and hardware needed for coming VR solutions like the Oculus Rift and SteamVR-powered HTC Vive.
Sony has been pushing developers to dive into the virtual reality waters for over a year now, and the efforts are beginning to show fruit at preview events. Games like RIGS and London Heist: The Getaway show the opportunity for completely new experiences in VR, while Rez and Driveclub VR show how existing titles can be adapted for the new format. It’s still early, but we’re excited to see the potential of console-based VR finally result in an actual product.
Sony also has a few big-name exclusives already lined up for 2016. Uncharted 4 is the utterly expected continuation of the big-budget action-adventure series. Street Fighter V is a major franchise acquisition that will pretty much force much of the fighting game community to Sony’s side. The Last Guardian is the long-awaited return of the team behind sprawling adventures like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Media Molecule’s Dreams looks like a trippy game creation studio from the makers of LittleBigPlanet. And No Man’s Sky’s procedural universe-building is getting an intense amount of hype for an indie title from a small studio.
Microsoft has its own upcoming exclusives to point to, though the list is a little less exciting from where we’re sitting. Quantum Break is a long-promised game that will offer a new form of interactive storytelling. Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4 seem likely to provide more of the same action you expect from both series at this point. Past that, indie titles like Below and Cuphead are the most interesting exclusives on the horizon for the Xbox One.
Our current recommendation
The PS4 also wins for “best looking controller set against a concrete background.”
Two years in, it’s hard to go wrong with either the Xbox One or the PS4. The systems now have identical prices, comparable features, and overwhelmingly overlapping lists of games. The differences come at the margins—the exclusive games and small, one-off features that set the systems apart.
If we had to make a suggestion for the one console you should buy, we’d probably lean toward the PlayStation 4 at this point. Sony’s lineup of exclusive games—ranging from big name titles to interesting indie gems—is just more enticing and seems likely to remain strong going forward. Add in the fact that non-exclusive titles often look better on Sony’s hardware and the potential contained in the upcoming PlayStation VR, and you get a system that seems like a slightly stronger bet.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to recommend on the Xbox One. Microsoft’s system is still extremely capable for the price, and the company seems committed to refining the hardware and system-level features in a way that Sony is not. If you’re interested in more integrated media and TV features or committed to exclusive franchises like Halo and Gears of War, the Xbox One will serve you just fine.
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