If you start counting from the Magnavox Odyssey, we've been playing console games for seven generations now. Yes, it's crazy to think of, but it's even more alarming to realize that the industry has been in an all-out "war" since generation three. For better or worse, competition became a part of the hardware cycle. The players (you know, Sega, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) have changed several times through the years, but until recently, the game hasn't -- the console wars were fought over who had more bits, what had the most RAM and how fast a machine could render frames. Now, as we kick off generation eight, we're seeing a very different kind of contest.
We're not saying that hardware specifications don't matter -- they absolutely do -- but this time, the two leading armies are packing painfully similar heat. On paper, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 really aren't that different. So, what's going to win the war? Software, services and brand.
Although Microsoft is currently fighting in what we call a "video game console war," gaming isn't the Xbox One's only focus. In fact, the console's announcement was widely panned for having an overbearing focus on television and media consumption. While Redmond certainly deserved the ribbing, its point stood firm: If your game console isn't a capable media device, you're doing something wrong (we're looking at you, Nintendo).
Someone at Sony is surely chuckling over the Xbox One's inclusion of a Blu-ray drive, but when it comes to media, Microsoft has the last laugh. While both units offer access to streaming staples like Netflix, Crackle, Hulu Plus, VUDU, Amazon Instant Video and Redbox Instant, the Xbox One simply has more content channels available. In addition to Microsoft's own video platform, the Xbox One features apps for ESPN, Fox Now, Machinima, The CW, TED, the NFL and will eventually have access to HBO Go (but not at launch). It's true that content can be purchased through the PSN store, and that both platforms promise to expand their partnerships in the coming months, but Microsoft is just offering a richer, more deeply integrated media experience.
Of course, if it weren't for the Xbox One's live TV integration, the two platforms' media offerings would be pretty square. This feature was practically the headliner of the console's announcement: Watch your cable television through your Xbox interface. It sounds almost silly, but it's actually quite impressive. Marrying the console's iconic interface with an IR blaster, the new Kinect sensor and an HDMI passthrough on the console's rear, the Xbox One allows you to control your cable box from its own dashboard. This includes voice commands, a channel guide, program search and the ability to create a favorites menu. It's the company's play to make the Xbox your entertainment center's "Input One," but more importantly, it's just something the PlayStation 4 doesn't do. Combined with the Xbox One's currently exclusive ability to play MP3s (as a Play To device, at least) and CDs at launch, and suddenly Microsoft's loss in 2007's format war doesn't seem like such a big deal.
Cameras and controllers
Speaking of Kinect 2.0, it bears mentioning that it's at fault for the console's price tag. That's right -- the Xbox One's $500 price dwarfs the PS4's $400 sticker specifically because the next-generation Kinect sensor is included with every console. This decision may burn the pocket of frugal gamers, but it's actually a clever move. By ensuring that every Xbox One owner has access to its proprietary motion sensor, Microsoft gives developers a reason to support it. More importantly, it let the company build a console interface littered with motion and voice control features, enabling users to turn their consoles on and off by simply speaking. Phrases like "Xbox on" and "Xbox, play Titanfall" are offered as easy, natural ways of interacting with your console. The device even claims to be able to recognize users on the fly, signing you in as you boot up the Xbox One and greeting other users as they walk in the room. Sure, it makes the console more expensive, but it also promises a richer experience for the price.
The PlayStation 4 has a motion-tracking camera too, but owning it is strictly optional. This isn't a bad move either -- it unburdens uninterested users from a higher price tag, but still leaves them with the option of tacking it on later. Of course, this means developers will be less motivated to build experiences with the PlayStation 4 camera in mind. Because the microphone-equipped camera doesn't come standard with every console, the PS4's operating system only supports a handful of voice commands. Although the company seems optimistic that interest in the peripheral will grow (it has included the PlayStation Eye-heavy Playroom tech demo with every console), its exclusion from the launch bundle divides the market. By definition, developers making games that use the camera will be catering to a smaller subset of the overall user base. The camera isn't likely to ever become as integral to the PlayStation 4 experience as the Kinect is to the Xbox One, but at least the PS4 costs less as a result.
At first glance, each of the console's updated gamepads doesn't look too different from their predecessors, but there are some hidden gems here. For instance, the PlayStation 4's DualShock 4 controller features a new share button (more on that later), and clickable touchpad area reminiscent of the PlayStation Vita's rear touch panel. It also doubles as a motion controller, though you'll need to pick up the aforementioned PS4 camera to track the PlayStation Move-esque LED on the gamepad's front edge.
On the surface, Microsoft's updated gamepad seems like little more than a refined variation of the Xbox 360 controller, but it actually houses a subtle evolution in tactile feedback: Impulse Triggers. In addition to the classic controller rumble, Xbox One users will be able to feel localized force feedback under each of the gamepad's triggers, which can lend depth to driving cars, firing weapons or even feeling a character's pulse. Microsoft's gamepad also breaks new ground in local multiplayer: The Xbox One can connect to up to eight controllers simultaneously.
The second screen
It's still not clear if the idea of the "second-screen experience" will stick, but it's certainly gaining ground in this generation of gaming consoles. Microsoft's approach echoes Nintendo's Wii U, albeit without the dedicated hardware. The idea is to augment the gaming or TV experience with a separate device, which, in Microsoft's case, means any tablet or phone equipped with its Xbox One SmartGlass app -- although the experience itself changes depending on what the user is doing. While watching TV, for instance, SmartGlass will let users change channels or adjust volume without obfuscating their program with onscreen menus (eventually, at least; Microsoft says these two features won't be available until after launch). In a game, your real-world smartphone could become your character's in-game smartphone, or might be used to manage dialogue options or in-game menus. Microsoft has also said that it hopes to use SmartGlass for matchmaking, helping players organize multiplayer sessions without interrupting action on the television.
The PlayStation 4 companion app (available for iOS and Android devices) seems much simpler by comparison, offering remote use of the PlayStation Network and some light second-screen functionality, though we were hard-pressed to find any compatible software in our review. No, the PS4's real second-screen device is the PlayStation Vita. Like the PS4 companion app, there aren't any games that really use the Vita as a "second screen," but the handheld's Remote Play feature easily makes up for it. When linked to the PS4, the Vita can completely take over the console experience, allowing users to transpose the system's next-gen gaming experiences to the small screen. Again, this is much like a feature available on Nintendo's Wii U, but with the added benefit that the second-screen device can be used on its own apart from the PlayStation 4.
Live streaming and sharing
If motion and voice control were the pioneering concepts of the last generation, live-streaming gameplay just might be the breakout feature of this one -- even if it's something PC gamers have been toying with for years now. Social engagement seems to be the name of the game, with both consoles flaunting the ability to record and stream gameplay on the fly. Naturally, Microsoft ties this feature into Kinect's talents, asking users to call out "Xbox, broadcast" to stream gameplay to Twitch.TV. The PS4 controller's share button pulls a similar trick, though it can also share to Ustream as well as Twitch.
PlayStation users may have more streaming options available at launch, but Microsoft's Upload Studio might make the Xbox One a more compelling platform for sharing video clips. The console maintains a five-minute buffer of past gameplay, which can be imported into Upload Studio and customized with prefabricated layouts. Players can even record commentary video with Kinect, easily making high quality mini-productions to share with friends. It's neat, but output is limited to only five-minute clips. The PS4 can record up to 15 minutes of gameplay, but lacks a robust editing program or the ability to add any sort of commentary.
If you're on the fence about what console is right for you, look at the games. Microsoft and Sony can promise all the media, social sharing and motion sensors in the world, but without something to actually play, their next-gen consoles are little more than glorified HTPCs.
If software moves hardware, then Microsoft is building a stronger case for day one. At launch, the Xbox One is slated to have more than twice as many exclusive (retail) games than the PlayStation 4, including Dead Rising 3, Forza Motorsport 5 and Ryse: Son of Rome with the heavily anticipated Titanfall joining them within the console's launch window. By comparison, Sony's camp hits the ground with only Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack under its exclusive banner, eventually to be followed by Driveclub and Infamous: Second Son. Buying a console on software alone is still very much a matter of personal preference, but make no mistake: PS4 owners will be dipping into the multi-platform releases a little sooner than their Xbox One counterparts.
Everything else aside, hardware does matter. In this case, there's even a clear victor -- at least on paper. Crack open either console, and you'll find an AMD APU with an eight-core Jaguar CPU at its heart. A slightly higher clock speed (1.75Ghz compared to 1.6GHhz) gives Microsoft's console a technical leg up, but these two rigs essentially share the same processor. Users aren't likely to see a difference in performance. The story flips when it comes to the graphics kit, however: Although both units use similar AMD Radeon graphics cores, Sony's features 18 compute units to Microsoft's 12. The PS4 is also equipped with 8GB of GDDR5 RAM, outclassing the slower DDR3 chips installed in the Xbox One. Although the minute technical differences can be a bit confusing, they do matter.
In popular multi-platform games like Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts, most gamers will be hard-pressed to see a difference. It's true that the PlayStation 4 runs some games at a higher internal resolution, but few home console games run at 1080p natively; both machines will upscale most of their games to stretch across your HDTV. It's in Sony's exclusive games that the hardware stands to make a difference -- games built specifically for the PlayStation 4 have the potential to visibly outshine the Xbox One's best efforts. It won't be enough of a graphical gap to give Xbox loyalists significant pause, but it exists, and it's worth noting.
Sony and Microsoft have left consumers with a tough choice. Both systems promise excellent gaming experiences and new features that push the industry forward. On one hand, you have the PlayStation 4 toeing a traditional line of hardcore gaming: It features raw power, social sharing and a controller that's trying to be more than your typical gamepad. Across the aisle, Microsoft's Xbox One presents a unified hub for all of your media experiences, wrapping them in a highly stylized voice- and motion-controlled dashboard. With great exclusives and tons of multi-platform titles bound for each system, it's hard to say which console will come out on top.
As much as it helps to put the two console's features in perspective, we still can't account for the industry's wildcard: the fans. Brand loyalty plays a major role in the success of a gaming device, with the console's most dedicated users serving as evangelists to the unaffiliated. With all of the noise, it can be hard to make an unbiased decision about what console is right for you. We've already said our piece about the PlayStation 4, and our review of Microsoft's kit is just around the corner -- it's up to you to pick a side. After all, it's not a console war without soldiers.