Introduction

Since the launch of the New Xbox One experience in November 2015, Microsoft has arguably led the way in the accessibility of console interfaces. When the Xbox One S released, I was curious as to how the setup might have changed or been adapted to allow Narrator (Microsoft's TTS system on Xbox One and other Windows devices) to be included and used during setup, amongst other questions. Moreover, I wasn't sure whether the size would be that much of a difference or whether any special editions would actually have anything other than a colour change. However, I was very much interested when the Gears of War 4 Xbox One S limited edition bundle was announced, with elements that sounded, on reading, like it might be the most interesting special edition to date for those without sight (even if the included game and franchise might not be the most accessible one in gaming history).

Thanks to a large amount of discussion with various individuals, including Aaron Greenberg, the UK Xbox PR team, Bryce Johnson and the generosity of Microsoft in general, I am pleased to be able to introduce this review of the Gears of War 4 Xbox One S limited edition bundle. Now, without further ado, let's start as we normally do with product reviews. Let's unbox this.

Oh and if you don't want your box getting a little ripped in trying to remove its contents, you might want scissors for this one.

Unboxing

In terms of how you actually get into the relatively smooth looking box, you might be a little stuck. I ended up using a safety blade to get into this. Instead of working with the commonplace adhesive circles (which I was informed via sighted help actually seal the bottom of the box), I instead cut the two pieces of tape that actually serve to hold the top of the box together. Once that's done, you can simply pull the flap up and away so you can get access to the innards of the box.

The first thing you'll find is an instruction card that flips open to reveal the majority of the information on how to get your One S up and running, though most if not all is pretty self-explanatory.

Once you've put this printed card aside, you'll see two areas of the box, one containing the Xbox One S itself and the other holding the controller in an oblong box of its own. If you feel at the top of the controller box, you'll see a hole in the shape of a cog, complete with crinkle cut edging. Place a finger into this hole and use it to lift the oblong box out from the main package. The piece that covers the top should easily lift away and you can put it aside.

The controller box is divided into two sections, one for cables and the other for the controller itself wrapped in a protective material. Pull the tape holding the bag together in its tightly packaged configuration, which should reveal the main opening, then pull that apart as well to allow you to extract the controller. See my initial thoughts on the controller below.

In the remaining section of the controller box that you haven't looked at, you'll also find a high speed HDMI cable as well as a power cable to link directly to the back of the console, rather than the notorious power brick.

And if you're wondering how you're going to power your controller without using a play and charge kit and battery pack (not included), there's a handy set of batteries thrown in loosely for good measure.

The Controller

The controller has a weathered feel to it, with scratches near where the bumpers are as well as on the buttons. Admittedly, the A B X and Y scratches aren't as pronounced as I'd expected, but they can be noticed. The Xbox button is less pronounced than you might be used to, sometimes in initial testing making accessing the guide a little tricky. However, that should likely ease with time, I'd hope. Other than the mat finish that textures the grips, it's not that different to a default Xbox One controller, other than a DPad that seems to make less noise than the more common standard controllers.

Thanks to a question from A follower on Twitter who reviews games with their own disability in mind and an interesting question raised during discussion of the new controller, I can say that the vibration on this controller is probably a little stronger from the point of view of the main rumble motors than the ones that came with the original Xbox One or were released later. I haven't managed to test the impulse triggers yet, but if anything changes I'll update this with the relevant information. Vibration in in-game cutscenes in Gears of War 4 was very much appreciated and made the impacts, notably during firefights, all the more striking. When events are triggered, whether that be a distant cutscene-generated explosion, or the footfalls of an enemy far larger than you coming in for an attack, everything has a heightened sense of urgency, though as per the industry standard you can't tell where the enemy fire etc is coming from with these cues.

The Console

In order to get the console out of the box, simply place your hand under the cardboard base that is surrounded by foam packaging. Flip the box so that the opening is on your right and the flap for it is on the floor. Now take firm hold of the base and guide the assembly out with care.

A small surprise

Upon trying to do what I'd listed above, as I thought it would actually work, I discovered that the piece I thought was a base actually a separate piece and contains the game codes. Flip the small flat box around so that the raised nodule is to your left. Find the thumb shaped semi-circular section and flick this so that you can retrieve the contents by lifting the top away and to your left as if opening a book.

Inside, you'll find 2 cards with codes on, one for the Gears of War 4 Ultimate Edition and one for a 14 day XBox Live trial along with instructions on how to redeem the codes. In addition, I also found a further piece of paper, the simplified EU declaration of conformity which advises you to go to this page to view the full text of the declaration though the page actually fails to load. I will update this link if I find a working version or alternative link.

In this section you will also find your regulatory and warranty guide, unfortunately all in print.

The final item in this smaller flat box is the console stand, a solid looking plastic construction which will be covered in a little more detail later.

The Console Unboxing, (Continued)

The console was already partially out of the box when I resumed trying to extract it. Simply hold the console firmly and pull it free, taking care not to damage it in the process.

Once you've removed the foam packaging from the two short edges of the console, gently pull the protective material away once you've found one of the two openings.

The console certainly feels weighty, but it also feels very solid. The fans that were previously large lines on the top and sides of the original Xbox One are now small holes along parts of the surface. The large claw marks of the swarm decorate what is, when horizontal, the left hand side near the slot for games and other cd style media to be inserted. The previously capacitive touch panels for ejecting and turning the console on/off are now replaced by very welcome physical buttons. The power button is a smooth circle that is recessed into the surface and the eject button is a protruding circle where the touch-based equivalent used to be. There is a sync/bind button, but it's a little difficult to see if you're unfamiliar with where it is (in this case, in a near diagonal line down and to the left of the power button, on the same panel as the front USB port.

These will take a little time to get used to, but they are far better than the alternatives on the original Xbox One models, at least in my opinion

Testing

Setup

Plugging in the console was straightforward, as the configuration of ports on the back (right to left: power, HDMI in, HDMI out, 2 USB ports, an infrared out, an optical out and a network port) means that everything is organised in a relatively tidy manner.

After removing the sticker that told me not to move the console with any active discs inserted, I powered the console on, where I was presented with a German startup screen, quite frankly, not what I was expecting though understandable given that the unit itself was apparently sourced from Germany.

As you can imagine, the fact that the OS was in German presented the need for a large amount of sighted assistance. Narrator, as it is not currently available worldwide (see below for a greater expansion on this point), doesn't work when the OS is set to anything other than US English as of the original publication of this review, but hopefully when it is rolled out to the rest of the world, this problem will be far less prominent.

Once I'd switched all my languages to US to enable narrator and got it up and running, signing in and making sure I was connected was relatively easy, other than that when entering my email address I had to use my controller to enter the at (@) symbol as the keyboard changes between regions. Also, choosing a colour isn't currently readable with narrator, but it doesn't necessarily matter what colour you work with if you have absolutely no sight whatsoever. I, having sighted help at the time, went with a red in an attempt to closely match the theme of the console.

The Xbox Preview Program

Why is this, a program that's been around for a number of years to help improve the Xbox experience, being mentioned in a review of the Gears of War 4 Xbox One S bundle? Well, it actually can make quite the difference to the set up process described above, as well as improve your ability to enjoy Gears of War 4, though the majority of the changes described weren't actually available yet in the stable OS as of the original publication of this review. See below for more details, though much of this information is only kept for posterity.

Clubs and Looking For Group

At E3 2016, clubs and looking for group (LFG) were announced as upcoming features to enter into the Xbox ecosystem in the relatively near future. These features would, when fully rolled out, allow like-minded gamers to work together in clubs and as part of that look for each other spontaneously via LFG. It's not quite a social network setup (where people are automatically connected together) and the fact that the LFG and clubs systems don't try to auto-add you to anybody's friend lists is very much appreciated.

Joining a club is relatively simple. You request to join the club in question and if it's accepted, you can then access that club's features and posts. Working with LFG is a little more complicated and could be covered in a future article/review. However, the basic premise is you put out a post to say you want help with something or just to meet up and chat in the context of the game and if anyone's interested, a notification will appear letting you know as such. Interacting with this notification will allow you to "gather your party" which I believe invites everyone who's interested (or rather who you've confirmed as being allowed to participate) into a single party. This was a very rapid turn of events in my case, as within 5 minutes one person had expressed interest and joined up with me and within 15 we were in campaign tackling the prologue missions.

Narrator Outside the US

As I previously mentioned during the setup process for my new Xbox One S, Narrator was,for a time, only available in the US region via the workaround of switching language and location to the United States. However, as part of the Preview Program (and now the consumer/stable OS), you are now able to use Narrator in English (UK), French, German, Italian and Spanish (though it's likely this list will expand over time). What this also means, other than removing the need to tweak your settings in the aforementioned regions, is that you can, if you so wish, use any outstanding Microsoft credit in your account (from gift cards etc) to purchase DLC or other in-game items as well as see your account balance amongst other improvements. In short, with these new updates, which I originally speculated would enter into the stable OS with the creators update, needing sighted help to purchase games, movies, music etc has been pretty much made unnecessary. At the time, it was pretty big news, even though it was a while in coming. The ability to use Narrator outside the US was added in a consumer update not long after this review was first updated, but the word from Microsoft is that further accessibility improvements are on the way too.

Note

The preview program is now called the Xbox Insider program. Find the support article here, with all the information you're likely going to need about the Xbox Insider Program.

Back to the main review

Usage with digital games

Using your Xbox One S with digital games is just as simple as sign in, go to my games and apps, click the item you want, click install and then let it do its thing. How long it takes for it to do said thing, as you might expect, does depend on your internet speed. All in all, the experience does seem faster than the same procedure on the Xbox One's original model, so definitely an improvement.

In terms of the bundled codes, entering the code for Gears of War 4: Ultimate Edition was easy, other than the fact that I had to have sighted help to read the code in the first place. This is an issue that I'd hope could be solved in the future, as I know QR codes are a possibility and there are other potential avenues that could also work to solve this issue.

Playing games digitally is easy as well, as they just launch like any other app on the One or One S operating system. Simply scroll to the icon and press A.

Usage with physical games

The use of the One S with physical games is much as you'd expect. Pop the disc in and you'll be able to install a game if you haven't already. Eject the disc by pressing the button near the slot and the disc will emerge.

On a related note, I managed to get all my games and digital content, or rather the items I wanted to install on the new system, up and running in around 7 hours. Leaving it on for this time with the original Xbox One would've seen it running very hot indeed, but the One S seems to have improved heat distribution allowing it to run for longer periods of time.

The Console Stand

The stand isn't much to look at in all honesty. However, it's easy to use, which is certainly a plus. Just stand your XBox gently on its side so that the disc tray is vertically aligned, and the highest point on the console is the side that is closest to the edge of the tray. Now look underneath the console and you should find two very small rectangular holes. These are where the stand slots into. Lift the console up, making sure that there's no disc inside it and position it so the slots and the "prongs" on the stand match up, with the large plastic area of the stand supporting the console. This should, if done correctly, allow your console to sit vertically with no problems.

Note

The below sections discussing Gears Of War 4 as a game have gradually expanded over the course of me playing the game, becoming longer than originally planned. However, I've left some of my original notes here for posterity (as most if not all still apply), in addition to adding references to later parts of campaign and the Gears Of War official website.

Gears of War 4

As a quick review, the game itself, or what I've played of it thus far, sounds very clean and clear, though there are points where the music will mask the important sounds like footsteps etc, giving an impression that you aren't moving. Turn the music down in the main menu (I'll see if I can cover how to do this in a separate review/overview of the game) and you should be good to go.

If you have a friend or willing co-op partner to teach you the ropes, go for it. Most things make sound and if they don't immediately there are normally ways around it. For example, finding cover is basically narrowed down to running/moving whilst holding A. Finding items, like ammo boxes, is mostly accomplished by running around and holding X, though how reliable this is has yet to be fully tested and using this strategy might hinder your ability to get certain achievements within the game. Players and sometimes the AI can enter into "Lancer duels" (using what is basically an assault rifle with a chainsaw attached to it), with the quick button mashing in these semi-QTE sequences possibly being a problem for gamers who can't hit buttons constantly at high speed.

Active reloads, a staple of the series, are doable in this iteration (I have yet to fully test the rest of the games) with no sight. It takes a matter of time and practice as well as knowledge of small details (like the fact that if you get a perfect active reload, denoted by a longer burst of vibration than normal from your controller, you'll have to wait to go for another perfect active reload as it has its own cooldown timer).

The equivalent to Halo 5's "Spartan chatter", Gears all talk to each other even when throwing out grenades etc, which is very useful for keeping an eye on where everyone is in your squad. However, the fact that everyone has a similar sounding gun at the start of the game, including the enemies, does make things rather tricky.

Once the music in the first part of the campaign dies down, you get a chance to appreciate the work that's gone into the detailed audio environments, including water under your feet or walking on other less easy to distinguish surfaces.

Doors

Yes, you may be thinking "What are doors doing under their own subheading?" Well, they're a pretty big problem in Gears, as you have to go right through the middle and there are no clues as to how to get through them without sighted help. Having a co-op partner I'd say is therefore essential to get most enjoyment if not all out of the campaign, as even mid-firefight you'll want the other player to cover your back whilst you try and not get yourself killed.

Moreover, there are doors in co-op that require two human controlled players to open them, thus facilitating, in certain cases, the reloading of checkpoints to accomplish certain goals, as explained in more detail below.

Presentation

Regardless of how good the gameplay looks graphically or even in auditory terms, it's also important to consider the cutscenes as well. Lines are delivered confidently, with the prologue sections also merging cleanly into the main plot. You don't necessarily have to see to understand most of the action where there's no dialogue, though sometimes pivotal scenes (which i won't spoil here) need additional description to make their full significance apparent. Having played through the entire campaign (with assistance from various sighted Gears players), though these points are clearly subjective, the solid writing and characterisation in this, the first game in the franchise that I've actually completed makes me interested in just how good the rest of the series is. The voice acting through the game, in and out of cutscenes, is well delivered and the action sequences, though slightly scaled up compared to the main game, don't feel too disjointed as they might in some fighting games for example (where the sound design within the player-controlled segments does not match up to the more cinematic standards of points where the player loses control of a character).

The presentation of multiplayer, PVP or otherwise, is much the same as the main game. However, situations where you have multiple individuals using similar weapons on screen at any one time, also similar to the main game, can make navigating around the map and engaging in the main bulk of the firefights a tricky process. Moreover, the fact that there is no clearly defined way to tell who is actually getting kills with ranged weapons or even in close quarters melee situations also makes the game a rather frustrating process. As an upside to this, however, if you have other players with sight on your team, working together to see who killed what is not the hardest part of gameplay and if you're with a reasonable bunch of fellow fighters you should be able to get along relatively well.

Personally though, I do wish that there were hit markers for when you were actually killing an enemy with your own weapon (for weapons other than the Lancer), in addition, possibly, to a system that allows you to fully lock on to a target and continue to fire with automatic tracking of some sort. I understand, however, that as good as though the latter option might be, it has the potential to break game mechanics for those with sight playing the game, especially in PVP scenarios.

Fortunately me and the various individuals I've been working through campaign with have found interesting and relatively innovative ways of moving through tricky passages. The "classic" method is a very ammo-heavy method really, whereby the leading player runs around shooting their weapon of choice (where possible) to guide the player following them. However, there's an easier way of doing this once you get past the first couple of chapters of Act 2.

Spoilers are ahead for Act 2. Read on at your disgression

When you obtain the custom lancer from Marcus, the lead character from the first 3 games, you then have access to a navigational method that's far less frustrating. Given that the lancer makes a constant sound when you rev the chainsaw attached to it, you can simply have the lead player run around the map to the correct points and stop once the following player arrives where they need to be, albeit with a little directional adjustment via party chat. If you're stuck navigations wise, there are very few scenarios within the campaign where you can't just wait for your fellow gear to get to the next checkpoint as, similar to Halo 5: Guardians, you will be teleported to where the rest of your group is gathered. This is not always the case though, as will be discussed a little later in this review.

Campaign areas that definitely require sighted assistance

Whilst pretty much the entirety of the Gears of War 4 campaign will require sighted assistance, there are certain areas that will almost definitely be impossible to complete without it. Be mindful of spoilers below.

Horde Mode

Horde mode is a cooperative wave-based game type, where you and your fellow team members attempt to survive a maximum of 50 waves, fighting 5 bosses, one every 10 waves whilst building defences and turrets that will allow you to fight back with greater firepower. The fact that you are working with a team is invaluable, as if they are willing to work with you, you can still get kills and contribute to the team's success even though you might feel like you're doing less than the rest of your team.

A reasonable strategy is, when you have enough power in your fabricator, to build two things: a Sentry turret and a manned one. The two should be placed side-by-side, for one reason: The Sentry acts as a kind of alert system. When it fires, that means something's close enough for the automated turret to see it. This can help you a fair amount, though keep in mind sighted players will still have to advise you on your aim for your own turret, as occasionally you'll end up shooting at nothing at all without you being aware of it.

Sometimes, with the right skills, it's possible to go in as a sort of free agent since, if you die, you regain your full compliment of ammunition and grenades. It's better to do this with a team who knows you have a lack of sight however, to avoid any frustration from their end.

The Gears of War Website

When you play Horde or similar modes, you receive credits. These credits (shortened to creds for convenience in this review), are used to buy one of any number of packs that then provide you with cards. These cards can improve your ability to, for example, do damage with certain weapons or make items cost less to build. I'd suggest buying the Horde Booster packs as they do, I believe, provide the greatest number of horde-specific cards. However, they do cost 400 creds at the time of writing This can be, if you're a player without sight and with little opportunity to run Horde, rather steep. However, if you get the right cards, it's pretty worth while.

You can purchase these packs through the official Gears Of War website after signing in with your gamertag.

Seeing the number of credits you have available is not the easiest process in the world. Running NVDA in my tests, I discovered an object only described as "clickable" which, when activated with the enter key, allowed me to see my gamertag and underneath the number of creds I had accumulated. Now you know how much you have to spend, you can activate the "store" link and purchase packs from there. The interface is a little tricky, coupled with the rather entertaining fact that the packs, when opened, allow the screen reader to see the contents before they are revealed (going from being shaded to unshaded images, from what I understand). However, labelling issues (specifically with characters and their emblems which share the character's name) are still present making the experience not quite as pleasant as it might be. It is more pleasant, however, than the similar system used in Halo 5: Guardians' online portal, Halo Waypoint.

Hopefully these accessibility issues will be resolved in the future. This review will be updated to reflect that if they are completely eliminated.

Summary

Pros

Cons

Conclusion

Even if you've got an original Xbox One, if you're a fan of Gears of War 4 and want something to celebrate it, you can't go wrong with this bundle. If you're not a fan of Gears of War at all but are looking for an Xbox One S that's something a little different to the standard models in the tactile department, this model is certainly a good choice as well as both the controller and the console bare distinct markings that'll make it stand out from the competition.

As a general overview, the Xbox One S is worth it just for the size downscale of 40% (which is actually quite significant when comparing the two versions of the Microsoft flagship product, both the original Xbox One and the slimmer variant). Couple that with the fact that you can stand it vertically without being warned against such a practice by the manufacturer and the 2 Terabytes (TB) of storage, you're definitely on to a winner.

Official Disclaimer

The product featured in this review was provided by Microsoft at no cost, providing that I disclose that the company in question gave me the product in the first place.

Again, I would like to thank all involved with obtaining this product, as well as those who kept me in the loop whilst it was getting to me, for making this review possible.

If you wish to ask any questions related to this review or the content of it, please contact the author via the form on this page.

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