Thank you very much to Microsoft, who sent me an Xbox Series X ahead of release, in order to review.
Usually, when picking up a new games console on release day, the big thing to be excited about is brand new games that you couldn’t otherwise play. Launch day is the most expensive time to pick up a console, it comes with the most stress attached to making your purchase, and it’s the time in a console’s life where the largest number of little wrinkles are there to iron out. Brand new exclusive games have historically been the justification for being an early adopter.
Things are a little bit different in 2020 for both Microsoft and Sony. The PS5, which releases a little after the Xbox Series S and Series X, has a small handful of next gen exclusive titles at launch, such as a remake of Demon’s Souls, and pack-in title Astro’s Playroom. Microsoft’s pair of new consoles by comparison don’t really have any new exclusive titles to tempt players through the door.
Microsoft is pitching their new consoles on the promise of making your existing games look better, run better, and load faster, and be more convenient to hop between. It’s less a departure from your existing Xbox one, and more like a PC hardware upgrade. All your programs still run, all your files are still accessible, but everything just works a little better than it did before.
So, the question is, does the move to a high speed SSD and a hardware refresh feel like a generational leap? Well, after a couple of weeks spent with the console, I feel like it does. It’s tough to quantify the difference until you try it for yourself, but once I’d had spent a few days playing around with the Series X, I found it pretty hard to go back to the last generation of games consoles.
If you’re already an Xbox One owner, and have your console up to date with the latest firmware, your initial experience with the Xbox Series X is going to be very familiar. All the same UI elements are where you’d expect them to be, all the same settings are in place, everything in your existing game library will be available to download (minus any Kinect games, sorry Steel Battalion Kinect), and basically everything you’ll experience on first boot up will be very familiar.
For better or worse, Microsoft has basically kept everything about the Xbox One’s UI intact on the Series X, in terms of design and function. No massive overhaul here, with the exception of performance speed. As someone who actively dreaded trying to navigate a launch day Xbox One by the end of its life due to the system’s slow, sluggish, and laggy system menus, the Series X snaps between menus and titles very responsively. It’s a small thing, but it makes the console so much more pleasant to use day to day.
Next, let’s talk about the new Xbox Series X controller. Continuing the theme of the Series X feeling like a refinement of the Xbox One more than a reinvention, the Series X controller at its core feels very similar to the Xbox One controller before it. There’s some small changes I think are largely positive, from the smaller and more compact design to the nicely textured material on the rear grips of the controller, but the real star of the redesign is the controller’s new D-Pad. The D-Pad is still a cross overlaid onto a circle, but each of the directions on the pad features a very satisfying audible and tactile click when pushed. You can really easily tell by feeling alone that you have hit the right area of the pad, helped by raised edges to each of the four major directions, and over my hours with the console I have never once noticed a D-Pad input being incorrectly read. If you’re a fighting game fan, the feeling of rotating from left around to down on the D-Pad should sell you on its quality, as you can feel three distinct clicks; One heavy one as you start, a lighter one at the mid point, and a new strong one when you finish your rotation. I was constantly being given feedback on my position, which really helped me feel confident in my inputs. The new Xbox Series X controller doesn’t outperform Microsoft’s expensive optional Elite Series 2 controller quite yet, but it’s a noticeable step up from the controller that shipped with the Xbox One.
The only new button on the new Series X controller is a share button, which can be customised to take screenshots and video when it is held down or pressed. Images and video clips captured can be saved at various quality levels, and the process of capturing clips is simple, however, I did find that with some games during my review period, capturing footage caused performance issues. A notable example, playing the Series X enhanced version of Forza Horizon 4, while the Series X was trying to capture a gameplay video clip, the game audio while I was playing began to cut out, stuttering and at times going silent for several seconds.
The new controller still doesn’t ship with a pre-installed rechargeable battery, instead shipping with a pair of disposable AA batteries.
As for the console itself, the Xbox Series X’s build quality and weight is best described as sturdy and dense. When first holding the console itself, I was struck by a sense that there was basically no wasted space in the console’s design. Every bit of the Series X is full of tech, and it felt premium as a result. As large as the Series X appears on first impression, once it was in my living room setup, it didn’t take up nearly as much space as I expected. Its simple and minimalist design is easy to set aside and forget about, in the best sort of way.
For those wondering about the green glowing effect up at the top of the console, it’s achieved using green plastic part way down the holes at the top of the console rather than with a light.
Note, that the “perfect for kids to drop crayons down” holes at the top of the console lead directly to the fan, with no dust trap visible. If your kid drops something in those holes, it’s going directly into the system fan, and I don’t see an easy way you’d get it back out.
Right, with all that out the way, let’s talk about playing games on the Series X. At the time of this review, I’ve been largely trying out the Xbox Series X by playing existing Game Pass titles from the Xbox One, 360, and original Xbox, alongside a handful of new releases and older titles with specific Series X upgrades provided for review by Microsoft.
Firstly, I’m going to talk about the experience of playing your existing library of Xbox Games on the Series X, the titles which have not been updated specifically to take advantage of the fact they are running on the Series X.
The amount of improvement you will see when playing your backwards compatible library on the Series X will vary dramatically, depending on how the game you are playing is built. Any games I played with unlocked framerates, games that previously aimed for 60 FPS but failed to consistently stay there, saw the most obvious improvements, with basically every game I tested hitting its cap much more reliably. Games that were originally capped to 30 FPS will not magically play at 60 FPS unless the developer updates them to uncap their framerates, but for most games that previously saw slowdown in high intensity moments, those dips seem to basically gone.
The same goes for games that previously made use of variable resolutions in order to keep their framerate stable. Games that relied on turning down the resolution of on screen action to keep things moving smoothly now keep their character models crisp and clear in high energy moments. It’s often a small change, something you might not notice if you’re not looking for it, but it does help games just feel a little more polished than they did at release.
The series X also features an optional setting called Auto HDR, which will attempt to in real time apply High Dynamic Range effects to older titles. Basically, the console will attempt to make bright parts of the screen brighter, and dark parts darker, for display on fancy TVs. While this setting doesn’t always work amazingly, in certain already bright games it can make certain elements a little too luminous, it works amazingly for games like Batman: Arkham Knight. Any titles that are very dark by default really benefit a lot from increasing the contrast between dark and light parts of the scene. I found the best way to use the setting was to leave it on by default, and turn it off for specific games, rather than the reverse. In a perfect world, some time after launch, I’d love to see Microsoft offer an option to set individual games Auto HDR settings manually, rather than just having a system wide toggle.
However, by far the biggest upgrade to existing backwards compatible games, and this applies to every game across the board (so long as you’re running it off the internal SSD or the expensive official expansion SSD), is a drastic increase in loading speeds. Games on the series X load a lot faster, and it’s hard to appreciate how much of a difference that makes until you have one in your hands.
Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month watching videos of places like Digital Foundry putting this console through its tests, showing how much faster certain games load on the Series X compared to the One X. Watching those kinds of loading time comparison videos doesn’t prepare you for the tangible difference you feel when playing around with the console in real time.
The SSD on the Xbox Series X doesn’t 100% eliminate loading times on all games, but on most games, it shortens them enough that I never felt the need to grab my phone to scroll twitter, or watch a few moments of a YouTube video while waiting. I basically never felt like I was waiting around for games to be ready to play, and that feeling is something I adjusted to very quickly. You’ll still need to wait through any developer logos at the start of your old games, but when it’s simply a matter of loading data, everything runs so much faster.
That all said, if you were hoping the Mass Effect elevators would now zoom really super fast, you’re out of luck. That’s a great example of a game that has been programmed with a set amount of time built in based around how long the game is expected to load, and the game’s not going to load faster on this new console’s account because those elevators are designed to take a set amount of time. Some parts of games are designed around their original loading times and those moments won’t magically zip past now.
After two weeks with the Series X, loading games on my Switch feels more comparatively sluggish than it used to, as does playing games on my PS4. Every loading screen I come across on one of the other consoles very much highlights to me how much less waiting around I am doing on the Series X.
Then, we’ve got Quick Resume, a feature which at the time of recording this video has not been officially confirmed for the PlayStation 5. Put simply, you know how on all the current generation consoles you can hit the home button, and leave your game suspended in the background while you check out the store, or while the console is in sleep mode? Well, you can now do that on the Series X with multiple games at once.
The exact number of games you can have suspended at once varies wildly depending on what games you have chosen to suspend, but in my experience anywhere between three and five games can be reliably suspended at once. These games can be loaded back up very quickly, usually in around five to eight seconds, dropping you back exactly where you left off. So long as you’re not playing an online multiplayer game, which will obviously kick you back to the lobby if you suspend, you can suspend basically any game in theory.
Quick Resume is one of those features that I’m probably making more use of as a reviewer right now than the average consumer is going to, just because so much of my time this past few weeks has been hopping rapidly between different titles, but it is really nice being able to quickly hop into a quick round of a roguelike for 20 minutes, safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to have to reload Yakuza: Like a Dragon from scratch and get back from my latest save to whatever I was doing. It makes the idea of hopping into a quick round of something small in between sessions of your big adventures feel much more inviting.
Also, and this boggles my mind, the feature works while the console is unplugged from the mains. You can turn off your console, move it to a different room, plug it back in, and lose zero progress, which feels really cool.
My biggest complaint right now about Quick Resume, which I hope gets fixed in a system update, is that the Series X doesn’t give you any warning when a game that’s currently suspended is going to be kicked off the Quick Resume list. It’d be a lot nicer if when I tried to boot up Dirt 5, the console would give me a warning that booting the game up would close the suspended copy of Gears 5 I had running, and that I might want to save progress there first if I have not already. Having a way to check which games are currently suspended, and which are not, and which is going to be the next one kicked off the list if something gets kicked off, is the only real missing feature from Quick Resume at launch.
Additionally, at the time of this review, support for Quick Resume across my games library is inconsistent, and keeps shifting. I have been assured that this will be fixed before the console’s launch, but at this moment bugs are still being fixed as launch approaches.
In terms of games I had access to during this review period, The main games I had access to that were optimised specifically for Xbox Series X were Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Other games were provided, but are either not live yet for reviewers, or have had access to them revoked during the review period for various reasons.
As is always the case with the launch of a new console, the racing title on offer is a technical showpiece in terms of getting a feel for the performance boosts available for cross generation titles. Forza Horizon 4’s varied and often colourful settings look gorgeous at 4K 60FPS, speeding past without ever seeming to struggle or stutter. Draw distances are significantly improved, as is texture quality at those improved draw distances. When speeding down roads at 200 miles per hour, crashing through stone walls to watch rocks fly in all directions, the game holds up terrifically. Shadow and reflection quality stands up well, as does lighting, and the game really does a terrific job of showing off the power of the new console. It is definitely the launch title that looked visually most next gen of the launch lineup.
If nothing else, playing through the generation’s first updated racing game gave me a really good sense that the Series X can achieve a good balance of visual fidelity and stable 60FPS gameplay, which bodes well for the generation ahead.
Gears 5 is a game that focuses it’s presentation on sheer visual quality, as the action tends to be slower in nature. Much as expected, on a 4K HDR TV, the game pours its energy into looking as detailed as possible, with shadow and lighting details in particular really shining. Gears 5 already looked very good, it now just looks a bit better. It’s not really surprising in any major way, it’s what you expect from Gears on a new console.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon by comparison feels decidedly cross generation. The game undeniably looks nicer and runs at a more stable framerate on the Series X, but it feels like a game already basically finished with a new coat of paint applied. Like a Dragon definitely looks and runs better, but lacks that wow factor as a next-gen showcase. It’s neither the best showcase of high speed use of assets, or the height of texture detail. It’s an improvement, but it’s not the game you’ll be showing off to wow your friends. The biggest improvement to the game in reality is the improved loading times, with loading screen tips barely having time to appear before they’re gone.
Playing through the line up of launch titles provided by Microsoft, the absence of Halo Infinite as a launch title is certainly felt. I respect Microsoft for making the choice to push it back and make sure it’s completely finished rather than pushing it out to hit launch, but from the packaging art on the box to the day one offerings, there is a clear gap left that Halo Infinite was clearly originally meant to fill.
Overall, after a few weeks with the Xbox Series X, my overall takeaway is that, for better and worse, this feels like an incremental step forward. Microsoft isn’t reinventing the wheel with the Series X, because largely it doesn’t need to. The Xbox One wasn’t a bad console, it was in many ways a great one, it mostly struggled from a lack of desirable titles. But, with Microsoft’s recent pushes forward with GamePass, the Series X feels like a really great time to get back into the Xbox Ecosystem. A lot of the rough edges have been polished off the Xbox One’s user experience, everything runs quicker and smoother, it’s nice to be able to have a few games suspended at once, and everything just kind of works.
Usually, it’s the new exclusives or the dramatic reimaginings that get me excited with a new console. With the Xbox Series X, what’s exciting is that everything just works how I would hope. It doesn’t do much new, but what it does, it does right. It’s the next generation of Xbox Hardware, and it stands up well when compared to the Xbox One family of consoles. Will it stand up as well when compared to the PS5? Only time will tell.