It’s a bit strange reviewing a next-gen console without showstopper games. Launch lineups are generally weak for new generations, but at least they’re pretty to look at. On Xbox One, I remember watching Aiden Pearce’s jacket flap in the breeze in the original Watch Dogs. I enjoyed the boosted player counts and higher visual fidelity of Battlefield 4. I stared down a storm on the seas of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, impressed by the particle effects as embers were whipped up by the wind.
On Xbox Series X, there’s nothing like that. There are a host of backwards compatible games – everything ever released on Xbox works with Series X, and some of them have had hefty enhancement patches. Forza Horizon 4 in particular is stunning after a 60GB update. The snow deformation looks crisper due to the higher frame rate, car materials are more reflective, and shadows are sharper. It loads in a blink. It makes me excited to see what developer Playground Games can do with an open-world RPG in the upcoming Fable reboot. Gears 5 boasts similar advancements and looks like it could have released yesterday.
As far as actual next-gen games, I’ve played a lot of Yakuza: Like A Dragon. Sega’s latest is a must-buy – my favorite game in an already brilliant series – but it’s about as much a next-generation showcase as my Nan, and she’s dead.
I haven’t even seen ray tracing – next-gen tech that allows for more natural lighting and real-time reflections – in action on Series X yet. It’s difficult to judge it as a next-gen machine because it feels more like a continuation of what we already have.
That’s not especially a bad thing, and you do have to take the state of 2020 into consideration here. The console was originally meant to launch with Halo Infinite. Presumably, COVID-related setbacks saw Microsoft’s flagship game pushed to 2021. That means not only do we have to judge Series X on what it is right now, but also on its potential, and I truly believe this is the generation where Xbox will rope-a-dope its way back into the gaming zeitgeist. The investments are there, and they will eventually pay off. With that in mind, let’s start with the design.
A monolith to gaming
Xbox Series X is an ode to anyone who’s put on some lockdown lumber – it’s a hefty lad, a chunky boy. It refuses to fit inside most entertainment centers and looks kind of awkward when laid flat. The vents at the top will trigger your trypophobia and exhaust heat at the same time. It’s sleek, black, and hates fingerprints. It will live behind your telly and you will forget it’s even there – mostly because it’s whisper quiet. The Series X actually isn’t as big as you might be expecting, it’s just wide. An obsidian wedge that’s sleek and functional. It grew on me as quickly as my belly during the pandemic.
A new controller
It’s a new generation, which means new controllers. I’ve never been much of a fan of the Xbox One controller. Something about it feels hollow, and the bumper triggers feel clacky and cheap. The Xbox Series X controller rectifies that. It feels more expensive and durable. It has USB-C connectivity so the port won’t play up after you’ve plugged it in approximately two (2) times.
There’s a better D-pad, textured grips, and tactile triggers and bumpers with dot patterns inlaid onto them. It has a similar matte finish to the console but somehow doesn’t get covered in fingerprints like the console itself. It just feels more comfortable and durable all-round, and the new share button makes capturing screenshots and videos much easier than it has ever been on Xbox before. Yes, the controller still takes AA batteries, but you can get good rechargeable ones now. Buy two sets and just swap them out. It’s easy. Stop moaning about it.
The most powerful console in the world
Did I mention that it’s powerful? It is. It can run modern games at a native 4K and 60fps – something you’d have to spend a lot of money on a high-end PC to achieve elsewhere. In terms of bang for your buck, it’s a lot of bang for not that much buck. Quote that, Digital Foundry. Quote that.
I won’t bore you with endless talk of specs that I’ve copy and pasted from a press release without actually understanding them, but Xbox Series X runs everything like a dream. Even old games benefit from its power, getting boosts to frame rate, upscaled resolutions, and even HDR support through some weird magic that I also don’t understand. In motion, supported games are buttery smooth. As soon as more games get official “enhanced for Series X” support like Forza Horizon 4, they will look even better and take up more of your hard drive.
Fast travel is actually fast
Then there’s the SSD – the Xbox Series X’s super-fast storage solution. These are nothing new to PC gamers, but the SSD here can outperform many of the most pricey SSDs you can buy for your gaming rig. Loading screens last seconds and fast travel is actually fast. Playing The Witcher 3, you load into a new location before the assets. In Yakuza: Like A Dragon, I’ve never once managed to finish reading one of the loading screen tooltips. It’s almost comical how quick it is. This takes much of the stress out of reloading saves, failure, or simply transitioning to a new area. I remember last-gen that I’d often weigh up how long the loading screens would take for fast travel versus actually, you know, traveling there. Now, that’s not even a consideration.
Quick Resume is an incredible feature. It allows you to play a handful of games and quit out at any time to play another – the Series X automatically records your progress so that when you choose the game again from the quick menu, you’re straight back to exactly where you were in a couple of seconds. It means you can exit out of your single-player game to have a quick Rocket League match with your friends, then jump straight back in while they eat their dinner. It’s a feature I didn’t initially see much benefit from, but I found myself using it a fair bit while testing the console.
Game Pass is Microsoft’s not-so-secret weapon. A library of over 100 games that you can download and play as part of your Xbox Live subscription, it alone makes Xbox the console I’d recommend for frugal parents. Next-gen games are priced at around £70, and Game Pass just lets you have them as part of your sub.
It’s not just old games either – any first-party games that release on Xbox will be included. Halo Infinite? It’ll be on Game Pass. The new Fable? Same. Microsoft also added the entire EA Play library on there recently, so you can play The Sims 4, Titanfall 2, and a bunch of other EA games for free. And then there’s the dessert – Microsoft now owns Bethesda, which means Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Doom, and any game Arkane Studios releases will also be included. It’s genuinely ridiculous.
Microsoft just wants you to be a part of its ecosystem whether you’re on Series X, the smaller and cheaper Series S, the Xbox One, the Xbox One S, the Xbox One X, or even Game Pass on PC and mobile. It doesn’t care which console you own, and your account and saves will jump around with you wherever you take them.
This does have one drawback, however. Because it’s a part of the same ecosystem, the console feels instantly familiar. It doesn’t feel much like a new console until you’re playing something at 4K/60fps. And if you’re a parent with two kids who already system shares with one of them, you won’t be able to share your digital games with your other child on your old Xbox when you upgrade. Signing into your account on Series X also signs your account out on last-gen. It’s a bit of a bummer, since this wouldn’t be an issue if my library was physical – I own these games, why can’t I play them on three consoles in my house when Microsoft has released approximately five million different Xbox consoles in the space of a few years?
Series X gon’ deliver it to ya?
If you’re looking for a console that rivals premium PC performance and features the most robust library of any console ever released, you can’t go wrong with Series X. If you’re looking for that next-gen wow factor, you might be better off waiting until next year when developers start properly tapping into the power of this monolithic beast. When is that Cyberpunk 2077 next-gen patch again?
Buying an Xbox Series X is an investment, and it’s one that I’m confident will pay off. Microsoft has something to prove this generation and I can’t wait to see what games are coming from its new studios in the coming years. Until then, the Xbox Series X is the best console for multiplatform games. If you want hassle-free gaming with shorter load times, crisp textures, smooth frame rates, and a huge library – much of which is included as part of your online subscription – Xbox Series X is impossible to beat.
Next: Microsoft Lists Full Xbox Series X/S Launch Catalog
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Kirk is the Editor-in-Chief at The Gamer. He likes Arkane games a little too much.
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