Xbox Series X review – a brilliant balance of continuity and evolution

Never before has so much been known about a console for so long before launch, and yet as we go to press we’ve still only seen a fraction of even its launch period potential.

The Xbox One X… sorry, the Xbox Series X, I still struggle with the Microsoft’s naming choices at times, was first shown to the world almost 12 months ago now, an unprecedented run-in for a new console. Arguably this should have been the most finely planned and perfectly executed console release ever.

And then the pandemic turned the world upside down.

The console has arrived on time and Microsoft should be applauded for that. 343 Industries was impacted, though, and laid the blame for Halo: Infinite’s delay squarely at the feet of the pandemic, and that’s completely reasonable. 

Xbox Series XMeanwhile, enhanced versions of this winter’s big games are only just now rolling out, making gauging the new consoles power a somewhat rolling affair over the next few weeks. Though we’ve seen enough to know that we’re impressed. 

Still, the lack of a standout new experience, a fresh technical tour de force for the new hardware, somewhat limits our ability to gauge the impact of the new console over the years to come. A near-impossible feat even at the best of times.

Or does it?

A new console usually means a new platform, a target for developers and publishers alike to create for and prosper from. The new Xbox isn’t a new platform, it’s not even a single new console in fact,  instead it’s new hardware that’s just one part of the multi-threaded platform that is now Xbox.

Continuity is the name of the game here. Want a new console, great. Want to play on PC, great. Want to hold on to your old Xbox, great. Microsoft wants to be wherever consumers decide to be. And this continuity that is, conversely, the new revolution in games. 

The question then is what, if anything, has Microsoft sacrificed to achieve this incredible democratic mandate of gaming. Is this a brilliant, progressive alliance; or a coalition of mismatched parts, and more specifically, how does this incredible-looking £450 console fit into that vision.

ENGINEERING THE FUTURE

While the appearance of a console becomes less important as it matures – as other aspects, such as software or audience size – become more clearly defined, at launch appearance is a key factor in generating buzz.

And for us, the new Xbox is a masterpiece. Its monolithic design creates a sense of immense power in a highly practical, compact package. It’s best suited to sitting on a desk or beside a TV, as it looks somewhat awkward lying down. But upright, as it’s seen in marketing, it does not have a bad angle. It’s manes to be both iconic and understated, no mean feat.

And, to date in our testing, it runs so very, very quietly and with only moderately warm air emanating from its top vents. Any concerns pre-launch were dismissed within minutes of turning it on.

While the interior layout will interest only a few people, the Xbox’s internals are something of a hardware nerd fantasy, with every element slotting together neatly, thanks to its fancy dual-motherboard design. Form and function have been matched here on a level we rarely see with gaming hardware (with a nod to both the Gamecube and Nintendo 3DS) but this is truly Apple-class product design and Microsoft should be very proud of itself.

All that engineering isn’t just showing off either. It was clear from the off that one of Xbox’s key aims in this generation was not to be outgunned by PlayStation again. And in that regard it’s certainly succeeded.

The numbers have been chewed over and over ad nauseum, if you care about those teraflops the headline numbers must be burnt into your retina by now, so we won’t get into them here again. In short the Xbox Series X and PS5 are largely equivalent in most regards bar one.

“Form and function have been matched here on a level we rarely see with gaming hardware”

The Xbox, though, has a notable advantage in raw graphics power. Its GPU has almost 50 per cent more compute units and despite those running at slower speeds it still comes out a step ahead of its rival. Whether that advantage proves to be significant in terms of visible difference in big-franchise cross-platform titles remains to be seen. But we can be certain that if anyone has a hardware advantage here, it’s Xbox.

That said, that extra hardware capability comes at an additional cost, which may impact the Xbox Series X further down the line when it comes to pricing. Although it’s clearly intended to be (and likely to remain) a premium product with pricing to match.

THE SLENDER CONTROLLER

The new Xbox Wireless Controller neatly sums up Microsoft’s continuity approach to the Series S and X. In fact you don’t even need it at all, with the older model being fully supported going forward by all games. A move which will be particularly welcomed by anyone developing a couch co-op title for release next year.

Xbox One and Xbox Series X controllers
Xbox One and Xbox Series X controllers

So while the new controller hasn’t even earned its own moniker, and could be mistaken for the old one at a distance, it does have a few key differences. Most notably there’s a share button now, so that function is easier to access. The d-pad is much improved, requiring less movement and having a crisper click to it. In fact the start, menu and bumper buttons all have a crisper, more positive feedback to them. The sticks resistance has been tuned to feel more consistent across the range and the trigger pulls are slightly shorter.

Overall it has a generally refined feel, but it’s still deeply familiar.

The real work has gone on elsewhere though, with Microsoft successfully streamlining the input path from your thumb to the action onscreen, something it calls Dynamic Latency Input. Testing by Digital Foundry in Gears 5 showed the average input latency falling from 97ms to 60ms – that’s around 2 whole frames at 60fps – versus the One X. In practice that meant we found it easier to track targets and hit our shots in games. If this plays out across all titles then the Xbox might legitimately be able to claim a competitive edge in cross platform games.

On the downside, the controller doesn’t do anything to excite, there are no new features, and the AA batteries, practical though they may be, feel a bit last decade.

COMING SOON

Exclusive next-gen content for the console was never really the plan for the Xbox Series X. As we revealed right back in January, its first-party Xbox Game Studios are planning to release all titles on both generations, at least initially. That said, we expected at least a couple of new cross-gen titles to come day-and-date with the new hardware.

Over the last couple of weeks, as our testing proceeded, it has become clear that most of the games being enhanced for the new Xbox Series X and S, will not be fully available until the console’s launch, leaving us in a rather tricky situation at present to fully ascertain what the initial wave of developers have got out of the console.

Watch Dogs: Legion, with its ray-traced reflections of a rainy London, and DIRT 5, with its 120fps gameplay, both looked to be showcases of the new hardware. However, neither have been given the final lick of polish required to allow us to discuss them here.

“It has become clear that most of the games being enhanced for the new Xbox will not be fully available until the console’s launch day”

At present, the titles available to test with optimisations are largely existing first-party games: Forza Horizon 4, Gears Tactics, Sea of Thieves, along with indie title The Touryst oddly, with easily the best example to date being Gears 5. With DIRT 5 joining this select group tomorrow (on Friday 6th), which we’ll update this piece for.

The vast majority of announced enhancements will come as updates on the day of the console’s launch: November 10th. Amongst a whopping 30 enhanced titles will be big hitters such as Watch Dogs: Legion and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War is slated to come with enhancements on its launch on the 13th, with Cyberpunk 2077 following in December.

If it all falls into place, it will be an incredible launch window lineup for a new console, a true game changer in how consoles are launched, compared to the spotty handful of launch titles (often one for each key genre) offered on launch day for generations of consoles gone by.

The modern industry needed this continuity, and based on what we’ve seen of titles so far (many of which we can’t discuss), Microsoft has kept up its side of the bargain.

SET PHASERS TO ULTRA

The best example to date is Gears 5, whose graphical enhancements bring the title up to, and in some places past, the top-end PC settings. Texture detail and effects are all bumped up to nice effect, while the game runs at a smooth 60fps in the campaign, albeit with a dynamic resolution which largely hovers below a full native 4K. It’s impressive-looking, especially given this is simply a patch to an existing title, but it’s not mind-blowing.

Ultra quality textures bring an added level of detail to Gears 5

The game’s real party trick is 120fps multiplayer, which gives a silky smooth look and control response that’s unparalleled on console. However, for now, only a handful of players will have an appropriate TV or gaming monitor to appreciate the upgrade. But for competitive games it should become something that developers should strive to include, especially for cross-platform titles, as it becomes ever more standard on PC.

Elsewhere Forza Horizon 4 now runs at a silky smooth 60fps at 4K, making an already amazing looking game now look and feel even better to play. Again it’s roughly analogous to having a serious gaming PC. Meanwhile the already pretty The Touryst is being rendered at a whopping 6K and then downsampled to match the output resolution, giving it a near-Pixar level of visual sharpness. It’s a neat use of all that extra power and one that developers of less demanding titles would be wise to try.

Arguably, while the latest graphical effects are fantastic to have, it was the old consoles’ CPU, rather than the GPU, that was limiting the design space of games going forward. The processor in even the Xbox One X was starting to look woefully underpowered. The new processor runs up to 3.8GHz, up from 2.13 GHz in the One X, and real-world performance is well beyond even what even that gulf suggests.

The new processor provides acres more headroom, allowing for those higher frame rates initially, but also unlocking better physics simulations and more detailed worlds with more going on in them – there’s also 16GB of RAM to match. Theoretically, the new console, with a keyboard and mouse, could run heavy PC strategy titles from the Game Pass’s PC selection even. The full capabilities of the processor will take longer to be put to use, especially given Microsoft’s cross-gen commitment, but there’s nothing stopping other developers from finding a use for all that power starting now.

FASTER THAN LIGHTNING

One big impact today is the minimisation of loading times, thanks to the new SSD storage system. Even with existing titles, players can navigate games more smoothly, with no long pauses to break their immersion, which should also increase retention. Newer titles should be able to practically eliminate loading times altogether, when taking full advantage of Xbox’s Velocity Architecture.

The SSD is paired with a three-game Quick Resume feature, allowing players to move almost seamlessly between multiple titles without loading them from scratch. Switch between a preferred multiplayer title, an ongoing single-player epic, plus say Minecraft for the kids, all taking a few seconds each.

Games, of course, are getting bigger, and the Xbox Series X has the slight edge over its competition, with a 1TB drive (providing 802GB of available space). That should satisfy most users for a while, but with the ability to switch games so seamlessly, and with the very biggest titles pushing 250GB, it’s only a matter of time before some users will want more storage.

Microsoft does allow expansion of that core storage via an official 1TB Storage Expansion Card, made by Seagate, although at £220 it’s a hefty investment for consumers – and goes to show how much it has cost to add such storage to these console to begin with. Users can also plug in USB hard disks or SSDs, in order to store titles for play later, by copying them on and off the main device, or to run backward compatible titles directly from the attached drive.

It’s a well thought-out provision of storage, providing both speed and flexibility depending on your needs. The shift to an SSD is the most clearly appreciable upgrade for the new console at launch. It really does make playing games a better experience – even if the Xbox doesn’t have any titles on the horizon that utilise the hardware in unique ways.

UNIFIED INTERFACE

As a part of its continuity play, the UI, store and features of the new console are identical to that of the current devices, all of which have seen a fairly recent major overhaul.

Looking back, the new interface is a huge improvement over the one we started the last generation with. The interface is now intuitive and attractive, placing the content you most want front and centre, and making it both look enticing, while providing updates and related streams. All of which is now presented in pleasingly curved-off squares.

The store sits on the front page and surfaces a few top titles and offers. Players can move the store or even remove it if they prefer from the main menu, but it seems that few do this given Xbox’s well regarded performance as a digital marketplace by the publishers we’ve spoken to. It’s a seperate app, one you can access from the app menu if required, but it surfaces a lot of key content on the main menu and loads in an instant.

Inside the store, everything is easy to navigate, search is quick, there’s a clearly marked wishlist section and options. Interesting Microsoft has added a section for hardware, allowing consumers to buy consoles and peripherals – though that wasn’t populated at the time of testing. There’s nothing much else to report, but it all works very nicely and developers and publishers alike can expect it to keep on working just as well as it has to date.

THE NEXT GEN STARTS NOVEMBER 10th

With the excellent Xbox One X still feeling relatively fresh, it’s arguable that the Xbox Series X wasn’t really needed just yet. That though would be churlish in the face of this fantastic piece of hardware from Microsoft.

Brilliantly conceived from sharp edge to sharp edge, the new console provides lashing of graphical muscle to lavish on titles for 4K displays. The new CPU removes any potential bottlenecks and opens up the design space, while the new SSD at the very least makes the experience of gaming more immediate and more enjoyable. Plus we have dynamic latency and 120fps support, to make console games more responsive than ever before.

All this makes the console more closely aligned with high-end gaming PCs. And for developers that’s great news. It also has the power now to really tackle VR, should Microsoft be that way inclined. Meanwhile, the immediacy of SSd gaming should mean that gamers can consume more content, and play a wider range of titles, which sounds good for the bottom line.

Our only gripe, is that there’s little to truly push (or grandstand) the console in this pre-release phase. Advances in software engineering, allowing for big cross-gen games in the launch window, are a marvel. But the lack new titles is disappointing, but given the year everyone has had, we certainly don’t blame Microsoft or its studios for that.

On a similar line it will be intriguing to see just how developers, both first and third-party, take advantage of the console other the next couple of years. With the cost of game development, will publishers really want to make bold steps forward in design if that precludes previous hardware – say utilising the SSD or ray-tracing in game designs. That looks likely to be the big talking point over the months to come.

For now, though the future looks bright, the next generation will start in style on November 10th when all the big game updates drop, and we can’t see any reason based on what we’ve seen to date that it won’t be an utterly brilliant start to what should easily prove the most successful console generation yet.

It may be an evolution of what’s come before, but Series X is still a huge move forward, and we can see the console becoming a classic of console design, both inside and out. For the industry this is an incredible platform, one with huge potential but one that also allows for the smooth hardware transition that our modern industry, with its live games, demanded.

All the hardware really needs now is that one synonymous game – a Mario 64, a Breath of the Wild (a perfect example as it’s also a cross-gen title), a Halo: Combat Evolved – to really mark out its greatness.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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