CONSOLE REVIEW: Xbox Series X
Product Review

CONSOLE REVIEW: Xbox Series X

Almost a year since it was announced at the 2019 Game Awards, the Xbox Series X is finally here. In a rough year and with demand outstripping supply, I was both delighted to secure a pre-order and thrilled/relieved when it actually arrived. Along with the PlayStation 5, the Series X (and Series S) usher in the new generation of consoles that promise huge leaps forward in both CPU and GPU performance, ultra-fast SSDs, and support for ray-tracing, 4K gaming, and higher frame rates. And while the Series X has a whole lot going for it, it’s not quite the full package at launch.

The Hardware: Simple, Premium and Safe

First impressions of the Xbox Series X are excellent. From the minute you open the box, there is a confidence and quality about Microsoft’s latest flagship. The console itself is set centrally in packaging that resembles some of the fancier kinds of gift-wrapping—though there is sadly no sign of Rowan Atkinson, rose petals, or that absolutely vital cinnamon stick. As well as the machine, you get: a new wireless controller with batteries; a power lead; an ultra-high-speed HDMI cable to make the most of those high resolutions and frame-rates; and a bunch of the usual guff that you’ll probably never read. 

Taking it out of the box, the Series X continues to impress with a simple but elegant design that exudes “premium.” It’s not small by any means, but is more compact than you might be expecting and has a simple, minimalist style. It’s exactly the kind of design that I look for in my electronics and one that I believe will look great in any living room—or at least, it will as long as you stand it vertically as it was clearly designed to be. In contrast, when on its side it will look awkward and chunky with an unremovable stand that will forever remind you that you are doing it wrong. You’ll also need to be very mindful of where you are pointing that massive vent. So, unless your setup prevents it, it’s time to embrace the vertical console life. Give in to the monolith. Time to evolve. 

Beyond its looks, the Series X also has a premium feel which comes, in part, from a soft-touch matte-black finish that’s similar to the Xbox One X. But it’s also due to a satisfying heft that belies its relatively compact size and feels almost physics-defying. It feels satisfyingly solid (though I’d not like to drop it) and acts as a reminder that this machine is absolutely packed with technology and why it needed the tower design. The Series X is not quite a modern Mjölnir, but it’s also not a console that you’ll want to be regularly chucking in a bag and taking round to a friend’s house, if and when that’s something safe to do. Though Microsoft does, remember, have another little machine for that.

In operation, it’s been almost whisper-quiet and shows no sign of replacing my domestic heating. No, sorry internet, I’ve seen no smoking vents, floating ping pong balls, or other patently fabricated nonsense (seriously guys, a little critical thinking goes a long way). The heat and air coming from the vent has varied between “cooling summer breeze” and “comfortably warm” depending on the games I’ve played; but even at its most extreme, it’s still nothing I’m not used to or wouldn’t expect from a powerful piece of technology. If you’ve ever had a projector, yeah, it’s nothing that bad. If you’ve stuck your head behind a fridge for any reason it’s probably closer to that, or something (and please, as the JumpCut lawyers insist on me saying, don’t try that at home).

The new controller shares the console’s matte-black finish and premium feel but is, thankfully, considerably more portable. It’s clearly more of an evolution from the Xbox One controller than the DualSense’s revolution, but the subtle changes that have been made are very effective. It feels refined in every sense, taking what was my favourite controller and making it feel even better. Looking at it you notice the similarities but holding it you notice the differences – with tweaks to the balance and shape of the pad that make it more comfortable and added grip on the bumpers and triggers. There’s also a USB-C port (though it remains powered by AA batteries by default), a better d-pad and a rather-overdue but welcome share button. It feels familiar, yes, but fantastic all the same.

The Pitch: It’s Xbox, Upgraded

Just as with the controller, evolution and refinement feel like the names of the game when it comes to the Series X’s pitch. Having traded through all three models of Xbox One, it’s a process that you can trace way back to 2013 and which I find relevant to revisit here. The Series X design echoes that of both the One X and S but shares very little with last-generation’s much-derided launch model. The new controller iterates on the previous model, which itself was a refinement of the original Xbox One controller, which lacked a 3.5mm jack, had little to no texture on the grips and feels cheap and plasticky now in comparison. But this evolution has been most apparent in the Xbox UI and overall user-experience.

Anyone who recently played on an Xbox One will feel instantly at home when they boot up the Series X. The home screen, Xbox store, and UI in general are essentially identical to the most recent iteration on Xbox One, for better or for worse. For me, this is a good thing as I (controversially it seems) love the latest version of the Xbox UI. It wasn’t always the case, but it’s here where the Xbox experience has changed most during the Xbox One generation. It’s like Microsoft has been developing the Series X experience since 2013, in plain view, on retail consoles. 

At the Xbox One launch, the UI was a flat and uninspiring Windows 8 tribute show, designed for Kinect and to deliver the “one box to rule them all” strategy that was already being taken out to the back of the barn to be put out of its misery. No amount of gesturing, voice commands, or snapping of apps could overcome its limitations. The layout showcased features that I and many others didn’t seem to care about while sidelining the games that we actually bought our consoles to play. It was slow, clunky, and unintuitive with a messy mix of horizontal and vertical navigation. Things have been changing though—perhaps too frequently for some—resulting in a major update this October that effectively acted as a full preview for the Series X.

So even if playing on Xbox One, it’s now a much slicker, faster, and highly-customisable system. The top of your home screen features your most recently used games and apps, so if you only play a small number of games at once they will be here, front and centre every time you visit home. Below this is a direct link to your full library of games and apps, which is useful if you jump around a bit or are moving on to something new. It’s so useful, in fact, that it’s almost possible to overlook the row of ads that sit next to it. Almost, but no—that still really sucks. 

Below that, the world is your oyster, with fully customisable blocks where you can add and reorder user-defined groups of games (for example, I have “Now & Next,” “Quick Play,” “Multiplayer,” “Backlog,” etc), specific apps or game blocks, and track friends or groups that you follow. The quick overlay menu that you can access in-game is also highly customisable and the store, finally, is also a huge improvement on the previous version.

On Xbox Series X, you get essentially the same experience as before but with the added oomph of the console’s extra power. After a quick and incredibly simple set up process using the Xbox app, my settings, groups, and customisation were all carried over—reinforcing the sense of continuity and letting me jump straight to where I wanted to go. There are a couple of differences between generations, but these are so small that they won’t eat much into the word count: you get the option to have a dynamic background (more choices please, Microsoft, thanks) and a few extra settings. That’s it. Again, it’s a feeling of familiarity that you could see as either a positive or negative but one that I certainly appreciate. And it’s a stark contrast to Sony’s approach over on the PS5—which I say here only to highlight the two radically and intriguingly different approaches, not to argue that one is better or worse.

Of course, this focus on continuity extends far beyond the design and UI. I’ve long felt Xbox’s cloud-save and roaming profiles were an underrated strength of the platform, making it so easy to jump between machines and pick up your progress without any faffing or issues. It’s something that ties in nicely with their support for cloud gaming but which also made the transition to the Series X near-seamless. In addition, their commitment to having your old controllers work on the new machine means that my spare gamepad is ready and waiting for a friend and I can save the extra £55/$60 when they are able to come over. I’ve tested it and it works flawlessly but, as it’s one of the early Xbox One versions, I’ll be saving it for two-player gaming only. If I were nice, I’d pass them the good one. Yeah, we’ll see.

Another feature that was added part-way through Xbox’s last generation was extensive backwards compatibility, allowing Xbox One owners to play selected Xbox 360 and a limited number of original Xbox titles. Some of these games were even enhanced with patches, multiplying resolution or making other less dramatic improvements. Microsoft was early to commit to carrying this on into the new generation and it means that all the older titles in the backwards-compatibility program, along with all Xbox One titles (barring any that required Kinect), are playable on the Series X. Beyond nostalgia, a major reason to dive back into these titles is the Series X’s “Auto HDR” feature, which adds high dynamic range to titles going back as far as 2001 to pretty impressive effect. The added power of the system also means various games benefit from boosts to framerates and resolution, and specific games have targeted optimisations that go even further.

And then there is Game Pass, Microsoft’s monthly games subscription that gives you access to a growing library of games to download to your console or PC and stream to your Android device (with an iOS app currently blocked by Apple). It’s a service that includes all first-party titles on the date they are launched, and this policy will continue for any next-gen exclusives. Just as with my controller and library of games, my Game Pass subscription has carried over to my Series X. I already got huge value out of it but it’s been an excellent way to fuel my first week of next-gen gaming and I’ve played games old and new without spending another penny. Having this kind of instant games collection is also a really good way to put those new load times to the test.  

Ah yes, load times. Because while there’s plenty that’s familiar when using the Series X, what is different is the speed at which you will be doing it. A massively, transformational difference in fact. An initial system boot is very quick, or lightning if you are happy leaving the system in its “instant on” standby mode, which has the benefit of allowing background downloads. However, it’s when you start loading and switching games that the Series X truly feels “next-gen,” and it’s all thanks to the ultra-fast SSD that’s found inside. If you are looking for technical analysis, timings, and comparison videos then I’m not really your man, but what I can say is that this thing is incredibly fast—and, to me, that alone was worth the purchase. 

Outside of any specific gameplay, it makes the whole experience more immediate, less frustrating, and more enjoyable. The difference between a one-minute and, say, a twenty second load time is satisfying but multiply that by 10 and you potentially have a whole extra game or race that you might be able to squeeze into your busy evening. In-game, these shorter load times can help to keep you immersed in the story or reduce the frustration when you die. It may seem like a solution to a very first world problem (and, sure, it is) but gaming is meant to be fun and these radically faster load times simply make the experience better—less time waiting and more time playing.

The Series X’s “Quick Resume” feature takes this up another level with the ability to jump between around four to six games (it seems to vary depending on size) and pick up exactly where you left off. It’s been incredibly useful when exploring new Game Pass titles and trying to stretch the legs of the console for this review, but you might be wondering if it’s a feature that any normal person doing normal stuff would actually use. Well, I’ve never been one to speak for normal people, but the point is this—you may not find yourself playing five different games in a minute, or even an hour, but who doesn’t do that in a day, a week, or a month? And, if that’s you, then your games will load back to where you left them. Instantly. It feels like witchcraft. 

I say “will” because that is the promise and in practice that is largely what I’ve experienced but there are some caveats that, to be fair, Microsoft has been pretty open about. First off, any game or mode that needs online servers to operate will almost certainly have kicked you from your session by the time you “Quick Resume.” This means those titles will likely reload at the initial screen or main menu, saving you a load but not offering the seamless experience you will get in other games. If you play a high proportion of these games it will take away much of the benefit—as usual, your mileage is going to vary. The second caveat is that, at the time of writing, a small number of high-profile titles are currently having issues with the feature causing Microsoft to have disabled it on those games. I’ve experienced this with Forza Horizon 4 but also had the occasional glitch with games that I haven’t seen on the official list. It’s not ideal, but I expect these to be fixed so I wouldn’t read too much into it.

And it’s not just Quick Resume where I’ve encountered a few “quirks” in the system. It’s hard to quantify, but I’ve had noticeably more instances where a title has initially failed to load or has triggered a “slower than usual” system notification. Again, it’s not ideal and customers who spend £450/$499 on a new gadget might rightly expect things to run more smoothly—which is why I’ve noted it here. Personally, I do expect Gremlins at a console launch and I go into these things with some slack ready to give, especially in a global pandemic. It is, however, something I’m keeping a keen eye on and that Microsoft would be wise to get sorted quickly. Reputation matters.

The Games: What’s Old is New Again

So that brings me to the games, and let’s start with the positives. Thanks to backwards compatibility, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of games playable on the Series X at launch. Microsoft themselves highlighted 40 “new” games that were available at launch, 30 of them optimised for Series X|S. The list includes exclusive titles that are either brand new to console (Gears Tactics) or have been significantly enhanced for the new generation (Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, Gears 5, Ori etc). It also includes some major third-party games that really show off aspects of what the console can do (NBA2K21, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs). There are other gems in there too, including a next-gen exclusive version of Yakuza: Like a Dragon and even some that are included in Game Pass. But “40 new games” is a bit of a stretch, guys. 

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is probably the best showcase of the system that I’ve experienced first-hand. Targeting 60FPS and with the console’s variable refresh rate feature enabled, it feels smooth and satisfying and indicative of a big step up from what I’ve seen of the versions running on previous hardware. It also looks stunning on a 4K HDR screen and makes me excited for what will be possible once developers get some more hands-on time with the console. I’m also playing Observer: System Redux (look out for a full review on JumpCut soon) which has been rebuilt for the new generation and features ray-tracing and some stunning HDR lighting effects. Again, it feels like a huge step up from the presentation of the original game and a showcase of some of the Series X’s next-generation features. Finally, I’ve also enjoyed a little Gears Tactics, which looks fantastic to me but which I’m unable to compare to the last-generation version. 

In addition, I’ve been enjoying a selection of optimised versions of older games including Ori and the Will of the Wisps (which I’d saved specifically to go back to on Series X), Forza 4, Gears 5, and Fortnite. All these optimised titles feel fresh and new and highlight how the Series X can be a good purchase even if you don’t intend to buy anything new. Although I’m not a regular, I particularly wanted to test Fortnite given it’s so popular and likely to stay that way well into the new generation. It felt smoother, and both details and draw distances were notably better than my previous experiences—which allowed me to take off players well into the distance. I felt a bit bad for them for a second or two and wondered if this was really fair, before cackling to myself just a little. 

Ori was absolutely stunning, running at a frankly ridiculous 6K resolution that was then super-sampled down for my 4K monitor. Forza and Gears also looked amazing, but what I really noticed for both were the massively decreased load times and how much easier and more fun that made it to jump into a quick race or session. As my screen doesn’t support 120hz, I wasn’t able to test Gears’s high frame rate multiplayer mode, but I look forward to doing so if I manage to upgrade. I do, however, have HDR and have been really impressed with the “Auto HDR” feature that enhances even non-optimised games. As I’d been tipped off about both, I booted up Batman: Arkham Knight and Geometry Wars 2, and each game looked fantastic with boosted peak brightness and vivid colours that really jumped out of the screen. As someone who enjoys revisiting older games, I’m looking forward to exploring more.

But despite all these experiences, the big Xbox-green elephant in the room is that the Series X launch line-up contains no game that’s truly exclusive, nor is there a first-party title that really shows off its full power. There is also an obvious Halo-shaped hole in the line-up, while I also think The Medium’s delay is a loss. The Series X is not launching in a vacuum, so comparison’s will inevitably be made to the PlayStation 5 lineup, which is impressively strong when compared to historical launches and almost miraculous given it’s been such a challenging year. Focusing on Series X though, the line-up will inevitably feature in your internal list of pros and cons. It’s something Microsoft clearly needs to address as soon as possible to win over any undecided customers.

The Conclusion

In summary, the Series X looks, feels, runs, and plays great, banishing memories of the Xbox One launch and building on what has come since, providing a strong alternative to the PlayStation 5. In my view, the move to SSD storage (on both platforms) is going to be worth the next-gen entry price alone—delivering massive improvements in loading times and a genuinely transformational effect on the gaming experience. However, the Xbox’s “Quick Resume” feature takes that idea one step further and could turn out to be one of the platform’s biggest strengths, particularly if you’re like me and tend to have a couple of games on the go at a time (e.g. a big single-player game, something quick, and maybe a multiplayer game or two). 

The main story here is of evolution, not revolution. Anyone who has recently played an Xbox One will recognise the controller, the UI, the services, and even many of the games that will greet them on Series X. It’s an experience that’s closer to upgrading a PC or buying a new mobile phone than the traditional console model—which is what I expected, but won’t be for everyone. It’s familiarity by design, but significantly more technically impressive, resulting in a certain “wow” factor. This is not, however, helped by a launch line-up that feels like it’s missing its specific “killer app”—the game that truly showcases the power and features of the console and would make undecided customers part with their cash. It appears that these titles are coming, but the question remains “when?”

This is not to say that the Series X currently lacks games or reasons to buy. Even one week from launch, it already offers access to a new generation of third-party games that are a big step up from the previous consoles—even if they sometimes only hint at the power and potential of the machine. A range of specific optimisations, the console’s raw power, and system-level features such as “Auto HDR” bring new life to your existing library and double down on Microsoft’s impressive commitment to compatibility. And Game Pass (which, in my view, remains the best value in gaming) is still a great way to discover new games and genres without ruining your budget even further.

Ultimately, the Series X is an excellent console and a generational leap forward from current systems. For existing Xbox owners, it’s a near-essential upgrade that builds on the current platform, making your current games sing and offering a surprisingly good bang for your buck. For others it may be a tougher call—the console’s certainly worth it, so now just bring on the games.

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