Xbox Series X Review — Ready for Prime Time
The Xbox Series X is finally upon us and Microsoft's latest higher-end console continues to be vastly impressive on a technical level, but we're still left waiting for must-have games to arrive.
Xbox has been toiling away for years, waiting for this moment. After botching the launch of the Xbox One and never fully being able to recover from it, Microsoft has clearly been playing its cards carefully to prepare for the next generation. The advent of Xbox Game Pass, the push to bring its games to the smartphones via xCloud, and the monetary commitment from Microsoft when it comes to first-party studio acquisitions has been shown that Xbox is taking its presence in the gaming space seriously. No longer is the mega-corp focused on TV services or niche products like Kinect — it’s looking to bring video games to the masses in a way that its competitors are not.
With this in mind, it could be argued that the need for Xbox to have a lone, killer piece of tech is less necessary than ever before. Considering that Xbox Game Studios is already bringing all of its titles to PC, plus the fact that Xbox is also releasing a lesser-powered, all-digital next-gen platform in the Xbox Series S, what intrinsic value is there in trying to make sure that you have the best console on the market?
Fortunately for Microsoft, its new high-end console, the Xbox Series X, isn’t cutting corners; it’s incredibly impressive. After spending an ample amount of time with the Xbox Series X over the past few days, it’s clear that Microsoft has created a fantastic console that will be a joy to play on in the coming years. In the interim, though, we’re just still waiting on those must-have games that we’ve been promised to roll on through, and their continued absence here at launch can be felt.
What’s so ‘Next-Gen’ About the Next-Generation?
The best thing I can say about my own time with the Xbox Series X so far is that everything Microsoft has been trying to sell us on with this console in PR blasts for the past few months has proven to be spot-on. Are you tired of loading times? Lucky for you, they are hardly present any longer thanks to this thing’s snappy solid-state drive. Do you want your existing library of games to play better than ever before? Well, you can definitely expect that. And most importantly, do you want to have a monolithic, obelisk-looking piece of tech sitting under your entertainment center? Worry not, friend, because this thing is just as chunky as we’ve been led to believe.
While the visual aesthetic of the latest Xbox is something that has grown on me, the strength of its internals has always seemed apparent. That has proven to be true for me now that I’ve actually gone hands-on with it. Not to browse over the specs of the Xbox Series X so flippantly, but even if you’re someone who doesn’t get in the weeds to understand console internals or what buzzwords like “velocity architecture” mean, it’s still obvious from the moment that you get into your first game that this new platform is a drastic leap forward. Whether you’re playing new titles or revisiting old ones through the Xbox’s vast backward compatibility library, it’s quite noticeable that this console is improving on what we’ve come to expect from Xbox games in the past three years since the Xbox One X released. In the area of gameplay alone, I’ve had no issues to speak of on the Xbox Series X so far.
At a baseline level, all of my hands-on time with the console so far has made it clear that this thing is a beast. The ability to juggle multiple games running in the background simultaneously is something that would cause the PC that I specifically built for gaming to nearly blow up. Still, the Xbox Series X can do a task like this with ease. It turns out that those teraflops are good for something after all.
The one thing that I think some people might get held up on with the Xbox Series X is that it doesn’t really feel like a next-gen console in some regards. That’s a nebulous and silly thing to quantify in some respects, but I know that many longtime video game players are always looking for that one “Wow!” moment with next-gen platforms to prove that newer games couldn’t be experienced on the older hardware. Outside of the general improvement to the console’s power and the aforementioned benefits of the SSD that is now in tow, I haven’t had that “Wow!” moment on my end compared to previous generations. That said, your mileage may vary depending on how you’re looking to hop aboard the Xbox ecosystem at this point.
See, I’m someone who has owned the Xbox One X practically since its release back in 2017. In that regard, I’ve grown somewhat used to 4K gaming over the years, whereas I assume not everyone else has made that graphical leap just yet. If the Xbox Series X then becomes your first 4K console, then hey, this thing is probably going to give you those warm and fuzzy next-gen feelings. For me, however, it was almost hard to spot the visual improvements in some games because purely from a graphical standpoint, we’re splitting hairs with this console leap more so than in the past.
That’s not to say that those improvements aren’t present whatsoever, though! Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, and Sea of Thieves are three games that received their XSX optimization patches before this embargo, and they each looked all the more stunning than what I had grown accustomed to on the Xbox One X. The lighting and reflections in each game, to go alongside with a generalized increase in frame rate stabilization, were very much noticeable. Forza Horizon 4, in particular, elicited the most “oohs” and “ahhs” out of me in my own playtime. Even though we’re not receiving a full new Forza game alongside the Xbox Series X, Horizon 4 feels like a fresh experience because of the additional work that has been put in to make it all the better in this new generation.
The other thing that I think is really vital to mention is that given your current setup, you might not even get to see all that the Xbox Series X has to offer. There has been a lot of talk about games that can run at frame rates of up to 120fps at 4k on this hardware, and given my own TV model, I haven’t been able to get a look at how this actually performs in-person. For clarity, my TV isn’t even all that old and is a Sony 900E model that released in 2017. While it allows for 120hz, it doesn’t have HDMI 2.1 compatibility, which has been my own problem. I throw this out there not to critique the Xbox Series X in any way, but more just to remind you to do your research if you’re looking to snag a new TV soon.
Room for Improvement
Despite me absolutely loving the Xbox Series X purely as a piece of tech, that doesn’t mean my experience so far has been perfect by any means. Let’s chat about Quick Resume, which I gushed about previously. Bouncing from game to game at breakneck speeds is really something to behold in real-time, and while the Xbox Series X is largely able to carry out this transition between each title seamlessly, it wasn’t something that my own console always seemed to agree with.
When I’ve been utilizing Quick Resume on the Xbox Series X, it has led to some of my games crashing. I’m not sure what the reason for this was, but upon switching between titles, I would be able to play for a few moments before being greeted with a black screen and then get sent back to the dashboard. This has happened pretty infrequently overall but still occurred enough for me to feel like it was worth mentioning in this review. That being said, it might not be an issue with Quick Resume as a whole and could be more of a problem on the side of the games themselves. Plus, Microsoft has already told us that they are aware of some newfound bugs associated with the feature. Either way, this doesn’t sound like it should be a lasting issue.
I also have to hone-in on the SSD drive and its lack of space because, man, that thing will fill up fast for everyone. I only have about a dozen or so games installed on my internal SSD and I’ve only got about 200GB left before it’s filled to the brim. This typically wouldn’t be that concerning (we’re used to internal storage being pretty lacking on most consoles after all) but considering Xbox’s biggest alternative for expanding storage right now comes in the form of a proprietary external SSD from Seagate that’s nearly half the price of the console itself, the value proposition for upgrading your available space has never been higher. Video game sizes also don’t seem like they’re shrinking any time soon, either, which only exasperates this problem. More so than ever before, the Xbox Series X looks like it’s going to be a platform you’ll really need to micromanage your games on, which isn’t really a dealbreaker and is more just going to get annoying over time.
It’s worth noting that if you’re looking to just store games on the console in a general sense (especially your back catalog), you can chuck them onto an external hard drive if you so choose. This is something that I opted to do, and while I think I’ll largely continue to do this in the future with my older titles, it really does undermine one of the biggest selling points of this next-gen leap, which is the SSD and how it basically kills off loading times. Alas, maybe more cost-efficient solutions will come about in the future to offset this complaint.
Sweetening the Deal
Perhaps one of the stranger parts of this next-gen leap for Xbox this time around is that it has opted to not completely overhaul the wireless controller we’ve come to be familiar with on the Xbox One. The controller itself has received an update, but it’s nothing as drastic as Sony’s shift from the DualShock 4 to the DualSense with the competing PlayStation 5.
While the changes aren’t a lot to write home about, the ones that have been made have proven beneficial. The Xbox Series X controller’s bumpers and triggers have received some gripping materials added to each, with the latter also being slightly shrunk down compared to what we had previously. The smaller triggers actually felt more comfortable in fingers even though the difference was so narrow. The D-pad has also received an alteration that makes it easier to maneuver with, and a dedicated Share button has also now been throw smack into the middle of the device. For my own money, I’ll be continuing to primarily use the Elite Series 2 controller, but the revisions that have been made to the base model are nicer than I expected them to be.
And despite not being exclusive to the Xbox Series X by any means, I have to say that I love what they’ve done to the new UI. This is the most time I’ve spent with the interface since it rolled out not too long ago, and this finally feels like the Xbox dashboard I’ve been begging for. The store menu, in particular, has been greatly streamlined and is so much easier to navigate now. In short, I’m no longer dreading simple navigations on this user experience like I was at times in years past.
No Killer App, No Reason to Jump In
This brings us to the part of the Xbox Series X that I am most critical of at this moment in time — and it has nothing to do with the console itself. Admittedly, most launch lineups tend to be pretty underwhelming, and, on paper, I wasn’t really taken aback by what the Xbox Series X/S would offer on day one. Even with that in mind, the slate available here at launch has proven to be even more underwhelming than I anticipated. You know it’s a bad sign when the Xbox One’s lineup of Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome is suddenly looking pretty darn good in retrospect.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t really think the actual games themselves that are playable on the Xbox Series X are bad at all. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is dope, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is something I’ll be playing on launch day. Outside of some of these key standouts, though, the larger lineup is just devoid of anything noteworthy. Especially on the first-party front, the fact that Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, Gears Tactics, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps are the games being pushed by Microsoft is so disappointing. Many of us have already played these games and while visual upgrades add new components to each, they’re hardly worthy of sprinting out to the store and throwing down $499 to get this new hardware.
To address the elephant in the room, Halo Infinite’s absence here at release is so, so apparent. Xbox was really hinging on 343 Industries to deliver the Xbox Series X’s must-have game here at release, and well, I don’t need to rehash how that went down. I mean, heck, Microsoft planned for this so far ahead that Master Chief is flat-out glaring at us on the back of the box for the Xbox Series X itself, and he’s appearing in Taco Bell commercials. Halo Infinite not being ready in time for launch is something that might not cripple the Xbox Series X, but it’s a black eye on the console’s arrival that it hasn’t been able to shake.
Coming off of a span of multiple years in which the number one request from Xbox fans has been that they want more first-party games, for Xbox Game Studios to again come up empty-handed here at the beginning of the next generation is just disheartening. Even if Xbox ends up having a much larger first-party slate in the years to come (I can give you 7.5 billion reasons why this will be the case), that doesn’t change the platform’s current situation at this moment. If you’re looking to snag an Xbox Series X as soon as possible to play all of the new games it has to offer specifically made for the hardware, you can likely afford to just hold out for a bit longer.
A Bright Future
Despite my qualms, it’s hard not to be drastically impressed with what Microsoft has here with the Xbox Series X. When looking at the tech behind this machine alone, it’s exciting to think about what developers around the globe will be able to do with it in the coming years. And even when not looking down the road, at this moment, what this hardware is already able to do with games from yesteryear and those that are cross-gen has already made for some of the best gameplay experiences I have ever had on a console.
Even though this launch could have been stronger, the Xbox Series X seems to be the console designed to carry the torch for Xbox moving forward. With an ecosystem backing it up that is bursting with innovation, services that are proving to groundbreaking, and perhaps most importantly, a renewed interest in the platform as a whole, the Xbox Series X can and should prove why Microsoft will be much more relevant in the next seven years of the video game industry than they were in the previous seven.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for our thoughts on the Xbox Series S, which we will be running a separate review on in the coming days/weeks.