REVIEW | Xbox Series X

10 November 2020 - 12:18 By Darryn Bonthuys
Introducing Xbox Series X—our fastest, most powerful console ever, designed for a console generation that has you, the player, at its centre.
Introducing Xbox Series X—our fastest, most powerful console ever, designed for a console generation that has you, the player, at its centre.
Image: Supplied

Every console generation for the last two and a half decades has been a revolution in gaming technology, and for a large chunk of that time period, Microsoft has been leading the charge with its Xbox consoles. The original console from the house of Bill Gates was a slick slab of obsidian hardware that made gigantic strides in online gaming in an era when ADSL was still a luxury, while the Xbox 360 sought to make gaming look better and appeal to a larger market with its selection of gaming machines that were tailored to a wider audience.

That you can play games better, smoother, and quicker than ever before while having full access to your personal legacy on Xbox Series X, makes for a console experience that comfortably transcends multiple generations. It's been a long wait for Microsoft to hit the reset button, but its new console proves that Xbox is finally back and ready to rock.

Then there was the Xbox One, which kicked off with a few revolutionary ideas of its own, albeit ones that did the console no favours. Oh Kinect, we hardly knew ye. Fast forward to 2020, and Xbox has evolved from a single machine into an all-encompassing ecosystem of ideas and services. All roads have led to the Xbox Series X, a console that is not an overnight revolution in how you play games.

It’s also amazingly quiet for a machine that runs graphically-intense games. I’ve been sitting about two meters from the console during testing, running games at their most impressive mode possible and I’ve yet to hear the console complain to me by making its fans roar like an aircraft carrier drifting around a harbour.
It’s also amazingly quiet for a machine that runs graphically-intense games. I’ve been sitting about two meters from the console during testing, running games at their most impressive mode possible and I’ve yet to hear the console complain to me by making its fans roar like an aircraft carrier drifting around a harbour.
Image: Supplied

Because it’s something more comfortably familiar, a more refined approach to how you experience video games.

Right off the bat, Microsoft’s heading into this generation with all guns blazing. On paper, the Xbox Series X has more powerful hardware than its nearest rival, it’s far more compact in shape, and it has an ecosystem with an absurdly low entry-point that is quite frankly impossible to match in terms of quality and quantity. So what’s it like to experience then? Bloody fantastic, when you look at the key highlight points of the Xbox Series X, which I’ve broken down below:

Behold, the monolith

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I’m not going to lie, I’m still feeling pretty neutral about the Xbox Series X design. While I’ve been desperate to see a return to the ballsy console shapes of the original Xbox and Xbox 360 eras (The Xbox 360 Elite still being my personal favourite), the Xbox Series X looks far more subdued in comparison.

And yet…it isn’t.

Set up on my TV unit, its matte black finish is coated over an imposing monolith of next-generation hardware design. It’s missing the eye of Sauron to complete its towering look, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t an instant attention-getter. It stands out when left in its vertical mode and that’s something that I have to appreciate.

It’s also an absolute unit, a dense piece of plastic and bleeding-edge technology that could crush an elephant if it was dropped on the pachyderm from a small height, but the plus side to all this heft is that it feels like it could survive several nuclear wars. What I truly do love are the more subtle details at play here, such as the green paint on the vents, the right number of ports on the rear (Ethernet, storage expansion, power, HDMI, and two USB ports), Microsoft’s trademark “Hello from Seattle” message secreted away on the console base.

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It’s also amazingly quiet for a machine that runs graphically-intense games. I’ve been sitting about two meters from the console during testing, running games at their most impressive mode possible and I’ve yet to hear the console complain to me by making its fans roar like an aircraft carrier drifting around a harbour. It is whisper-quiet in action, a trait inherited from the Xbox One X, and further proof of just how solidly designed this behemoth is.

If you’re worried that you won’t be able to squeeze the Xbox Series X into your TV unit, fret not! You can lay it on its side, resting it on the included rubber nipples that correctly position the console into an optimum position. I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to be torn on the look of this console for years to come, and here’s the funny thing: I’ve also got the Xbox Series S console in my possession and I prefer the look of that gorgeous white brick far more than the Series X because pictures don’t do it justice. Go figure.

But for what it’s worth? I’ll say that the Xbox Series X certainly isn’t a boring design.

Solid-state drive, solid gaming

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Let’s talk about the biggest draw in the room: That next-gen solid-state drive inside of the Xbox Series X. For years games have had to make do with regular SATA-drives, dependable pieces of storage that serve their purpose but over the years have become increasingly handicapped by games becoming more ambitious and heftier in the size department.

The Xbox Series X is the technical step-up that games have needed for years now. In action, it’s unbelievably quick in comparison to the aging HDD tech that consoles have relied on for the last two generations. Just from testing regular un-optimised games, the results pretty much spell the end for the traditional toilet break that was available between elevator loading screen transitions that were seen in many a game.

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From my own testing, I’ve been able to hop into games like Batman: Arkham Knight, Gears 5, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and Dirt 5 at a stupidly quick rate. It’s not instantaneous loading, but it’s quick to make me realise that I don’t need to check my Twitter feed for hate-mail between levels. Games like Destiny 2 benefit tremendously from this SSD, dropping me onto planets and taking me into orbit at a speed which honestly feels like a game-changer at this point.

And this is mostly for the games that haven’t even been fine-tuned yet for the Xbox Series X. At this point in the game, it is the raw and tangible horsepower that is improving on them and that makes me excited for a future where developers don’t have to rely on sleight of hand to shift players between levels or hide assets behind ingenious barriers. I genuinely cannot stress enough how I’m not going to miss elevator rides.

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The other fantastic trick up the Xbox Series X’s sleeve is how it allows you to hop between games using the Quick Resume function. It’s a literal game-changer and one that I don’t think I can live without ever again, as you’re able to suspend a game, hop into another one, and return to the original title right from where you left off within seconds. Multiple games even, it is staggering stuff to see in action.

There is a trick to it though, and that’s that it requires each game to be loaded up, placing an icon next to each one in your toolbar to indicate that you can pick up from where you left off. Being able to hop between four different games within 10-20 seconds of where you exited your session and not having to worry about sitting through credits and menu screens to do so? That’s just bloody marvelous. The system works a treat as well, although I wouldn’t stack more than four games at a time using it. Hopping between Gears 5, Gears Tactics, and Ori was a transformative effect.

The point to all this is that Microsoft has created pure magic with not only its hardware but also the Xbox Velocity Software powering it, and if the results are this fantastic on day one, I’m even more excited for the future when its dozens of studios really get to grips with what the Xbox Series X is capable of. This is an evolution that won’t allow in bigger and bolder games popping up on the system, it’ll get you playing and enjoying them quicker than ever before.

Hands on with the controller

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But to play a game, you’ve got to have some form of input right? You’d be hard-pressed to see any real difference between the Xbox One and Xbox Series X controller if they laid side by side next to each other, but trust me there are some subtle but distinct changes to one of the best controller designs on the market today.

 
 

Microsoft found a winning design with the Xbox 360 controller so many years ago, and since then it has continued to refine and improve upon the design in a manner that can only be described as elegantly familiar. The Series X controller is mostly the same shape as the Xbox One controller, with slight changes to the shape. It’s a touch bit shorter, slightly chunkier, and the trigger buttons have a more natural outward curve in comparison to the Xbox One’s flared design.

They’ve also been augmented with the same texture that you’d find on the handgrips, giving a more tactile feeling when used in all manner of games. I also need to mention the D-pad on this controller, which is light-years ahead of the Xbox One old school directional inputs which always felt cheap and loose to me. There’s a far more solid and properly secured design with the D-Pad at play here, and it’s going to be an absolute godsend for experiencing more archaic games and a few rounds of fisticuffs, as the fighting game gods intended.

The real big addition this generation though is a dedicated capture button. It sits just beneath the Start and Select buttons, and it can easily be customised to grab a screenshot or some video content during gameplay. Right now, I’ve got mine set up for quick captures: One tap to snap a screenshot, one long hold of the button to start recording video, and another push of the button to save that gameplay. Easy, simple, and a more intuitive solution than having to cycle through a menu or two to save a few captures.

Microsoft’s controller isn’t a redesign in shape or form, especially when compared to the PlayStation 5’s DualSense device, but then again it doesn’t need to be. It’s comfortable, it has a battery life that can outlive a Highlander, and it’s now equipped with the functions that content creators have been begging for. You can’t improve on perfection, but you can get damn close to achieving it.

It’s all about the games

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All the hardware mentioned above is nothing without a serious games library to install onto the SSD (of which you’ll have 800ish GB to make use of), and the Xbox Series X has no shortage of games to try out. What it doesn’t have too much of though are new games to truly take advantage of its internal parts, relying instead on its well-designed backwards compatibility and Xbox Game Pass offerings to get you up and running on day one.

Too many that may sound underwhelming, but I’m actually happy with this direction. When the last generation of consoles launched, they came with perhaps one or two standout games on day one, and then there was a dry spell between releases as developers raced to add to the libraries of those consoles.

Think back to the Xbox One launch day, and can you say that you truly remember sitting down with the device to jam a few hours of Ryse: Son of Rome, Crimson Dragon, or LEGO Marvel Super Heroes? Granted there were better games such as Forza Motorsport 6 and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but these weren’t the games that you’d use to show off and justify your expensive new purchase.

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For truly next-gen games, the Xbox Series X does have a few big guns in its arsenal. Dirt 5 barely makes the cut but when it shines it’s a blisteringly quick and fun racing game that’s rally good, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Sega at it’s most gleefully bonkers, Gears Tactics is some of the most beautiful strategy that you’ve ever chainsawed a Locust grub in half with, and the latest Ori game is a visual slobber-knocker that uses its art to sear your eyeballs with visual splendor.

Out of all of these games, Gears 5 has been particularly impressive. Bumped up to 4K 60 FPS and with a few extra bells and whistles thrown in, it’s the kind of game you leave running when you have friends round for a drink. ‘Oh that? Yeah got an Xbox Series X. No big deal. Looks nice right?’ Microsoft’s even touting the Xbox Series X as a console that can play games in 8K, which is simply ridiculous and something that I can’t even test right now due to such devices being way out of my reach. Heck, I’m not even certain if that technology is viable right now, but at least the option is there.

But at the moment, I’ve got a ton of games available to play at any given time in crisp 4K. From classic Xbox 360 games such as Alan Wake and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance through to Xbox One games like Watch Dogs Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Destiny 2, I’m spoilt for choice. Several of these games will also get next-gen upgrades, especially Ubisoft titles that are looking to prioritise 4K 60 FPS in this upcoming generation.

I’ll go into more detail on backwards compatibility and how these games function on the Xbox Series X, but the gist of this section is that for now there’s no dry season to worry about as the current console generation transitions into the next. Everything works, some of it even better than you’d expect it to and it’s comforting to have such a large library along for the ride.

The feel

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You’ve got the games. You’ve got the hardware. You’ve got the controller. But there’s one final piece missing from this puzzle and that’s the architecture behind the entire Xbox Series X experience. The Xbox One had its fair share of criticism for its user interface and operating system, but over the years Microsoft has continued to work on the bones of its Xbox experience and fine-tune it.

The end result is a user interface that has everything you could want from a modern-day console. It’s quick and snappy, you can navigate to any function you want within a few gestures, and you can tailor it to suit your own needs easily enough. I’m liking this UI a heck of a lot more than I did the original one, while the selection of features on tap allows me to truly dig into the best of the Xbox Series X and make it my console.

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One big improvement, especially if you’re a content creator, is that video capture has been slightly spruced up along the way. I always found it baffling that the Xbox One X was capable of 4K SDR and HDR video capture at 60 FPS but it was stuck with a 1080p 30FPS capture option. That has been improved at least, with 1080p capture now emulating the frame rate of what’s happening on your screen.

You’ll still need to insert a dedicated flash drive to quickly capture content if you don’t want to be stuck with the frankly annoying Xbox Live upload requirements of this footage, and if you’re going for professional video I’d recommend using a dedicated capture card instead. But this along with several other refinements, all pave the way for an ecosystem that ties into the core idea of the Xbox Series X: Getting to grips with what you already know, but quicker, smoother, and more intelligently.

There’s nothing truly groundbreaking with the UI, but Microsoft has the basics covered and a rock-solid foundation to work from if it plans to respond to some of the frankly wild ideas that Sony has begun throwing at consumers with its own PS5 UI. Exciting times are ahead, mark my words.

Conclusion

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Compared to six years ago, the Xbox Series X is Microsoft not just at its most confident but also at its very best. Even if the new console feels more like a refined version of the hardware that preceded it, it’s built on a foundation that has been years in the making and will only continue to grow stronger in the future. Microsoft has created a statement for the next generation of gaming, creating a machine with one goal in mind: Playing games.


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