The Xbox Series X is all about continuity. It’s a new generation of hardware, a huge leap forward in terms of raw power, but it builds on the strengths of the Xbox One X in the most logical ways. There’s a continued drive for Xbox to have the most powerful console on the market, and it’s led Microsoft down a particular design to accommodate that raw power. Is next gen really just about raw power, though?
The Xbox Series X form is one that follows its function. It’s effectively a wind tunnel with a single large fan at the top able to draw enough air to cool the now much more powerful components, while remaining exceptionally quiet. Needing to capture video for this review, I’ve often sat within a meter of this thing while playing, and I sometimes have to lean in to hear that yes, the fan is quietly wooshing. It’s also impressively compact for what it manages to do, thanks to the vapor chamber heatsink and split motherboard design. It’s still big, it’s still awkward to fit into many TV cabinets, and it is still worthy of all the fridge memes, and yet, put it next to a PS5 and it feels small.
Then again, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing design, the only real flourish comes from the concave fan grill at the top with a secretive green layer that gives a neat optical illusion. There’s an unmistakeable awkwardness in how it accommodates upright and horizontal positions, with the circular rubberised stand on the base unable to be removed, and four little rubber feet on one side so it can be laid flat. It’s a bit like trying to wear toeshoes to a cocktail party – actually, I’ve not tried that yet – but they remove some of the fuss of fitting the console into your TV set up. The whole 2001 A Space Odyssey monolith look can actually fade into the background over time, similar to a subwoofer or how you tuck bookshelf speakers away.
There’s further continuity with the new Xbox controller, which we’ve got a separate review about. It subtly refines the existing Xbox One controller, making it slightly more compact, adding a new share button, and crafting a new D-pad disc that’s based off the one found in the Xbox Elite controllers. I found the D-pad nice to use, but it is annoyingly clicky, making me very glad that you can continue to use older controllers. While it doesn’t have any flashy new features like the PS5 DualSense‘s adaptive triggers, there are still the rumble triggers that debuted on Xbox One, and there’s a hope that developers will start to use these more consistently, as they can still provide an impressive amount of immersion when used well.
The system software is, as we’ve known for a long time, shared with the Xbox One – it’s identical aside from a handful of features. Honestly, the Xbox UX is in a fairly happy place right now. It’s fast, it’s responsive and very customisable, you can easily filter and group your games, and you can remove almost all the clutter that you don’t want. It’s actually kind of refreshing that Microsoft haven’t reshuffled the layout, given how often they’ve done so through the Xbox One’s lifetime – aside from the recent visual spruce up, it’s been consistent through the last year or so. The one oddity is the Microsoft Store, which has its own bespoke layout and further elements from Microsoft’s Fluent Design language, but it’s still only one or two steps removed from the main system, and I can see more of that filtering through over time.
The headline new system feature is really Quick Resume, which allows you to hop back and forth between games as you wish. As we’ve been reviewing the console, Microsoft have been putting the finishing touches to this system, identifying the games that, for whatever reason, aren’t working quite right. They’re aiming to fix these issues by launch day. When its works, it works very well, allowing you to have a handful of games on the go at once and swapping back and forth between them pretty seamlessly – depending on the game, it takes between 5 and 15 seconds in our experience. You can have a run through the campaign of Gears Tactics ready and waiting for you to return while you join your friends for some Destiny 2 multiplayer. Of course, online games such as Destiny 2 will still kick you back to the main menu with an unseemly error message, just as they do when resuming on the current generation.
And so we come to the games and the paucity of real next-gen gaming that we’ve been able to experience so far. It’s this factor that is the biggest reason why we will not be scoring this review, as we wait for the likes of Watch Dogs Legion, Dirt 5 and others to be declared ready for testing on Xbox Series X.
In the meantime, we’ve largely been jumping back and forth between backwards compatible titles and those that have been updated for the Series X, like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5. Even here, the Xbox Series X can shine, its added power ironing out some of the kinks and limitations of the Xbox One and Xbox One X. Forza Horizon 4 is simply presented to you in 2160p and 60 frames per second; Gears 5 now delivers 60fps in the campaign and the option of 120fps in multiplayer if your screen supports it, all while also enhancing visual effects and using higher detail assets; Sea of Thieves? It’s just 60fps. Series X just gets it done, thanks to these games having dedicated updates to recompile for Series X or, in Sea of Thieves’ case, being made “aware” of the new console and presenting new frame rate and resolution targets.
We’ve tested 120fps modes thanks to the wonderful flexibility of the Xbox’s software to easily accommodate all manner of TVs and screens that support high refresh rates. Asus have loaned us a VG279QM 1080p 280Hz screen so we dove into Gears 5 multiplayer, and yep, it sure is 120fps. It’s truly remarkable to have this kind of capability on the new consoles, making the game’s that much more fluid and adding to how responsive they feel.
The SSD hasn’t made loading screen vanish into nothingness for games such as this, but it can help dramatically reduce them. Taking 2016’s Hitman as an example, and loading from an external hard drive into the Paris level takes between 50 and 65 seconds, depending on the console. There’s already a bit of an uplift here as the Series X can power through asset decompression much quicker, but have the game on the SSD and that load plummets to just 20 seconds. It still feels like a loading screen, but it’s barely time to pick up a phone and refresh Twitter.
Using the SSD in general does throw up a minor snag for me. All Series X|S optimised have to be run from the SSD, but should indie games like Gonner 2 or The Falconeer really require its use? I’d say not, and I’d even be happy to have the option of playing the Xbox One X version of a cross-gen title to save space on the internal SSD. Smart Delivery prevents you from doing that. At least you can copy or move Series X|S optimised titles to an external drive to clear space and then copy them back across if and when you next want to play them.
For most of the Xbox back catalogue, though, your experience will depends on what these games offer to Xbox One X. Some games have been made fantastically flexible, such as Hitman, which gives you independent options for prioritising frame rate or resolutions, and for unlocking the frame rate. The Series X lets you play in 4K with a pretty consistent 60fps, making it a no compromise experience similar to Forza Horizon 4. There’s also quite a few games that shot for native 4K on One X at the cost of a slightly shaky frame rate. However, if you were to step back to something like Just Cause 3, the Series X’s boost will be limited to steadying it at 900p and 30fps, as the game only ever had support for the base Xbox One and set its resolution targets lower in the name of performance.
It’s here that Microsoft’s backward compatibility team can hopefully start to step in. At launch there’s the implementation of Auto HDR which uses machine learning to augment the colour gamut and luminosity of games without HDR support and expand them to make use of your HDR TV. There’s some games where it doesn’t work quite so well – Microsoft have most notably disabled Auto HDR for GTA IV – but the rest of the time? It’s another thing that the Xbox just does automatically, adds a light (heh) enhancement without intruding, but if it does? You can turn it off in the granular output settings. To be honest, I forgot that Fallout 4 doesn’t natively support HDR until I loaded it up again on Xbox One X and realised my TV wasn’t switching modes.
There’s more to come from this team, though. A few weeks ago they used Fallout 4 as an example of their ability to double the frame rate cap of a game through backward compatibility. I was eager to try it, but 60fps Fallout 4 is not yet ready for me to test. It’s an annoyance during this review process not to have that access, but an exciting prospect for us to visit in future. Hopefully Microsoft can spread such enhancements far and wide across the library of thousands of games.