It feels like the first half year of the new generation of console has flown by, as today marks six months since the Xbox Series X|S launch on 10th November 2020. A perfect time, we think, to look back at how the console holds up after that early burst of excitement fades and how its library of games has grown and matured.
Actually finding these new generation consoles in shops has been incredibly difficult, but we’re going to look past the supply constraints that are affecting the tech industry as a whole.
The continuity candidate…
Back in November, we called the Xbox Series X the continuity candidate for the new generation, and six months on that still feels like an appropriate description. Actually using the console, the Xbox UI is mature and effective, but there’s a workmanlike feel to it that does little to excite on the surface, and (as with Windows) there’s always some quirks.
Some of the Xbox Series X|S innovations were initially hidden from view, but Microsoft has been quick to make tweaks and improvements to make those more obvious to end users. There’s labels for when Auto HDR and FPS Boost are in effect, game-by-game options for those elements, and a Quick Resume area is being tested to remove some of the mystery of its inner workings.
Quick Resume is fantastic when it works, but can still be a little flakey, and has a number of games that cannot use it. There’s a spot of work to still be done.
Before we move on, I also have to give a shout out to the flexibility of the Series X when managing your games. Being able to backup games to an external drive from day one meant not having to delete and redownload games unnecessarily, and while the 1TB SSD expansion is expensive, the ease with which you can plug and play is excellent. More cost-effective options will be needed in future, but it’s a real “it just works” moment.
Backward Compatibility & Smart Delivery
A lynchpin of Microsoft’s gaming strategy over the last half-decade has to leave no game behind… well, to leave as few games behind as possible. There’s the continuing and fascinating work of the backward compatibility team, which has now turned to the Xbox One library and started enhancing it with FPS Boost. The first few handfuls of games were Microsoft testing the waters before adding FPS Boost support for over 70 games in one go last week. It can breathe new life into games that struggled on the base Xbox One and many action games are all the better for a doubled frame rate.
It’s not perfect, though. For one, there are a number of notable games, such as Fallout 4, Far Cry 5, and The Evil Within 2, that don’t have FPS Boost enabled by default, as doing so comes at the cost of sacrificing Xbox One X enhanced resolutions. That’s a touch disappointing when the Series X is theoretically more than twice as fast as the One X, and galling when it means stepping back to One S resolutions at 900p, 720p, and the like.
Elsewhere, it’s been especially gratifying to see what developers themselves are able to do. The quote of needing just “three lines of code” to add native graphics profiles for Xbox Series X|S seemed to hold true, with a number of high profile games like Overwatch and Call of Duty: Warzone receiving dedicated support for the new Xbox consoles to enhance them with a simple patch, while PS5 owners were left out. Having “XboxGen9Aware” games does add another shade to the grey area between generations, but the enhancements are still an early advantage over the PS5 for some of the most popular games out there.
Of course, it’s really new games that are why most will buy a new console, and for those making the jump, the range of Smart Delivery games and absolute simplicity of the upgrade process has been a major plus point when seeing the muddled tribulations of redeeming upgrades on PS5 and then figuring out how to transfer a save file across, or if you even can.
Xbox Game Pass
The Xbox Series X has, in many ways, been defined by Xbox Game Pass so far. From the day of the console’s release, EA Play has been integrated into the console side of the subscription service (and more recently the PC side), there was a bumper crop of games that followed in December, before the acquisition of Bethesda was completed in March and another flood of their back catalogue was added. Wave after wave of Xbox Game Pass announcements have been crashing against the shores, and while we don’t know how much cash Microsoft are throwing around to secure these deals, it’s impressive to see games like Outriders added on launch, to see Dirt 5 added a few months after its release, the coup of MLB: The Show 21, and countless back catalogue and indie titles between them.
It’s also fair to say that Xbox Game Pass is not quite for everyone just yet. Aside from Microsoft’s first-party games, most big-budget third-party games are coming months or years after initial release, its main appeal being in the steady stream of games, indie titles and reliable favourites, as opposed to being on the bleeding edge of gaming. It can be incredible value though, and it’s clear that Game Pass will be an essential part of Microsoft’s Xbox business going forward.
But where are the exclusives?
It’s telling that backward compatibility and Game Pass are discussed before getting to talk about exclusives. Despite Microsoft making big splashy moves to buy various studios and companies over the last few years, we’re still left with the all too familiar criticism that the Xbox platform is still lacking in terms of exclusives. Sure, there was Call of the Sea as a timed indie exclusive, The Medium with its innovative split-screen horror game, but the most significant first-party release was the Gears 5 Hivebusters DLC last December, which would have made a much bigger splash if it were a standalone release.
This picture will change given time. We know that Halo Infinite is now targeting a late 2021 release (good money can be placed on a 15th November release for the series’ 20th anniversary), there’s Flight Simulator expected this summer, and rumours abound that Bethesda’s Starfield could be the first blockbuster Xbox exclusive out of Microsoft’s big-money acquisition. Still, Microsoft need a big E3 to turn this narrative on its head.
The Xbox Live question
Where Xbox Game Pass has flourished, Xbox Live Gold increasingly feels like a relic. The monthly games are increasingly obscure, with only occasional flashes where Microsoft bundles in Gears 5, for example. In the eagerness to stuff Game Pass with as many games as possible, Gold’s games feel like an afterthought.
While it’s still one of Microsoft’s biggest money-spinners, it’s also clear that the company wants to move users on to Xbox Game Pass. That was made most obvious by the aborted Xbox Live Gold price hike in January, which was timed poorly considering the financial strains of the pandemic, and left a sour taste in the mouth compared to Sony’s business model. They wisely reversed course just a few hours later, at the same time removing free to play gaming from needing a Gold subscription.
However, it’s also felt like Microsoft’s online services have been flakier over the past few years than Sony’s. Neither is truly bulletproof, but there seems to have been more hiccups and small outages for the constituent parts that make up Xbox Live than there have been to PlayStation Network.
The Series S
It’s relatively easy to overlook the Xbox Series S, when considering the new generation of consoles. What’s quickly become clear to see is that, while Microsoft initially pitched the console as a 1440p machine, that is far from guaranteed. For every Resident Evil Village running at 1440p, there’s a Metro Exodus: Enhanced Edition, which limits the resolution to 1080p. It’s also clear that the console’s ray tracing capabilities are significantly weaker thanks to the reduced GPU size.
It is obviously the lesser console, but I feel that in many cases we’re yet to see the full potential of this diminutive device. With multiplatform games now having to cater to so many different hardware configurations, the level of optimisation will naturally suffer. We’ll see how well the Series S compares in a year or so.
Slow and steady wins the race?
All in all, the Xbox Series X is still a fantastic new console for anyone that’s been able to buy one. It’s an already mature platform thanks to its consistent UI and features, its raw power means that games run exceptionally well, and there’s plenty that have been enhanced through game updates, Smart Delivery and FPS Boost to run better than ever before.
Yet it lacks a certain something, a bit of flair, of showmanship, and Microsoft will want to address in the next few months. E3 will be the prime opportunity to do so with game announcements and the build-up to the some key first-party exclusives like Halo Infinite.