The Xbox Series X is the first Xbox console I have felt compelled to purchase on launch day. Having been more PlayStation orientated my entire life, the only reason I even have an Xbox One X in my house is for my partner to play Halo, and I am certainly not the only consumer who has seen Xbox as the ‘other’ console for the last few years. Following on from a lacklustre Xbox One launch back in 2013, Microsoft was never quite able to catch up with Sony’s hardware, especially with Sony pushing itself even further ahead in the market with a stellar line-up of first-party games. To catch up with Sony, the big-brains at Microsoft knew they had some work ahead of them.
Coming into the new generation of consoles, Microsoft has stepped back and worked out what they want the Xbox brand to be going forward, with a clear vision to becoming the dominant force in the gaming market. The Xbox Series X is the embodiment of this vision, not only bringing PC-quality performance to a home console, but setting the stage for a bold reimagining of the gaming landscape as a whole. When I first unboxed the Series X, the first thing I saw was a message wrapped around the console that said “Power Your Dreams”. After a bit over a week with the new console, let me explain why I think this is a promise Microsoft can fulfil, just not right now.
The design of the Series X is beautifully simplistic, from its modern and clean packaging, and minimal setup requirements to its stark form factor. Some may see it as boring, but I see it as… understated. Yes, we have all seen the countless Xbox Fridge memes, but looking at this thing in person, well, it is art. The Series X may be my favourite console design ever. While it is quite large, its small footprint when stood vertically makes it seem a lot smaller, and the matte black finish, highlighted only by some green accents in the exhaust ports, allow it to sink into your entertainment unit, or sit as a showpiece. Perhaps it is my fondness for brutalism in design, but I find the look of this thing superb.
The height of the unit can be an issue for many entertainment setups, which will require the console to be set on its side. This orientation certainly doesn’t look even half as appealing, especially with the circular base now jutting out the side, breaking up the clean lines of the design. The shape of the machine comes down to the chimney-style cooling system Microsoft have utilised, which allows it to run whisper-quiet when compared to the previous generation hardware, but it does expel a lot of hot air from the exhaust ports. Keep this in mind when finding a place to set up your unit, especially horizontally near other consoles, or with minimal clearance between the top and other surfaces when vertical. I have never felt mine get too hot, but after some dust starts to accumulate in the next few years and the machine gets pushed further, I can see the temperature possibly rise.
The Xbox Series X/S controller has also received an upgrade, though it is more of an evolution than a revolution, especially when compared to the PlayStation 5’s DualSense. But as they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? The new controller keeps the same design philosophy of the previous iterations but now takes a few queues from the Elite series of controllers to give a more professional and accessible feel.
The controller, and especially the triggers, are no longer slippery smooth plastic, now replaced with a textured grip that allows for firm control with even the sweatiest hands. The dish-shaped design of the new D-pad provides for much more responsive inputs, though it creates a clickity-clack sound when used that I did find to become quite immersion breaking at times. Another minor gripe is the placement of the new dedicated Share button between the already established View and Menu buttons. Having all three buttons so close to each other can get a bit much for people with big dopey thumbs like myself, and has resulted in many missed clicks. The controller now supports USB-C charging along with the usual AA battery setup, however, a charging cable and rechargeable battery pack don’t come with the console. Think they could’ve thrown them in considering I forked out $750 already!
Once the system is fired up, Xbox users familiar with the current UI won’t have any issues navigating the Series X Dashboard as it has remained virtually untouched from the most recent update, it just runs faster now. A LOT faster. As someone who was only casually across the ins-and-outs of what the Xbox One X could do, the UI is visually very clean, but navigation can be a bit confusing at times. Still, it is nowhere near as bad as it was for the Xbox One’s Metro Dashboard at launch. Remember, when watching TV was the most prominent feature? I have seen a few Xbox veterans complain about the lack of change from the current-gen Dashboard, though, and I completely understand it. When you get a new console you expect everything to feel somewhat unique, so even with the latest update being as good as it is, having it released on the previous-gen hardware first ruined the excitement a bit. We lifted the corner of the wrapping paper the night before and ruined our Christmas surprise.
But let’s face it, we aren’t here to discuss design philosophies and system interfaces – I bought the new box to play games, and play games I have! The main title I have played so far is Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla which runs like a dream (from a system standpoint at least, the game does have a few Ubisoft-bugs), and a few Game Pass titles optimised for Series X/S such as Gears 5 and Forza 4. The first thing I noticed when I initially launched Valhalla was the load screens, or to be more precise, the lack of them. The Series X superfast SSD cut down almost all barriers between player and gameplay, severely reducing the number of times I was able to check social media while chilling on a load screen. Not only are the load times in games virtually non-existent, but so is the time when swapping between games thanks to the Quick Resume feature.
I really didn’t appreciate Quick Resume when it was first announced, but now that I have spent some time with it, I can see it for what it is; a game-changer. Literally, it is a game-changer. Quick Resume allows the user to jump between different games right from the point where you stopped playing them last. Every time I got a little bored with Valhalla, I could run some laps in Forza, then cut back to exactly where I was in my Viking escapades, then maybe watch something on Amazon Prime (I finally started 30 Rock!), and then back to Valhalla. All of these transitions between games/media took well under 10 seconds each. It is incredible how much this encourages me to game more. I have such a low attention span that often during a loading screen I would scroll through Twitter, find something interesting, get reminded of a video, load up YouTube and then fall down a rabbit-hole, not returning to my game until the next day. But now I feel like my system can keep up with my wayward attention, letting me shift to whatever I need in just a few seconds. It is stunning and feels genuinely next-gen. While Quick Resume is not compatible for all games, it sounds like more and more titles will take advantage of the new feature with future updates.
Of course, the games themselves look and run incredibly well. Raytracing, 4K resolutions and 60fps modes (120fps in some cases) close the gap between console and PC more than ever before. Not everyone will notice the full leap in graphical quality though, as a lot of the visual fidelity is dictated by the limitations of the TV you are running through. Even with a 4K enabled setup, I had to mess with a few system settings to get things running their best. Though it is the best way to experience the Series X, don’t stress too much if you don’t have a 4K TV, the smoothness of 60fps gaming on a console itself is a huge leap forward. Look, for years, I have said that frames-per-second don’t bother me all that much, but I take that back. I was wrong, the smoothness in motion is jaw-dropping, and now I demand even more frames! More!
Though not initially designed with the Series X/S in mind, visual enhancements could also be seen in every backwards compatible game I tried, with some optimised games going a step further with substantial boosts to load times, fps and overall performance. My personal standouts probably being Gears 5, which has been optimised for the Series X/S, running at a PC-worthy 120Hz, and Forza Horizon 4‘s graphics surpassing my relatively robust PC setup. The way the power of the Series X is utilised will differ game to game, but I have seen enough glimpses of greatness to be confident in the extraordinary power contained in this little (well…) box. But this brings me to my biggest gripe, the games.
Where the fuck are the games?!
Even if the Series X/S launched alongside Halo Infinite, the launch line-up would still be relatively unimpressive. Let me clear, there are actually hundreds of games available with backwards compatibility and Game Pass, but my complaint is with the lack of games that properly showcase the new consoles. I want to see those teraflops in action! Without any of the usual flagship titles making full use of the Series X at launch, Microsoft has had to rely on cross-platform/cross-generational games such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Watch Dogs: Legion and older titles optimised for the new hardware, such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps, to show off the new goods. At the moment the Series X feels like a 68 Pontiac Firebird running on regular gas when she needs premium dude, premium! (And thus fills my Simpsons quote quota for this review). Yes, Sony’s PlayStation 5 has many cross-generation titles, but at least they are new. I see it as an issue when most of the games I can play optimised on my Series X to show off its might came out in 2019 or earlier.
There are currently no games on the Xbox Series X/S that I can’t play anywhere else, and after forking out $750, that just doesn’t sit right. The incredible library of backwards compatible games that can be played via disc or Game Pass is admirable. Still, as someone who bought the Series X to play next-gen games, it doesn’t appeal much to me personally, though I can certainly see the upside for those with substantial back catalogues of games. It is all well and good to tout your new console as the most powerful on the market, but if there are no games to display that power then the promises ring a little hollow. Of course, this will change as time goes on, but right now, I find it a little disheartening.
Future titles such as Forza and Fable will show the power of what this machine has to offer, and Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Bethesda Studios will mean that Xbox will be the place to be for the next Elder Scrolls and Fallout games. Match this with the best value for money deal in all video game platforms, Game Pass, and the future is bright. It is just going to be quite a wait until the new console fulfils its initial promise and expectations, and until then the Xbox Series X/S just feels like the best way to play old games, not a leap into the future.
In time the Xbox Series X will be a powerhouse, but until then I don’t think you should be tripping over yourself to get one just yet unless you really want a beefed-up Xbox One X with a high price-tag. The future potential of the system is immense. With some incredibly impressive titles on the horizon, I think Microsoft is going to give Sony a real run for its money over the next few years, especially with fantastic features like Quick Resume and the ever-growing Game Pass library. I just really wish the launch line-up of games better complimented the new system. The Xbox Series X has an insanely high ceiling, but right now we have no idea how high it can jump.
All photography in this review is courtesy of the talented Obie Nyamori. Support his work over on Instagram @africangangs, and be sure to give him a follow!