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Xbox Series X Review: PC performance meets console simplicity

Xbox Series X debuts to unprecedented demand against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has seen people the world over place greater value on home entertainment. It is the first to follow a mid-life hardware boost — so while the Xbox One enters retirement after a serviceable seven years, we were analysing new hardware just three years ago — and it offers improved experiences across thousands of existing Xbox games, but few new, and no exclusive, experiences — typically the centrepiece of a new console generation.

Related: Xbox Series X Preview: Power your dreams

There are two key pillars to the launch of Xbox Series X/S, largely shared by the PS5, that makes this console launch drastically different. There isn’t an exclusive system seller, but instead there is newfound freedom to play thousands of games already available with improved performance. There also isn’t a monumental technological leap, as the 4K console era had a soft launch of sorts with Xbox One X relatively recently; but if that was the warm up act, Series X arrives as the headliner.

Let’s talk games

Stevivor has already comprehensively previewed the Xbox Series X. We put the console through its paces, evaluating everything from its physical characteristics to loading times and performance. That all stands at launch, but one thing we weren’t able to consider was the all important state of the games library on day one. It’s the reason to own an Xbox, and where we start our Xbox Series X review.

The Xbox Series X/S launch strategy is no doubt weakened by the delay of Halo Infinite, but even if its flagship title had arrived on time, this would not have been a conventional launch line-up. I have never had so many games to play on a brand new console, and yet none able to trigger FOMO. Whereas in previous console generations, friends have visited to bare witness to my shiny new box, and departed jaws a-gasp desperate to get their hands on a new Zelda, Forza or Halo pedigree experience, the Xbox Series X doesn’t have the same drawcard to entice beyond the enthusiast market.

For those launch day enthusiasts, the market responsible for driving such unparalleled high demand, day one is about so much more than a couple of missing exclusive games. Come 10 November, your backlog is instantly improved with a better experience across the games you are currently playing, and those you have been meaning to start. It’s not what we are normally sold at launch, but if you are invested enough to have ordered a now unobtainable console, it has deep value.

RELATED: XBOX SERIES X LOAD TIMES COMPARED TO XBOX ONE X

If you didn’t manage to secure a pre-order while EB Games buckled under the strain or during the 90 seconds Amazon was open for business, you are not missing anything that cannot be played on existing hardware. If you only buy a new console to play a single exclusive game, then let it lie idle for months while you’re forced back to a last-generation machine, this isn’t the console launch you’re looking for.

If you want to play the best console versions of new release games — and many of those from the past 15 years — the Xbox Series X/S and PS5 generation has the best launch line-up across quality and quantity, even if it’s the least exciting. Your old console can be boxed up and moved on, and there won’t be a lull in games to play.

There is a small selection of brand new cross-gen releases optimised for Xbox Series X/S — and having played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla extensively on Xbox Series X this week, I struggled to go back to Xbox One X — but it goes well beyond that. Your entire Xbox One library, and a considerable collection of Xbox 360 and OG Xbox games, make the journey with you.

Backwards compatibility has been in an on-and-off again relationship with console manufactures for years. Touting “thousands of launch games” by supporting legacy software has only really been a successful marketing ploy for Nintendo with the Game Boy, and has been seen as little more than a minor feature to the point of its abandonment shortly after the launch of the PS3. Its resurrection on Xbox One with the return of Xbox 360 games was the first time we saw old games not only persevered, but enhanced.

That backwards compatibility was limited by the fact it was an afterthought, largely through licensing restrictions, rather than technical limitations. On Xbox Series X/S, preserving and enhancing your library is at the core of its philosophy.

Optimised for Xbox Series X

As well as the small selection of new games, several old favourites have been spruced up for launch with optimisations for Xbox Series X. We contemplated a seperate review update for each of these old games — but they all follow a similar formula. The likes of Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5 and Sea of Thieves have all been updated for Series X, while Gears Tactics arrives on consoles for the first time.

They essentially all run similar to the high-end PC settings when they originally launched, and target 4K/60 for the most part (while a few games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection will have a 120 frames-per-second option too). That’s a slight oversimplification, as Gears 5 has some subtle new lighting effects that aren’t present in the PC version, but that’s effectively what you are getting.

Despite being two years old, it is Forza Horizon 4 that takes the honour of best looking launch game. It already looked amazing on Xbox One X, and now looks phenomenal on Xbox Series X taking it to the next level, while running at an extremely smooth 60 frames-per-second. There might not be a new instalment, but it’s still Forza that shows off the power of next-gen hardware. While Motorsport is undergoing a reboot, I’m a little surprised there was no Forza Horizon 5 to fulfil this role.

Related: All the Games optimised for Xbox Series S & X at launch

Pure performance

Whether it be a genuine “next-gen” experience optimised for Xbox Series X, or an old game released from the shackles of underpowered hardware, games are smoother and run much better on Xbox Series X.

It will be some time before we transition out of this cross-gen period and games take full advantage of the Xbox Velocity Architecture. Optimised games benefit from some subtle tweaks to visuals — lighting in particular — but there isn’t the substantial leap in visual fidelity that has ushered in each new console generation during the 3D era; games already look great on consoles. Instead of bankable next-gen visuals, Xbox Series X delivers distinctly next-gen performance, and that’s hard to appreciate in YouTube videos or a Twitch stream. It’s something you need to experience to appreciate.

With most games targeting 4K, either native or dynamic, in a consistent 60 frames-per-second, I can’t go back to Xbox One X or PS4 Pro having played for the last week on Series X — I tried, but the super smooth experience has ruined me for lesser hardware. It finally brings parity between console and PC gaming, delivering a more comparable experience.

In following the PC blueprint, several launch titles offer a choice between prioritising image quality or frame rate, and a small selection throw a 120 frames-per-second mode into the mix. We occasionally saw this on the souped-up Xbox One and PS4, and it’s something I expect to become standard this generation.

Making the most of these features requires a HDMI 2.1 TV, which enables 4K/120Hz, and are fresh on the market having first appeared in some 2019 sets. The higher resolution meets frame rate combo has generated the most publicity for the new HDMI spec, but it isn’t the feature that has resonated with me most; the most impressive component is variable refresh rate (VRR).

While next-gen optimised games are largely targeting a consistent 60 FPS (frames-per-second), they don’t all get there, especially when prioritising image quality. In those games, some minor frame drops and screen-tearing are noticeable on my older 2017 OLED. However, on the LG 9 Series with VRR enabled, the small drops in frame rate aren’t visible at all; it’s like it never happened. It covers up the small performance shortcomings perfectly, in much the same way dynamic resolutions and quality upscaling covers for games that can’t quite manage native 4K. It’s a set and forget feature that is going to play a large role in improving your gameplay experience this generation, without you even realising it.

We have loads of Xbox Series X and Series S loading time comparisons with each other and with Xbox One for your perusal that demonstrate the gains delivered by the internal SSD. But it’s not until you’ve played several games that you realise just how much faster loading times improve the experience — especially if you go back to a last-gen console. Series X games feel fast, but within a few days I had already adapted; this is the new normal. Going back to the same game on One X or PS4 feels painfully slow.

Quick and functional user interface

The Xbox Series X continues to defy convention and launches without a new user interface — the dash is a continuation of the constantly evolving design on Xbox One — and it’s fantastic.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, as Xbox has been iterating its UI since the Xbox One launched in 2013 — and frankly it was a confusing mess back then. The current version of the Xbox dash is extremely intuitive and easy to use, and offers just the right amount of customisation. I find those who still complain about it either have a preconceived notion that it sucks, or aren’t using groups to their full potential.

All three consoles prioritise easily accessing recently used games and applications, but Xbox has the best option to put everything else at your fingertips. The vertical dashboard, which has been around for a while now, allows you to create custom groups and pin them in any order directly beneath your most recently played games.

I have a “currently playing” group at the top of my dash, and can easily access anything in regular rotation — it’s also very satisfying to remove a completed game from this group. Beneath them are multiplayer games, Game Pass titles, the Xbox Store, and a backlog of shame I intend to play. The default options, like the community tab, are gone entirely, as it doesn’t suit my needs. Some of the settings may still be buried, but if you take the time to customise the Xbox UI to suit your needs, it delivers an intuitive and fast experience.

It’s also super quick to respond on Xbox Series X — the same dash on Xbox One feels sluggish, and it’s now clear the most recent refresh was designed primarily for next-generation consoles.

Jumping in and out of games is also faster than ever, thanks to the Quick Resume feature that allows several games to be suspended at once. It’s just one component in the overall speed boost, with the improved loading speeds and snappy UI, but I underestimated its impact.

I have found myself jumping in and out of several games on Xbox Series X because it’s so quick and easy. I never would have gone to Forza Horizon 4 for a single three-minute race last-generation, because starting and loading the game took longer than that — Quick Resume has actually changed how I play.

The big black box: Quiet and well designed hardware

The Xbox Series X design is foremost functional. The minimalist tower design will be adored by some and considered plain but serviceable by others. Either way, while stylishly bulky, it slips into your entertainment setup — either horizontally or vertically — with ease, and gets to work as a quiet achiever. Photos don’t do it justice, and I far prefer the design in person.

Rotating through the cross-get launch titles optimised for Series X/S on day one — Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, DiRT 5, Yakuza Like a Dragon, Gears 5, Gears Tactics and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — my workhorse Xbox One X, while relatively quiet compared to the jet engines that proceeded it, struggled under the load as the fans fired at maximum. I haven’t heard a peep from the Xbox Series X playing these same games at a higher and more stable frame rate.

The tower design — which I prefer standing up mimicking a PC case, but am growing more fond of toppled over by the day — is equipped with a massive air vent on its top, or right-hand, panel. Leaving it vertical, the glimmer of green paint inside the vent catches the eye just enough to give the illusion of a mild glow illuminating from the top of the console — when in actual fact it’s just some cleverly positioned coloured plastic. The massive fan that sits inside must be running to expel heat, but it’s silent and fairly cool. It’s only been a few weeks, but I would be astonished if this console ever has overheating issues.

Most of its ports are tucked away on the rear, with only a single USB port and disc drive on the front of the machine. As noted in our preview, the matte black finish is a fingerprint magnet, and it takes a fair bit of elbow grease to wipe them clean.

Unless you are relocating between two TVs regularly as I have been, it won’t matter for most users, as the rear ports (HDMI out, power and two USB 3.0 ports) are set and forget — except for the SSD expansion port. If you choose to rock two Xbox Series X/S consoles, a plug and play expansion card is a simple way to transfer content between them — and at AUD $359 a pop for 1TB, it’s hard to justify a second one. This won’t a problem for many, but I can see why retro consoles didn’t hide the memory card on the back.

A refined controller

In his preview, Steve said he liked the Series X/S controller so much, he’s yet to find a compelling reason to put it down and return to a Xbox Elite Controller Series 2. While I agree that it is a great refinement to the best standard controller on the market, I still prefer the far more expensive Elite Series 2 — which is fully compatible with the Xbox Series X/S. All it needs is an update to allow the profile swap button to be used a share button, because it’s in exactly the same spot and I keep hitting it expecting a screenshot that never eventuates.

That’s how quickly I became acquainted with the long-awaited share button on the Series X/S controller. Within minutes I was instinctively capturing moments with utter simplicity, and it fixes one of Xbox’s biggest shortcomings last generation — I have hundreds more screens saved on Switch and PS4 because it was so much more initiative on those systems, and Xbox has finally caught up.

Otherwise, the controller doesn’t change much, and it doesn’t need to. It’s fractionally smaller, but not so much that you’ll really notice, and is finished with a textured grip in the underside and across the triggers. The hybrid D-Pad, which combines the standard design with the satellite option on the Elite Controllers, will make eight direction menus much easier to navigate, but is another subtle change in the scheme of things.

Xbox Series S Review

While most — almost all — of what Ben has said here, and I’ve said in my preview, still stands for the Xbox Series S, the lesser-powered console really takes a hit when it comes to available SSD storage space. We can confirm an earlier report that the console has a meagre 365GB of an advertised 512GB SSD, and that’s a real problem when games like Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War are launching at 136GB before DLC. If you want to play Xbox Series optimised games, they need to be either on the S’s internal SSD or the pricey Seagate 1TB expansion card.

While you’re instantly saving $250 AUD buying an Xbox Series S over an Xbox Series X, you’re more than halving your storage space in the process. Purchasing a $360 AUD 1TB Seagate card fixes that, but you would be better off going with the X — and its 802GB SSD — while also benefitting from 4K, 120FPS (or 8K, 60FPS) capabilities, future-proofing yourself for a while to come. More than that, our loading speed and data transfer timings suggest that the Xbox Series X has another edge over (the admittedly adorable) Xbox Series S.

One thing’s for sure in the next-gen console cycle: storage will always, ALWAYS, be at a premium. Be prepared to juggle installs between drives, always on the hunt for more space.

-Steve Wright

 

Related: Xbox Series S time to restart & power up, compared to Xbox Series X

Related: Xbox Series S data transfer speeds compared to Xbox Series X

Related: Xbox Series S loading times compared to Xbox Series X

Xbox Series X: A pure games machine

The launch of the Xbox Series X completes Xbox’s return to being a pure games machine. The Xbox One drastically evolved over its life and was successfully redirected upon a games first trajectory. The rebirth of Xbox is complete with Xbox Series X. The shackles are gone, and the hardware is finally in complete harmony with Xbox’s games first, play anywhere focus.

The ecosystem is built around Game Pass. Microsoft makes it extremely easy for you to play on a console, PC or phone — and it’s simple to move between them, including console generations. I’ve been playing games on Series X, and continued where I left off on Xbox One, and picked up again on mobile, via Series X streaming. The cloud saves work extremely well between devices. While in the long term Microsoft may strive for more players on other devices, the console still remains at the centre of the experience.

Xbox Series X takes the best of console gaming and the best of PC gaming, and combines them into a fantastic machine. It feels a lot like playing on PC with a controller, with the ease of access of a console and the comfort of your couch.

With a back catalogue of thousands of games now running with higher frame rates, Xbox Series X delivers a library of games enhanced to perform closer to their original intention. It’s lacking new content, and ultimately games sell systems, so it is fair to say there’s no need to buy an Xbox Series X right now — but Microsoft doesn’t mind if you’re playing Game Pass elsewhere. It does, however, significantly improve the performance of your existing library. If you, like many of us, revamped your home entertainment setup during the shamble that is 2020, Xbox Series X is the perfect addition to bring PC quality games with the simplicity of a console to your new 4K TV.

Two Xbox Series X consoles and an Xbox Series S console were provided to Stevivor by Microsoft for the purposes of preview and review.


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About the author

Ben Salter

Ben has been writing about games in a professional capacity since 2008. He even did it full-time for a while, but his mum never really understood what that meant. He's been part of the Stevivor team since 2016. You will find his work across all sections of the site (if you look hard enough). Gamertag / PSN ID: Gryllis.