Review: An Elite Contender Joins The Console Wars With The Xbox Series X

Nov 9, 2020

Category: Tech

While the gift-giving season is still several weeks away for most folks, the holiday spirit is already in full swing for video gamers everywhere. That’s because, in just a few short days, the next generation of home consoles will become available to the public. This also means that the next campaign in the ongoing video game console wars is about to begin. And it starts with the official release of Microsoft’s Xbox Series X (and Series S) on November 10th, 2020.

Not counting any special and/or limited editions, the Series X and S mark the 4th and 5th Xbox launch consoles — preceded by the original Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. And, truth be told, this year’s release is perhaps the most highly-anticipated and hotly-contested of all time, thanks largely to the near-simultaneous releases of both Microsoft and Sony, as well as the emerging technologies being embraced by each company. It is worth noting that the Xbox has a steeper hill to climb, as the Xbox One was outsold by the PS4 by greater than a 2-to-1 margin. But a new console generation also marks a clean slate and — with a lot of ambition, knowhow, and luck — that means another chance to take a seat at the top of the pile. Well, we actually got our hands on an Xbox Series X to see just how impressive the system actually is in practice — and we’ve outlined our impressions in the following hands-on review.

Disclaimer: Microsoft provided us with an Xbox Series X console, games, and access to other services in order for us to conduct this review, however, the opinions expressed therein are our own.

First Impressions

Out-Of-The-Box

Even knowing the physical specs of the console, we were taken aback by its sheer size and weight. For reference, the Xbox Series X weighs a whopping 9.8 pounds out-of-the-box and measures up at 11.8″ tall and 5.9″ in width and depth. If Microsoft was hoping to give people the impression that this new console’s design was inspired by the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, they have very much succeeded in that endeavor. That being said, once you get past the initial flabbergast, there’s almost an elegance and draw to the size, shape, and heft. It’s substantial, angular, and tall — not entirely unlike everyone’s favorite tetromino (AKA Tetris block).

Similarly, like a Tetris piece, it’s actually quite versatile regarding the spaces in which you can place it. And that might be the biggest benefit of its footprint. Equipped with a rubber disk on the bottom and low-profile rubber feet on its right side (relative to the disc drive), the system can be placed upright or horizontal and actually takes up less counter space than just about any other major console in history, save (perhaps) only for Nintendo’s similarly-shaped GameCube. Pair that with the fact that its exceedingly minimalist exterior is free of any extraneous detailing — even the engraved logo on the left side took some searching to find — and this might actually be the all-around best-looking console of all time, especially for those with a taste for the Bauhaus and/or brutalism.

The Controller

Tactile User Interface

In designing their next-generation console, the folks at Microsoft made it abundantly clear that, when it came to its controller, they didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Rather, they sought familiarity with a few noteworthy quality-of-life tweaks. And that’s a very good thing, considering that the Xbox One’s controller was heralded as perhaps the best of any console ever. At first glance, you might not even notice the changes when compared to the last generation, but a closer examination reveals that there are, in fact, some significant upgrades.

The first thing you’ll notice is the button array. The familiar dual-joystick design and the signature colored X-Y-A-B are all still there, but the D-pad has now been redesigned to look more like the swappable one found on the Xbox One’s Elite controller, which gives users better control when pushing the D-pad in directions other than up, down, left, and right — a necessity in some games for things like emotes and giving orders to in-game teammates. It also now features a Share button smack-dab in the center of the controller, which makes content creation simpler than ever before. Now, when you want to save a screenshot or take a video, it’s literally as simple as pressing a button.

Lastly, the most exciting change (at least for us) was an unexpected one that we didn’t realize until we actually picked up the controller. That is: the back panel, the circumference of the joysticks, and even the triggers and shoulder button surfaces feature a subtle, tactile texture that makes gripping the controller more secure and allows for even more precise control — both of which are especially important for intense gaming sessions. All told, the controller is different enough to stand apart from previous iterations and the alterations are subtle but significant in some truly exceptional ways.

The User Experience

Setup, Navigation, & Personalization

Those who fear the current wave of smart technologies and connected-to-every-device services might not be too thrilled upon turning on their console for the first time, as the Xbox Series X console requires users to download the accompanying Xbox app for the initial setup. Having said that, the entire process is fairly intuitive and speedy, which is a major boon for those who don’t fear the interconnectedness of their devices. All you have to do is follow the quick-and-easy on-screen instructions and, after a couple of patch downloads, you’ll be good to go.

What’s perhaps more interesting is that the user-friendliness doesn’t remotely stop at the setup. In fact, once we had everything connected — the system, app, television settings, connected accounts (including the new Game Pass Ultimate subscription), etc. — the home interface and all subsequent pages were just as intuitive and easy to navigate. All in all, the control center seems less like a new piece of hardware and more like a familiar old friend — with some serious upgrades, of course.

We should clarify: suggesting that the control center is like an old friend maybe doesn’t entirely do it justice. Because it isn’t old — not in how it looks, how it functions, or really in any of the ways that matter. The whole shebang is sleek and intuitive; it’s easy to navigate and find whatever you’re looking for in mere seconds; and it still manages to pack a hell-of-a-lot of information (both regarding onboard apps/games and things you might be interested in that you don’t already own) in a way that seems neither clunky nor cluttered. Getting from place to place is similarly simple — requiring only a quick flick of the joystick to go from icon to icon, a pull of a trigger to jump down the page, or (when in doubt) you can always hit the center icon on the controller to open up another on-screen menu. There are a lot more tricks to it than just these, but it’s clear that Microsoft put the system software through its paces to make it almost fun in and of itself.

Photo: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Graphics & Gameplay

Peak Performance

For our purposes, we tested the Xbox Series X on a 4k Samsung smart television, which is actually somewhat of a shame, as Microsoft has claimed that the system is actually capable of up to an 8k output. Still, without being able to really push this device to its limited, it was still an impressive experience all-around — which we have outlined in detail in the following section.

Disclaimer: Microsoft provided a number of games to us for this review. However, for the ‘Appearance’ section, we focused exclusively on titles that have been optimized for use on the Xbox Series X. We did also play several titles offered through both Game Pass and backward compatibility, however, we have not accounted for their graphics, as they have largely not yet been optimized as of the time of this writing.

Appearance: Unfortunately, due to the nature of the new technology and the nightmare of big-name game delays (we’re looking at you, Halo Infinite), we were limited in the next-gen titles we had access to. Having said that, there were more than enough options for us to try out a variety of game styles and scopes to get a feel for just how beautiful the up-to-8k resolution of the Xbox Series X actually is. For starters, the blocky, angular platform puzzler The Touryst is vibrant and clean in 4k and looks less like a game and more like a finely-tuned diorama or a playable LEGO set. Similarly, every gritty piece of shrapnel and every chink in the armor of our player character in Gears 5 is discernible and detailed. But the real star of the show in regards to realism and its ability to show off the system’s new ray-tracing abilities (which make for hyper-realistic lighting and shadows) is the rally-racing Dirt 5. Racing games are always a pretty great benchmark for realism and they often run the gamut regarding simulated weather, terrain, materials, etc — and this one is, simply put, breathtakingly rendered. Yes, it does still look like a video game (we haven’t quite made it into “uncanny valley” territory), but it marks a pretty significant leap forward regarding graphical capabilities across the board.

Responsiveness & Lag: As we’ve come to expect from Microsoft’s gaming hardware, the connection between the system and the controller is seamless — even across a large living room. And every single twitch of the thumbstick is recognized in-game, almost to the point that the responsiveness was too much and took a bit of getting used to. These factors, however, are where we found our one irksome point. You see, the new controller has been made to give haptic feedback to the player, and it actually works quite well. Drive over a patch of rough terrain, for instance, and the triggers vibrate and exhibit greater resistance. But, the downside to that is that the controller can be quite loud, humming as it vibrates. It’s a troubling little lack of refinement, but it does bode well that this appears to be our largest issue thus far. Having said that, we can’t say for sure whether this is an issue across the board or if our particular controller’s quirks aren’t indicative of the experience of others.

Load Times & Speed: If we were to choose a word to describe the speediness of the Xbox Series X’s load times, it would probably be “fractional.” And the experience is one that’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t used one. This is probably because, as gamers, we’ve become used to long load times — especially with larger, more detailed next-gen video games. However, it’s clear that this next generation is going to put that issue to bed. Even accounting for forced intros — gotta give some screentime to the development teams — a cold boot into a game takes only seconds, which is a major improvement over previous consoles that could sometimes take minutes to boot. Similarly, there are virtually no load times between levels/sections of games. If you want to fast travel from one point on the map to another, there isn’t really even enough time to set down the controller. The same goes for swapping between activities. In fact, the only time we experienced any kind of wait was for online services, which really can’t be credited to the console itself. Best of all, the speediness is underlined by some of the smoothest framerates of any console we’ve ever had the good fortune of playing. Altogether, we were left with feeling like the only jagged edges to be had on the Xbox Series X are on the physical console itself.

Quick Resume: One of the best parts of the system is a built-in features known as Quick Resume. As you might’ve guessed from its name, this feature allows users to jump back into the exact point at which they left a game without having to go through any kind of boot-up process. And while this isn’t necessarily a new concept (retro consoles have allowed for static saves and the PS4 can keep a single game booted and running even when you’re not in it, so long as it isn’t online), the way its managed on the Xbox Series X is notable. For starters, the speed of the Quick Resume is pretty spectacular — we’re talking a fraction of a second between selecting the game and playing. But what’s better is that it works across the last few games you played. That means, when you hit a wall in one game or perhaps get a little board, jumping over to another game is near-instantaneous, especially if you use the pop-up menu accessed via pushing the Xbox icon on the controller.

Accessibility

Video Games For All

When compared to any other video game console manufacturer, Microsoft has always been at the forefront of accessibility. And while that might not matter to most of their users, it makes a huge difference for those that want to partake in a next-gen gaming experience but are differently-abled. And while we expected the accessibility options for the Xbox Series X to be good, we were actually quite floored by just how expansive and user-friendly these settings actually were. In fact, they can all be accessed quite simply from the home screen. All you have to do is go to Settings (marked by a small gear-shaped icon) and then scroll down to the Ease of Access section.

From there, users can add an onboard system narrator (a text-to-voice reader with several other accessibility settings therein); access controller mapping (the Xbox Series X also supports Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller for the Xbox One); and turn on a screen magnifier, closed captions, in-game transcription, or even a high-contrast mode. All in all, these simple settings help make the Series X a more well-rounded, thoughtful console for users of all abilities and we must applaud Microsoft for their efforts in that regard.

Game Pass Ultimate

The Next Step In Online Gaming

Here’s where we found the most confusion when using the otherwise extremely user-friendly Xbox Series X. Users of previous Microsoft consoles will undoubtedly be familiar with Xbox Live — the service that allows users to play online multiplayer games, as well as access numerous perks and other included features for a monthly fee. Well, with this new generation, it looks like Microsoft may be phasing out their Live service in favor of their new Game Pass service. While multi-month memberships to Xbox Live Gold have seemingly disappeared from Microsoft’s marketplace, the month-to-month $10 membership is still present. However, it’s clear that the company wants to switch over to the new model and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Xbox Live Gold completely disappear over the next year or two.

Interestingly, the basic Game Pass plan costs the same as Xbox Live Gold on a month-to-month basis, but it offers so much more than the older membership tier. In fact, Game Pass includes all of the same perks as Xbox Live Gold (like online multiplayer) but also gives users access to a library of 100+ games from across the Xbox generations (Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One) which are available to play for as long as you keep your subscription. Many of these games are also being optimized specifically for play on the Xbox Series X — making the value of the service a huge step forward from the old Xbox Live service.

If members upgrade fully to the $15/month Game Pass Ultimate, however, the deal gets that much sweeter. Not only does it include everything from the basic tier, but users also gain access to Xbox Game Studios titles when they premiere, “exclusive member discounts and deals,” up to four free games to download per month, and more. Users can also play any of the aforementioned games on PC, as well as console. It’s a pretty revolutionary system that’s well worth the asking price. And it marks a step toward what we have to assume is Microsoft’s next big goal: to turn more people onto the idea of cloud gaming.

Other Online Services

Streaming Central

Clearly, due to the nature of the device, the Xbox Series X is a video game console first and foremost. However, it does support a litany of other apps ranging from entertainment streaming (like Netflix, Apple TV, and Disney+) to music apps (Spotify, SoundCloud, etc.) and everything in-between. Like the games, finding these apps in the store is intuitive, quick, and easy. And, from what limited time we spent with them, they all function beautifully and without any noticeable hiccups or bugginess. And that’s going to be a major boon for anyone that wants to use this new system as an entertainment hub, rather than just for playing video games.

The Verdict

Is It Worth The Hype?

After playing second fiddle to PlayStation for the last several years, it is abundantly clear that the designers and programmers at Microsoft were fed up with always playing catch-up. The result is a manageable monolithic physical console with a spectacular included controller and almost definitely the most user-friendly operating system of any console perhaps in history. Especially on a television that can handle the graphical capabilities, the next-gen-optimized games are drop-dead gorgeous and smooth as silk, the gameplay is rewarding and largely free of the usually-expected day-one bugginess, and the entire system software is intuitive and accessible. Furthermore, this device has the bones to be more than just a gaming console; it’s a hub for all your favorite streaming services and apps, as well. If this is, in fact, a looking glass into Microsoft’s vision of the future world of video games, then that future is a bright one, indeed.

Purchase: $500

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