Xbox Series X review

by on November 5, 2020

The Xbox Series X is a monster. It’s a towering black monolith that contains enormous power, of that I’m sure: it’s the future of gaming delivering a high-performance experience for most games, with choice for the user in how they see titles. But it’s also a little confusing, because there are decisions made here that might shape how the console life-cycle plays out, and I’m not sure every idea is a home run, nor is everything working perfectly at the time of writing this review.

Aesthetically, I adore how the Xbox Series X looks. It’s well designed, and I don’t say that to explain how pretty it looks. The huge vent will constantly cool the device, and this is important because it’s got a lot of power compressed into a relatively small space. This is a mini-PC, almost, only with the power of a higher end computer. It never seemed to put out a lot of heat, though, but if it wasn’t emitting some form of dissipating heat, I’d be worried: it needs to vent, so keep that in mind when choosing your location. It makes no noise at all, by the way, and I mean that. I couldn’t make it emit anything close to a fan noise in hours upon hours of testing. The most I could do to make it audible was put a disc in so it spins up: the Xbox Series X is whisper quiet, and that’s quite an achievement.

I decided initially to put it on its side, but eventually went back to the familiar upright position. It’s a premium product and I wanted to have it displayed as such. Included in the packaging is a HDMI 2.1 cable, which is excellent as it means the box is ready for 120hz gaming right away. On that, I want to urge caution, though. A 120hz signal does not guarantee 120fps performance, it just means it can deliver that. The jump from 30fps to 60fps is hugely noticeable, certainly in first-person titles or games that have fast moving cameras. Driving games also benefit, and 120hz enables a smoother performance with a fidelity hit. It’s not enormous, but you’re swapping slightly better looking visuals for smoother turning, even in a game like The Falconeer, for example.

Xbox Series X review: The Controller & UI

Xbox Series X: The Controller

The new Series X controller feels great, of course. It’s ever so slightly smaller, but the changes are subtle. The rear of the pad and the triggers are textured to give a better grip and feel overall, and the share button works instantly in the same manner that the Nintendo Switch does. No longer do you have to hit the guide button, then the button for a video or image: it just works right away. You can customise this in the UI to change how the share button works, just like you could on PS4, as well. I have literally no complaints about the Series X controller: it’s similar to the previous Xbox pads, which were the best Microsoft has put out, only it has a lovely clicky D-Pad now, too. I even found the comfort of the textured rear to be so nice that I didn’t even bother connecting my Elite to the Xbox Series X. Essentially, it’s clear an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach has been taken, with small upgrades the way forward.

On the UI front, there’s no question that the Series X version of the Xbox user interface is, like everything else on the console, way faster. It’s snappy, and almost always instantaneously responsive. I say almost, because there will always be loading circles when a UI relies on internet connections and servers that aren’t local. And this UI remaining the same is a blessing and a curse. The familiarity means you are at home instantly and can get things just how you like them, the most recent dash-update is customisable and user-friendly, it’s fine.

But while retaining that same look makes sense from a “platform” perspective, it really does mean you don’t feel like you’re playing on something new: it just isn’t very exciting. The box looks great under or next to your TV, but you don’t spend time looking at a box. You are in the games, in the menus, taking screenshots, interacting with the UI to play online games, and it’s literally the same as the console you were playing on last week, and last year. This is intentional, and there are small changes that make you notice it’s a different box you’re playing on. But the visual similarities mean that when a game crashes or something doesn’t work as it should, you get a distinct “here we go again” feeling. Time will tell, but after weeks of playing with the Xbox Series X I find myself thinking there must surely have been a way to design a new UI that was compatible with the idea that the Xbox One family still exists.

Xbox Series X review: Quick Resume

A photo of the Xbox Series X and Controller

Quick Resume is a phenomenal addition to the Series X, mind you, but I had a lot of issues with it leading up to writing this Xbox Series X review. Yakuza: Like a Dragon doesn’t do Quick Resume at the time of writing. I contacted Xbox about this and have been informed some specific games aren’t working right now due to a bug, but they will be at a later date. To test further, I loaded up a few games in quick succession, and I went from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, to Gears 5 (optimized) which promptly crashed. I also had some issues getting FIFA 21 to work from a disc-copy, but it turns out you have to manually tell the console to install the “Xbox One version” because the Series X edition isn’t out until December. That’s fair, of course, but also not particularly user-friendly, and why is the box trying to install and run a version that isn’t out yet? It seems a lot of things that I’d have assumed are system level (Yakuza quick resume, smart delivery) might actually be title-based, and I’m sure this will all work faultlessly sooner rather than later.

Due to being one big family of Xboxes, you can pick up your saves where you leave off between PC (Windows Store games), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The console automatically syncs your saves for you, and a few minutes max they’re in the cloud for pickup on another device. When everything works as it should, the Series X feels truly brilliant. Moreover, for people who use game sharing, that all works on Series X as well, exactly the same as before.

Xbox Series X review: The Games

Xbox Series X review - The Games

In terms of the games available, you can read our reviews of the launch titles elsewhere, but I can’t really pinpoint a truly “next-gen” feeling game on the Series X right now. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is just fantastic, and the loading times are ridiculous. Some titles offer resolution or frame-rate modes, and there will always be arguments that people want the full resolution, but after playing games at seemingly locked 60fps, I couldn’t drop the frames for a slightly better looking game. The Falconeer is another title that really sings on the Series X, yet again with supremely high frame rates and a gorgeous aesthetic. I can’t pretend I like this game as much as a lot of other people seem to, but it’s great to see an indie game getting treated like royalty on a new-generation of consoles, for sure.

Gears Tactics and Gears 5 are excellent, but we knew this already, and while Tactics has been optimised, so looks and runs brilliantly, Gears 5 is astonishingly pretty, with that high frame rate, too. It really sings on Xbox. Another highlight via backwards compatibility is Doom Eternal, which was one of the first games I tested that blew me away. Running it at 4K/60fps/HDR it looks and runs ridiculously well, but also the power of the X cuts the loading times an insane amount. Testing Doom Eternal on an Xbox One it took 25 seconds to get from the main menu to the game loading in. On Series X it took 5 seconds. This is a game that hasn’t been optimised for the Series X, it’s just that the console and SSD are good enough it does that automatically. Likewise Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice runs smoothly at up to 60fps (I’m pretty sure I spotted some drops below that) and with faster load times, as well. That’s a common theme, it loads things quickly, and it really does feel like the idea behind the Series X is to focus on the gaming experience, to wipe away all that TV and App-talk from the Xbox One’s launch, and in that respect, it’s a success. The Witcher 3 loads ridiculously fast, as well, and all of this reinforces just how powerful this machine is: it takes anything you throw at it and it eats it for breakfast. It truly is an impressive piece of hardware.

There’s no question in my mind that this console is an utter beast, capable of taking on anything you throw at it. It’s quick, silent, plays games well, and quite honestly, looks great. The biggest issue it faces is that there’s nothing exclusive, right now. I genuinely have no doubt the Series X is one of the most powerful home consoles ever made, and if you didn’t have an Xbox One, or never upgraded to the mid-gen models, it will blow you away with its power and speed. Game Pass means there’s plenty of games in the library that are high on quality and fidelity, but I just can’t help wondering what the launch could have been like if Halo: Infinite was there day one. Quick Resume seems like a key feature of the new system, and that it doesn’t work across the board is unfortunate and being worked on, because when it does work, switching between games is brilliant. Loading up a game and it instantly resuming your save is a real “wow” moment, causing you you to exclaim, “Oh, I forgot I was in the middle of that!” and carry right on.

I can’t pretend that Xbox Series X is the most exciting device I’ve ever used, but that is in huge part due to the familiarity of the system UI and the fact that it’s clearly got games in development that aren’t ready just yet. But for the first time in a while I can say that Xbox is on the right track. There are bugs to iron out, and despite Game Pass I do believe Microsoft need some experiences that are not also available on other platforms, but that’s going to come. Xbox Series X is a powerhouse, a beast, and any number of adjectives you like to throw at it. No, it’s not exciting, but it’s the closest to PC gaming you’ll get for the money. The future is bright for Xbox, that’s for sure, and I can’t wait to see the true next-gen power revealed when the games are made specifically for this monster of a console.