The new generation of gaming is almost upon us and Microsoft is first out of the gate with the release of the of Xbox Series X on Tuesday. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s packed with impressive new features – but is it worth shelling out $800 for? Lee Henaghan took it for a test drive.
New consoles used to be a big deal. Once a decade or so, we’d be blessed with a shiny new lineup of game systems, boasting better graphics, more processing power and most importantly, a raft of jaw-dropping new games specifically designed to persuade you to part with your hard-earned cash and join the new generation.
As technology has improved, these generational upgrades have become less of a giant leap forward and more of an incremental step. The jump from 1080p graphics to 4K offered by the current crop of consoles was impressive but not exactly the sort of thing that you’d invite your mates over to wow them with. With industry heavyweights Sony and Microsoft both set to unleash new flagship systems this month, can gamers expect to have our socks blown off or merely our eyebrows raised?
After playing with the Xbox Series X for the past week, I’m leaning towards the latter. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of kit which offers some excellent new features and functions but, so far at least, I haven’t seen anything that suggests that this generation is going to represent a sea change for interactive entertainment. More alarmingly, the decision to launch a new console without a single new exclusive game to play on it is, well, a bit weird to say the least.
That’s not to say that the Series X isn’t a technological marvel. The immense power of the machine is amazing and the speed and slickness it brings to the overall gaming experience is something that everyone will love. It’s also guaranteed to turn heads in your living room, if only for the sheer bloody size of it. It’s by far the biggest console ever made, measuring 15cm x 15cm x 30cm and weighing in at a chonky 4.5kg. When it was first unveiled, many commented that it looked more like a mini-fridge than a games console, prompting Microsoft to lean into the memes by releasing an actual Series X refrigerator last month. Despite its hefty dimensions, the box doesn’t dominate the shelf much as you might think thanks to some subdued and understated design features – it’s a minimalist monolith.
Part of the reason for the size factor is the super-efficient cooling system which enables it to run whisper-quiet even when games ramp up the action. It is practically silent every step of the way, only ever audible when you’re installing a game from disc to drive. One of my biggest bugbears with current gen consoles was the inevitable whirr that kicked in every time things got demanding, so it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to play games without it sounding like a jet plane is taking off. The box does kick out a fair amount of heat, so it needs to be well ventilated, but there’s no noise whatsoever.
Microsoft has made a huge deal about the Series X being the world’s most powerful console in its marketing and there’s no getting away from it, this is an absolute beast when it comes to processing grunt. The new system-on-a-chip, built around AMD’s latest Zen 2 and RDNA 2 hardware runs at a whopping 12 teraflops, making it about four times quicker than the Xbox One X and putting it comfortably ahead of the PlayStation 5 in terms of raw CPU speed. This means that games look better, run smoother, and most noticeably, load a lot faster than anything we’ve seen before.
The radical reduction in loading times offered by the Series X Velocity Architecture is arguably the console’s biggest selling point. I couldn’t believe quite how quickly games launched, going from boot screen to gameplay in a matter of seconds. It’s so rapid, you barely get a chance to read the gameplay tips most games put on their loading screens. Another neat time-saving feature is Quick Resume – allowing you to jump back into games right where you left off without having to wait for them to load at all. Although this was available on the Xbox One to an extent, you can now store up to four games at once, switching between them as easily as changing channels on your TV even after you’ve unplugged the machine and moved it to another room.
This is all possible due to the new Solid State Drive (SSD). While this technology has been available on PC for a while now, this is the first console to feature it and it’s almost certain to become an industry standard from here on in. Impressively, if you have existing Xbox games stored on an external hard drive you can plug it into the USB port and play them instantly, but if you want to take advantage of all the benefits and speed boosts, you’ll need to transfer them to SSD. This doesn’t take long (I measured it at about 12 minutes to move the 111gb Destiny 2) but with space limited to 1TB on the SSD, you’ll soon find yourself having to shift games around as and when you need them.
But what about the games? Well, at this stage, there’s not many of them. I’ve been playing on a pre-release build and so far there are only 12 that have been optimised for the Series X, and some of these are older releases like Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4. Admittedly, these look better than ever and even games which haven’t had the next gen upgrade treatment will benefit features like from auto HDR and smoother processing. Being able to play games at 4K resolution at a solid 60 frames per second is brilliant – a lot of current gen games make you choose one or the other so it’s nice not having to make that trade-off. If you have a gaming monitor or high-end TV capable of displaying 120fps you can boost the frame rate even further on certain titles. Some of the graphics on the optimised games are stunning, particularly the lighting effects. So far, I’ve only played one game that demonstrated the system’s new ray tracing technology (Watch Dogs Legion) but the impact it has on the way reflections and shadows are rendered is pretty incredible.
The elephant in the room, however, is the total absence of any new exclusive games to play on Microsoft’s flagship machine. To my knowledge, this is the first console not to offer any new first party titles at launch. There are a plenty of new third-party games such as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Yakuza: Like A Dragon in the launch lineup but nothing you can’t play elsewhere. It’s baffling that Xbox isn’t offering anything of its own to persuade gamers into investing in its new baby, particularly with the PlayStation 5 coming straight out of the gate with a clutch of big exclusives. With the likes of Halo: Infinite stuck in development hell, it’s hard to see when this system will have any system sellers.
The caveat to this, of course, is Game Pass. This Netflix-style subscription service offers instant access to a revolving library of 100+ games, with new titles added every month. When Xbox does get round to releasing some first party exclusives, they’ll be available on Game Pass on Day One. If you’re on a budget, it’s a great way to get your gaming fix without breaking the bank. And if you skipped Xbox this gen, you’ll have a whole heap of top notch titles to get stuck into straight away as well as some incredible indie offerings. To sweeten the deal even further, EA Play is being added to the service on launch day, which will throw in dozens more games from the Electronic Arts back catalogue. It’s clear that Microsoft is putting all its eggs in the Game Pass basket as a way to sell the Series X and it may well turn out to be a smart move.
Whether the Series X is worth the not-inconsiderable $799 price tag is a moot point – in the short term at least – as every NZ retailer seems to be out of stock with more units unlikely to arrive until next month at the earliest. If you haven’t already pre-ordered, you’ll have a wait on your hands. In raw terms, the hi-tech hardware makes it look like a decent deal – to build an equivalent PC capable of the same level of performance would cost you close to $2,000. If you’re in the market for an upgrade to a new console that will wow you with its speed and graphics, as well as giving you access to a ready-made library of games, this could well be the system for you. The lack of any major exclusives will understandably be a sticking point for many, but there’s no denying that this big, beefy powerhouse is a fantastic piece of kit.
Microsoft ANZ provided The Spinoff with an Xbox Series X review unit. The console releases on November 10.