Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Vision Comes Into Focus
I've played video games all my life, but only this past August did I finally play a video game on a PC. I've played on every console since the mid-nineties — we even had some weird ones growing up (Panasonic 3DO, anyone?) — but not until a few months ago had I ever really seen video games running on a PC in my own home.
The results have been impressive to say the least. It came pre-built and fully loaded. My wife bought it as a gift, and she's never revealed the price. I've asked, but she doesn't want to say. It runs everything on Ultra and loads super fast. Frankly, it's been excellent, even if I shudder to think about how much she spent on the thing.
Despite my decades of preference toward consoles, I've lately wondered if I should move the majority of my gaming to PC. Then I played Xbox Series X, and I remembered what it is about consoles I love so much.
Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Vision Comes Into Focus
The Series X is Microsoft's most impressive console launch in the company's history, because it gives me a high-end PC experience for a fraction of the price. Alongside services like Game Pass and xCloud, the Xbox ecosystem has never been stronger than it is today with Xbox Series X.
Out of the box, the Xbox Series X is built to look like a PC. Microsoft is well-versed in both consoles and personal computers by now, but the Series X blatantly seeks to merge the two into one, and it starts with the form factor.
The Series X stands at just shy of a foot tall, and it's almost six inches wide. Its footprint is that of a smallish cinderblock, and though it's not nearly as heavy, it feels hearty in your hands. It's designed to work both vertical and horizontal, though for my money, it looks much nicer standing tall.
With a subtly green-painted top vent, even calling it whisper-quiet seems wrong. Whispers are still audible. I can't hear a thing coming from my Series X, and it must owe that to the internal parts of this monolith and the massive vent it wears on top.
It's no accident that it looks like a PC. That's the point. It plays like one too. Early and often, playing video games on Series X is smoother, faster, and simpler. One of the Xbox's unique features is Quick Resume. Whereas on Xbox One, players can keep a single game suspended and return to it instantly so long as they don't initiate a different game, Xbox Series X allows for multiple games to wait for your return like this.
My first brush with this feature came as a pleasant surprise as I had forgotten to expect it when it happened. Moving instantly from Fortnite back to Assassin's Creed Valhalla was my first "aha!" moment with the new generation, but it wouldn't be my last.
However, Quick Resume does suffer by having no clear place that lists what's in standby this way. At launch, it seems to be up to the player to keep track of their last five games played, so they know what's still idling.
I tend to go between two games plus maybe an additional review game during any given week, so it hasn't been too tough to track what are normally the same three games each session for me, but if you're someone who jumps around a lot between games, Quick Resume owes you simpler navigation and a clearer explanation.
When it comes to the games themselves, the Series X is an obvious improvement over last-gen consoles. To be frank, this is what I was most skeptical about. I have a big 4K TV, but it's not the nicest one on the market, so I was worried if my 4K/60/HDR setup would look lesser than Microsoft would like me to believe.
My doubts subsided before I even got into a game. During the Valhalla loading screen, the first game I tested, it was immediately obvious that Eivor, the protagonist who runs around while the game loads, already had more vibrant colors and much finer detail on her Viking armor.
When the game threw me into my ninth-century settlement just seconds later, I was stunned. The high-end PC experience, which I had missed for most of my life and I'd only finally seen at home weeks prior, was suddenly being presented on my 65" TV as a vibrant Viking village, sun-soaked in the most dazzling light I'd ever seen in games.
If you blocked your ears for years while PC gamers preached about superior performance and how 60 frames per second is so important, you don't have to run from their teases anymore. The Xbox Series X performs on par with my PC, and in some cases even outperforms it.
I have a 22" 1080p PC (no ray tracing), and I never upgraded to the mid-gen Xbox One X or PS4 Pro, so these early moments with Valhalla were my first ever with 4K gaming outside of trade shows. It looks different — more mesmerizing — when it happens in your own living room.
Over the last week and a half, I've tested nearly 20 games spanning four generations of Xbox, and though some of the biggest hits like Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves are next-gen-ready with day one optimizations such as improved frame rates and 4K textures, the unprecedented thing the Series X does is how it makes all your games better, even when the developers of some games haven't even touched them.
Next year, an enhanced version of Control hits new-gen platforms, but for now, the Series X has already eliminated its infamous freezing issue when I exit the pause menu. Remedy didn't touch it up. It's just the architecture of the Xbox Series X making games better.
My Game of the Year, Ooblets, can routinely slow the pace of play by forcing a load screen when you move between your farm and the town, but that screen has virtually disappeared now. The new-gen Madden 21 is due out in two weeks, but I've already enjoyed the disappearance of the legacy menu lag that plagues Madden annually. It's just gone. And that's lovely.
The fact is regardless of how much extra work studios want to do to optimize their games for the Series X, Microsoft has ensured the machine already does a lot of that work for them. Loading screens have been reduced by half or more in many instances, such as the once-lengthy opening to Sea of Thieves, now cut down to under 20 seconds. Fast-traveling in Valhalla was taking about 30 seconds or more on Xbox One, but since moving my save data to Xbox Series X, the same moves now take me about 9 seconds.
These highlights — suspending multiple games, improving load times, sharpening up frame rates — they all sound familiar, don't they? The Xbox Series X is a high-end PC for a fraction of the price. Often people say they don't need an Xbox because Microsoft always brings their games to PC. That may be true for many people, but for those not yet invested in either, the proposition of getting high-end gameplay for about the price of just a decent graphics card is a smart one for everyone involved.
This generation, Microsoft has committed more to compatibility than ever before, and the Series X's use of instant cloud save transfers and Smart Delivery guarantee a seamless transition. Smart Delivery means any game that is cross-gen compatible need only be bought once. The game will recognize the platform you're playing on and instantly give you the best possible version for that device.
This was obvious when I moved from a game like Dirt 5 on Xbox One to its already enhanced Xbox Series X version. Dirt 5 is already a lovely looking game, but racing fans will tell you higher framerates reign supreme, and Dirt 5 will be offering not just 60, but a 120 frames per second mode in this launch window.
Even if you prefer resolution, Dirt 5 in 4K is a showpiece. The game's colorful festival campaign mode is one of the best ways to spend the launch of the Series X because it stands as an example of all the smart moves the Xbox team has made.
To some, the absence of any major exclusives makes the Series X launch lackluster, but I don't see it that way. Halo Infinite was delayed but even that was going to be cross-generational. For now, Xbox has both the means and the motive of tens of millions of Xbox Ones already inside homes around the world to keep games coming to both platforms as much as possible.
The first true next-gen exclusive looks to be January's The Medium, which leverages the power of the Series X to present its dual-reality gameplay in such a manner that Xbox One can't handle.
But for their 23 in-house studios, it seems Microsoft is intent on offering them across generations for at least a year or two. If that reads as boring, I'd understand, because I once thought faster loading and better framerates weren't enough for my next-gen purchase, but I'm here to say, many dozens of hours later, it totally is.
This generational transition is less of a gap and more of a changing tide. The waves come to shore, the current pulls them back out. Over time, we see how the beach is affected. This is not an action movie leap between Xbox One and Xbox Series X. But I prefer it that way, and I have no doubt if it could've been like this 20 years ago, it would've been. This sort of compatibility deserves to be the new normal.
Nowhere does Microsoft's tide-like transition feel more apparent than when you boot up the console. After a new opening logo and chime, everything else you see is the same as it is on Xbox One. Microsoft has created a universal UI for its two ongoing Xbox generations, alongside a redesigned mobile app also fitting the style.
In this uniformity, one may lose that new console look and feel that we all love, but it's hard to see this as a bad thing either. Any changes they wish to implement will continue to come to both platforms for the foreseeable future, and right now that doesn't seem to suggest the Xbox One is holding back the Series X in any way. Perhaps in a year or two, when the games totally move on from Xbox One, so too will the development schedule for the Xbox UI.
Not quite identical, but still very close to its predecessor is the new Xbox controller. In a consumer-friendly move, virtually all accessories from Xbox One are forward compatible with Xbox Series X. This means your headset, controllers, charging stands, and chatpads can all still be used on Series X. It's brilliant, but it does come at a pretty pronounced cost: the controller is light on innovations.
You've maybe heard of the PS5's DualSense controller, a new gamepad for a new generation. Xbox apparently isn't concerned with matching its rival's features when it comes to what players hold in their hands. The new Xbox controller is the best it's ever been, but its improvements are subtle at best. It's ever so slightly smaller, which may actually be a bad thing for players with bigger hands.
The dedicated Share button is a welcome touch, but something the PS4 had at launch and Switch had in 2017, so it feels mandatory, not interesting. The best touches to the new controller are two-fold. For one, the back of the pad, as well as the two shoulder buttons, now feature a gripped touch to provide just a bit more friction, in what feels like a half-step toward giving players more of the Elite controller options at the base level.
This extends also to the best D-Pad in video games, which Xbox can now boast it possesses in its new controller design. Its precise clicks give the accuracy of the old Nintendo 64 C-buttons, but it doesn't lose the versatility of diagonal inputs for things like fighters or platformers where players prefer to use the old-fashioned D-Pad.
Looking at the controller, you'd be forgiven for not seeing where it's different, but like a lot of the Xbox Series X features, the pairing of subtlety and consumer-friendliness manages to feel like a great fit.
Right now, the worst thing about the Xbox Series X is its plans for storage expansion. A custom port in the backside of the console allows for one specific type of expansion card, and at launch, at least, it's very pricey, retailing for $220. Maybe you won't need to expand your storage for a while, but should you decide to, it seems Microsoft is only going to give players one option should they want to continue to benefit from the full range of Series X capabilities.
The console does allow for external hard drives like before, but it's said that these games won't reveal their best versions of themselves if they're not on the solid-state drive inside the Xbox, which only the expensive cards can access. It's a strange move, a platform-defying one even, to be so consumer-unfriendly in this one way while so much else contributes to being the most consumer-first console in industry history.
All of this talk of the device itself unavoidably leads into the bigger picture at Xbox. Phil Spencer and company would love to sell you an Xbox Series X. But if they can't, they've got plans for you still. Maybe it's the cheaper Xbox Series S you'll grab instead, or you'll buy their games on PC, or maybe, best of all in their mind, you'll join Xbox Game Pass and pay them a monthly subscription so you can play games on your console, PC, or even your phone or tablet.
The Xbox Series X can't easily be compared to the PS5, nor even the Xbox One in many ways, because the manufacturer's intentions have shifted dramatically. A Series X is an iterative PC-like device and not the generational leap a PS5 may be because that's Microsoft's new vision.
When the technology advances, your games go with you now. When you buy a game, you buy it once and play it wherever you want. When you play an older game, it'll benefit from the improved power even if the studio that made the game doesn't work to improve it — heck, even if the studio doesn't exist anymore.
I already find the Xbox Series X essential for Xbox-first players, like me, and with time, I think anyone who can't easily play games on PC or those who want a second gaming device in their homes should consider a new Xbox. Game Pass is revolutionary no matter where it's played, so you'll want to gain access to that one way or another.
Though it's not without miscues, Xbox Series X is the most consumer-friendly console launch in video game history. The team has made a point to ensure your games, your saves, and your accessories all have a home with Series X, and because of the increase in power, games look and play better effortlessly.
In many ways, like the popularity of Game Pass and the promise of 23 first-party studios, a lot of what's so exciting about the Series X is more about the ecosystem than the device itself, but its ability to play and enhance thousands of games from day one is remarkable.
Xbox Series X Review — The Bottom Line
- Wildly consumer-friendly in almost every way
- Makes games look and play better even if studios haven't touched them
- Smart, iterative touches to what was already the world's best controller
- Delivers a high-end PC experience for a fraction of the price
- Proprietary storage expansion cards feel like highway robbery
- Lacks a traditional line-up of must-have exclusives
The Series X is a fix to the doomed Xbox One launch seven years in the making. Former Xbox brass drove players away with anti-consumer tactics and speech, and Phil Spencer and company have spent the better part of a decade trying to clean up the brand.
That's what Game Pass is. That's what Smart Delivery is. That's what the rapid expansion of Xbox Game Studios is. That's what virtually every facet of the Series X is meant to be, and it's off to a promising start.
The future is blindingly bright, even if today the sun is just starting to rise on what should be the greatest era of Xbox gaming ever.
[Note: The reviewer purchased the Xbox Series X used for this review.]