Post by KostaAndreadis @ 01:00am 06/11/20 | Comments
Microsoft’s latest console is finally here, and we’ve put the Xbox Series X to the test to bring you our full review.
A new console generation is something of a right of passage, out with the old and in with new as they say. From the days of the 16-bit Super Nintendo to the dawn of the HD-era with the Xbox 360, every few years everything from the look and feel of hardware that connects to a display, to the controller, the interface, and of course the games -- transforms. New, shiny, fresh, and a lot of it building on what has come before.
That is, until now.
Like the mid-generation refresh that was the Xbox One X, the new Xbox Series X (and the digital-only Xbox Series S) swaps out the regular next-gen playbook for one of those sets of books you’d find in places that used to house such things. Encyclopedias. Libraries. With full backwards compatibility with the entire Xbox One library playable on day one (Xbox 360 and original Xbox games are supported too), the same UI and overall feel found on current Xbox consoles, and a bunch of peripherals and hardware from years ago still ready to perform as intended -- it’s not so much out with the old as it is ‘let’s have everyone and everything come along for the ride’.
Tech Talk - The New Newness
That said, the Xbox Series X is very much a brand-new high-end gaming console -- powered by AMD Zen-based CPU architecture and AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics. Two things that present a sizable generation leap over the VCR-sized launch-edition Xbox One and the powerful 4K-ready Xbox One X. Like the days of old, where Silicon Graphics powered Nintendo’s first foray into the world of 3D graphics, Sony dubbed the PlayStation 2 CPU the “emotion engine”, and Bill Gates and The Rock introduced the very-first DirectX Box, the Series X is full of chippy silicon goodness. Stuff that developers will make use of to power the next several years of high-end gaming.
Dealing with different architecture means like-for-like comparisons of specs aren’t exactly accurate or reflective of actual in-game performance - but the sheer power of the new Xbox Series X GPU in terms of TFLOPS puts it on par with one of AMD’s new and impressive (and still-to-be-released) Radeon RX 6000 PC graphics cards. Paired with a Zen 2 processor, faster memory, more memory, and improved bandwidth, there’s a lot about the Series X that make it feel like something of a high-end PC.
The Xbox Series X is very much a brand-new high-end gaming console -- powered by AMD Zen-based CPU architecture and AMD’s RDNA 2 graphics. Two things that present a sizable generation leap over the VCR-sized launch-edition Xbox One and the powerful 4K-ready Xbox One X.
Which, coming from us, is something of a compliment -- on the account of such a thing costing a lot more than what Microsoft is charging here. Not only will the Series X usher in cutting-edge (and previously PC-only) visual effects like ray-tracing over the next few months, and push the industry at large towards 4K 60fps gaming, it will also benefit from Microsoft’s own DirectX 12 Ultimate API. And with AMD recently outlining RDNA 2 features, like using the CPU to boost performance in ways that haven't been done before, there’s a lot more to the story. More than putting CU counts and GPU clock speeds in a comparison chart against the competition.
Of course raw power is a definite boon for the Series X, and with the focus on backwards compatibility and optimising games from the past; being able to tap into the power of a vastly superior CPU alone has ensured that several classic titles perform far better than they ever could on the Xbox One X.
Next-Gen Storage: If You Press ‘A’ It Will Load
Fancy new visuals aside, perhaps the most immediate and game-changing feature of the Xbox Series X is the use of a custom 1TB NVME SSD for storage and the development of the ‘Xbox Velocity Architecture’ system. A blend of hardware and software designed to push things like loading times and data streaming faster than ever before.
Compared to the old-timey drives found in the Xbox One console range, and even the huge number of USB external drives each and every gamer has lying around -- the ultra-fast SSD speeds of the Series X represent probably two generations worth of storage improvement. And really, it’s the first thing you notice.
Now, in terms of design the Xbox UI (as in the latest version of it) is easy to use and quick enough to get to all the features and places you need to be -- that is, in-game. Compared to the Series X rendition, using the like-for-like interface on the Xbox One X becomes a slow and laggy process as you move through the dash. Fine enough, but the new storage and faster hardware here bring the Xbox up to where it needs to be in 2020. That is, the land of the OS running off a fast-SSD.
And really, thanks to this new high-speed storage the Xbox UI immediately goes from good to great in an instant -- the design touches make more sense, and moving from apps to the Game Pass hub to the store and friends lists, is fast, slick, and smooth.
Fancy new visuals aside, perhaps the most immediate and game-changing feature of the Xbox Series X is the use of a custom 1TB NVME SSD for storage and the development of the ‘Xbox Velocity Architecture’ system.
Loading games isn’t instantaneous, or a case of blink and you’ll miss the flash of a spinning wheel, but going from 60-seconds-plus to less than half of that across a wide range of games is more than impressive. It’s a scalable thing, too -- with games that used to load pretty quick now fire-up even faster. It’s more noticeable in games like Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves though, where previously you’d have to wait minutes before getting into each game. NVME storage is truly one of those ‘no going back’ moments.
And with Microsoft’s ‘Quick Resume’ feature full save states are stored for multiple titles meaning load times are reduced even further -- adding an Alt-TAB like ability to switch between three or four games without skipping a beat. Except one that doesn’t remain in memory (like a laptop or PC put in a ‘sleep’ state) but stays present even if you fully power down the Xbox Series X.
The Next-Gen Storage Problem: And Solution
As wonderful as the new storage solution is, it does come at a cost -- capacity. Which boils down to the fact that a 1TB Custom NVME SSD costs a lot of money. Even on PC the price increase from 1TB to even 2TB is ‘more than double huge’. At least in the transfer speeds that Microsoft is hitting with the Xbox Series X. This will be something that a lot of people will have trouble reconciling, the 1TB limit. Which is only 802GB or so once you factor in system files and reserved space for things like Quick Resume.
If the Series X were to use the same slow-platter-style drive found in the Xbox One X then yep, you’d expect to see 2-4 TBs of storage at a minimum. But that’s not the case here, and even with the very welcome Smart Delivery -- it won't take long to fill up the internal storage with Series X optimised games. Thankfully Xbox One and 360 titles can run off of a standard USB external - so your library can stay as is. Increasing next-gen storage though is one area that Microsoft has put the right kind of attention on. Even though the Expansion Slot and Expansion Card is proprietary, and somewhat expensive, installation is as easy as popping in a Memory Card on an original PlayStation.
For this review we tested the Seagate Storage Expansion Card for Xbox Series X and S, and although the introductory price of $359 AUD for the first 1TB model might raise an eyebrow or two -- the overall design, size, speed, and easy-to-install nature point to Microsoft’s proprietary solution being something to celebrate. The same incredible performance of the internal SSD, and all you need to do is go click and you’ve doubled the console’s storage capacity.
Size and Shape: The Tetris Effect
Okay, as many have been pointing out for quite some time, the PC comparison also applies to how the console looks, thanks to its tower-like shape. In reality though it’s actually quite small in stature, boxy sure, but the sleek minimal design is wonderful -- and speaking on behalf of the wider AusGamers family it just might be the best looking console to date, bar none.
As many have been pointing out for quite some time, the PC comparison also applies to how the console looks, thanks to its tower-like shape.
The design has a function though, namely to support cooling, which is required thanks to the new hardware pulling more power than the Ye Xboxes of Olde. Also keeping the CPU and GPU temps to a manageable level alongside overall noise is done via air intake on one side and expelling all the hot air via the top -- hence why if you put your hand over the vents after extended use the heat will be at Al Pacino and Robert De Niro levels.
As much as we like the design though, due to the tower-like shape (the Xbox Series X can be put on its side), the odd 301mm x 151mm x 151mm size might be a problem for a lot of cabinets due to the non-traditional form. And even a deal-breaker for some.
Sharing the New Xbox Controller
The Xbox Series X controller follows in the footsteps of the versatile Xbox One pad - building and improving on what has come before. Much like the Xbox One controller took the Xbox 360 pad and made it better, the same can be said here.
The big changes are all subtle, from the inclusion of a much-needed ‘share button’ to the textured grippy gripness of greatness that now runs underneath and even on the triggers. The D-Pad not only looks cooler and space-age but is more comfortable to use -- and generally speaking, there’s a sense that the build quality with the new X-Pad is next-level across the board.
The only area where Microsoft seems to have faltered is in not dropping the weight, and being powered by two AA-batteries it feels a little past-its-prime in the age of fast-charging and integrated wireless peripherals.
But, one area where the new controller is definitely next-gen, and goes beyond a simple design overhaul, comes from the effort Microsoft has put into reducing latency -- that is the time it takes for the pressing of a button to correspond with an on-screen action. Play-testing over the past several days, the reduced latency coupled with a renewed focus on performance has made gaming on the Series X feel responsive, smooth, and fast. More so than on any Xbox to date.
Higher-Frames, Better Performance: The Next-Gen Story
In the age of the 4K display it should come as no surprise that Xbox Series X games target that Ultra HD resolution alongside fancy new features like Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos surround sound. Improved visual and audio fidelity with noticeable enhancements here are the sort of things you expect to find when it’s brand-new console time. But, by adding performance into the mix Microsoft has cemented its desire to present a future of Xbox that is firing on all cylinders.
The difference between playing a game running at 30 frames-per-second compared to one running at 60 frames-per-second is not only immediately visible when switching from one to the next, but can be felt in everything from controls to movement to overall awareness. In a game like DOOM Eternal, trying to control the Slayer at anything less than a solid 60fps actually makes the game harder. Fast frame-rates coupled with high-refresh rate monitors are things we associate with the PC space -- but are being wholly adopted here.
The difference between playing a game running at 30 frames-per-second compared to one running at 60 frames-per-second is not only immediately visible when switching from one to the next, but can be felt in everything from controls to movement to overall awareness.
With the Xbox Series X supporting 4K 120Hz over HDMI 2.1 theoretically the console is capable of running games all the way up to 4K 120fps and even 8K. In practice that won’t be the case for most titles, because when you go down the performance road there’s a trade-off or bargain that needs to be made with overall fidelity. DIRT 5 supports both a 4K 60fps mode in addition to a 1440p 120fps mode, where in the latter visual detail is also dialled down to hit the rather intensive frame-rate.
Now, in terms of the in-game presentation the jump from 30fps to 60fps is noticeable and huge (going back to 30fps after playing in 60fps basically requires your brain to rewire itself) but the jump from 60fps to 120fps is one more tied to the competitive scene - online titles where latency and response times are valued above all. So, it’s great that the option is there -- but it’s an option that will be misunderstood by many. And giving players multiple options ranging from ‘Image Quality’ to ‘Performance’ to ‘120fps Mode’ is confusing when you don't have full access to PC-like settings and can’t see things like resolution, image quality settings, and what exactly it all means.
Thankfully it’s up to developers to implement, and on that front what The Coalition has done with Gears 5 should be used as the template going forward.
Optimising The Past: Marcus Fenix Rising
Gears 5 is one of many ‘Optimised for’ games playable on the Xbox Series X, that is an Xbox One release that has been patched to take advantage of the improved hardware. As one of the most visually impressive games from the past generation of consoles, Gears 5 on Series X sees the impressive and demanding PC version of the game (when set to Ultra) show up alongside things like increased particle effects (visible whenever sparks fly) and a dynamic 4K 60fps presentation for the campaign. And up-to 120fps for the competitive multiplayer modes.
Other optimised titles that showcase just how the Series X can take an Xbox One release and push it even further include Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves -- both looking crisper than ever and also running at a silky smooth 60fps. In the case of Forza, the bump in frame-rate immediately makes it feel like a next-gen title with its huge open world that still presents one of the most detailed racing games we’ve ever played. And even though some of these titles run at a dynamic 4K resolution, it’s worth noting that maintaining performance and hitting a sub-4K presentation on occasion is barely noticeable -- if at all.
Games: Now, and On the Horizon
As detailed last month the Xbox Series X launch is mostly full of existing titles or games that aren’t Halo Infinite -- which was to be the console’s flagship release.
Day One Xbox Series X|S Optimised Titles
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (Smart Delivery)
Borderlands 3 (Smart Delivery)
Bright Memory 1.0
Cuisine Royale (Smart Delivery)
Dead by Daylight (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition
DIRT 5 (Smart Delivery)
The Falconeer (Smart Delivery)
Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Gears 5 (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Gears Tactics (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Grounded (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
King Oddball (Smart Delivery)
Maneater (Smart Delivery)
Manifold Garden (Smart Delivery)
Observer: System Redux
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Planet Coaster (Smart Delivery)
Sea of Thieves (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
Tetris Effect: Connected (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
The Touryst (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
War Thunder (Smart Delivery)
Warhammer: Chaosbane Slayer Edition
Watch Dogs: Legion (Smart Delivery)
WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship (Smart Delivery)
Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Smart Delivery)
Yes, Your Grace (Smart Delivery)
Now we didn’t test all of the above ahead of this review but outside of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the ray-traced version of Watch Dogs: Legion there’s not all that much that conveys that epic next-gen feel. That’s not to say there aren’t outright gems here, from the wonderful Yakuza (which is the first killer RPG for the system) to Tetris Effect to Gears Tactics (which looks great on the Series X) to an enhanced Borderlands 3. Throw in Indies like The Falconeer, Observer: System Redux, and the console debut of Planet Coaster and what we see here is a broad list greater as a sum rather than individual parts.
Weirdly the only new first-party Xbox Game Studios title in the launch line-up -- which only wins on the technicality of it being a console debut -- is Gears Tactics. A fine game, but the lack of Halo or Forza or other titles from Microsoft’s growing number of first-party studios is felt.
But, with 2020 being what it is it’s a miracle that Xbox managed to release the Xbox Series X in such a stable and impressive state -- alongside a fairly big list of games as outlined above. Console exclusives or timed exclusives are the sort of thing Microsoft has distanced itself from in the past, but with the vast Xbox Game Studios studios recently growing, with the news that Bethesda was joining the family, there’s more than enough on the horizon to warrant a keen eye on the future of the Series X -- whilst dipping back into current gems and the latest in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Plus, that little thing called Cyberpunk 2077 in December.
Outside of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the ray-traced version of Watch Dogs: Legion there’s not all that much that conveys that epic next-gen feel.
With Everwild from Rare, Avowed from Obsidian, Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 from Ninja Theory, Halo Infinite from 343 Industries, Fable from Playground Games, Starfield from Bethesda Game Studios, and many, many more. Not to mention all the third-party big-hitters from the likes of Ubisoft, EA, Activision, 2K and independent efforts we’ve already seen like Scorn, Call of the Sea, The Medium and others. Needless to say, that even though the Xbox Series X launch lineup feels mostly like what you’d currently find on Xbox One or even PC (and as such is a little underwhelming) it’s also something that was done in part, by design.
The Xbox Game Pass Factor
With games like Halo Infinite and Fable and the latest Forza ready for launch it’s probably something we wouldn't have noticed, because those titles would have arrived on Xbox Game Pass instead of already being there. Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription based service is quite easily the Netflix of gaming -- offering a wealth of entertainment and access to games across any number of devices, from the Xbox One to the Xbox Series X to any gaming-ready PC through to Android devices connected to the cloud.
All Xbox Game Studios releases will end up on the service and all Xbox Game Studios releases for the foreseeable future will be optimised for the Series X. Will these next-gen visuals also target high-end gaming PCs? Sure. Will they be playable on a tablet or mobile device via streaming? Most likely.
The Xbox Series X represents the traditional console in the Xbox ecosystem, and as the most powerful bit of hardware from the company to date the complementary nature in which Xbox Game Pass serves the hardware makes it something of a must have. On day one, Xbox Game Pass offers a huge list of backwards compatible titles alongside optimised games like Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 -- and with weekly and monthly releases its a service that will continue to flourish and become as synonymous with the brand as the release of a brand-new console.
Final Thoughts: Your Dollarydoos
In the end the Xbox Series X story can be summed up by the ease of its setup. With or without the new and intuitive Xbox App you can sync all your current settings and go through the privacy stuff and other little details as the console downloads the latest version of the operating system and signs you in for the first time.
The complementary nature in which Xbox Game Pass serves the hardware makes it something of a must have.
From there with an external drive connected, one housing backed up Xbox One and Xbox 360 titles, all you need to do is fire it up and the Xbox Series X will download your latest save from the cloud and get you right back in -- where you left off. With Quick Resume even something as innocuous as ‘where you left off’ takes on new meaning.
Paired with the impressive new storage, and powerful hardware that can make older and newer titles run at an impressive 4K 60fps with detail settings never-before-seen on a home console, the familiarity and sense of coming home is followed by that new console feel. Even though the launch lineup is devoid of experiences that can only be had on Xbox Series X, it’s full of great titles, new releases, and optimised experiences that will be familiar to many. And with the support of Xbox Game Studios and the great value found with Xbox Game Pass -- the Xbox Series X will be home to an ever-growing library.