Xbox One X Review: does Microsoft’s super machine live up to the hype?

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 7 November 2017 08:39 GMT

Does being the most powerful even actually even matter?

For as long as the various big gaming hardware companies have been battling it out for the hearts and minds of gamers there’s been an obsession with power. The resolutions may have grown and chatter about bits may have been replaced by talk of teraflops, but the story is pretty much the same: who is the most powerful?

We are, Microsoft holler. Practically every promoted tweet I’ve seen in the last month or so has screamed that: the Xbox One X is the most powerful games console ever made. And y’know, after testing it for a week – yes, it is. So much so it’s actually a little mind-boggling.

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This is the thing I need to emphasize about the Xbox One X right off the bat: it’s a box of wonders. When I first hefted it out of the box I was taken aback by its weight – it’s nearly the heaviest Xbox ever made, only lighter than Microsoft’s original, beefcake entry into the console market by something like a tenth of a pound.

“This is a densely packed, extremely powerful machine. The technology is top tier, but then it’s also tiny, more or less the same size as the Xbox One S.”

When you plug it in, however, it all starts to make sense: this is a densely packed, extremely powerful machine. The technology is top tier, but then it’s also tiny, more or less the same size as the Xbox One S. I look across the room to my PC – a frankly ridiculous liquid-cooled, 1080ti-boasting beast – and I realize that this tiny box can max out a lot of the same games in a pretty similar fashion and for a fraction of the price. It’s mad.

The Xbox One X isn’t going to have the longevity of my PC, of course, but nor does it have the associated cost, or power consumption or even the footprint of an enormous PC tower. This is the stark difference to when I reviewed the PlayStation 4 Pro almost a year ago to the day – the X stands up to high-end PC gaming much more confidently, making it a far more viable option. Back then I could see that the Pro was a good machine but it ultimately didn’t feel like it fully justified the additional cost or was a big enough leap for owners of the current PS4. The Xbox One X sells itself much more easily based on raw power alone.

Places like Digital Foundry are no doubt going to dive in with the tear-downs, detailed statistical breakdowns and all that jazz, and so I don’t really want to talk about that. I want to talk about the more qualitative side of the Xbox One X from a simple gamer’s perspective without crunching numbers – so let’s do that by looking at a couple of games.

The best test case: Gears of War 4 on Xbox One X

For my money, probably the best example of what the Xbox One X can do on day one – and this said, to be clear, before all X updates have launched – is Gears of War 4. In all fairness this was already a gorgeous game that was fully compatible with High Dynamic Range on the Xbox One S, but on the X it’s a step beyond, with a console experience and settings options that are clearly based on the kinds of performance choices you can make over on the PC version of the game.

The game basically has two different modes not dissimilar to what we’ve seen in PS4 Pro titles like Nioh and Tomb Raider – a visuals-focused mode and a frame rate focused mode. You can switch between the two as you want, and this provides owners of 4K TVs a choice and those without 4K (3840×2160, for the record) sets a significant upgrade at 1080p (1920×1080).

“I played Gears 4 on the PC back on release, and this mode honestly looks comparable to the performance I was getting out of an extremely high-end PC, which is a strong compliment.”

In the visuals-driven mode, Gears 4 puts out a crisp 4K signal that’s locked to 30 frames-per-second in the campaign and horde modes. Multiplayer has reduced visuals but runs at 60fps, though it still outputs at 4K thanks to a resolution scaling solution. This mode is my favourite, to be honest: Gears campaign and horde don’t really require 60fps, and this 4K mode is locked at a perfectly acceptable 30fps and looks absolutely ridiculous. I played Gears 4 on the PC back on release, and this mode honestly looks comparable to the performance I was getting out of an extremely high-end PC, which is a strong compliment.

The frame rate driven mode should be pretty obvious in comparison – it sets the game a target of 60fps at 1080p, and though there are occasional drops it seems to do pretty well at maintaining that target. Gears 4 still looks absolutely stunning at 4K, too, so this is basically a great option for those plugging an X into a 1080p display – your investment gets you a significant performance leap in frame rate terms.

These two modes aren’t everything on offer, however. Gears 4 has also had an impressive X-focused overhaul that basically amounts to the equivalent of moving the PC settings dials from medium or high to ultra for things like shadows, lighting, textures and draw distance. This is where a lot of the Xbox One X version of Gears make the most impact – it’s not so much about resolution or about frame rate but more about the small adjustments and improvements to the game that add up to be something special.

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Round two: Killer Instinct

It’s no secret to regular readers of VG247 that I like fighting games Quite A Bit, and a facet of this I perhaps haven’t touched on much is that I’m a very big fan of the current-generation reboot of Killer Instinct. It’s one of the regular games in rotation on my arcade cabinet, and though I’m out of practice for a glorious few months there I was actually pretty good at it. It always looked a bit off, though: it ran at 60fps, but also had a meager output resolution of just 1080p on Xbox One in order to support the frame rate combined with the game’s love of pretty, over-the-top particle effects and explosions. Eventually patches pushed the game to 900p resolution, but that still felt low and remained that way on console until now.

Killer Instinct of course got a pretty great PC port of the game, and I eventually switched over to playing that version as my platform of choice thanks to cross-buy. The Xbox One X version of the game is much like Gears in that it resembles the PC build running on some of its highest possible settings. Shockingly the game doesn’t just get an upgrade from 900p to 1080p, but actually runs in full native 4K resolution while maintaining the rock solid 60fps that’s absolutely vital for response time in fighting games. The admittedly much better looking Injustice 2 is the strongest efforts prior to this over on PS4 Pro, but that only hit 1440p on that platform.

Killer Instinct looks crisp, smart and utterly gorgeous. It runs how you’d want, and though this is definitely a launch game that actually began its life in development in the 360 generation it’s still a gorgeous example of what the X can do on a game with very different priorities to Gears. If you don’t have access to the PC version, this is good stuff.

Resolution bumps with the Chief

If Halo’s your think, Microsoft has a few different options for you with the Xbox One X launch. They’re all old, but if you want Halo action it’s there for you in the form of Halo 5 Guardians, Halo Wars 2 and Halo 3 on backwards compatibility. These make for an interesting trio, and we’ll make two of them the last games we touch on specifically in this review – though you can expect more Xbox One X specific tests of upcoming games like Call of Duty WW2 and Star Wars Battlefront 2 as they launch.

Halo Wars 2 is probably the most interesting of the three thanks to its genre and the fact that it already has a pretty great PC version to benchmark against, and it was one of the Xbox One X games that impressed me most back at Gamescom – a session which most of these impressions are based off. Strategy games tend not to have stunning visuals in the typical sense but instead tend to impress with crowds all while running pretty complicated AI routines for controlling a lot of units at once, pathing and so on – and Halo Wars 2 manages all this on Xbox One X while delivering a native 4K. With smaller units this makes a huge difference to the 1080p version on the regular Xbox One, though the game remains at 30fps and still struggles when the CPU has to crunch a lot of numbers for that aforementioned AI.

Halo 3 is the one of this trio that shocked me the most, and it remains my favorite Halo title. The code for the game hasn’t been adjusted in any way, but Microsoft is using a new technique they’re calling the “Heutchy Method” (named after its engineer inventor) to squeeze more power into the Xbox 360 emulator and render them at a higher quality. This means Halo 3 now plays with enhanced color thanks to HDR, a significant-looking bump in resolution, crisper textures and even a better frame rate. It’s crazy that the machine can do this to these old games with such clarity, and this goes for other titles too. For me, this is one of the greater selling points of the Xbox One X, and I hope to see more games enhanced this way – I can only imagine how good Blue Dragon might look output at 4K, for instance.

Final Fantasy 15 on the Xbox One X – finally, the Xbox isn’t dead last

Another game that’s worth a bit of a note in the testing stakes is Final Fantasy 15, a game which has received an Xbox One X patch that’s under 8 gigabytes – pretty small time compared to the thirty-gig plus 4K updates for games like Forza Motorsport 7 and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. This is a pretty good game to test, however, and that’s for two reasons: first, the original version of the game really did look pretty awful on the original Xbox One, and the game also got itself a pretty decent PS4 Pro patch quite early on in that machine’s lifetime.

Here’s the headline: Final Fantasy 15 on the Xbox One is now the best-looking version of that game – or at least until the PC version launches early next year. It offers three different modes in a similar sort of way to Gears of War’s choice – you can have a high resolution mode that’ll output the game at 4K by natively rendering at 3K and then scaling the resolution the rest of the way, a mode that prioritizes the highest frame-rate possible with rougher and more vanilla PS4-like visuals, or a mode that balances the two, locking the game at a lower frame rate but with visuals that are sort of in between. Honestly, all three look pretty nice.

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Xbox One X Setup and System Transfer

Microsoft has made it fairly easy to transfer stuff from your old Xbox using either an external hard drive or by transferring stuff directly over your network. The latter is a nifty win-win – Microsoft get to cut down on the server cost of you redownloading 50gb games and you get your games much quicker by transferring them directly over your wifi from your previous Xbox One. You’ll need to activate this in the settings of both machines and then have them both on at the same time, but this is well worth your time.

I did run into some issues, however, including the X seemingly choking on my enormous 800-strong Rock Band song library. This choke seemed so bad that I eventually had to fully wipe and reset the Xbox One X hard drive completely – but the second time it worked like a charm – a strange frustration in my otherwise smooth setup experience.

On the Operating System

I want to talk about the user interface and operating system for a second, too. Even though it’s not strictly tied to the Xbox One X and is available to all Xbox owners, I need to take a second to praise the new design of the Xbox front-end. It feels like Microsoft has finally landed on something that sits comfortably at the intersection between style, convenience and performance – though even on the X, it feels like the latter could still use a little more juice.

I’m not sure if it’s tied to non-SSD hard drive speeds or what, but sometimes opening items in the menu or even browsing through My Games and Apps would feel more sluggish than it should. It’s absolutely fair to say that Microsoft has made and continues to make great strides in this area, however, and the OS runs great on the X most of the time – but when it crashes out, it does so hard, grinding to a halt, refusing to open apps or crashing. Things feel better and smoother here than they’ve ever felt on the Xbox One despite that, though.

Xbox One X system design thoughts

While we’re at it covering general aspects of the machine, now’s as good a time as any to briefly touch on the actual design of the box. It feels like Microsoft has finally found their groove with system design, mercifully. After releasing the hideous brick that was the original Xbox One I thought the Xbox One S was a really strong, lovely console design, and it’s clear now that it and the X were designed to occupy the same space with a very similar design philosophy.

I really, really like these designs – they’re minimalist and slick, and I’m a particularly big fan of how the disc drive on the X is ‘hidden’ beneath that little lip in the system design. I’ve got the regular edition of the console, and I can say now that I prefer this more flat, basic black to the Project Scorpio Edition I saw at Gamescom.

A little note on Microsoft’s claims around the design, however: they say it’s smaller than the Xbox One S, but really… it isn’t. Not really. Or, well… I’m sure technically it is smaller if you crunch the numbers, but in real, honest terms it’s larger than the S in some dimensions and shorter in others, but the end result is that it’s around the same size. Underneath your TV, you’re going to think it’s the same size. That’s still bloody small, however, and incredibly impressive given the power this machine is pushing.

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So, is the Xbox One X worth the upgrade? Here’s our verdict (so far)

Make no mistake, the Xbox One X is the most impressive console on the market right now. I’m not sure if Microsoft’s mad marketing that’s basically claiming more pixels equals more fun is really correct or fair, but it definitely is a stunning piece of kit – powerful, gorgeous, very quiet and just generally a joy to plug in and play around with. It’s perfect… if you don’t own a PC.

“It’s powerful, gorgeous, very quiet and just generally a joy to plug in and play around with. It’s perfect… if you don’t own a PC.”

That’s the big caveat here that seems key to mention – with Microsoft continuing to put all of their first party titles on PC and with that first party feeling surprisingly limited compared to PlayStation and Nintendo, the value proposition of the Xbox One X for anybody who already owns a half-decent PC is pretty significantly diminished. If you don’t have access to a PC, the Xbox One X is very likely about to hands-down become the best place to experience third party games, and the question then becomes about how much you value the Xbox exclusive games versus what Sony in particular is offering.

I strongly suspect a lot of the discourse online around Xbox One X is going to go the way of discussing if it’s akin to an extremely impressive sports car without any gas in the tank. What’s the point in owning a Bugatti if you can’t drive it? That’s a problem Microsoft Game Studios sorely needs to work on fixing, and there are a few good steps in the right direction already with stuff like Sea of Thieves and some brilliant, strong support in updating old games for the X hardware. The impressive backwards compatibility helps, too – but clearly there’s work to be done here, and that could and should impact any hardware purchasing decision.

In terms of hardware, however, Microsoft has nailed it. The Xbox One X is an incredible piece of kit, and even though its fairly steep launch price might make you balk at first, it feels worth it for the power that’s on offer. I feel compelled to use my Xbox more often already as it no longer feels vastly inferior to my PC, and if I didn’t own a PC it’d definitely become my go-to place for third party games.

There are additional caveats and questions that face any potential buyer, however. It all depends on gear. Do you have a 4K TV, or at least a HDR-enabled 1080p set? Did you upgrade your Xbox One to the S last year, or are you still on the old machine? And how much do you care about visual fidelity and performance?

With Microsoft promising all upcoming games will run on both machines and their continued and excellent dedication to the PC, this isn’t a simple no-brainer, time-to-upgrade purchase but instead something much more complicated. This is a great piece of hardware and has a decent value proposition, and in that sense I can recommend it easily – but only you’ll truly know if picking up this machine really makes sense.

The Xbox One X impresses with its power, slick visual design and more importantly with the general attitude Microsoft is showing in their development of this machine. You can tell they’re eager to see Xbox fighting fit and competitive again.

As they seek to set their disastrous start to the generation right the Xbox One X feels important and worthwhile. Make no mistake – if you pick this machine up you’ll immediately feel the difference and the benefits, even on a 1080p display. With that said, this upgrade still also feels like a mere stepping stone to bigger, better things next generation. Still, Microsoft can rest assured they’ve built a brilliant technical marvel and one of the best mid-generation console upgrades ever.

The Xbox One X is available from November 7. It retails at $499, £449 & €499.99 at launch.

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