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Xbox Series X & S review: powerful, currently lacking in next-gen wows, and killer for backwards compatibility

The weirdest thing about getting a shiny new Xbox Series X or Series S is just how familiar the whole experience feels.

Sure, you've got an either monolithic or small and sleek new box. Plug that box in, however, and everything that awaits you eschews that typical shiny-new-console feel for a more simple sort of upgrade.

You’re greeted by the same little power-up beeping from the One. Then comes the Xbox One dashboard. Granted, it's the newest version that made its debut back in mid-October, but it's still familiar.

My first instinct is of course to flip through the menus: to change settings, to download a couple of games. It's here where the power of the familiar in the next generation makes itself known. For a start, it's convenient: I already know where every option and setting I require is, and most of my choices are simply imported from my Xbox One X. Then there's the speed - where this UI could be sluggish on older hardware, it's now especially snappy and smooth, practically wait-free.

It feels a little strange to kick off a review of two pieces of next-generation video game console hardware by talking about their user interface. But the combination of familiarity and speed here sets up a theme that runs to the core of Xbox Series X and Series S - these new machines are more iterative than revelatory, building on the Xbox One's foundations for better and worse.

Xbox Series X Retail Box
Master Chief might be on the box, but his game is MIA.

Xbox has no (new) games: but does it matter?

So while for worse this is certainly a barren launch line-up with no next-generation exclusive titles, it's not like you'll have nothing to play. The Series X and S are the backlog masters - booting mine, I have hundreds of playable games without even dipping into Xbox Game Pass. What's perhaps most impressive is how those games are improved.

I'm not even talking about the specifically upgraded Xbox One titles here - I'm just talking about playing Xbox 360 and Xbox One games as-is on this new hardware. 360 games can see an uplift in resolution and frame rate, so a game that ran at 720p on that original hardware can run at 4K on Series X and at least 1440p on Series S. Some of this has been possible before on Xbox One X and S, but the power of these new machines allow these upgrades to go further than before.

Previews deservingly made a poster child of the performance of Grand Theft Auto 4 on Series X. This is a game that had incredibly rough performance on 360 and saw improvements on One X while remaining an extremely uneven experience. On Series X GTA 4 rocks 60 frames per second without issue, coupling that with faster load times and Auto HDR to make a game that looks far younger than its 12 years.

Auto HDR, which is also available on Series S, feels like something of a game-changer for backwards compatibility. Bluntly, it's not very feasible to quickly and easily inject new HDR into existing games, but Microsoft's Auto HDR solution is the next best thing, using AI to 'convert' content to high dynamic range the best it can. Sometimes this seems to cause a little bit of loss of colour depth or the muddying of blacks, but in general the effect is tremendously impressive on older games, and is available on most titles. Playing stuff like the Xbox Live Arcade version of the original Perfect Dark or the tremendously underrated Lost Odyssey with HDR support, super-fast loading and quick resume really does feel like the future, even if the games are a decade old.

Hop over to Xbox One games and you have the same sort of stuff going on. A game like Final Fantasy 15 was already enhanced for One X with the option of performance or visual-focused rendering modes. That's all retained here, and you'll see slightly improved frame rates, but the Series X and S come into their own with load time improvements - taking loads of a minute of more and dragging them down to 15 seconds or less.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a similar story, with wait time coming down from a minute and a half to 50-55 seconds. In a game like The Witcher 3, which will eventually get a proper enhancement patch, the base Xbox One version's fast travel can be practically instantaneous over shorter distances, with load time slightly more noticeable the further you're travelling.

Xbox Series X & S Consoles

Enhancements and Quick Resume: the closest thing to a next-gen launch game

Speaking of enhancement patches, they're also key to making this not a barren launch. While there's no exclusive, mega-exciting new first-party games to demonstrate the power of these new machines, Microsoft is offering up a selection of Series X and S enhanced titles, essentially patching up last-generation games with new-generation technology.

At the head of this pack as the perfect example is Gears 5, which first hit Xbox One a little over a year ago. Honestly, looking at it now in the context of this launch, one wonders why Xbox didn't simply hold this one back for the new machines. If you're looking for your absolute demonstration of what the X can do, Gears 5 is probably one of the best bets right now.

The enhanced version has significant visual improvements that stack up as similar to the PC version of the game running on Ultra settings. It also runs at a higher resolution (while retaining a dynamic resolution setup) than the equivalent last-generation machines. It apparently wasn't even that hard to get it running this way. Best in particular for the twitchy combat of Gears is the reduced latency and the ability to play multiplayer at 120hz. It just generally looks and feels better. Forza Horizon 4 offers similarly stunning improvements delivered in a whopping 60 gigabyte update.

Visual improvements and fast loads are of course augmented by ‘Quick Resume’, one of the banner features of this generation of Xbox. If you’re familiar with emulating older games, this basically works like that age-old cheat of creating a ‘save state’. The state of the game is saved to solid memory, so you can quit the game, play something else, then boot back into it in seconds. No start screen, no loading a save, no waiting around: you hit the icon of the game and you’re back in, exactly where you left off. Mid-level, paused right before you die, whatever. This even retains if you turn the machine off at the mains.

When Quick Resume works as advertised, it’s magic. It’s probably the one blow-your-balls-off feature Xbox has at launch… but it’s not perfect. As far as I can tell, there’s no hard limit on how many games you can have in a quick resume state - it varies based on how much data needs to be stored for each game. On top of that, there’s no warning of when suspending a new game might overwrite an old quick resume state. I lost a Madden game mid-match this way.

Not your typical generational leap

All this talk of old games running on new hardware makes this feel more like a review of a graphics card than a new console generation, right? It reads more like my recent review of the Nvidia RTX 3080 for PC than a typical console review - but that’s because that’s what this upgrade is. It has far more in common with upgrading your PC, as everything you already have will carry forward, and your initial joy will largely be in seeing familiar games lavished in more detail and with better performance. Yes, in time there will be new, exclusive games that truly dig into what these two machines are capable of - but it’s not actually possible to fully judge these machines on that more traditional of criteria right now, as that content doesn’t exist yet.

It’s fair to say that both are pleasing achievements of engineering. The Series S is the easier console to love of the two - it somehow feels a little chubbier than the One S, but is ultimately more than modest enough to slip comfortably into any TV unit. The trade-off in performance seems more than worth it for the price and the convenience of its size, and it feels like the S could become the champion of a more casual gaming market that just wants to play new games and isn’t too fussed about if they’re running at native 4K or not. The one major downfall of the S is its paltry 500gb hard drive - which is under 400gb after compulsory system files. When the only super-fast storage is proprietary and expensive, that damages the value proposition of the S significantly.

The Series X is the more unique design and offering. Touted as the most powerful console, it’s bloody big - though not as big as the PS5. It’s a densely packed thing that people regularly joke resembles the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. While we’re not allowed to tear down the review machine Microsoft provided, it seems like a very smartly-designed piece of kit - the huge and yet surprisingly quiet fan on the top expels hot air upwards, away from its packed innards. While you can lay it down, for this reason it’s best served standing up, to help with expelling heat. It’s an incredibly utilitarian and minimalist console design, and in many ways it perhaps might be most at home behind your TV - though personally, I really rather like the design.

The controller is familiar but slightly improved with a dedicated share button and a pleasing textured underside, but this too follows the credo of not changing what isn’t broken. It’s simply slightly improved, tweaked. It wasn’t broken, and therefore a fix isn’t offered. You can view this one of two ways: either Microsoft has failed to provide something exciting with its new controller, or it’s stuck with a steadfast classic without the distraction of gimmicks that games may or may not use. You probably already know where you stand on that.

The elephant in the room here is obviously the inability to point to something new and exciting that only the Xbox Series X or S can do. There are new convenience features like Quick Resume, and both new consoles are generally quicker and sharper than their predecessors, but in the review period we haven’t even been able to lay hands on any games that use ray tracing - the next-gen version of Watch Dogs: Legion isn’t available to us, for instance. So in many ways, the true test of these machines as devices for next-generation games is yet to come.

The internal components of the Xbox Series X

Microsoft seems to have two different and distinct visions with the Xbox Series X and S. In a sense, the two machines line up with those missions.

For one, there’s the eye on a future where games are streamed and rented through services like Game Pass rather than owned. This matches the S, which could become a killer low-budget Game Pass and Streaming device. In this mission, Xbox is clearly successful right out of the gate, at launch: as I said earlier, both machines are the masters of the games backlog and run their huge library of compatible games brilliantly.

Then there’s the Xbox Series X. That’s touted by Microsoft as the “fastest, most powerful games console ever” - I take that as a mission statement. And you know what? It might be! On paper, the specs look killer - and like great value for money. But there’s nothing exclusive here at launch that helps to truly demonstrate that, and so that mission remains a question mark. It is TBC - it must be proved in the future, with software. Software is always what matters - without it, the hardware is useless, no matter how snazzy it is.

In closing, what’s it like to live with the new Xbox consoles? Well, it’s great. I revisited a bunch of games from three generations of video game history and found them improved and in many cases as good as ever. But nothing can quite beat the excitement of something in gaming feeling truly shiny, new and revolutionary. One of the greatest strengths of these machines is how reverent they are of the past - but at launch, at least, this focus feels to come at the loss of an exciting early glimpse of what the future holds for this new hardware.

Disclaimer: Microsoft provided a retail Xbox Series X & Xbox Series S console for the purposes of this review and related coverage.

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