Xbox Series X review: A new dog that’s still learning tricks

December 9, 2020
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Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox Series X feels like a substantial jump in power over its three-year-old mid-gen refresh, but half-baked features and a lack of compelling exclusive software makes for a new box that rarely hides new tricks.

I’ve spent a few weeks with the Xbox Series X and, for the majority of my time with the console, it’s been a smooth ride into a fairly middling start to the next generation of gaming. While, on paper, the most powerful Xbox ever made is a drastic jump in sheer power over the already powerful Xbox One X, the new console rarely ever shows just how large that jump in technology can take games.

For the most part, this is to be expected at the launch of a new system, but Xbox’s launch follows an eerily similar pattern to the launch of the Xbox One, especially in comparison to its competitor. While PlayStation 5 has Spider-Man, Demon’s Souls and Godfall to show the baseline advantages a new console launch can bring, Xbox only has upgrades of pre-owned existing titles to show off. But even back in 2013, Xbox had some debatably killer software –  Dead Rising 3 and Ryse: Son of Rome would’ve been massively downgraded to work on Xbox 360.

Unfortunately, Xbox Series X relies on a litany of upgrades to pre-existing software. The upgrades available do show an improvement over Xbox One X. Forza Horizon 4, State of Decay 2, Gears 5 and Gears Tactics are somehow even more gorgeous than before, and the addition of 120fps modes into titles like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, CoD Warzone and more are sure to be amazing experiences for those with the displays to run them.

Xbox’s stellar backward compatibility is also in full effect for Xbox Series X, and it’s a perfect experience. While the competitor also has a fantastic offering with a handful of incompatible titles and at least one game that suffers from graphical inconsistencies, Xbox’s interpretation of bringing Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One games forward into the future is fantastic.

However, much like all of Xbox’s key features for next-gen, backward compatibility isn’t at the place where Xbox claims it will be in the future. Through manipulation by the backward compatibility engineers at Microsoft, Xbox will be updating Xbox One titles like Fallout 4 to run at higher framerates and resolutions that weren’t possible on last-gen. A month after launch and we’ve yet to see any of these enhanced backward compatible games on the console.

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Another fantastic feature on Xbox Series X is Quick Resume, when it works. During the pre-release period for our Xbox Series S review, Quick Resume was a nearly perfect feature. Most games available to play supported it and, despite the lack of a clear indicator for which games were in Quick Resume, it was a feature that you couldn’t stop using once you’ve felt its benefits.

However, after launch, Xbox Series X Quick Resume has been hindered with no clear date on when the feature will be reinstated for a bunch on games. Some games that don’t use it are bizarre: why does Yakuza: Like A Dragon support the feature but the 2017 Dead Rising remaster doesn’t? It’s a feature that feels amazing when it works, allowing you to switch between a handful of titles in seconds, but when so many titles don’t support the feature it feels like playing Russian roulette with your save data.

With that said, the Xbox Series X is such a clear boost above the last-gen console that you’ll never want to go back to Xbox One or even Xbox One X. The UI is extremely snappy, transfer speeds are lightning fast, games run and look better and every aspect of the last-gen Xbox feels undoubtedly better on this machine. The inclusion of an SSD makes loading a breeze and the enhanced controller – which we already covered extensively in our Series S piece – is a fantastic, but slight, improvement on the norm.

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Much like its missing flagship exclusive Halo Infinite, the Xbox Series X does feel like it needed more time to bake. Its impressive promises of enhanced backward compatibility should’ve been here at launch, Quick Resume indicators need to be added and one next-gen exclusive game, high-end update with next-gen only ray-tracing, or even a bare-minimum tech demo like Xbox One X’s Insect definitely should’ve been available to show the system at its best.

In its current form, Xbox Series X is a fantastic machine that runs games incredibly well at a cool temperature and a whisper quiet noise profile. It’s a box with room to grow and everything to prove. The hardware feels great, but its release feels rushed. For now, it’s the best Xbox One enhancement you could ask for, but it needs its own software to truly shine.

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