Xbox Series X Console Review – Power your (future) dreams

Reviewed on November 6, 2020

Power Your Dreams. That’s what we’ve heard for months now, since the Xbox Series X|S were given firm release dates and the next generation of gaming began coming to light. It’s hard not to get excited about the future of gaming, and this gigantic launch week is going to be a great indicator of what we can expect in the future. The most exciting part for me is the promise of “more time gaming and less time waiting”. Over the years, we’ve had some fantastic, huge open worlds to explore, but as games became more intense, the loading times became longer and performance, in some cases, was sacrificed.

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks really putting the Xbox Series X through its paces. In many ways, the potential of the console and what the future holds is much more enticing than what it is able to do today. Most of our testing when it comes to true “next-gen” has been with a mere handful of Xbox Series X optimised titles, with others unavailable until launch. That means there are more features to test out in the next few months as games truly built for the hardware really begin to push it to its limits and show us what the future of gaming is really all about. Even so, I can’t imagine going back to the previous gen after having my hands on this console, and the positive benefits are apparent as soon as you switch it on.

What’s in the box?

One of the core features that we’ve heard about is the new Xbox Velocity Architecture – which is found in both Xbox Series X and S, although we only tested the X in this case. The main benefit of this, in layman’s terms, is that load times in video games are reduced massively (and in some cases eliminated entirely). Even just turning the console on is much faster now, taking not even half the time to get going in the first place. Optimised Xbox Series X games that we were able to test including Gears Tactics and Gears 5, showed this off in a big way. I’ve played both of those games on their previous platforms, and for them both to load straight away was exciting to see.

That being said, it’s not just the optimised titles that will be getting a boost; impressively, games from last generation also load much faster on the next-gen hardware. For me, one of the games I’ve played a lot of over the last couple of months is Marvel’s Avengers, and my squad and I often laugh about the egregious loading times and how long we have to wait to get going. Before, we’d spend at least 90 seconds waiting between each transition. Now, it’s less than 20 seconds to load up, then less than 20 seconds to load into an actual level. Pretty impressive. These comparative load times were also present in other games I tried from the past generation, so the Xbox Series X shows improvements straight away, living up to its promise of more gaming, less waiting, with most previous titles showing a 50-60% decrease in waiting time.

Next up, Quick Resume is a feature that I never knew I needed. You might ask why someone would flick between multiple games at one time, and that’s fair, but the feature actually works even when the console has been switched off, meaning you can seamlessly jump right back into a game you were playing previously. Pairing that with the very short load times, it means that I can literally switch over from watching TV, turn on my console and be playing from right where I left off in about 20 seconds. Talk about no wasted motion.

Tell me I’m pretty.

The Xbox Series X boasts big upgrades on a visual level, with hardware-accelerated DirectX Raytracing being one of the big buzz-words with this generational leap. It uses dynamic reflections and shadows, rich graphics, and high visual fidelity never seen in consoles before. There’s also support for up to 120FPS on both Xbox Series X and S, allowing developers to deliver heightened realism and more precise controls for fast-paced action.

“Optimised games I played on the Xbox Series X look incredible, and again, last-gen games receive a boost in performance as well, feeling faster.”

Also, the console is able to leverage an innovative HDR reconstruction technique to enhance existing SDR games with no work from developers and no impact to available CPU, GPU or memory resources. We checked this out on some older titles from the 360 and One era, and found this to be true, with visual upgrades noticeable enough without being particularly breathtaking. Still, for those with a deep back catalog, it’s absolutely nice to have these enhancements available.

In order to get 120FPS, the Xbox Series X also uses HDMI 2.1, the most recent update of the HDMI specification that allows the ability to output in 4K and 120FPS. For full disclosure, my TV is not 120Hz, so I was unable to get the lightning-speed 120FPS, but I still very much saw the difference using 60FPS and HDR. Optimised games I played on the Xbox Series X look incredible, and again, last-gen games receive a boost in performance as well, feeling faster. Considering the games I’ve been testing are currently available via Smart Delivery (meaning they run on the last-gen hardware as well), I imagine it’s going to be a good year or two before we really unlock the visual potential of what the Xbox Series X can offer. This has been the case with every previous console release, too, as developers get used to using those kits and beefing up what they’re capable of.

In that sense, don’t expect to play your first game on the Xbox Series X and have your socks completely knocked off. It’s impressive for sure, and for someone like me who spends about 4-5 hours per day playing video games, I can absolutely see and feel the difference when it comes to smoother gameplay, small visual touches like lighting and shadows, among other finer details. But if you don’t game often and are looking for that “defining” next-gen moment, you may not find it… yet. I guess what I’m saying is your mileage may vary depending on how close attention you’re paying, but also it’s worth noting that when I went back to play my Xbox One X to test it out, it felt years-old by comparison.

It’s also interesting to see how developers are tackling the shift to next-gen; DiRT 5 for example is set to offer two visual choices, one that focuses on that beautiful visual quality while another utilises the 120FPS, but sacrifices some of the visual details in order to get there. When it comes to precision game mechanics like driving and shooting, the higher frame-rate seems to be worth the trade-off when it comes to looks, but I’m eager to see what the console is capable of when developers have more time to refine and focus on the next-gen hardware down the track.

It’s worth noting as well, when it comes to the UI, it’s the same one that is currently running on the Xbox One at the moment after a recent patch. That may also make the console feel less “new and exciting” at first, apart from the different opening logo. That being said, as they’ve tweaked the menus and storefront over the last few years, it has confidently formed into one that I think is very successful. It has a lot of information about your console and the games within, without looking cluttered, and the familiarity means you’ll be comfortable navigating your new shiny console instantly.

A damn fine looking fridge.

Aesthetically speaking, I think the Xbox Series X is one of the coolest looking consoles I’ve ever owned. Yes, it looks like a mini-fridge, and Xbox themselves have dialed into that silliness as well, but sitting proudly next to my TV, it’s an impressive sight to behold, especially when you look to see the green coming through the top venting holes. While it does look fine laying down for those concerned about cabinet space (for what it’s worth, I invested in a new TV cabinet months ago in preparation for my chonky new additions), the vertical nature also helps to optimise the volume of the heat sink to deal with large power requirements.

It’s said that there is 70% more airflow through the console than the past generation, and I tend to believe it; after spending hours playing my Xbox Series X, it doesn’t feel particularly warm to the touch, and the fans themselves are incredibly quiet while gaming, very different from the engine-noise of consoles past. Overall, its design meets form and function, and makes for a slick, proud addition to my living room setup. Just keep in mind that standing orientation is best and that won’t easily fit in with everybody’s cabinet space.

The best controller so far

The Xbox Series X controller has been redesigned slightly, and you might not think it’s much of a difference to look at, but when holding it in my hands it instantly felt more serious. It has borrowed some components of the much-more-expensive Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, making this pack-in one of the best controllers ever, on any platform.

Where the Xbox One controller was already one of my favourites, the Xbox Series X controller has a redesigned d-pad that feels like an actual button is being pressed with far more precision, arguably the biggest complaint from previous Xbox controllers. It also has a share button which makes things an absolute breeze, just a simple button-press to take a screenshot or hold to start video capture, which is way smoother than going through multiple menu presses like previous. Overall, they’ve managed to make the best controller even better for my money, even though they still rely on AA batteries (included) to function, and you’ll need a new Play and Charge kit that utilises USB-C if you prefer the rechargeable battery setup.

Play on.

One of the most appealing factors of the Xbox Series X|S is the now-gigantic library of titles available via backwards compatibility, and even more-so, via Xbox Game Pass. While this is primarily a review of the impressive hardware itself, I can’t help but call out the best-value subscription service ever, giving you access to hundreds of games for a reasonable subscription fee. To think that somebody could purchase this console for $749.95 RRP, then get Xbox Game Pass for $15 per month and instantly unlock Gears 5, Gears Tactics, Forza Horizon 4, The Outer Worlds, The Witcher 3, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, DOOM Eternal, Monster Hunter: World, Rainbow Six Siege, Wasteland 3, PLUS guarantee to get every first party Xbox game in the future included? It’s bonkers. While the launch line-up might not grab you in the sense that nothing on the list is truly “Xbox Series X exclusive” at this stage, the value here is pretty undeniable.

If all of those diverse gaming experiences sound incredible, be warned, the included 1TB hard drive only goes so far, with only 802GB of that actually available to load up with games. Some games still take up almost 100GB of space, so in that sense you’re going to be shuffling and rotating your downloaded games out of your collection like you always did, unless you’re willing to spend a large amount of money on the Seagate Storage Expansion Card. Xbox Series S owners will be even worse off with less available space on the digital-only platform.

What the future holds

It will take some time before we really see what the Xbox Series X is capable of. As I said, we’ve tested the features and functionality with only a few games at this stage that were available during the review period. There will be much more to discuss once we’ve had the chance to test out Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, The Medium and many others in the coming weeks.

What I can say for sure is that Xbox have put together the most powerful video game console in existence in the Xbox Series X. Games load faster, look better, feel smoother with more consistent frame-rates and overall make for the slickest, easiest gaming I’ve ever experienced. When you pair all of that with the always-inspiring line-up of Xbox Game Pass and thinking about the potential exclusives that Xbox has up their sleeve, this generation is set to be the most competitive one to date. To put it bluntly: for Xbox One owners, it’s absolutely worth the upgrade. If you’ve never owned an Xbox before? Now is the perfect time to jump in.

The Xbox Series X was provided to Checkpoint for review by Xbox. The Xbox Series X|S launches on November 10th, 2020.