This may dampen the excitement a bit. In the past, console launches have always delivered new user experiences. With the new Xboxes, those are currently absent. It’s not a new experience for Xbox players, it’s an upgrade and continuation of what existed before. The difference lies in the quality-of-life improvements and the speed in which it gets you playing.
Depending on your most recent Microsoft console, the new Xbox machines may feel like a small or a huge upgrade. Load times are great, and the games run better than they used to, but given that the launch lineup consists of standard genre hits like “Forza Horizon 4” and “Assassin’s Creed,” there’s a lack of fresh, innovative experiences to take advantage of the hardware.
“Astro’s Playroom,” a packed-in title for the PlayStation 5, is actually the best marker of the difference between the PS5 and the new Xbox machines. The platformer works much in the same way “Wii Sports” did for the Wii: It’s a delightful introduction to the PlayStation 5′s newest features. Xbox, meanwhile, has no such title. You’re right back into the same menu you saw in the old console you just packed away.
The Xbox Series X is clearly a powerful machine, capable of running high-end, complicated games at high framerates. We just wish we had more exciting titles to test, and it’s hard not to notice the void of excitement left after the deflating delay of “Halo Infinite,” as well as CD Projekt Red’s “Cyberpunk 2077,” which was pushed to a December release date. During the review process, several launch titles like “The Falconeer,” “Watch Dogs Legion” and Dirt 5″ were not made available to us, so our experience is limited.
The Series X and S are better than your old Xbox, but how much better? Without a showcase, show-stopping game or feature, it’s a little hard to say.
There’s an ongoing conversation in games about how some of the most popular titles today can often feel like work. If games are work, the Xbox Series X and S consoles are excellent productivity machines. They both load games almost instantly. Fast traveling across England in “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” on both Series X and S can take no more than a few seconds. Ticking down the “open-world” checklist has never been easier on console.
Once the games installed, it took just over 50 seconds to load and begin playing “Valhalla” from the Xbox home menu. From title screen to actual gameplay, I only waited 15 seconds. I can turn the game off, and instantly turn the Xbox and game back on to pick up right where I was within moments, even in the middle of a heated battle. Sometimes, games loaded faster than I was even able to pick up the phone to get an election update. Speed is not an issue, but there was one that surfaced while playing “Valhalla” on the Series S.
It is very disappointing to see “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” not run at 60 frames per second on the Series S. To my somewhat-trained eye, it appears to be a locked 30 frames per second. The budget-priced console’s biggest selling point is that it could conceivably hit “up to 120 frames per second,” but immediately, we’re seeing hints that this might be a case-by-case sort of thing. And this is “Valhalla,” the game that involuntarily and unofficially became the Xbox launch title after the delay of Microsoft’s own “Halo Infinite.”
It seems that 60 frames per second gameplay on the Series S isn’t a promise every developer can keep, despite Xbox’s claim that the only difference in its performance from the X would be “just at its rendering resolution,” as stated in September by Jason Ronald, Xbox’s director of program management. But some titles still managed to hit that benchmark. “Yakuza: Like a Dragon” runs at 60 frames per second on the Series S. And while we did not have a version of the game meant for Series X or S, the Xbox One version of “Dirt 5” also runs at 60 frames on the Series S, which means it should on the next-generation versions. The smaller device is clearly capable of hitting higher framerates.
The 60-frames-per-second metric matters because it’s the most visually striking difference between this console generation and the last. It’s the performance metric that most games for the last two console generations have struggled to hit, while PC players enjoy the additional power of their systems. It’s the reason playing “Valhalla” on the Series X feels like a legitimate new experience. It’s easier to lose yourself in open-world England with smoother character, particle and camera movements.
On loading times, both Series X and S load games faster than I’ve experienced on console and on PC. “Valhalla” loads into gameplay faster than the 2-year-old “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” my PC with an i7-9700K CPU and 16 gigs of RAM. The Series X version blasts out open-world gameplay in smooth 60 frames-per-second in a 4K resolution image. “Destiny 2,” a game that suffered from long loading screens on console, finally loads as fast or faster than its PC brethren; loading the game from home screen to a playable planet took under a minute. When it comes to loading, the Series X and S run basically even.
It’s too bad that the Xbox consoles must lean on “Valhalla” and a handful of other titles to showcase their power. While the “Assassin’s Creed” games are very high budget and expensive to produce, the PlayStation 5 exclusive “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” is immediately more of a showstopping presentation, and it’s going to be hard not to compare the whiz-bang particle effects of that game to the slow-burn, open-world of “Valhalla” or another Ubisoft Xbox launch title, “Watch Dogs: Legion,” which we couldn’t test.
Given its setting in Anglo-Saxon England and the Viking protagonist, it was easy for me to imagine what a next-gen version of “Elder Scrolls” would look like. Microsoft’s recent blockbuster acquisition of Bethesda Studios only makes this dream feel so much more tangible.
The great news for Series S is that the image resolution on “Valhalla” is sharp, likely holding to the promised maximum Series S resolution of 1440p. The bad news is that on two different 60hz screens, the Series S image had considerably more screen tearing (when you see a break in vertical imagery as the image on screen shifts; just watch this).
The screen tear is less visible on Series X, thanks to the smoother framerate. A V-sync on/off toggle would alleviate the eyesore, but there is currently no way to turn on the feature in the console release. PC titles usually have this option — a stark reminder why the PC remains the most potentially powerful and customizable place to play games. This Series S-specific issue, coupled with sub-60-frames performance, gave me the impression I was playing a solid Xbox One X version of “Valhalla,” just with much faster loading.
The Series X fares much better. The promise of immersive, sharp and dense worlds to explore feels real when roaming the streets of Yokohama in “Yakuza: Like a Dragon.” The characters and city explode in color and detail in ways I had never seen in past “Yakuza” titles and locations. The series struggled to hit both high-resolution, high framerate gameplay in the last console generation. That is now achievable on both Series X and S; both versions feature “performance” and “fidelity” modes, offering 60-frames gameplay under the “performance” option. There’s parity in the “Yakuza” experiences not found in “Valhalla,” and that’s some comfort when comparing the X and S.
While we don’t have equipment to accurately test for resolutions (and performance), we highly recommend readers subscribe to the Digital Foundry YouTube channel, which provides up-to-date, accurate and detailed analyses of each system and game. The channel is considered the industry go-to source for video game performances by players and game executives alike.
User interface and experience
This is where the iPhone comparison becomes most apt. Your current Xbox One user interface will be the same one used in the Xbox Series X/S consoles. Same app placement. Same folders, just as you made them. Same color schemes.
The new Xbox controller is largely unchanged from the last generation, using many of the same materials, build quality (which was always very high) and even retaining much of its form factor. It’s so similar, the new controllers can sit comfortably on stands created specifically to the contours of the 7-year-old Xbox One controller.
Once again, the biggest quality-of-life difference is how fast it all loads. Even on the Xbox One X, the user interface would sometimes stall and halt. After a week and a half, the Series X and S menu experience is about as snappy as … well, using an iPhone. It’s smooth, it’s immediate. Switching between games and apps also feels like switching between the Twitter and email app on your phone.
Storage is going to be an issue on the all-digital Series S. Both console manufacturers will boast more storage data than players can actually use. While the smaller console is billed as having a 512 GB SSD, the Reddit leaks are correct: You can only use up to 364 GB. This means that after installing “Valhalla,” “Yakuza,” “Dirt 5” and “Destiny 2,” I only have 124.5 GB left to use.
The next-gen-specific titles, however, are considerably smaller than the last-generation files. “Valhalla” clocks in at only 47.5 GB, surprising considering it’s a massive title. “Yakuza” takes up 37.2 GB. “Destiny 2,” a 3-year-old live service game, takes up 108.8 GB.
Regardless of which console you choose (PlayStation 5 included), it’s probably a good idea to start budgeting for external storage.
This is the Xbox’s biggest strength over Nintendo and Sony. Microsoft is the only hardware developer that’s taken great pains to ensure continuity in our gaming libraries. It’s the only manufacturer that’s making great overtures to retain its audience, and retention is key to any subscription service. It all makes some sense once you remember that its subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, is the centerpiece of Microsoft’s gaming strategy.
I agree with Digital Foundry when they say backward compatibility for some games can be a “transformative” experience. Basically, games with uncapped framerates, like the Xbox One X version of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” are able to hit their target cap no problem. “Sekiro” runs at a smooth 60 frames, a welcome bonus for a game that relies so heavily on player reaction time.
Meanwhile, games that are locked at 30 frames aren’t able to go beyond it without the original developer’s touch. “Sekiro” on the base Xbox One, for example, was only capped at 30 frames, and performs the same on Series S, which Microsoft already said would feature backward compatible versions of the base Xbox One version, not the One X enhanced versions. (If you’re confused by the similar names, apologies. Microsoft has made a lot of Xbox machines in the last few years).
“Red Dead Redemption 2” on Xbox One X was always a game in native 4K and capped at 30 frames per second, so the returns are minimal there. But it’s worth noting that the game loads incredibly fast on both Series X and S. Regardless of the graphical fidelity and performance of older games, they seem to all benefit when it comes to getting us to our games faster.
Xbox also has a dedicated backward compatibility team to add things like HDR to almost every older game, along with improved performances on select titles. And then there are Microsoft Studio titles like “Gears 5,” which sees a significant boost in texture and shadow detail, thanks to the game being boosted to the PC version’s Ultra settings.
The Xbox Series S, in my eyes, is the most attractive console out right now, and is in the running for best looking ever. It’s an attractive box that can fit essentially anywhere in the house, even a bookshelf, as Xbox CEO Phil Spencer demonstrated months before the console was announced.
Thanks to quarantine, I’ve been obsessed with creating different gaming spaces and comfort levels across my small studio apartment, so I have been moving consoles around the one room I have. I currently have the Series S on my nightstand, plugged into a small monitor by my bed. It’s a great addition for multiple-room households. At only 4.25 pounds, this lighter-than-cats machine would be a great purchase for travelers looking to take their console experience mobile.
The Series X is a different, larger beast altogether, but what more can be said? It’s a huge rectangle that can fit fairly easily into any media center. It could just as well sit next to my nightstand. At 9.92 pounds, it’s a bit more cumbersome to lug around, but it’s still far easier than the unwieldy, unconventional PlayStation 5.
Both consoles do an amazing job of just disappearing into the background. Both run very silently, even for the most graphics-intensive games at launch. And all the early, fabricated controversy about the Xbox’s heat signatures were all for nothing: Both systems run cooler than the already quite chill Xbox One X.
Here’s the breakdown of who I see as the potential customer base for Xbox Series X:
- You’ve been invested in the Xbox ecosystem for years, and continuing to do so is only going to pay off further. You’re excited for the new “Halo,” and in the meantime, will have plenty of fun with high-performance, nonexclusive games like “Cyberpunk 2077” and “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.” Maybe you’ll boot up an Xbox 360 save of “Fable 2” for old time’s sake.
- You only had the base Xbox One. Even if you don’t have a 4K TV or monitor, the performance boosts in loading and gameplay are going to feel like a considerable step up. It’ll be like upgrading from an iPhone 6 to iPhone 12. Games are going to consistently hit 1080p resolution on the new consoles, as opposed to 900p for so many Xbox One games, so even this minimal upgrade is going to feel like putting on a new pair of glasses.
- You’ve never owned an Xbox before (and don’t have access to a high-performance PC), but have been interested in titles like “Gears of War” or “Fable” or “Forza Horizon 4″ for years. This is easily the best time to invest into the Xbox ecosystem, and thanks to stellar backward compatibility support with improved performance and load times, you’ll be playing the best possible console versions of these old titles.
- You have a PC, but just aren’t interested in updating your graphics card or storage for the next few years. The Series X should keep you future proofed for a bit, while allowing you to still build a PC-focused library thanks to Xbox Game Pass.
The appeal of the Series S seems smaller initially, at least when it comes to core gamers. You have to be comfortable with the idea that not every game may hit 60 frames per second. You have to really love the idea that loading games faster is enough of a reason to upgrade. So far, it loads just as fast as the Series X, but your games just won’t look quite as good. At $300, the console is attractive in both price and design, however.
The Series S is clearly the budget console, and it’s hard not to think of it as a half-measure into the next console generation. Xbox CEO Phil Spencer said he feels confident the Series S will sell better over time, and he’s likely right. After all, the older, cheaper, iPhone XR was 2019′s best-selling smartphone. But phone consumers are not core game consumers, and “fear of missing out” may be stronger in the gaming community than for people who just want a decent phone.
This review makes my experience seem muted, mostly because as a PC player, the experience of playing an “Assassin’s Creed” game in 60 frames per second is not particularly new — and “Valhalla” is still yet another “Assassin’s Creed” game. Experiences will vary, depending on how they’re entering the ecosystem. On the other hand, even the most powerful PC rigs will struggle to blast out 4K images in 60 frames, which “Valhalla” does on Series X, very easily and quietly.
At $500 and $300 respectively, both consoles offer more value than their retail prices might suggest. As a longtime gamer, it’s going to take some time to adjust to the reality that diminishing visual returns on graphical fidelity may mean more iPhone-like upgrades. Xbox is the first company to make that feel true with the launch of the Series X and S.
Xbox has chosen continuity and consistency over this idea of a “new console, new start.” Its investments into first-party studios are still ongoing and have yet to bear fruit. The console at the moment feels like a generational leap, but certainly not a revolution, depending on who you are and what you want. Now we wait, to see what Microsoft’s studios, and Master Chief, can bring to the table.