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Xbox series X review: Microsoft’s next-generation console is in need of more next-generation games

The fastest and most powerful Xbox ever made is off to a faltering start

Steve Hogarty
Tuesday 29 June 2021 11:20
<p>They’re impossible to find, but is now the right time buy anyway?</p>

They’re impossible to find, but is now the right time buy anyway?

Like everything else in the world right now, Microsoft’s newest console is trapped in a strange kind of stasis. Long after the next-gen starter pistol was fired, the Xbox series X and PlayStation 5 are both paralysed on the starting blocks – two machines brimming with potential and capable of fantastic things are being held back by a lack of truly next-gen games to play.

For now, and for existing Xbox owners, the main benefit of the Xbox series X is its ability to play your entire back catalogue of Xbox One games with some incremental improvements to frame rates and image quality. Almost every game will work on the new console, though which games get a spitshine is seemingly decided by somebody at Microsoft throwing darts at a board.

Some games run as they normally would have done on the Xbox one X, the mid-generation 2017 console that introduced 4K (or UHD) graphics to the Xbox range, which until that point ran at 1080p (shortsightedly called Full HD). Other games have been upgraded to take full advantage of the new hardware, with options to prioritise either graphics quality or performance.

This blurring of the distinction between generations has been happening for some time. Microsoft’s goal is to untether from having to own a certain type of Xbox to play a certain game, or having to buy a new version of a game you already own when a new Xbox comes along.

Eventually “Xbox” will be an umbrella term for a family of different consoles, and games will look or perform a little better or worse depending on the particular tier of Xbox you own. Even older Xboxes that lack the proper hardware to run newly released games will be able to stream them, Netflix style, over Game Pass.

Read more:

If you do decide you want to upgrade, actually finding an Xbox series X in stock is the difficult part. Supply issues continue to plague both next-generation consoles. To help you keep track of where the Xbox series X is in stock, follow our Xbox series X restock update page for updates.

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Xbox series X

Buy now £449, Amazon.co.uk

  • CPU: AMD 8-core Zen 2 @ 3.8 GHz
  • GPU: AMD Radeon 2 RDNA, 12TFLOPS, 52 CUs @ 1.825 GHz
  • Memory: 16GB GDDR6
  • Storage: 1TB custom WD SSD, optional 1TB Seagate expansion card
  • Max resolution: 8K at 60fps, 4K at 120fps
  • Disc drive: 4K UHD Blu-Ray
  • Dimensions: 15.1cm x 15.1cm x 30.1cm
  • Weight: 4.45kg

Let’s look at the Xbox series X itself, the most advanced Xbox ever made. Microsoft’s featureless black cuboid has an austere beauty about it – a sharp Kubrickian monolith that, when switched on, runs with an eerie soundlessness. The only clue that it’s been activated is the gentle breeze of its unique upwards-pointing fan, which disturbs any nearby lace curtains like the console is grieving for a husband lost at sea.

This is in contrast to the previous Xbox, which roared like a failing jet engine each time you dared ask it to boot up Fifa 19. Aesthetically, and acoustically, the Xbox series X is a console that feels at home in a living room where grown-ups live. Compare that to the superb but ridiculous-looking PlayStation 5, which resembles an abstract sculpture of Harry Hill and requires removing an external wall to get into your house.

The performance

Inside the black box are some seriously powerful components, matching a high-end gaming PC in a chassis that’s about the size of a loaf of Hovis. Quite how Microsoft has managed to fit so much performance into a box this size without the entire thing melting after five minutes is something we can’t pretend to understand, but the results are remarkable even before you launch a game.

Quick resume and smart delivery

The familiar user interface is snappier than ever, dropping you into games in fractions of a second. “Quick resume” freezes your game’s progress whenever you jump back to the dashboard, allowing you to resume playing when you’re ready and without loading times. This works across multiple games too, so you can snap between two almost instantly, as though you’re alt-tabbing between windows on your desktop.

The improved specs mean faster loading times in existing games. In Yakuza: Like A Dragon, where transitions between areas would take six to seven seconds on the older Xbox, they now flash past so quickly and rudely that you don’t have time to read the loading screen tips. At one point I had to hit the share button to record a snippet of gameplay, then play back the recording to pause it and read about how dodging works.

“Smart delivery” is less immediately interesting, but marks the opening move in the grand scheme to unify all Xboxes. With it, when you buy a game you automatically receive the most optimised version of that game for your system, which ensures you’re playing it at its best and avoids any confusion over which type of Xbox you’ve got and what generation you’re on. Save games carry from one console to the next too, so you can seamlessly upgrade or move to another machine without losing progress,

The entertainment

What else? Well, the Xbox series X could replace your existing set-top box. It runs all of the major entertainment apps, including BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ at 4K and in Dolby Vision, the emergent HDR format for better picture quality and contrast. It’s also a Blu-ray player, if you’ve got a stack of those guys laying around.

The verdict: Xbox series X

If your idea of upgrading to a next-generation console involves instantly unlocking a clutch of exciting and exclusive new games unavailable anywhere else, then it’s too early to consider getting in line for the Xbox series X. The console launched with a handful of upgraded versions of Xbox one games and third-party titles that were also available on the PlayStation 5, and today it still lacks a killer app. We’re quietly coasting into the next generation, rather than arriving with a bang.

Read more: PS5 restock liveblog – here’s how to get your hands on Sony’s next-gen console

But if you’re invested in your back catalogue of Xbox games and want to see them at their absolute finest, and to be primed for what comes next, the Xbox Series X is the best way to play. Game Pass – the subscription-style service offering access to hundreds of games for a flat monthly fee – represents great value for money too, and the service only looks set to get better: Microsoft’s growing stable of publisher acquisitions now includes Bethesda, creators of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, as well as some of the most highly anticipated upcoming games.

The battle of the next-generation consoles won’t be about which console can render the most individual hairs in a soldier’s moustache, but will be fought between Sony and Microsoft’s rival subscription services, Game Pass and PlayStation Now.

How that fight pans out remains to be seen, but until then the Xbox series X can be judged by its physical hardware and its promise of what it can do next: it’s a thunderously powerful next-generation console, just waiting to get started.

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