Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Powerful Next-Gen Console is Still Lacking Its Killer App

Xbox Series X Review: Microsoft's Powerful Next-Gen Console is Still Lacking Its Killer App

Microsoft's new console inspires plenty of optimism, but it still has a few hurdles to overcome.

Whenever I purchase a new console these days, the first question that enters my mind is, "Do I need to keep the old one?" With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, that question was a resounding, "Yes." The Xbox Series X takes a markedly different approach.

Microsoft's new console, available for $499 on November 10 ($299 for the Xbox Series S), feels in some ways like a mobile device on steroids. Where in the past upgrading to a new console meant leaving all your favorite games behind, Microsoft now treats the Xbox One, PC, and Xbox Series X as one big ecosystem. On the Xbox Series X, your game collection never goes away. It just gets bigger.

Microsoft has been building toward this moment for several years now, and on the face of it, everything seems to be in place. It has Xbox Game Pass, which Microsoft hopes will become the de facto Netflix of gaming; it has numerous in-house studios, including Bethesda, and it has a very powerful console. The only problem? The Xbox Series X still lacks that one killer app, and it's that more than anything that causes me to stop short of giving it a full-throated recommendation.

The Design, the Specs, and the Xbox Series S

As a piece of kit, the Xbox Series X couldn't be more different from its nearest competition, the PlayStation 5. Where the design of Sony's machine is wild and at times straight-up bizarre, the Xbox Series X is functional to a fault, continuing Microsoft's history of favoring plain, but efficient, designs for its consoles. The Xbox Series X resembles nothing so much as a mini-desktop PC, its boxy design managing to look imposing while simultaneously blending in with the other devices in your entertainment center. While it can be set on its side, I prefer to keep it vertical, enabling it to take up less space while fostering maximum airflow.

When it's powered on, the Xbox Series X is extremely quiet, though that may change as it accrues dust. Compared to the roar of the PlayStation 4 Pro, the Xbox Series X is virtually silent. There have been reports of the Xbox Series X running hot, and when playing certain top-end games, the area around the vent is indeed warm to the touch. However, I've not had any problems with the console overheating, even after extended sessions.

Microsoft takes few risks with the Xbox Series X's controller | Kat Bailey/USG

In keeping with the theme of simplicity, Microsoft takes few risks with the Xbox Series X's controller, its main improvement being the addition of a share button for grabbing screenshots, as well as slightly refined ergonomics. As with previous generations, the Xbox Series X controller requires two Double-A batteries, but you can purchase a rechargeable battery pack separately. On the console itself, you will find an HDMI 2.1 port, three separate USB ports—one on the front, two on the back—and an easily accessible port for expanding the memory (trust me, you'll need it given the size of games these days).

In my initial impressions, I referred to the Xbox Series X as "minimalist," and my opinion stands. It won't make the same impression as the PlayStation 5, nor even the Nintendo Switch. Where those systems feel like a nod to the toyetic aesthetic of past consoles, the Xbox Series X makes no bones about being a souped up desktop PC. It doesn't have to be pretty to sell Xbox Game Pass subscriptions.

More exciting are the specs. Boasting an AMD Zen 2 processor that clocks in at 3.8Ghz, and a custom GPU with 12 teraflops of power, the Xbox Series X is as powerful as any modern gaming PC. The specs enable the Xbox Series X to run games in native 4K at 120fps, and with an SSD drive and a much-improved processor compared to the Xbox One X, it can claim dramatically reduced load times as well. The actual visuals may not look appreciably better than what you'll find on the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, but the enhanced frame rates certainly make a big difference.

The Xbox Series S is the budget version of the Xbox Series X | Microsoft

The Xbox Series comes in two main variants: the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S. The Xbox Series X is the more powerful of the two, while the Xbox Series S is being positioned as a budget alternative that is nevertheless capable of playing next-gen games. Unfortunately, Microsoft only sent an Xbox Series X to USgamer, so we can't compare them directly, but our friends at Digital Foundry have a good breakdown of the Xbox Series S right here.

Xbox Series S Xbox Series X
CPU 8x AMD Zen 2 Cores at 3.6GHz (3.4GHz with SMT) 8x AMD Zen 2 Cores at 3.8GHz (3.6GHz with SMT)
GPU 4 TFLOPs, 20 CUs at 1.565GHz 12 TFLOPs, 52 CUs at 1.825GHz
Memory 10GB GDDR6 (8GB at 224 GB/s, 2GB at 56 GB/s) 16GB GDDR6 (10GB at 560GB/s, 6GB at 336GB/s)
Internal Storage 512GB PCIe Gen 4 NVME SSD 1TB PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD
IO Throughput 2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed) 2.4GB/s (Raw), 4.8GB/s (Compressed)
Expandable Storage 1TB Expansion Card 1TB Expansion Card
External Storage USB 3.2 HDD Support USB 3.2 HDD Support
Optical Drive Digital Only 4K UHD Blu-ray Drive

As you can see from the specs comparison above, the main difference between the Xbox Series S and the Xbox Series X is the dramatic reduction of GPU power. At four teraflops, it's actually less powerful than the Xbox One X, which sits at six teraflops. It can still support 1440p at 120fps—more than enough for many—but no matter how you slice it, the Xbox Series S is still markedly less powerful Xbox Series X, and that difference in power is apt to become increasingly apparent as the generation wears on.

So what does the Xbox Series X's additional power mean in a practical sense? Well, look at this way: waking the Xbox Series X and jumping into a game can be accomplished in about 15 seconds, give or take whether or not you enter a pass code. A full restart can be completed in less than a minute. As Eurogamer's Tom Phillips joked on Twitter, the Xbox Series X's load times are so fast that it basically cuts out doomscrolling entirely.

These load times extend to basically every game in the Xbox Series X's library, not just the ones that have been optimized for the platform. Forza Horizon 4, which takes ages to get going on the Xbox One X, fairly zips along on the Xbox Series X. So does the Witcher 3. It's not precisely instant, but it's still a huge improvement on the previous generation. In short, it's a lot like upgrading from an iPhone 7 to an iPhone 12 and suddenly realizing how fast everything runs.

Whether the games themselves will look better depends a lot on your TV. I reviewed the Xbox Series X on a Samsung KS7000, a decent, if somewhat old 4K LCD television, and I was still struck by how much faster and smoother Forza Horizon 4 ran with the backward compatibility optimization. Those who own 120hz monitors will likely notice even bigger differences.

As always, the real differences will become apparent as developers get to grips with the technology and start properly taking advantage of it. I've argued in the past that graphics don't really matter anymore, but if you look at the difference between, say, Assassin's Creed Valhalla and a game released back in 2013, the gap is apparent. Suffice it to say, the differences may seem minimal now, but give it a year or two—technology has a way of changing rapidly.

The updated Xbox Series X dashboard largely sticks to the fundamentals established on the Xbox One | Microsoft

The User Experience: A Quick and Painless Setup

Staying with Xbox's "faster is better" theme, setup is quick and fairly painless. Much of the process is handled through the Xbox mobile app, which quickly runs you through a series of initial options, at the end of which you're encouraged to give it a name. Not feeling particularly creative, I went with "The Fridge," though part of me wanted to name it "William Perry" (please enjoy your random reference to the 1985 Super Bowl, Bears fans).

The Xbox smartphone app makes setup a breeze | Kat Bailey/USG

As part of the initial setup, the Xbox Series X imported all of my Xbox One settings, including all of my saved games. I found all of my past games and apps readily available in the games folder, and quickly got to downloading them. As it turned out, this would take several hours, as I don't have a single physical Xbox Series X game to my name, and modern games still take a while to download. I'd recommend starting with a couple smaller games so you have something to play while you wait.

The Xbox Series X dashboard is simple but functional, ensuring that all of your games, apps, and features are at most a few clicks away. Pressing the glowing Xbox button on your controller will call up a quick access menu where you can find basically everything you need: a quick rundown of your most recent apps, Game Pass, the store, and recording options. Capturing and sharing and media has been streamlined thanks to a new button on the controller, and if you plug in an external drive, you can capture up to an hour of gameplay in 4K HDR.

The Xbox Series X's biggest question mark is the touted Quick Resume feature, which has been hyped as a way to rapidly jump between multiple games. Closing a game on Xbox Series X will create a save state in the system's memory, after which it can be accessed by pressing the Start button at the game's loading screen, even if you open up another game. It's a great idea, but Quick Resume is basically disabled at the moment for Xbox Series X|S optimized games, as Microsoft has identified an issue it hopes to address with a post-launch patch. Quick Resume is available for all standard backward compatible games, but it's still kind of a rough blow for what should be one of the Xbox Series X's showcase features.

Another question mark is "Smart Delivery," which is currently supported at the whim of the publisher (the initial lineup below shows which games feature Smart Delivery). The basic idea is that if you buy a game on Xbox One, you will get the upgraded "next-gen" version for free. All of Microsoft's games support this feature, as do major upcoming releases like Cyberpunk 2077. Madden 21 and FIFA 21, however, will feature a time limited system, and NBA 2K21 won't support Smart Delivery at all.

One final complaint, and this is mostly a matter of personal opinion, is that the Xbox Series X really is practical to a fault. Microsoft's push to fully integrate it with the Xbox One makes it feel like an extension of the previous console generation rather than a fresh start—convenient, but also kind of boring. Swapping between the Xbox Series X and the Xbox One X—they barely even changed the name—is an exercise in deja vu. They even have the same dashboard.

This won't matter as much once the games start to arrive, but it does underscore the Xbox Series X's weaknesses elsewhere, especially in the area of the launch lineup (more on that in a moment). On more than one occasion I've found myself wondering, "Is this really it?" I'll grant that not every console needs to be a weird art mural, but if I'm going to spend $500 on a new device in the middle of a major recession, it helps to feel more excited about it.

The Launch Lineup: Losing Halo Infinite Hurts

This brings me to the launch lineup, maybe the least inspiring launch lineup in recent memory. Halo Infinite was supposed to anchor the Xbox Series X's library to start, but with its release being pushed to 2021, the platform is left with a smattering of third-party releases and enhanced backward compatible games. It says something that my most played game on the Xbox Series X outside of Yakuza: Like a Dragon is Forza Horizon 4—a game first released in 2018.

All told, Microsoft touts some 30 optimized games for the Xbox Series X|S on Day 1. Here's the full list:

  • Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (Smart Delivery)
  • Borderlands 3 (Smart Delivery)
  • Bright Memory 1.0
  • Cuisine Royale (Smart Delivery)
  • Dead by Daylight (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition
  • DIRT 5 (Smart Delivery)
  • Enlisted
  • Evergate
  • The Falconeer (Smart Delivery)
  • Fortnite
  • Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Gears 5 (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Gears Tactics (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Grounded (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • King Oddball (Smart Delivery)
  • Maneater (Smart Delivery)
  • Manifold Garden (Smart Delivery)
  • NBA 2K21
  • Observer: System Redux
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Planet Coaster (Smart Delivery)
  • Sea of Thieves (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • Tetris Effect: Connected (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • The Touryst (Xbox Game Pass + Smart Delivery)
  • War Thunder (Smart Delivery)
  • Warhammer: Chaosbane Slayer Edition
  • Watch Dogs: Legion (Smart Delivery)
  • WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship (Smart Delivery)
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon (Smart Delivery)
  • Yes, Your Grace (Smart Delivery)

As I alluded to above, Forza Horizon 4 and Gears 5 feature far and away the most impressive enhancements on this list. Forza Horizon 4's 70 gigabyte update features native 4K visuals running at 60fps, and the difference is instantly apparent once you boot it up. The same can be said for Gears 5, which similarly bumps up the frame rate while adding effects similar to ray tracing. In the absence of a "true" next-gen exclusive on par with Demon's Souls, this is about as good as you're gonna get on Xbox Series X.

Beyond that, glancing at the list shows no significant exclusives of note, with even Yakuza: Like a Dragon being available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. The majority of its platform exclusives, including Sea of Thieves, Forza Horizon 4, and Gears 5, are previous releases. Assassin's Creed Valhalla and NBA 2K21 are both available on PlayStation 5.

To be clear, I still consider Microsoft's focus on backward compatibility to be a major selling point for the Xbox Series X, supporting a huge number games released on Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. That is a lot of games, and many of them still look very good. Some of them even benefit from automatic enhancements like auto-HDR and frame rate upgrades, making it all the more fun to go back to old favorites.

It's further augmented by Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service that offers immediate access to dozens of games per month, including basically all of the Halo games, Nier: Automata, Ori: The Will of the Wisps, The Outer Worlds, and many other superb releases. At $9.99 per month, it's an excellent value, especially with many Xbox exclusives being available Day 1 on the service. If you decide to invest early in an Xbox Series X, getting an annual subscription to Xbox Game Pass should be a given.

Services like Xbox Game Pass help put lie to the notion that the Xbox "has no games," even if the lack of top-end exclusives remains a significant weakness for the platform. I'll certainly have plenty to play on my Xbox Series X in the short-term, with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Tetris Effect: Connected, and Forza Horizon 4 being near the top of the list. It's just a shame that Halo: Infinite didn't make launch, especially since it would have helped solidify the Xbox Series X's early lineup in a big way.

The Verdict: Is the Xbox Series X Worth Buying?

The lack of a killer app at launch is the Xbox Series X's biggest downfall right now. Without a true must-own game to call its own, I'm skeptical that Xbox Series X will be able to differentiate itself from the competition. I love Xbox Game Pass, but is it enough to sell consoles on its own? The Xbox One's track record suggests that it probably isn't.

With all that said, I don't expect the Xbox Series X to suffer the same fate as the Xbox One. As we discussed on Axe of the Blood God, the Xbox One was a deeply flawed console at launch, forcing Microsoft to spend the bulk of the generation fixing its own poor decisions. The Xbox Series X isn't stuck with anything nearly as bad as the Kinect, thank god.

Looking ahead, I expect the Xbox Series X to gain momentum as its studio acquisitions start to pay off. Bethesda was an absolutely massive pickup for Microsoft, in all probability making The Elder Scrolls 6 an Xbox exclusive. Don't underestimate the impact of Playground Games, either. Forza Horizon was one of Xbox's few success stories last generation, and I have hopes for its Fable revival.

In the meantime, expect Microsoft to continue expanding its service offerings, particularly its cloud gaming support. With the exclusives potentially rolling in and Xbox Game Pass continuing to grow, the Xbox Series X should be very interesting in a couple years. We're just not there quite yet.

This is where I admit that I probably wouldn't invest in an Xbox Series X, at least not right away. Impressive as the tech is, most of the Xbox Series X's best games are available on other platforms, and its potential is all theoretical right now. Even Xbox Game Pass is available elsewhere. If you do decide to spring for an Xbox Series X though, you will find a powerful console with impressive loading times—a small but potent machine that offers a worthy alternative to high-end gaming PCs going forward.

Coming off a very difficult generation, Microsoft definitely still has a lot of ground to make up, and there's still plenty of work to be done to rehabilitate its reputation among gaming enthusiasts. But this time, at least, I can say with some confidence that the best is yet to come.

After a very weak generation, Xbox Series X is a solid rebound for Microsoft. It's very powerful, its backward compatibility is impressive, and Xbox Game Pass is second to none. That said, the Xbox Series X still lacks a true killer app—a consistent issue going back to last generation—and touted features like Quick Resume are currently disabled in some instances. We're definitely optimistic about the future, but it might be best to take a wait and see approach before investing fully in the Xbox Series X.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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