Would you look at that, November is here and that means the smell of new consoles is in the air. Since last week my ISP has probably been trying to work out what is going on, because things have been downloading almost non-stop as I flitted from game to game, trying to see what had changed and put the new Xbox Series X through its paces.
The power of next-gen
For a long time now, the power of the next-gen consoles has been waved around. Where a few generations ago, console announcements would have a lot in common with an Apple keynote, things have gotten closer to the PC hardware reveals. Talk of teraflops, read speeds, gigawhatsits and all the rest have been spoken about SO much that I refuse to list all the specifications again. The proof is in the pudding, really.
Despite the narrative shifting over to architecture, nomenclature and a list of tech jargon, when playing on a console, you want convenience and to focus on your gaming. The Xbox Series X is all about that, thankfully. Higher frame rates across pretty much all titles you try, as well as a resolution bump. Your games are going to look better now, no doubt about it. I spent so much time hopping between games to play with smoother framerates, to enjoy a sunset or a reflection on a metal surface or a puddle on the ground. There are several things that all contribute to you spending more time playing games and less time waiting around. The biggest one? That SSD.
Goodbye load screens
Swapping over to an SSD means load times are lightning quick. Some games flash up their splash screen for a second before heading into the game, and it has put the fast back into fast-travel. I hopped into Ori and the Will of the Wisps to mess around a bit and finish off some of the side quests and hunt down the various collectables scattered around the map. Where on my Xbox One there was a noticeable pause after finishing the fast travel animation and I had to wait for the next area to load, everything is super smooth now, with the end of the animation syncing up with the loading of the next zone, making the transition happen how it was always supposed to. Some games load up a whole minute faster, which means a lot less time sitting around waiting for something to happen.
Quick Resume makes getting back into the action that bit faster, and I love it.
I have often argued that if a load time is long enough that I reach for my phone or my Sudoku puzzle book, then there is a good chance the game has lost my attention. I can’t remember once picking up my phone because I was waiting this week. In fact, there are load screen hints in Yakuza: Like a Dragon that I have never been able to read because they pop up and then disappear again before I have a chance.
Another element that ties into this new speediness is the Quick Resume feature. On paper, it is easy to confuse this with the way your Xbox One could be put to sleep and you could continue where you left off. The big change here is that instead of just one game being ready for this, it looks like 4 to 6 games can be saved directly into storage, similar to how a smartphone does to task switch. Then when you load the game, you can Quick Resume and continue exactly where you left off. No going through those various splash screens, hitting continue, loading your save, yadda yadda yadda. Were you driving around in Forza hunting down billboards to smash? Your car is where you left off, ready to continue. Similarly, my Yakuza Like a Dragon game was ready to go, just where I stopped in a park to beat up specific enemies for the loot I needed for a new weapon.
I am hoping in time they let you manage which games you want to Quick Resume, or set certain games to be ready for you, but it makes getting back into the action that bit faster, and I love it.
The new UI
While the new UI for the Xbox Series is now the same on the Xbox One, things feel a lot more organised. I haven’t felt comfortable with the UI since the blades system went away (yeah, yeah) and now things just feel more organised. Flipping from page to page depending on what I am doing makes sense, and I don’t need to use the bumpers to get around, I can just move around with the stick instead. I also like how it recommends achievements that I got close to earning, but maybe stopped playing or forgot about.
The Xbox Series controller has a lot in common with the original Xbox One controller. It is almost the same size and heft, and besides for a dedicated picture or clip capture button and the changed D-pad, the layout looks the same. Some small details are immediately observed when you pick it up. The grips and the triggers have been textured so that they offer a much more comfortable feel. Once you have your finger on a trigger or the controller in your hands, it feels like you won’t slip by mistake and it just makes me feel a bit more confident in handling and hanging onto the thing. It also helps that pressing the triggers down no longer has that telltale sound, as there is soft rubber that makes it that you still know your press was registered, but without a sound.
Touching the Xbox One D-pad now feels weak and lacking in feedback compared to the satellite dish configuration that is on show here.
Another immediate and welcome change is the D-pad. Sure, we are definitely seeing more and more games moving away from heavy D-pad usage, but if you liked to use it in fighting games or heavy arcade action titles, having a smoother, easier to press D-pad is a welcome change. Touching the Xbox One D-pad now feels weak and lacking in feedback compared to the satellite dish configuration that is on show here.
Despite the very slight changes, I found it a lot easier to use the pads of my index fingers to hit the bumpers, rather than curling my fingers to use the tip of my index fingers to hit LB and RB. My hands aren’t dinner plates, but they are meaty, and I just prefer to hold the controller with my fingers resting on it.
My one gripe is a ridge at the top of the controller that you don’t really see until you take a good look at it. Moving your fingers from the front to the back of the controller isn’t an issue, but your fingers will catch on a noticeable little lip doing the reverse, and I have concerns that this will be the place where gunk ends up sitting, waiting to be cleaned out.
Is… is this thing on?
The Xbox Series X runs quiet. I almost feel like I could leave this sub-section at that and move on, but let me say it again. The machine is quiet. After playing for hours on a warm Saturday afternoon, I didn’t hear a peep. I even turned my ceiling fan off and the game sound down to try and hear the machine, but it just sat there on my TV stand, keeping any comments about the weather to itself. I have played for long enough to kill my first set of batteries in the controller and I haven’t heard anything from the machine except for its start-up beep. Not having to turn up the volume to drown out a noisy fan is a definite perk, and knowing it is crunching more pixels now while not singing about it? Thanks.
Okay but what about this game?
One thing I did notice is that while games in the store will proudly show a little logo to tell you if a game is optimised for Series X, or just running the game backwards compatible, those icons disappear when you are looking at your games. There is a nice big Game Pass logo, so why not have the other logos there? It feels like I need to go digging for the information on a per-game basis, rather than being able to tell as a glance. Some of this is the price of playing games on the console before it releases, but there are a few games that will only be optimised in December or even later.
This is familiar
A lot about the Xbox Series X is pretty familiar. The controller looks very similar, the console is still a black box with clean, no-nonsense lines, just slightly taller than before. Couple this with the same UI used on Xbox One and Xbox Series and this new console really shatters any illusions you might be hanging onto that consoles are anything but PCs in a nice form-factor for your TV stand.
The Xbox Series X might not go reinvent the wheel, or win awards for some quantum shift in design ethos, but it builds and refines on every strength of the previous generation to make a satisfying yet familiar experience, where a laundry list of refinements add up into something pretty exquisite.