Xbox Series X review: boring is better

If I judged Microsoft’s new video game console, the Xbox Series X, purely as a piece of hardware, I’d only need one word: boring.

The Xbox Series X is the antithesis of its predecessor, a console that proved to be many things, none of which were boring, though many of which were infuriating. Microsoft infamously spent its public reveal of the Xbox One in 2013 talking about everything but video games. The console reflected those priorities.

The Xbox One featured a grab bag of technological gimmickry. Through the initially mandatory Kinect peripheral, you could control menus and apps with hand gestures and voice. The instruction manual encouraged new owners to run their cable box through the game console, and voilà: The Xbox became a centralized media hub. A “snappable” user interface could display MLB box scores from one app while you surfed Netflix in another window. Novelties extended beyond the hardware itself with projects like Microsoft’s SmartGlass app, a forgotten attempt at “second screen” integration, in which players would fumble with their tablet while trying to enjoy Halo.

With the Xbox Series X, Microsoft has, without a hint of subtlety, taken the opposite approach. Wise decision!

The console still plays 4K ultra HD Blu-rays and runs a suite of streaming entertainment apps, but they’re tucked into folders and menus. There’s no Kinect this go-round, and the HDMI input has been scrapped. Microsoft has built a console with one core focus, which is to play games and to play them well.

The goal is more complicated than it sounds, as great technological solutions often are. In the past, players expected a video game console to holster new video games and then play them. Cause and effect. But we have different expectations these days. A console should play discs, but also connect to an online storefront. Games should seamlessly update while we’re asleep or busy at work. When we play games online with friends, the new console should connect with players still using old hardware or competing consoles. And our save files from our old systems should just work on the new one. The same goes for our games, and on new hardware, old games ideally should run better than they did before. We want our games, data, and experiences to transfer without friction or confusion, or fear that we’ll lose anything in the process.

All of which is to say, we’re spending more money and more time on video games than ever before, and the job of a new console is to respect that. The value of the Xbox Series X is hard to hype up because the console so elegantly delivers on these expectations in the least exciting ways.

Nearly everything just works.

So, the Xbox Series X is boring, but after a month with the console, I can say, confidently, that boring is underrated. In fact, boring is better.

Should I buy an Xbox Series X?

OK, but should you buy it? That’s the question, right? I can imagine two groups of people who should consider buying the Xbox Series X right now:

Longtime Xbox fans who want the best experience and will pay for it.

Thanks to a series of flashy acquisitions, including the in-progress purchase of Bethesda Softworks, the Xbox Series X will eventually have a smorgasbord of exclusive games of varying genres and scopes. But at launch, it has no major exclusive. None.

The Xbox Series X plays the same games as its predecessor, the Xbox One, just better, faster, and at higher resolutions. There’s practically zero friction in making the leap from the past to the present. After booting the Xbox Series X for the first time, I signed into my profile, opened my game library, and downloaded a dozen games from the collection of the 100-plus titles that I’ve accrued over the past decade and change.

Each game pulled save files that had been uploaded to the cloud, and within an hour of unpacking the console, I was right where I’d left off with my games, whether I’d played them a week ago or many years ago.

On the Xbox Series X, every game ran better. The frame rates were higher, the load times were considerably shorter, and the system’s auto HDR functionality improved the colors (sometimes dramatically) in older games that hadn’t been calibrated by their creators for the high dynamic range lighting available on modern televisions.

To cut the jargon: Playing games from previous consoles on the Xbox Series X is like wearing rose-colored glasses. You see games how you remember them, not as the slow-to-boot, graphically choppy experiences they actually were back then.

I also tested a handful of new games like Watch Dogs: Legion on both the Xbox Series X and a high-end PC (with an Intel Core i9-9900K CPU and GeForce RTX 3080 GPU). Unsurprisingly, the PC versions ran better and offered more ways to fine-tune the visuals. But did they run so much better as to justify the significantly higher cost of the hardware? No. Not even close.

For this fall, I strongly recommend investing in a console like the Xbox Series X instead of the latest and greatest graphics cards. In the next couple of years, Nvidia and AMD will undoubtedly release new GPUs that humble the Series X — the current cards already do on paper. But for this moment, AAA games appear to be well-optimized for consoles. The experience is smoother, cheaper, and not that much worse than what you’ll get on a setup that will cost four to five times as much.

Video game newcomers… who also want the best experience and will pay for it.

For folks who don’t already have an overflowing library of Xbox games, the Xbox Series X is the best system for using Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s “Netflix but for video games.” If you subscribe to Game Pass, you’ll have access to a couple hundred games across the Xbox generations, along with every new game published by Microsoft.

You’ll get big franchises, like Halo, Gears of War, and Forza. You’ll get medium-sized games, like State of Decay and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. You’ll get classics like Fable 2 and indie darlings like CrossCode and Ikenfell.

On the Xbox Series X, all of these games run to near-maximum potential. I say “near” because the Series X isn’t as powerful as a top-of-the-line gaming PC, though again, the console costs a fraction of the price and spares you the numerous headaches many people (myself included) still experience with PC gaming, despite the strides it has made in simplicity and reliability.

So those are Microsoft’s ideal customers. On the flip side, I can imagine many groups of people who do not need the Xbox Series X. A short and incomplete list:

People who don’t own a 4K TV and don’t plan to get one in the near future.

The Xbox Series X was designed for 4K gaming (and 8K video). In fact, the console is so powerful that some of its features won’t even work on older 4K TVs. To take advantage of the console’s ability to play games at 120 frames per second, for example, you’ll need a very new, very high-end television like the LG CX.

People who currently own an Xbox One, especially an Xbox One X, and do not need or even want to play games at maximum settings at this very moment.

Commendable! As a culture, video game fans tend to fixate on the newest and the best. But for now, nearly every Xbox game will work just fine on your existing hardware.

People who already own a top-of-the-line gaming PC.

A great PC can do the majority of what the Xbox Series X can do, and often better. Make the most of your $2,000-plus investment.

People who want to get into video games (for the first time or after a long hiatus) but are totally cool with a slightly less powerful console that costs less.

If all of this section reads like word salad, you probably will prefer the cheaper, less powerful Xbox Series S, which costs $200 less than the $499.99 Series X, but plays the same games and has most of the same new features that the Xbox One lacks. (You can learn more about the Xbox Series S in Polygon’s review by my colleague Maddy Myers.)

Don’t mistake these caveats as a sharp criticism of the Xbox Series X. They’re quite the opposite. That the Xbox Series X is unnecessary for a swath of gamers reflects Microsoft’s accommodating (though hardly altruistic) approach to video games. No longer does the company create one fancy, new, expensive box that intends to take over your living room. Xbox is now a brand, and the console is just one of many delivery methods for all of its intangible products and ideas.

Y’know, I guess calling the Xbox Series X boring is like calling celery boring even when it’s covered in peanut butter. True, sure, but also missing the point.

Game Pass is the Xbox Series X’s killer app

So yes, the controller is nearly identical to its predecessor, barring the overdue addition of a capture button. And Microsoft hasn’t made any significant changes to the user interface.

But!

But the Xbox Series X connects you to Microsoft’s video game microverse, and it’s currently the easiest, most fascinating, and most affordable means of playing video games.

Xbox Game Pass offers a greater value than any one launch game. For $9.99 a month, owners of Xbox consoles from the Xbox One onward get access to hundreds of games, including every new Microsoft title, like the upcoming Halo Infinite. As Microsoft acquires additional studios and forms more partnerships, this service will grow even larger like when Microsoft closes its acquisition of Bethesda, the publisher of franchises such as Doom, The Elder Scrolls, and Fallout. For people with a limited budget, Game Pass is the best option for stretching every dollar while still playing a bunch of solid games.

Microsoft also offers a $14.99 tier of the service called Game Pass Ultimate, which includes the Xbox games, a selection of Electronic Arts classics and new releases, and a library of Windows PC games. Game Pass Ultimate subscribers may also stream certain games onto Android mobile devices. It’s still early days for that service, xCloud, but its very existence supports the argument that Microsoft doesn’t care where people play games or on what platform, so long as it’s through the Xbox services. Maybe that’s the Xbox Series X. Or maybe some folks will only experience the next Halo through the Xbox app.

For folks who prefer to buy games, Microsoft still supports Xbox Play Anywhere, which, for certain titles, allows Xbox game owners to play the PC version for free. And as I mentioned earlier, all of the above services take advantage of cloud saves, so progress from one platform to the next is seamless and frustration-free.

The Xbox Series X’s fancy graphics are bested by quality-of-life improvements

Having bounced between platforms while reviewing the Xbox Series X, I must say that I prefer it above my other options. Stuck at home during the pandemic, I rarely use my Android phone for streaming games. My PC is nice, but after work, I prefer time on the couch. The Xbox Series X has spoiled me with the snap-fast loading times compared to its predecessor, and the graphics that take full advantage of our “nice” TV, rather than the 10-year-old 1080p display in my office, which had sufficed for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 generation.

Without any new exclusives, I’ve spent most of my time revisiting favorites, like Crackdown, Fusion Frenzy, and Hydro Thunder Hurricane. The console’s auto HDR feature makes them vibrant. Load times on the classics are nearly nonexistent, giving them a new energy and pace that I love. A real pep in their step.

As for new games designed to take advantage of all this power, I’ve dug into Dirt 5, Watch Dogs: Legion, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The games themselves are enjoyable continuations of three reliable series. They look noticeably nicer than their counterparts on the Xbox One, particularly Watch Dogs: Legion’s ray-traced lighting (a fancy way of saying that it looks more lifelike). But honestly, the visual standouts have been Microsoft’s recent first-party games. Gears 5 and Forza Horizon 4 look spectacular, the latter in particular. Developer Playground Games’ virtual United Kingdom is overflowing with stone fences, adorable cottages, and one of the best skies in video games, and the game runs smooth as butter, even as you zip through the countryside at 150 mph. These are the two most impressive games on the console today, and considering how many people skipped Microsoft’s exclusives in the last generation, they may as well be brand-new releases for millions of potential players.

The visual improvements are comparable to those of previous generational leaps: relatively simple graphical upgrades at launch, giving everything a nice paint job. We won’t see the real potential of this hardware for a couple of years, as developers learn how to optimize it to its full capabilities.

Until then, the Xbox Series X deserves praise for its substantial quality-of-life improvements — in particular, its excellent storage system. The console’s 1 TB SSD is built with the “Xbox Velocity Architecture,” which is a silly marketing term that translates to: Damn, games load fast. Like, wowza. If you haven’t used NVMe SSDs on a PC, the dramatically shortened load times will be a revelation. Old games load almost instantaneously. The system itself boots in seconds. And I can hop into large open-world games like Watch Dogs: Legion so quickly that when the load screen appears, I no longer instinctively check my phone to kill time. And if, like me, you have a short attention span, the console’s Quick Resume feature, which lets you rapidly swap between games and apps wherever you left off, is a godsend.

Does any of this make for a splashy commercial? Nope. But it does make for a reliable, pleasurable experience. The console disappears, letting me focus on the games. That’s the point.

Xbox Series X: It just works

The Xbox Series X looks like an Xbox One that swallowed a refrigerator, and runs like an Xbox One that swallowed a Lambo. It’s fast, sturdy, and unobtrusive, its goals and capabilities encapsulated in its brutalist industrial design.

Its contemporary, the PlayStation 5, comes with a futuristic new controller and a space-age console design that looks like an abandoned Epcot pavilion. It looks and feels like a destination, because it is: Sony’s future lives on its latest console. Similarly, the minimalist design of the Xbox Series X speaks to Microsoft’s own ambitions. Behold, the video game equivalent of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A big, blunt brick that radiates power.

The Xbox Series X isn’t the home of Microsoft’s gaming universe; it’s just one of many nodes, connecting outward to your phone, your tablet, your computer, or just a different (and cheaper) Xbox. It’s not the place to play video games. It’s a place to play video games not only from the future, but also from the present and the past.

The Xbox Series X is boring. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Xbox Series X will be released worldwide on Nov. 10. This review was conducted with a final retail Xbox Series X provided by Microsoft. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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