If you look at the batch of new video game consoles from Microsoft and Sony this year, you will find a lot of similarities. They have similar levels of power, will play a lot of the same games, and are designed around blazing-fast drives that dramatically improve loading times for all games (practically eliminating them, in some cases). But while the PlayStation 5 feels like a hard break between old and new, the new Xbox Series X and Series S feel more like an extension of what players already had. (More on the reason there are two different series models in a minute.)
This isnt a bad thing, to be clear. Its a bit like remodeling your home. Youre already comfortable in it and you like the general floorplan, but you can get a lot of mileage out of just ripping out the old carpet and maybe replacing the plumbing. So while the Xbox user interface is exactly the same now as it was before, and the controller is more or less identical, the upgraded innards still make for a worthwhile leap.
In fact, its impressive how well everything just works on these new Xbox systems from the second you plug one in. Your old games from the Xbox One, Xbox 360 and even the original Xbox? Most of those just load up without issue. Your Xbox One controllers? Just sync them up and start playing. The save files for all your games? Not only do they work, but the Xbox is smart enough to download them from the cloud the first time you launch a game.
With the Series X and Series S, Microsoft has created a set of consoles that are powerful, smart, and consumer friendly.
Its just a shame there arent more games to take full advantage of them yet.
One of the most impressive selling points of the new Xbox, as it is with Sonys competitor, is the speed at which games load and run. A game that could take half a minute or more to boot up on the last generation of consoles can, in many cases, be loaded in closer to 10 seconds on the new Xbox. Load times from within games, too, are much improved, cutting way down on the time it takes you to load up a new level, or get back into the action after failure, etc.
The Xbox takes things even further with an impressive new feature called Quick Resume. With this feature you can juggle multiple games at a time the same way you can have multiple apps running at once on your computer or phone, without needing to close one to go to another.
For instance, say youre engrossed in the beautiful 2D adventure game Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and you get a text from a friend inviting you to join him for some cooperative action in Gears 5. Without need to shut down or even pause the action in Ori, you can swap over to Gears, play for a few hours, and then jump right back into Ori at the exact spot you left off. There is no need to go back through the main menu, and you barely have to wait more than a couple of seconds to get back to where you were.
So sure, the raw power in these new systems is going to power more graphically impressive games in the years to come, but its functionality like Quick Resume that makes an immediate and positive impact on day-to-day gameplay.
The new Xbox comes in two distinct forms: The $500 Series X and the $300 Series S. The pricier Series X (which Microsoft sent us to review) is the more powerful of the two, is built to handle 4K gaming and comes with 1TB of internal storage. The Series S comes in a more compact box, is designed to max out at 1080p resolution, only has 512GB of storage and, perhaps most importantly, has no disc-drive (it is billed as an all-digital device).
But 512GB of storage, not all of which can even be used for games, will go fast. Even if you only play Call of Duty, that single game alone could take up more than a fifth of your storage space.
Both can be upgraded with a 1TB expansion card for $220. This is, to put it lightly, extremely pricey. Heck, its nearly the cost of the Series S console itself, and hopefully the cost will go down sooner rather than later. The price, though, is not without its justifications. That cost, while high, is in-line with the current rate for the type of super speedy, cutting-edge memory that is required to make the system work as-designed. Ideally, the price will drop in the coming years as the technology becomes less shiny and new.
If Microsofts transition to just referring to their console line as simply Xbox followed by a model number seems vaguely familiar, it might be because thats how we as consumers have been trained to think about phones. New models come out all the time and in various sizes and shapes, catering to different areas of the market. I might have bought the Max and you might have bought the SE, but we know we have access to the same library of apps and most of the same features.
Microsoft even offers a phone-like monthly payment plan that you can take advantage of, called Xbox All Access, if you dont want to pay for the entire console upfront. For $25 or $35 a month (for a Series S or X, respectively) for 24 months, you can get instant access to a new console as well as a two-year subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, Microsofts Netflix-like game subscription service.
And therein lies the true secret weapon Microsoft is banking on.
Despite releasing new consoles, Microsoft doesnt seem in a huge rush to get you onto their highest of high-end hardware. After all, every game that their studios are currently working on (including the next game in their flagship series, Halo) can work on existing Xbox systems. But instead of asking you to pay for copies of each game, they would rather get you hooked on a $10-$15 Game Pass subscription.
Every game that Microsoft publishes or owns, from Minecraft to Halo to, now, Doom Eternal, is on Game Pass. The service also includes a wide variety of different types of games from both big-name developers and small independent studios, whether you want quiet story-driven adventures, high-octane thrill rides or cerebral puzzle games.
As someone who plays (and buys) a lot of video games, I was personally skeptical when Game Pass was announced. But over the past year that I have been using the service, Ive come to consider it the best value in video games today.
You know that great feeling when you start hearing everybody talk about an amazing new show or movie, and then you realize that its available for a service you already have, like Netflix? Game Pass often feels that way, but with games. Games that you might not have been sure about spending $20-$60 to acquire on a whim can become your new favorite experiences, just because you already had access to them.
If you splurge for the Ultimate subscription at $15 a month, you also get access to a library of PC games as well as the ability to stream a large number of games to your Android device via the cloud. (iOS support is being worked on, but Apple has been throwing up road blocks.)
For many people, the games included in Game Pass will be more than enough to keep you occupied throughout the year, and Microsoft hopes its enough to keep you coming back. Theyll happily sell you a new box to play the games on, sure, but it matters less than getting you hooked on their service.
Video games are my primary hobby. I spend far more time with them than I spend watching TV or listening to music. In that context, upgrading to an Xbox Series X is a bit of a no-brainer. Better framerates, faster loading times and the guarantee that Ill be able to keep up with the newest games for the next several years is worth the price of admission, and I know Im far from alone in that mindset. Its great that I would have been able to play the next Halo on my existing console, but I want to make sure I have the best experience that I can from the comfort of my couch.
In that sense, the Xbox Series X shines. It is a very solid piece of technology, and anyone who has spent countless hours with an Xbox One probably owes it to themselves to look into an upgrade -- if not now, then in the future.
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