Back in May 2013, I sat in my office with our Xbox editor, Will Johnson, and watched Microsoft unveil their Xbox One system. As you’ve probably seen with the video that was produced on YouTube that year, the focus of the presentation was more about television and sports, and less about games. After the presentation was over, I know that Will and I had a nice discussion about this oddity. Why would a game system presentation not focus on games? It seemed odd and it seemed counterproductive of what MS was wanting to sell. Anyway, it was enormously baffling and the presentation, as well as the aftermath, caused a change of management, which was for the better.
Since then, Microsoft brought in industry expert Phil Spencer, and his crew, to right the Xbox ship and put it back on course competitively against Sony. Since doing that, Spencer has done one helluva job with pulling the system out of this generation’s abyss and has been open/honest along the way about Microsoft’s plans for future consoles and games, which I have a large amount of respect for because there isn’t enough of honesty in the industry.
Once established in his position, Spencer’s first big contribution to the Xbox world was assuring everyone that the focus was going back to where it belonged, which was on games. Showing off upcoming titles, revealing exclusives and looking towards the future of gaming (Hololens) in hopes of calming down Xbox fans seemed first and foremost. It was a good decision that has paid off over time, as I assume he knew it would take some to get back gamer confidence.
The second move Spencer did was introducing a more compact and 4K-friendly Xbox One system with the Xbox One S. The Xbox One S helped to de-ugly the Xbox One system and add an additional component to the system’s value, which was the ability to play 4K discs. This was a move that was comparable to the PlayStation 2/Dreamcast brief war, where the inclusion of the DVD-ROM in the PS2 made it a better value in comparison to the GD-ROM led (wtf) Sega Dreamcast. The price point of the One S was also nice, coming in at $299 at launch, which was cheaper than most 4K players at the time. It was a good move that injected some life into the Xbox One’s gaming status.
Now, in Spencer’s latest move to let you know that Microsoft has committed itself to making a true gaming machine, Spencer and his crew introduce the Xbox One X, an updated version of the Xbox One that features a lot more power under the hood. Geared towards dedicated gamers, though not dedicated enough to go the PC gaming route, the fancy system is certainly the most powerful piece of hardware that delivers on all the promises Microsoft made during its announcements.
I say that with the most skeptical of gaming minds. It had a lot to live up to when it was first announced and it didn’t disappoint.
Anyway, let’s break this marvel down.
Upon unboxing this beauty, I was surprised to find a rather tiny and compact piece of machinery. The size of the Xbox One X is probably half the size of a PlayStation 2, think somewhere around the size of a PlayStation 2 Slim, but with some bulk to it. It certainly will fit just about anywhere and isn’t nearly the eyesore that the original Xbox One was in its 1980s VHS player from factor. The Xbox One X is sleek, stylish and it looks like what a good system should look like.
As I was unboxing this thing, one of the most notable aspects of it was the system’s weight. The weight of the Xbox One X is seems a lot heavier than the Xbox One, as well as the PlayStation 4 Pro. While the official weight hits around 8.5 pounds, it felt more like 10. For such a small system, I was baffled on how much weight it felt like it contained. Where the hell is that weight coming from? If I had to guess, because I don’t feel confident in my older age in breaking it open to confirm, I would suspect that fans and power supply add the most in this particular category. Unlike the Xbox One and the Xbox 360, the Xbox One X took the Xbox One S route and got rid of the outside power brick and stuffed it inside the system. It’s a good move, but it certainly adds to the bulk. Of course, I personally would prefer never seeing that power brick again and it makes sense that it would be placed inside the system. By doing so, though, the system runs the risk of getting hot, which should cause loud fan noises from the system trying to disperse the heat. Need an example? You should check out the PlayStation 4 Pro, which sounds like a freaking plane landing because of the hardware heat and the fans trying to prevent the system from melting (kidding about the melting, but definitely prevents overheating).
Anyway, with the power supply now inside and the power of the system increased exponentially, the system should sound loud, right? There’s a lot of heat gathering, and you can feel that at times on the topside of the system, so it needs to keep itself in check with lots of cooling, right? Shockingly, and I mean this is the first thing multiple people have said this past week spending time with the system, the thing is silent as a sleeping kid in church. I played games on this all week, intense games such as Assassin’s Creed Origins and Call of Duty WWII, and not a peep. It just ran silently and there were times where I forgot the system was actually on. In addition to gaming, I also watched the entire Planet Earth II series in 4K in a single sitting and not one sound came from the Xbox One X. By the way, if you get the system or you have a 4K player, then you need to get Planet Earth II 4K disc. Good lord, what a pretty show.
Anyway, whatever magic Microsoft and their design crew performed on this system to keep it in check and working without a peep they need a raise for their efforts. It is quite amazing. It’s small, compact and quiet. Those are not three things that come with the most powerful system in this generation.
One shortfall of the system’s design, if there has to be one, is the operating system. I’ve been a huge proponent of the tile system on Window’s phones forever. I was even a fan of it on the first versions of the Microsoft Surface. It has its place and functionality depending on the hardware. How well does this work on the Xbox One X? Well, I’m not a fan. I think the OS is a mixture of that Windows Phone tile system and Windows 8, which is not the greatest combination. There’s a reason why they stuffed that tile system inside of Windows 10 start button, and never mentioned what happened to Windows 8, as it’s an atrocious OS to navigate.
Anyway, the operating system is confusing as hell, if you’re not used to it. It is, to say it politely, an HCI nightmare. Accessing your games means you have to go to your profile, then go to My Apps & Games. You can pin your games on certain menus, but it seems overly complicated without much rhyme to the reason. That’s not to say that the OS isn’t manageable, I mean it is and obviously I found a method to work around its inconsistencies, but it shouldn’t be complicated to navigate or feel like a chore, which it does. It needs more simplicity to it and a little bit more organization. I’m not saying take the PlayStation XMB idea and run with it, but definitely think about who uses the system or maybe even go back to the original Xbox 360 OS, which was spectacular. Regardless, the OS is the only downer in the functionality, as it becomes more of a hassle than an easy environment to navigate between games, apps and purchases.
Shifting over to games, I’ve been impressed with what is added to the experience using this system. Let’s break down some notable games that are enhanced for this system’s capabilities.
I know that I have more than a few reviewers who have stuffed their ears with cotton when I told them that the next iteration of systems will more than likely be more modular than as-is. This means that when you need to upgrade your GPU, then you’ll have something to slide out/in to replace it. When you need to upgrade your processor it will be the same deal. Slowly but surely we’re moving towards a more PC-driven console structure, where pieces and parts will be adjustable for the experience — this also includes changing how a game can be seen through the game’s settings menu. In the PC world, you can do that with games (see Destiny 2’s unlockable frame rate on the PC for details), but it hasn’t been a needed functionality until this system arrived, as most console games were built for the hardware that was locked (kind of like how arcade games are built).
Rise of the Tomb Raider was the first game I tried out on the Xbox One X. It was a spectacular experience back when I reviewed it, when it was an exclusive for the Xbox One, and it hasn’t changed at all in terms of gameplay enjoyment. It’s an incredibly deep gameplay experience that captures the essence and enjoyment of Tomb Raider’s original intent back in the late 1990s. What has changed, though, is the ability to go into the settings menu of the game and select how you experience it. The ways you can play Rise of the Tomb Raider are as follows:
Enriched Visuals: This actually improves the visuals for a 4K experience, while also maintaining 30fps in the game. You get a lot more details in the picture, lots of environment details and better textures that set the mood of the game, plus more details on Lara Croft’s character model (see her hair for exact details). The lighting and shading have been dramatically improved with this option as well, so it’s very noticeable.
High Frame rate: A smoother frame rate, though not as lush and 4K as you might want. I think this option was added in the enhancement update for those bitching/moaning about 60fps gameplay. As I’ve stated in the past, I’m not an enormously passionate person when it comes to frame rate. As long as the frame rate stays around 30fps, then you’ll have no complaints from me. I know there are a lot of gamers out there that genuinely say their experience is ruined on consoles because of frame rate. I can’t fathom why, but to each their own. Anyway, the 60fps does look smooth in this option, though, so those dying for that frame rate, plus some nice visuals to booth, will be happy.
Native 4K: This option ensures you get Native 4K resolution from the game at 30fps.
Regardless of your category of choice, the fact that you can now choose how to play your game visually is incredibly nice. In the end, Rise of the Tomb Raider is still damn good, but the enhanced version of it makes the experience on the Xbox One X something special. It also brings console games closer to a PC experience, which doesn’t happen often in the console industry.
Anyway, if you have never played Rise of the Tomb Raider, or if you haven’t played it since the release, the enhancement makes the experience worth your time. It’s really an impressively fun game to play on the new system.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
I reviewed this recently on the PlayStation 4 Pro, so I’m not going to get too much into the gameplay, as you probably already know it’s one of the best games of 2017, definitely in the top five. It’s an expansive version of the AC universe that goes above and beyond what it should be and delivers well above expectations. In short, it’s a good game that you need to own.
The game has some differences, though not enormously major, when played on the Xbox One X versus the PlayStation 4 Pro. One of the bigger differences is that there isn’t a lot of rendering going on with the textures. If you know anything about how good a game is working on hardware, then you understand when a game features a lot of texture rendering versus one that doesn’t. The PS4 Pro features a decent amount of rendering as you go through ACO’s levels. None of it is jarring, but it is noticeable, especially when you have Bayek climbing through higher terrains and mountains, while trying to maintain a large amount of background environment. Lands tend to pop-in with details and textures seem to right themselves as you move through them. Again, it’s nothing jarring, mainly because the game is so beautiful and big, but it’s there.
With the Xbox One X version of the game, there is much less rendering going on with the landscape and a few more details added that I didn’t notice when originally reviewing ACO. The rendering was far less as I traveled through the same mountainous areas I had on the PlayStation. For example, when going through the Isolated Desert region, I had a lot of mountains to climb, which were rendering like quite often on the PS4 Pro. This time around, the Xbox One X seemed to handle them better, as the textures came as-is with details, though there was some rendering here and there. This particular region in the game has nothing but desert and mountains, so it was noticeable when it happened.
Outside of improved texture rendering, there appeared to be more effects added to the environment that I hadn’t noticed on the PS4 Pro. For example, when I was in the Giza region, in the distance there were two pyramids. They were part of the background and I could see the heat from the desert in front of them actually making the view a bit wavy. I honestly had not noticed that effect before seeing it on the Xbox One X version of the game, but I’m highly impressed with it this time around.
Another big improvement between the PS4 Pro version of this and the Xbox One X is the inclusion of more detailed and present draw distance. While there was certainly a good amount of it with the PS4 Pro version, but it’s more noticeable and detailed with the Xbox One X version. This means you can see more detail in the distance and it creates a better illusion for the environment and place in the game. Again, that’s not to say such things don’t exist in the PS4 Pro version, but they’re more detailed and seem to be handled better with the Xbox system.
Ultimately, you get the same great game, but it’s just a few more little things that make it a little bit better of an experience along the way. The inclusion of 4K visuals also add some good value to the gaming experience. These things make it a must-have for Xbox One X owners.
Call of Duty: WWII
You can read Alex’s great review of the game here, but you should know that the 4K and more powerful GPU capabilities of this system make this game a lot prettier. Much like ACO, the textures are pretty much intact and rendered when you happen upon them in the gameplay, which makes for a visually stunning experience as the game sucks you in. The 4K capabilities of the game really make all of that stand out, so you’re going to get right into the thick of it all. It can be incredibly intense and uncomfortable, especially when you’re storming the beaches of Normandy.
Anyway, simply a gorgeous way of playing the game outside of a PC experience.
While all of the above games are only a taste of the 20 games that Microsoft sent us with our review unit, and we’ll review newer titles in the coming weeks, specifically when Battlefront II makes its debut, the current enhancement and updates for releases already out in the wild is impressive. Developers and Microsoft did a good job of bringing out some of those enhancements and made the re-experience of them worth the time. They are certainly worthy fillers.
That said, I think that Microsoft has a big task ahead of itself with pulling new customers into the mix with the functionality of this system. They have to make sure that these enhancements and capabilities really shine through in future titles, especially when it comes to first-party games.. I suspect that they will communicate properly with developers and make the most out of their games on the Xbox One X system. I also suspect that going into menus and changing settings will become a permanent fixture in future console games, as they should be.
It’s difficult to argue the $499 price because it includes a nice 4K Blu-ray player, better specs than the $399 PS4 Pro and the system delivers on its promises. It’s a solid price for all of that in one package. I’m not sure mom/dad would lay down the dough for their son/daughter that isn’t a serious gamer. Clearly this price tag is geared towards those serious about gaming. This thing is built like a horse that needs to be rode by an experienced gaming jockey, so that probably leaves the casual console gamer back on the Xbox One S for now. I’m sure Spencer and MS wouldn’t be broken hearted about that at all.
Regardless, the price is worth the product. I wasn’t sure it would be when this system was first announced, but it is.