DREAM TEAM
Edge|Christmas 2020
The Xbox Series goes double or quits on a player-first approach that could be the dark horse of the next generation
JEN SIMPKINS
One Xbox would never have been enough. Xbox One made sure of it: Microsoft’s 2013 console, designed as an all-in-one entertainment system, had difficulties right out of the gate. It was an innovative, expensive piece of tech that was way ahead of its time – so much so that the world roundly rejected its always-online aspirations, sending Microsoft into a tailspin of U-turns and compromises. Sony pounced upon its opportunity to come back from PS3’s disastrous debut – the “This is how you share your games on PS4” video will live in infamy – and swept the generation. This generation, however, Xbox is firing back with both barrels.

The momentum is usually with the underdog: we saw it last generation with Sony, as it worked to fix its poor policy decisions with PS3, while Microsoft took on the far less clearly defined task of figuring out a vision for the future of videogame consoles. This time, it’s team Xbox that’s had seven years to lick its wounds and come out fighting. But it’s done more than that. With the subscription model of Game Pass and an unselfconscious focus on PC cross-play, it’s built an ecosystem designed to extend the reach of Xbox beyond the flagship console, designed to meet potential players where they’re at. It has paid close attention to the way in which our relationship with media has changed over the past seven years. And in spite of Sony’s dominance over brand perception, with PlayStation positioned as the place to play exclusives, it has set itself up for success by working to understand and meet the practical needs of 2020’s consumer. A generation of social media users who have eschewed newspapers in favour of free-to-read websites, we want things fast, we want them easy and we want them cheap. We want it all our way, essentially. Xbox, it seems, is happy to give it to us, confident in the knowledge that, one way or the other, its generosity will pay dividends down the line.

“Player choice” is one of the most common phrases we hear while in conversation with Xbox development chief Jason Ronald. “We have a very gamer-centric approach to our strategy,” he says. “The way that we like to say it is: there’s eight billion people on the planet, half of them are connected to the Internet, and more than half of them play games every single day. So there’s more than two-and-a-half billion people on the planet who play videogames. How can we reach as many of those as quickly as possible?”

For the enthusiast market, there’s Xbox Series X. This is the Xbox everyone expected Microsoft to make. When it launches worldwide on November 10, it’s set to deliver four times the processing power of an Xbox One thanks to AMD’s latest Zen 2 and RDNA 2 architectures, offering developers up to 12 teraflops of GPU processing alongside variable-rate shading that can help game creators prioritise where exactly they want to leverage processing power, be it rendering at high resolution or stabilising framerates. Series X is capable of putting out resolutions of native 4K (up to 8K with upscaling), and is designed to run games at 60 frames per second as standard with the potential to reach 120 frames per second. There’s support for DirectX Raytracing, which furnishes games with incredibly realistic lighting and reflections via technology that recreates the way light bounces off surfaces and around scenes in real life. And Series X also contains Microsoft’s custom one-terabyte NVMe SSD, which allows the console to access 2.4 gigabytes of data per second – that’s around 40 times the speed Xbox One is capable of.

It’s this console that has landed in our hands for preview ahead of launch, a minimalist monolith that – although towering imposingly above the laid-flat Xbox One X and PS4 Pro we park it next to – feels right at home among Edge’s in-office setup. It’s mildly amusing to see Microsoft seemingly giving up on making Xbox look anything other than what it essentially is: a compact gaming PC. Its size is such that it absolutely refuses to fit inside our media unit unless we lay it horizontally, which, quite apart from the awkward aesthetics of it all, is clearly indicated to be the least optimal position in which to run Series X. Instead, it sits beside our media unit, and our PC, in a vertical orientation so that the Xbox logo on the power button remains the right way up, and the console can circulate air properly – in through the grille on the lower back of the unit, and up and out through the venting array on top of it.

In spite of the large fan visible just beneath it, this is easily the quietest console we’ve ever played, even while playing graphically intensive backward-compatible games such as Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Resident Evil 7 for multiple consecutive hours. And claims of heat-related meltdowns are hard to believe, too: we’ve rested a hand directly atop the console (and along the sides for good measure) after several hours of play and have yet to experience a temperature beyond ‘just below lukewarm’. Of course, there’s little to truly test the upper limits of its capabilities just yet, with only previous-generation titles to test out ahead of the ‘Optimised For Xbox Series X’ versions of cross-gen games developers are currently perfecting for release in future, including Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion and Hitman III, to name just a handful. The added layer of polish in graphical details is a fine, but detectable, one: Remedy’s hard work on Control’s Northlight Engine, for instance, is all the more noticeable on X even without the Optimised For Series X patch, with every shallow pockmark in concrete visible, dazzling reflections on obsidian surfaces and chair legs leaving impressions in plush carpets. Still, the impact of such slight visual improvements working on previous-gen titles soon fades.

What leaves a much more lasting impression, however, is the speed at which Series X operates in everything it does. In essence, this means lightning-fast load times: games that once took close to a minute to boot up we now find are ready to play in an average of about ten seconds. Resuming a suspended game of Control from the dashboard takes 11 seconds; Resident Evil 7, just six. Where once we had time to take a sip of tea as Destiny 2’s gear menu presented us with a few seconds of spinning wheel, it pops into view almost immediately – and you can forget about the framerate drops that plagued some of the busier PvE events on the previous-generation consoles. It feels for all the world like playing Destiny 2 on our PC, and this is before Bungie’s promised next-gen optimisation patch.

While the console we’re given for preview is a non-final unit, there’s the distinct sense that Series X has been ready to go for a good while now. Digital Foundry was invited to take an in-depth look at the console at the start of the year, and our test version arrives in full retail packaging regalia (which features art for the now-delayed Halo Infinite on the back of the box). Sony, with less to prove, has been comparatively slow off the mark with its test kits. It feels as though Xbox has been preparing for this new console generation for a long time, then, having perhaps seen which way the wind was blowing very early on in the last. Indeed, Series X has been in the works since 2016, Ronald confirms – “even before we had released the Xbox One X.” But from the beginning, the next generation of Xbox was never just about one console. “There’s been some discussion about the codename Scarlett: was Scarlett one console, two consoles, or whatnot? And the reality is that Project Scarlett was really our planning process for what the next generation of Xbox looks like.”

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