The Xbox Series X is billed as the most powerful video game console ever made. But with a meager lineup of games this year, that promise won’t mean much for a while.
Microsoft releases a new pair of consoles on Tuesday, kicking off the next generation of video games with better visuals and shorter load times. Bloomberg spent the last two weeks testing both products — the high-end Xbox Series X, which will sell for $500, and its smaller, less-powerful counterpart, the Xbox Series S, which will go for $300.
The consoles are sleek and easy to use. Games boot up almost immediately, even on the Series S. Loading screens aren’t completely gone, but they last a few seconds at most. Starting from the console’s home screen, there’s barely enough time to check Twitter before you’re off shooting aliens or raiding with Vikings. That’s probably the biggest selling point right now.
The new Xbox consoles and a competing product from Sony are the first major new game systems from these companies in seven years. Both debut next week, and expectations are high. The coronavirus pandemic has been good for video games and is expected to help lift spending on gaming products in the holiday shopping season by 24% from last year, according to research firm NPD Group.
For Microsoft, the new Xbox is a chance to redeem itself from a lackluster performance with the current console, the Xbox One. Although the company’s gaming sales have inched up in recent years, their share of Microsoft’s total revenue has declined. It was 8.1%, or $11.6 billion, in the last fiscal year. Compared with Sony, Microsoft is less reliant on games, and its stock is up 37% this year.
Another difference between Sony and Microsoft: The new Xbox arrives without a single exclusive. Every Xbox game set for release this year can be found elsewhere, whether it’s on the new PlayStation or the old Xbox. The most-anticipated game, Microsoft’s Halo Infinite, was delayed to next year. Its hero, Master Chief, is pictured on the back of the new Xbox’s packaging, serving as a glaring reminder of the game’s absence.
A lack of content is a typical issue for consoles in their first year or so on the market. Microsoft will try to balance that out with Xbox Game Pass, a subscription service akin to Netflix that offers access to new and old games for $10 a month. The Xbox Series S and X can play games that date back to 2005, when the Xbox 360 was released. For those who missed out on the best games of the past decade, like Red Dead Redemption and Dark Souls, this is a good way to catch up. Underrated gems like Nier Automata, Fallout New Vegas and Hollow Knight are also included with Game Pass.
Of course, you could stream all of that through Game Pass on a computer, smartphone or even on the Xbox One. Microsoft executives have said their new games will continue to be available on the Xbox One for the next year or two. And Microsoft’s recent $7.5 billion acquisition of Bethesda Softworks’ parent company will take years to deliver the kinds of exclusive, new games that sell consoles.
There are advantages to springing for the new Xbox, though. The Series X can run at least some games at 4K ultra-high-definition resolution and 60 frames per second. You need a fairly new television and a sharp eye to benefit from the former, but the latter makes a massive difference. With a higher frame rate, animations look smoother, controls feel more responsive, and the overall experience is far better. This may only matter to the biggest game enthusiasts, but after playing in this context, it’s tough to go back to old hardware.
A good showcase of the technology is Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s upcoming action-role-playing game, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. On the old Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, the game runs at 30 frames per second. The Xbox Series X stably doubles that capacity. Madden NFL 21 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon also run at the higher frame rate on the Xbox Series X. However, another Ubisoft game, Watch Dogs: Legion, does not, indicating that the experience will vary by title.
The cheaper Xbox Series S is a different story. It can’t display in 4K. The new Assassin’s Creed runs at the same slower frame rate as the old consoles, though Microsoft has said the hardware is capable of much higher. Otherwise, the Series S software interface looks identical to the Series X, the device itself is more svelte, and games load surprisingly fast.
But getting a video game console at launch is all about the possibilities. That is especially true for these new Xbox systems. For now, it’s only worth the purchase for those who really want to experience games on the highest-end console possible or those who didn’t buy a console last decade and want to catch up.