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Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One X

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Review: Microsoft’s Xbox One X

Microsoft

The future is sitting on my shelf right now. This premium console, sporting a highly advanced processor, can play games from across three generations of consoles. It also includes a drive for a brand new home-media disc format for watching movies and playing games at a higher resolution than we've ever seen. Yes, the PlayStation 3 was a special system all right, but it was one that was fraught with risk factors—from its exorbitant price to its betting the farm on A/V standards that only a fraction of its audience has adopted yet—and it's bizarre to watch Microsoft attempt all those same gambles in 2017 with the Xbox One X, considering how it turned out for Sony in 2006.

Sony foisted the PS3's Blu-ray player on a marketplace that only just started figuring out what high-definition even was. Meanwhile, in 2017, 4K TVs are commonplace and far more cheaper than HDTVs were in 2006, and the infant 4K UHD Blu-ray format has far more stunning demo-disc material for the One X to show off than the Blu-ray format did in its nascent years.

The PS3 was released with a weak slate of launch titles, and for those jumping on the Xbox bandwagon for the first time, the One X has an instant library of hundreds of titles that, if not exclusive to the system, are in their best possible form on it. And perhaps most important is the fact that the PS3's Cell processor was a labyrinthine mess to program on, notoriously causing several high-profile titles to run worse than their Xbox 360 counterparts. The One X is more like a high-end PC, which is the exact factor that made the 360 the system of choice for many developers in the previous console generation, leading to the best versions of some of its most beloved games.

That's the main hook here for players and developers, and to answer the $64,000 question: Yes, the One X certainly does exactly what Microsoft has been touting in soft, reverent, and Manhattan Project-like tones the last few years. Whether a developer decides to put out a dedicated One X-dedicated patch or not, the extra horsepower—in layman terms, 1.5 times what the PlayStation 4 Pro is capable of—pushes console games far above and beyond what they've been capable of for most of this generation, which could mean anything from upscaling to 4K resolution, to higher framerates, to faster load times. Even if the change is subtle, there's absolutely no doubt that the One X makes a noticeable and welcome difference to its entire library.

At bare minimum, the One X can give a game some extra quality-of-life boosts. Pretty much every title benefits from being upscaled to 4K if it wasn't operating around that resolution before, with some games, like ReCore and Mass Effect, getting a nice upgrade in sharpness and clarity if nothing else. Elsewhere, the recently released Cuphead doesn't gain anything visually, but the game suffered from some long load times when leaving a boss area to return to the overworld map, and those load times, sometimes up to a minute, have now been cut by at least half. Games like Bayonetta, Rage, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Red Dead Redemption, which were absolute miracles on the technical level already, see similar improvements, with known problem areas (Bayonetta's Climax attacks, Rage's buggy races, Revengeance's Blade Mode attacks, Red Dead Redemption's weather changes) ironed out nicely, even beyond the minor boost provided by the One S.

The Xbox One X is an impressive piece of hardware, and it takes care of a big chip on Microsoft’s shoulder.

The benefits of the extra power feel more impressive unleashed on games with unlocked framerates, or where performance was tied to the GPU/CPU limits of the prior Xbox systems. A prime example is Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, a baffling remaster that should've been a total home run on current-gen hardware, and yet suffered from wildly variable framerates, load times, and freezing, even on the PS4 Pro with its Boost Mode enabled. Busy areas still show some minor hitches, but by and large, the game hits a perfect 60fps on the One X far more consistently—and as it does on the PC—than on any other console. The same goes for Assassin's Creed: Rogue and Grand Theft Auto IV, two games that have never played well on the 360 but are far more likely to reach for the 60fps promised land on the One X.

The most blessed improvement in that regard is the original Dark Souls, which was capped at 30fps but was so poorly optimized for consoles that even more than one enemy in an area could completely make the game into a slideshow, let alone the first appearances of a screen-filling dragon, or long-standing performance disasters like Blighttown. The worst-playing areas appear to be resolved, making the game, at long last, playable on consoles. The console doesn't fix every problem in every game—Ninja Gaiden Black's load times are still awful; Halo: Reach's framerate is stable now, even if, visually, the game is still a blurry mess overall—but it's definitely pushing these games in ways console players have only dreamed of for years now.

These, however, aren't the experiences the One X is charging that premium price for. What the system is made to deliver are the full-on high-octane performance upgrades that supposedly leave the PlayStation 4 in the dirt. And yes, there are a few of them already. As far as Xbox exclusives are concerned, Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4 are the golden children in this regard. Both were already highly impressive titles on the base hardware, but Halo 5's upgrade makes a plethora of tiny new details and textures crystal clear. Look closely enough and you can see everything written on the tiny light-up display on every gun, the clear, inviting reflections of the environment in a puddle of water, debris falling all the way to the ground off of a giant robot floating hundreds of feet in the air. With Gears of War 4, while the improvements in textures offer a nice improvement over the original game on Xbox One S, the game can also be played at 60fps, making the oftentimes clunky firefights feel seamlessly frantic.

Quantum Break is a stellar but glitchy game that often appeared Vaseline-smeared, a problem it no longer has as a result of this system's Enhancement patch. Rise of the Tomb Raider on the Xbox One was totally outclassed by a fantastic PS4 port last year, which is now, in turn, outclassed by a new patch on the One X that raises the resolution to a full 4K in its Enhanced Visuals mode. Xbox ports that seemed underwhelming in one aspect or another compared to the PS4 versions—Final Fantasy XV, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Assassin's Creed: Unity—are now rendered superior on the One X. Out of the more recent titles tested on the machine, the biggest night-and-day difference is with Middle-earth: Shadow of War, a game that had a solid but unremarkable visual presentation on PS4 Pro that now almost looks like a completely new jaw-dropping beauty of a game on the One X. This is now, undoubtedly, the most powerful home for console games.

So why, then, does the One X still feel like an uncertain gamble? It's an impressive piece of hardware, and it takes care of that big chip on Microsoft's shoulder: the Xbox One being technically inferior to the PS4. This, though, was only a small factor in why the Xbox One has fallen in esteem. Microsoft should know that, because being weaker than the PS3 didn't stop the 360 from being a success. The 360 was Microsoft's greatest triumph because it had games that the PS3 didn't, and the developer wasn't stingy about putting the experiences that those games had to offer front and center. Although the One X will have no problem presenting the best versions of cross-platform games, it's a system that still doesn't feel like it has an identity beyond its massive horsepower. There's no tonal, prestige equivalent on the platform as inseparable from the Xbox One as The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn, Infamous, and God of War are from the PS4, or Super Mario Odyssey, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Arms, or Splatoon 2 are from the Nintendo Switch, games that scream “This is the kind of experience you can only get here.”

The defining Xbox One games right now are still Halo 5 and Gears of War 4, two polished military shooters that don't distinguish themselves very well against every other sci-fi military shooter in existence. Microsoft's most recent attempt at a mascot platformer, Super Lucky's Tale, is a very sweet, good-hearted family game that has the terrible misfortune of being culturally eclipsed by the most innovative Super Mario title in decades. Exclusive indie titles of the kind Microsoft used to be known for are almost all exclusively on Sony's platform. The Xbox One's best true exclusive—the enormously fun and irreverent Sunset Overdrive—has already gone down in gaming history as a cult title, and there are, as of the time of this writing, no plans to give it the One X Enhancement patch that would rightfully thrust it back into the spotlight to find the audience it deserves. The bulk of the best titles on the One X are mostly 360 and original Xbox games given new leases on life via the system's admittedly miraculous backward-compatibility functions.

At $500, the One X is priced to exclude. Already-converted Xbox fans and gamers thirsty for high-quality 4K content will certainly find their faith in Microsoft rewarded, and can beam with pride at the technological superiority on display here. However, that price tag is a tall order for a system that has yet to push the envelope creatively in addition to visually, something its competition has been doing all year while “the most powerful console ever” has been in gestation. It's worth looking back to 2006, however, when Sony was where Microsoft is now, with a powerful console, creatively lagging behind the 360 and the Nintendo Wii. They did the only thing they could do, which was march forward, and bring the best games imaginable to the system. What it could not bring, Sony made themselves. The result was that some of the best games of that generation didn't start hitting the PS3 until the system had been out for 3+ years. The One X represents the best, freshest start Microsoft could've ever given themselves. They've shown what the technology can do for their past. How successful the system truly is depends on what they have planned for its future.

The Xbox One X is now available from Microsoft.