Whatever your opinion of the Xbox One X, and your stance in the eternal battle between PlayStation and Xbox, it’s impossible to deny Microsoft’s recent struggle. The PlayStation 4 launched with more power than Xbox One, and at a lower price. Gamers didn’t need much time to run the numbers, and flocked towards Sony’s offering. Xbox has played catch up ever since.
Not anymore. The Xbox One X, launching on November 7, 2017 at $500, firmly plants its flag at the peak of performance. It’s not just faster than the PlayStation 4 Pro. It’s a lot faster, with about 30 percent more compute power, more memory, and more memory bandwidth.
We saw an impressive display of that raw grunt at Microsoft’s E3 event. Yet we also saw the limitations. Ironically, Microsoft’s muscle-bound console is approaching launch just as the value of better visuals starts to wane.
Yes, it’s beautiful
That’s not to say Microsoft has failed to achieve its goal of superb immersion. Games built to make full use of the Xbox One X, like Forza Motorsport 7, look spectacular on a 4K, HDR-capable television. Forza’s developers boasted about the game’s use of photogrammetry to capture detailed real-world images of each track’s surroundings, and it pays off in-game. The new Dubai course features detailed, craggy cliffsides with thousands of tiny imperfections, all of them visible even from a far. It doesn’t just look like a photo. It looks like an amazing photo taken by a skillful photographer with world-class equipment.
Realism, though, is just the start. As we explored after Microsoft’s E3 press conference, the power of the Xbox One X seems better put to use in fantastic, artful scenes. Its incredible power is giving developers the ability to create whatever they want, from the cartoonish co-op of Sea of Thieves, to the paper cut-out rock stardom in The Artful Escape.
We went hands-on with the latter, and found that it looks just as stunning in real life as it did on stage. Technically, much of what the game does might be possible on less powerful hardware. Yet its aesthetic is enhanced with incredible lighting effects and, at times, a buffet of on-screen objects. These details look even more impressive when viewed in 4K on an HDR set, where the game’s vibrant colors seem to jump free of the television.
You’d better gear up
The key to the above, however, is “4K on an HDR set.” We saw the Xbox One X in a group briefing on a massive display, paired with Dolby Atmos sound, and it was truly unlike any console we’ve laid eyes on before. Every game – even Minecraft – boasted massive draw distances, lifelike lighting, and high-resolution textures. It felt like developer’s vision was beamed out of their collective minds and beamed directly to the screen, without compromise.
We also saw several games on the floor of Microsoft’s event, however, on smaller televisions. These sets didn’t live up to what we saw earlier in both resolution and image quality, and the Xbox One X suffered for it. Assassin’s Creed Origins still boasted a massive draw distance and detailed geometry, but the high-resolution textures didn’t look vibrant, and the lighting looked rather mundane. Frankly, we think a lot of gamers might not notice the difference between it and previous entries to the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Though it’s the smallest Xbox ever, the Xbox One X earns that title by a hair.
Even Forza Motorsport 7 lost its luster on the less impressive setup. While car models and trackside details still appeared exquisite, the skyboxes and lighting model fell flat. We honestly felt that it looked just a hair better than Forza Motorsport 6.
Despite its performance advantage, the Xbox One X seems to have fallen into the same pit as the PS4 Pro. All the hardware in the world won’t do any good if players are still viewing games on old 1080p televisions that lack HDR. And that, of course, is exactly how most people will be playing.
It might seem unfair to question the Xbox One X because of the televisions gamers will use with it. Microsoft has no control over that, after all. Yet we can do nothing else, because Microsoft hasn’t provided anything else for us to judge.
The PlayStation 4 Pro at least shipped alongside the promise of PS VR, which is by far a better experience on Sony’s newer console. Microsoft has nothing like that, VR or otherwise. The Xbox One X will run the same games, work with the same accessories, and have the same interface as previous Xbox One consoles.
Even the console itself looks almost the same as before. Though it’s the smallest Xbox ever, the Xbox One X earns that title by a hair. It’s almost as wide and as deep as the Xbox One S, and just a tad slimmer. The overall design aesthetic hasn’t changed, either. If anything, the return to black lessens the console’s high-end aesthetic.
To do anything else would rightly earn Microsoft the ire of its most loyal gamers. It also puts the Xbox One X in a though spot. Yes, it’s fast. Yes, it looks awesome on a 4K HDR television. But $500 is a lot to ask, even if the hardware does justify it, and the new console lacks any notable feature that would make people who already own a 1080p television move on.
If you already own a 4K set, you’re going to like what you see. If not, then you should price one into your upgrade. Buying an Xbox One X without the right hardware is like buying a Porsche 911 for a one-mile commute through downtown. It doesn’t lessen the engineering behind the experience – but you’ll never really see what it’s capable of.