Games Review: Xbox One X (2017): Raw power, same mistakes

Boy, Don Mattrick really fucked Xbox, didn’t he? It’s been five years since Microsoft’s now-infamous E3 2013 presentation, the unveiling of an All-in-One corporate fantasy wildly out of step with what its audience actually wanted and expected. Microsoft have been trying to course correct ever since. So dominated have they been by the runaway success of the competing PlayStation 4 that Xbox stopped reporting sales numbers entirely over a year ago, only beginning again when pre-orders for the Xbox One X went big.

To that end, the Xbox One X has been positioned as something of a saviour. A powerhouse console built to cater to the hardcore gamer and herald of a new age of ultra high definition content. To read between the lines of Microsoft’s breathless marketing for the machine, it feels a bit like this is the make-or-break moment for the Xbox One as a brand and as a hardware family. They really seem to want to convey that they have a lot riding on this machine. The questions that leap to mind then are: Can the Xbox One be saved this late in the game? And, could the Xbox One X save them if it had to?

I’m not gonna dick around or mince words here. I think the answer to both is no, and I don’t feel like I’m being mean or cynical when I say that. What’s more, I don’t think Xbox truly expects it to save them either. The reason I think this is that, despite making numerous and important moves in the right direction, the Xbox One X still doesn’t fix many of the platform’s bigger problems, and actually introduces a set of brand new ones.

Part of the problem is that while the Xbox One X makes big strides to lure game enthusiasts back to the platform, it’s also still trying to execute on Mattrick’s All-in-One mandate. Yes, all of the marketing has been about 4K HDR gaming, the assurance that your games will perform more smoothly and look much better on the Xbox One X. “The burgers are better at Hungry Jacks,” you the spiel by now. But it’s still pushing Movies and TV and a raft of platform exclusive services despite the market and the hobbyist base making it abundantly clear that that’s not what they want. They want a games console. They just want a machine that’s really good at playing games and that’s it.

And there must be someone at Xbox that understands this because nobody has ever built a console with a better spec sheet than this one. A 2.3GHz custom 8-core CPU, 12GB of GDDR memory with a 6 teraflop GPU and an HDD that is 50% faster than ones found in older models rank among the more impressive bullet points. If all of the above was gibberish to you then just know that, from a purely technological standpoint, the Xbox One X is a monster. Not only is it going to run your games flawlessly and beautifully, it’s an easy match for any number of high end gaming PC’s. Further, at $649.95 AUD, it’s actually very reasonably priced for the degree of kit you’re getting.

Design-wise, the console’s exterior feels like a bit of a mea culpa for the real-estate hogging original box. The VCR-sized monolith has been replaced with a new, more subdued look, reflective perhaps of Microsoft’s current mindset regarding the console. It’s look is meeker, but also more agreeable. It’s happy to fit quietly and neatly into whatever home theatre set up you have and live there without complaint. It now sports angular lines and a physical on/off button (RIP irritatingly touchy capacitive on/off button, you won’t be missed). The design team have also come up with some really interesting heat dispersal strategies, which is good because hardware that beefy is going to generate some warmth. Despite everything it does to pump heat out, the console itself is whisper quiet, a far cry from the low-frequency howl of my launch model. The controller’s construction has also received a minor going-over with a textured rear facade giving it a more solid, grippier feeling in the hands. I still haven’t made up my mind on whether or not it feels nicer, but it definitely feels like I can hold onto it better.

Current owners will know that the Xbox operating system was recently updated to its third major iteration ahead of the Xbox One X’s launch. Creating an Xbox user interface that actually works is an ongoing problem for Microsoft. Indeed, its the area where, after five years, Microsoft still seems to be letting themselves down. For the most part, its due to their dogged insistence that the Xbox One is a machine that can Do It All. The result of this insistence, as has been the case for each new UI update, is a cluttered, near-impenetrable labyrinth of menus.

I like to think I’m a reasonably savvy person when it comes to technology. I’m by no means an expert or a power user but neither am I a complete fucking Luddite. It’s far easier to find things I don’t want in the latest Xbox UI than it is to find the things I do. I don’t care about the Store tab right now. I don’t care about movies or TV. I do not now nor will I ever care about Mixer, Microsoft’s new platform-exclusive and rather transparent Twitch knock-off. What I want to know is where the fuck my games are. Where are the system settings? Why do I have to navigate three nested menus to find all of these things? Finally, if I’m fairly well equipped to deal with convoluted systems like these and I’m having trouble finding my way around, what hope do everyday users have?

I wrote about another of my biggest problems with the console on Friday night — in order to enjoy games that take advantage of the Xbox One X’s immense hardware requires downloads of up to 100GB or more. Australian internet, or at least the ADSL2 connection that the vast majority of Australians use every day, is simply not up to the task of downloading all that data in a timely manner. If you, like me, have quite a few games you’d like to try out on the new hardware, you may find that your first couple of weeks will be spent staring balefully at the download screen (another nested menu you’ll have to dick around to find) more than actually playing anything.

Okay, so that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.

When you can finally play something, good lord, what an experience it is. Forza Motorsport 7, the platform’s flagship 4K HDR title has been machine engineered to look and feel a million bucks. The resolution allows you to take in every last minute detail that Turn 10 have poured into the game and it renders jaggies nonexistent. The HDR lighting gives everything a much more dewy look that didn’t translate at all when I reviewed it on the launch model Xbox One last month. And it does all of this exceedingly heavy lifting while running at a rock-solid 60 frames per second. Absolutely absurd. Halo 5: Guardians receives an upgrade in visual fidelity that really showcases the launch model Xbox One’s weaknesses — gone is the variable resolution, replaced with the sort of crispness typically found in PC-only graphical show ponies.

Cross-platform heavyweights look amazing also. Assassin’s Creed Origins is where you should head after Forza, especially if you have an OLED TV. It’ll bowl you over. Call of Duty: WWII scrubs up quite well on the platform too. While the extra doesn’t necessarily allowing the latest entry in the long-running series to stretch its wings mechanically, it certainly allows you to pick out distant enemies with greater precision than in any prior version. The mud and sludge of WWII battlefields looks and feels as harrowing and grimy as it ever has.

Family titles like Zoo Tycoon and Disneyland Adventures are frankly strange choices for the 4K HDR treatment but they get it anyway and they look just fine despite sitting squarely at the lower end of the production budget spectrum. Let’s be honest, your kids aren’t going to notice that Super Lucky‘s Tale is in 4K HDR and really, is it that important?

It’ll likely be launch day or after by the time you read this so by then the bulk of, or possibly all, of the launch lineup of Xbox One X Enhanced titles will have received updates to help you make the most of them. You’d do well to plug in an external hard drive or set up the built-in Network Transfer functionality if you already have a lot of games installed on any current Xbox One and you plan to upgrade. This will save you an enormous amount of time compared to trying to download them all from scratch.

The Xbox One X isn’t going to save the Xbox One family. It isn’t going to return the brand to the salad days of the 360 era. While it positions itself as the system of choice or anyone with a 4K HDR TV, it fixes none of the problems that have dogged the platform since Day One. If its exterior design and its internal components are equal parts humility and welcome apology, then its UI is remains a picture of Microsoft at peak hubris. They’re still making a platform that cares more about what they want you to see, not what you want to find. If they could just get out of their own way and cut the fat, then they might have PlayStation worried.

The author was provided with an Xbox One X unit for review by Microsoft, along with a selection of launch titles. The Xbox One X is available now and retails for $649.95 AUD.