Xbox Series X review: should PC gamers buy one?
Console generations haven't troubled PC folk in recent years. The very nature of our hardware means we're not defined by a single machine for a set period of time, and it's us who get to choose when and what to upgrade our rigs with. But when the current graphics card inside my PC is both less powerful and costs more than Microsoft's new Xbox Series X (and came in a box larger than the Xbox itself), even I felt the need to venture into console land.
In my eyes, the arrival of both the Series X and PlayStation 5 this week mark a watershed moment for PC gaming. In some ways they are more cutting edge than what's currently plugged into our monitors. Their ray tracing-capable AMD RDNA 2 graphics architecture, completely PCIe 4.0-based ecosystem and supercharged storage tech are all coming to PC, of course (some sooner than others), but having spent a couple of weeks with Microsoft's new console box, there's no denying it's an impressive machine for its size and price. The Series X may be more dense than consoles past, but it would take an even larger, beefier PC to achieve what the Xbox Series X does with its promises of 4K 60fps gaming, and you certainly won't find the same kind of power on a similar budget. But is it worth considering as a second machine? Yes and no.
From a hardware perspective, the Xbox Series X is a marvel of engineering. As I will attempt to demonstrate next week, building a PC that matches its size, power and price is pretty much impossible. This is true of most consoles, of course, but Microsoft's big push into 4K 60fps gaming this time round has levelled the playing field like never before and set a more obvious comparison point. The consoles have finally caught up with PC and, whisper it, maybe even surpassed them in a few key areas.
For now, at least. By the end of 2021, AMD's RDNA 2 Big Navi graphics cards will be well-established in PC land alongside their Nvidia RTX rivals; Intel will have finally joined AMD in the PCIe 4.0 arena with the launch of their 11th Gen Rocket Lake CPUs, and Microsoft's DirectStorage technology will have brought the lessons learned from building their 'Xbox Velocity Architecture' to enable the same speedy loading times for us long-time SSD owners. Ray tracing will also become more established as greater numbers of developers get to grips with it and, by the end 2022, I can easily foresee PCs leap-frogging their console counterparts yet again on affordability as hardware prices calm down (and PCIe 4.0 SSDs in particular start becoming more attainable).
In the here and now, though, there's an elegance to the Series X that's hard to match on PC. I'm not suggesting we all suddenly throw out our PCs for Xboxes (that's madness), but I do think there's a solid case to be made for having it as a second machine - especially if, like me, you've always wanted to bring the PC experience you know and love into the comfort of your living room.
Much has been made, of course, about how the Series X (and even more so the PS5) have become the bane of TV cabinets the world over. I'm fortunate enough to have relatively large cavities in the TV stand we have at home, and there's more than enough space for the Series X when placed on its side. It's definitely preferable to the hulking (and equally monolithic) PC case I have immediately beside it, although I appreciate that others may not be so lucky in this respect. (I'm sure our cats would also mourn the loss of the big black heat box they're so fond of sitting on, too, if we removed it).
Still, with the Series X going all out on that 60fps frame rate target this generation, the games I've been able to play on it so far all feel very PC-like, even if they're not technically hitting that native 4K resolution output. Yakuza: Like A Dragon, for example, is set to run at 1440p 60fps by default, and has a 'High Resolution' mode that bumps it up to a 4K 30fps. Now, Yakuza isn't a particularly complex-looking game, but when I'm sitting 2-3m away from my TV the difference between those two resolutions becomes pretty negligible. I can still see the fine detail on characters' clothes and every darn pore on Nanba's sour mug. Before it was widely known Yakuza was running at 1440p, I would have sworn blind it was 4K 60fps. Maybe my TV just has a good built-in upscaler, but that's how good it looked at a distance.
The real showstopper, though, is Assassin's Creed Valhalla, which definitely feels like the most 'next-gen' game on Series X right now. This is a proper 4K 60fps game on Series X and looks magic on our TV - and lemme tell ya, you'll need a lot more than a £450 / $500 graphics card to get this running at that kind of speed on PC. Even an RTX 3070 struggles to hit similar frame rates. Based on some initial screenshot comparisons it would appear that Valhalla is running somewhere between High and Very High quality on Series X, or maybe even straight up Very High, based on the lusher-looking hillsides of this castle.
The greenery is a lot busier on Series X than it is on High PC settings, where even Nvidia's new RTX 3070 only averages around 50fps. Bump it up to Very High, on the other hand, and you're looking closer to an average of 47fps. There's noticeable screen tearing in denser, snow-filled cities on Series X, but it's something I'm willing to put up with given the silky smooth frame rate elsewhere.
Watch Dogs Legion is admittedly locked at 4K 30fps with no Yakuza-like option to opt for a higher frame rate and lower resolution, but again, getting this kind of speed (with ray tracing no less) at this kind of price is still impressive all things considered. Indeed, from my own ray tracing tests in Watch Dogs Legion on PC, even the RTX 3070 can only just about manage an average of 30fps with High ray tracing enabled on Medium settings at 4K, but this still dips to an unplayable 20fps on occasion. On Series X, however, I've seen little to no drops in frame rate so far, and it feels a lot more robust overall.
Sea Of Thieves and Gears Tactics are two more 4K 60fps stunners on Series X, the former still boasting the most mesmerizing water effects in all of gaming. Admittedly, these aren't as difficult to get running at 4K 60fps on PC as Valhalla, as both already have highly-optimised PC versions that run buttery smooth at 4K even on older graphics cards. However, it still feels transformative to have this kind of speed in your living room, especially when the Xbox One X (the supposedly 4K-friendly version of the Xbox One) still locked them to 30fps.
Loading times, too, are noticeably quicker than they are on PC. They're by no means as instant as they've perhaps been hyped up to be, and I'll be doing a more detailed comparison between various PC NVMe SSDs in the coming days. But golly, they sure are fast, and often I'll be in a game before I've even had time to reach for my phone and do some good old fashioned doom-scrolling. Also, pour one out for the loading screen tooltip.
Then there's the Series X's Quick Resume feature. This uses Microsoft's new Xbox Velocity Architecture (which has been built from the same tech gubbins as their DirectStorage standard that's coming to PC next year) to let you switch between multiple games on the fly, holding them in a suspended state while you're playing something else. While it's unlikely we'll ever see this kind of feature come to PC, it's still a dazzling show of speed that completely eliminates the faff of start menus, choosing a save file and all those interminably unskippable publisher logos. It's not present on all games - you still need to log back into online games like Sea Of Thieves, for example - but as a glimpse of what DirectStorage might be able to do next year, it's tantalising stuff.
However, hardware and performance are only part of the equation when it comes to buying a new games console. The other part, of course, is the game library, and when I've bought consoles in the past, it's usually because I want access to games I won't be able to play elsewhere. Here, the Series X becomes a tougher proposition for PC folk, as all of Microsoft's first party Xbox Series X / S games are set to arrive on PC on the same day, and potentially for very little, thanks to the crazy value proposition that is Game Pass.
Personally, given what I've seen and played of Assassin's Creed Valhalla so far, this alone would have been enough to convince me to get an Xbox Series X, as the kind of PC I'd have to buy / build to get an equivalent level of performance would be mildly obscene by comparison. What's more, thanks to Microsoft's impressive library of backwards compatible games extending all the way back to the OG Xbox, the Series X also does that very PC-like thing of letting you fire up an old favourite while reaping the benefits of new hardware.
Again, this won't hold much appeal to PC players who have never had Xbox libraries before, but Game Pass certainly does help to fill in some gaps here. The growing list of "Games Optimised for Series X / S" in the Game Pass fold certainly captures some of that nostalgic magic, for example, and seeing games such as No Man's Sky run at 4K 60fps is a real treat, as are the meaty roady runs of Gears 5.
However, this optimisation process is still in its early stages at the moment, and it will likely be some time before it really starts to take off. As our friends at Digital Foundry have already explained, any game that's received an Xbox One X enhancement with an unlocked frame rate over the years will be able to take advantage of the Series X's faster hardware to provide a welcome boost in FPS compared to older consoles, but without extra tinkering from Microsoft their resolutions will remain capped at 1080p (although those with dynamic resolutions now comfortably maintain their higher limit).
Other games, on the other hand, don't get much benefit at all from the new hardware - or at least they won't until Microsoft work their magic on them. Microsoft have already committed to extending their back-compat program for Series X / S, but the promise of all this happening at some undisclosed time in the future isn't nearly as sexy as simply booting up an old favourite on Steam and whacking all the settings up to max for that instant glow of upgrade satisfaction.
Still, even if the Xbox Series X's back-compat features aren't quite at PC levels just yet, there's no denying that it's still one of the most PC-like consoles there's ever been. I'm all for multiple graphics options in games, especially now there's a wider array of TVs to cater for (not just in resolution but increasingly high frame rates, too, just like our beloved monitors), and I want to see more of this going forward. Watch Dogs Legion at 4K 30fps is all well and good, for example, but having the choice to knock it down to 1440p 60fps like Yakuza would be extremely welcome, too. And why stop at just just one graphics setting? Why not go the whole hog and have loads like we do on PC while we're at it? Because as the simple existence of the Series S makes clear, with its lower resolution output (not to mention that same back-compat library), this generation is all about choice. It's about giving people the freedom to choose when to upgrade to their next machine, as well as pick what hardware best suits their individual situation. And that feels very PC-like to me.
As I said earlier, I'm definitely not suggesting we should all chuck our PCs and start playing our games on a Series X or S. Far from it. For many, spending roughly the same amount of money on an RTX 3070 or AMD's upcoming RX 6800 graphics card will no doubt give your PC a similar-sized boost when it comes to graphics performance, and will still let you do all those innately PC things with your games like tinker around with mods, use different operating systems and have a choice of storefronts.
However, if your PC's due a more extensive upgrade soon and your eyes are watering just thinking about how much it's all going to cost, the Series X could be a strong interim machine to tide you over for the next couple of years until PC hardware prices calm down a bit - especially if you already subscribe to Game Pass. The hardware inside the Series X effectively encapsulates all the advancements that have been slowly coalescing on PC for the last couple of years, and provides a clean entry-point to the hardware of tomorrow, too. It provides a fully-formed PCIe 4.0-based system with ray tracing support, faster loading times and 4K 60fps performance - all without costing an arm and a leg. Equally, if you've ever wanted to bring that PC experience into the living room, the Series X makes a strong argument here as well, if only from a size and price perspective. Heck, I almost forgot to mention just how quiet the Series X is, too. Blissfully so. I wish all PCs could be that small and silent, I really do.
Will I be dismantling my living room PC and going full Series X from now on? Probably not, but already the combination of Assassin's Creed Valhalla and that extensive console Game Pass library has seen me turn it on less and less over the last few weeks. My work PC will always be my primary gaming machine, but as a way of bringing that PC experience to another part of my house, the Xbox Series X is probably the best and certainly cheapest way to achieve it right now.