Friday 22 June 2018

Xbox One X review: One to the power of X equals a magic number

Microsoft's newest console performs spectacularly when paired to a 4K TV but question marks still hang over the Xbox pipeline of exclusives

The Xbox One X is a fine example of engineering - quiet and yet powerful
The Xbox One X is a fine example of engineering - quiet and yet powerful
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

A MATE of mine religiously spends at least €600 a year upgrading the graphics card on his PC. Every second year, he shells out even more to replace his processor, motherboard, memory … the list goes on. The wallet pain just about keeps him abreast of PC requirements for the latest games.

With typically six or seven years between generations, console owners had been spared that dispiriting cycle until 2016. First, Microsoft signalled the Xbox One X and then Sony actually launched the PS4 Pro – two powerful updates that don’t count as full console refreshes but are just as significant because they cut the upgrade cycle in half.

The two giants chose the same pitch to customers: you won’t miss out with our current platform but if you want to see our existing and future games at their best, you need to upgrade.

Sony has put its 12-month advantage to stellar use, dominating the overall sales charts by a factor of two to one, according to some sources, though how much of its attraction is down to the higher graphical fidelity of the PS4 Pro is debateable. 

Forza 7 is a great showcase for the power of 4K and HDR
Forza 7 is a great showcase for the power of 4K and HDR

BUILDING THE HYPE

Microsoft’s task then with the Xbox One X, which finally releases on Tuesday 17 months after its unveiling, is to generate some much-needed excitement about the brand. It has an enormous task on its hands, given PS4’s seemingly overwhelming sales lead, wider pipeline of exclusive games and a pricing advantage that leaves the €500 Xbox One X €100 dearer than its big rival.

Microsoft readily admits it’s not going to sell a tonne of Xbox One X consoles just yet, preferring to establish the newcomer as the ultra-premium leader of the family that includes the Xbox One S and original Xbox One. This is the world’s most powerful console, Microsoft crows, sending a clear shot across Sony’s bows.

And yet compatibility is the backbone of the approach – all your Xbox accessories and online services will function identically on X while the games themselves will be greatly enhanced.

This strategy has always seemed to me an odd one – why not permit developers to create exclusives that harness the incontrovertible power advantage X has over not just the One/One S but also the PS4 Pro, by a wide margin? Use it to create better AI, bigger worlds, more enemies, or even introduce VR. But nope, every top executive I questioned at Microsoft over the last year stayed resolutely on-message: the X is part of a family and we don’t want to create confusion.

The Xbox One X sports a compact, elegant design
The Xbox One X sports a compact, elegant design

Maybe that attitude will shift in time but, for now, Microsoft pins its hopes on straddling the best of both worlds – a long line of backward compatibility now stretching to the 2002 first-generation Xbox, allied to a spectacular increase in graphical horsepower that gives the X the sharpest, smoothest visuals in the market.

BY THE NUMBERS

The numbers speak for themselves: 40pc more graphical grunt and 50pc more memory than the PS4 Pro, which adds up to true 4K output.

Sony claims 4K resolution as a PS4 Pro selling point but few games actually hit that mark, even though you’d be hard-pressed not to tell. The sheer clout of the GPU/memory combo in the One X means 4K is easily achievable, along with higher frame-rates and quicker load times. That’s the theory anyway because despite Microsoft touting forthcoming X enhancements for up to 170 games, just a handful of such updates have yet been released.

Nonetheless, hands-on experience with what little evidence we do have -  new versions of titles including Forza 7, Gears of War 4, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Titanfall 2 and Halo 5 – suggests the One X delivers on its promise of visually stunning 4K renditions. They are clearly head and shoulders above their comparable versions on either PS4 Pro or Xbox One.

Like Sony, Microsoft permits developers to use the extra horsepower as it suits them – so that could mean full 4K, or a more stable, higher frame-rate or even the user’s choice between them. Even without a specific update, most games will simply run more smoothly on the X anyway.

NO 4K, NO FUN

There’s a big caveat to all this 4K hullabaloo, though, and that’s the user’s TV. Just a fraction of people own 4K tellies and without one you miss out on the biggest impact of the X: its ultra-high resolution. With an ordinary HD gogglebox, you’ll clock slightly sharpened visuals, improved frame-rates and shortened load times. But that’s hardly full justification to break the bank for a new console.

The evolution of the Xbox - (from left to right) Xbox 360, Xbox One S, Xbox One X
The evolution of the Xbox - (from left to right) Xbox 360, Xbox One S, Xbox One X

Still, kudos to Microsoft getting so much right while building its new box. The sleek design actually proves to be its smallest, quietest console, despite cramming all that powerful silicon, power supply and cooling system inside. Moving your existing games collection over is a cinch thanks to simple transfer options such as support for external hard drives and local-network copying.

In fact, a new external drive may well be your best friend because 4K games can easily clock in at 100GB each, leaving not much space on the One X’s 1TB internal drive.

You cannot ignore Microsoft’s commitment to the Xbox back catalogue either. On all Xbox One consoles, hundreds of games from the 360 era are supported while seven for the original Xbox have just been added. It goes without saying they work even more slickly on the new One X.

THE VERDICT

I couldn’t in all honesty recommend you buy a One X now if you don’t have a 4K HDR TV or don’t plan to buy one shortly. The difference in your games would be perceptible, yes, but you don’t get your 500 quid’s worth.

Platform exclusives also have a huge influence on buying decisions and right now Microsoft’s pipeline looks weaker than Sony’s. True, there are a few compelling bright lights such as Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and Sea of Thieves on the horizon. But PlayStation promises a host of delights including The Last of Us 2, God of War and Detroit: Become Human in 2018.

For those already in blessed with 4K set-up (a basic 4K TV model costs still costs north of €600), the decision becomes more nuanced. Undoubtedly, in the days and weeks to come, the trickle of One X games updates will become a torrent, making the visual superiority of the new console much more obvious. It’s no exaggeration to say the One X will be the undisputed champion for cross-platform console titles. If you want to play Call of Duty: WWII, Shadow of War and Assassin’s Creed Origins in the highest fidelity and with the smoothest gameplay, Microsoft’s new beast will be the place to go.

But a few new Xbox exclusives would go a long way to sealing the deal.

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