Among the debates and choices that Americans have had to face in recent weeks, the discussion over which piece of video game technology to plug into your TV may seem relatively minor. But while the release of new home game consoles from Microsoft and Sony were destined for this year regardless of the pandemic and the increased political tensions it brought, their arrival as 2020 nears its end feels more than a little serendipitous.
Most mainstream media — our film and television productions, our live theater, our theme parks — have had to pivot or struggle to reach anything approaching normal in 2020, yet video games have continued to thrive. So this is as fine a time as any to get acquainted — or reacquainted — with the medium whose cultural resonance is only getting louder.
Evidence: In March, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” showed the world the power of welcoming, virtual gathering spaces as a place to socialize and share in communal creativity. Soon after, “Minecraft’s educational prowess turned more heads, “The Last of Part II” inspired a broad discourse about narrative and themes, and games such as “Fall Guys” and “Among Us” become such prominent and joyful celebrations that the latter found itself in the midst of this year’s political campaigning.
I’ve spent the past week jumping between the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 — the two consoles I was able to preview as part of each company’s reviewer’s program. As games and updates hit both systems over the coming weeks, I’ll document how the consoles evolve as places to play. But first, as the news embargo lifts on Microsoft’s new consoles, some initial impressions of the Xbox Series X.
What is being released and when can you buy it?
Microsoft is releasing two consoles on Nov. 10, the enthusiast Xbox Series X ($500) and the smaller, less costly Xbox Series S ($300), which is seemingly aimed more at the entry-to-mid-level player. In this sense, Microsoft is pivoting slightly from viewing the PlayStation 5 and the Nintendo Switch as primary pieces of competition. Content, of course, is the most crucial factor in choosing a console, and both Xbox units are geared toward a world where hundreds of games can be downloaded on demand via a subscription service.
51 video games. Made in two weeks. All of them about life in 2020. Trust me, it’s better when it’s a game.
Microsoft’s consoles are essentially entryways into the Microsoft ecosystem, which is home to the subscription Xbox Game Pass. At $14.99 per month for the most attractive tier, Game Pass remains the best deal in gaming, as well as the easiest way to transition an audience weaned on the ease of the likes of Netflix, Disney+ and more into the gaming sector.
The Xbox Series X is designed to make use of top-of-the-line televisions and all the graphical and lighting tools at a developer’s disposal. The Series S packs a slightly lighter punch. But those who opt for the Series S and aren’t using games as their primary at-home entertainment medium — or lack an upper-tier 4K TV — likely aren’t going to complain or notice anything too drastic. The end goal, ultimately, of both is to get owners to subscribe to Game Pass.
Much fun was had on the internet when Microsoft and Sony unveiled the looks of their new consoles, with people immediately comparing the Xbox Series X to a refrigerator. But its vertical look — think a “2001" monolith — more closely resembles a speaker than a bulky home appliance. In other words, something that is more or less designed to become invisible in your home entertainment set-up. At only about a foot tall and 6 inches in width, it doesn’t feel that big. I’ve slotted it behind my bookshelf speakers and it’s out of sight and out of mind, except for when I pick up a controller and hear it beep on.
While it’s true most people don’t buy a video game console for its living room aesthetics, much thought goes into making these consoles eye-catching rather than just functional. The unassuming look of the Series X reflects Microsoft’s goals for this generation (the Series S, which I haven’t seen up close, is thinner and white rather than black but also maintains the speaker inspiration). That is, a home video game console should be as restrained as, say, a cable box or a receiver because games will soon be as commonplace in our households. At least that’s the hope.
The breakthrough I love
There has never been a game console as seamless to set-up as the Xbox Series X.
As soon as I logged in I had easy access to my entire game catalog and began downloading older titles with ease. I moved my Xbox One to my bedroom, and saved games were automatically synced to any older game I loaded. I am a subscriber to the Game Pass Ultimate, and my full back catalog was immediately recognized. While it took time to download games, of course, switching from one Xbox to another was easier and quicker than transitioning to my new iPhone a couple months back. Everything just worked, including my older controllers.
Nothing has yet matched the augmented reality hit “Pokémon Go.” But watch out, Pikachu! “Mario Kart Live” brings AR home. The wonders are in your living room.
All of this will go a long way to keeping consumers gaming. It also reassured me that, if there’s an Xbox Series X update three years from now the upgrade will be painless. After all, the biggest challenge facing games is accessibility — I want everyone I know to be playing — and the Xbox Series X isn’t focused, out of the box, on wowing you. The console wants to get you logged on and playing. Its goal is to show you that all of this is easy.
The Xbox Series X also has a refined version of the feature I’ve wanted my entire life: the simple ability to start a game at the exact moment I left off. No, not the start of a mission or the start of a “check point” — the Series X has a feature called “Quick Resume,” which will allow players to jump almost instantly between pause points in games.
This is important. I remember where in the game I was when I set my controller down, but too many modern games rely on check points to save your progress (changing this, it should be noted, is a very complex development process). I appreciate Microsoft building into its console a solution to one of the most frustrating traits of modern games — there is a long list of games I simply stopped playing because I was asked to re-play 30 minutes.
It’s only been a couple days, but so far I haven’t run into any major issues. I have four games in a pause state at the time of this writing — two of which haven’t been released — and the Series X has dropped me in each of them in about 10 seconds or less after booting up.
So how fast and pretty is it?
Those with 4K TVs, and especially TVs that can accommodate 120 frames per second (a narrower, often pricier field needing an HDMI 2.1. port), will recognize the biggest graphical boost. I’m not in that camp — my 2011 TV isn’t going to cut it. But even on my TV, running older Xbox games that received an upgrade, I noticed some differences. Namely a game such as “Gears 5" overall felt smoother. Pans up and down the screen had a more cinematic sensation — there was never a vertical scan line present as there was on occasion on my original Xbox One.
Everyone, however, will notice the speed. Booting up “Gears 5" on the original Xbox One took 3 minutes and 10 seconds for me to get from the menu screen to a moment in the game’s campaign. On the Xbox Series X I went from menu screen to game in 1 minute at 38 seconds. Additionally, the time it took for my character to respawn after death was shaved in half, from 9 seconds on the Xbox One to 4 seconds on the Xbox Series X.
The annoying storage problem
A strength of console gaming over PC gaming is relative ease in use: Buy a box, set it up and play. But as games evolve and get bigger, one will likely need to engage in memory management, either downloading and deleting games for new ones or investing in an external hard drive. Heavy gamers will likely need to eventually invest in the official storage expansion card that runs for $220 to better manage next-generation titles. Older games from prior generations can be more easily stored on a host of external SSD drives.
There’s also the drag of needing to upgrade my television to fully take advantage of the consoles’ graphical prowess, which is not on my list of pandemic-era purchases. For now, I’ll be sticking it out with a decade-old television and will consider an upgrade in a year or two when more games taking advantage of the new consoles start to hit the market.
What you need to play now
Having only sampled a limited selection of November’s game releases, the first game I would boot up on the Xbox Series X would be one the prior generation’s most beautifully crafted experiences, “Ori and the Will of the Wisps.” The game is receiving a boost for the new console, although the update hadn’t yet been released at the time of writing. No matter, the fairy tale world of darkly illuminated forests is already a marvel to look at. The story will tug on your heart, and the platforming mechanics will offer a serious challenge without becoming punishing to the player. It’s one of 2020’s best and most approachable games, unfolding like an interactive animated film.
What I’m looking forward to
The console was originally supposed to launch with “Halo Infinite,” the latest installment in the sci-fi shooter saga, but that title was pushed to 2021. It’s a good reminder for those hesitating to spend the cash now for a new console that it is typically a year or two into a console’s life until we start seeing games that were tailored specifically for the new tech. Still, Microsoft has in recent years been boosting its stable of studios, including high-profile developers such as Bethesda and Double Fine. The latter has the long-awaited sequel to the trippy, humorous and thoughtful “Psychonauts” due next year.
Coming sooner, however, and looking intriguing, is psychological horror game “The Medium,” set in Poland and featuring music from “Silent Hill” composer Akira Yamaoka, as well the inviting mix of vintage animation and futuristic imagery that is “Call of the Sea,” which has a pulpy, 1930s art style that has me eager to play it.