It’s no secret that Microsoft began this hardware generation on the backfoot. An unpopular and confusing online-only plan and awkward game sharing policy proved to be a crippling initial salvo against the Xbox One, and Sony’s PlayStation 4 took full advantage. By now, the pressure on the company to inject some va va voom into the console race - much of it self-inflicted - is high, so does the new Xbox One X rise to meet that challenge?
From the sleek design of the hardware itself to the power of the silicon within, the X is both a treat to behold and an undeniable powerhouse.
Its CPU, the thing that moves all that information around and does the heavy lifting, has been bumped up too, though not nearly by as much, so it can still prove to be a limiting factor when it comes to maintaining an entirely steady technical performance in games that get extra frantic.
Games are the current stumbling point for Microsoft’s new console; 'Xbox One X Enhanced’ is the go-to phrase in describing titles which have been tweaked by their developer to see some sort of improvement on the X. The first thing to note is that even games which aren’t optimised for the hardware can see improvements, from loading more quickly thanks to a faster internal hard drive, to displaying at higher resolutions and holding steadier frame rates, but the games which make the enhanced list (in theory) offer more than just that.
At the time of writing there's 170 games on that list, including the recently announced Destiny 2, which will also get support on the PS4 Pro. That number sounds good, but as you start to do a bit of digging the disappointing reality becomes clear.
Firstly, only 76 titles are available right now (again, at time of writing) and while that does include excellent new releases like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Assassin’s Creed Origins and The Evil Within 2, it's also peppered with the random likes of Danger Zone and Transcripted - which may well be great games, but hardly tentpole releases.
Add to that numbers made up by games now a bit long in the tooth, such as Halo 3 and Fallout 3 - both with successors in the 'Coming Soon’ or 'In Development’ categories - and you’re likely to be disappointed on some level. Even first-party exclusives like ReCore, which you'd think would be a no-brainer for launch day, are unfortunately absent at present.
There's plenty more to come, of course, but the fact that the console doesn't really have launch titles to speak of following Crackdown 3’s unfortunate delay - an exception being family-friendly platformer Super Lucky's Tale, which we’re working on reviewing - means that opportunities to see and share the pinnacle of what the Xbox One X can achieve are thin on the ground during the launch window.
One nice showpiece, which probably should have been pre-loaded on the console (though it’s understandable why not, as 4K assets are quick to fill the 1TB of included storage), is an interactive video from The Mill, famed for CGI work on Doctor Who and even the new John Lewis Christmas ad. Called Insects, the video loops some computer-generated footage and lets you tweak the settings on the fly, turning 4K and HDR on and off and changing the time of day and colour scheme to see the effects in action.
Opportunities to see and share the pinnacle of what the Xbox One X can achieve are thin on the ground during the launch window.
In my personal experience, sadly, the video wouldn’t register the HDR capabilities of my TV, so we only managed to play with the 4K aspect, but it certainly puts into perspective just what sort of difference it makes. An important thing to remember is that even on a 1080p screen the console gives you the best graphical fidelity you can expect, often rendering at a higher resolution and then downscaling the image, so the differences between HD and 4K aren’t as night and day as they were in the SD to HD transition.
HDR is in fact the effect that most people will notice, infusing a comparatively dull SDR picture with more vibrant and accurate colour, but it just so happens to also be offered by the now budget price Xbox One S (a console that can also upscale images to 4K, though that doesn’t compare to the X’s native resolutions).
Enhancements vary across the slate; higher resolution, HDR support and faster frame rates and/or improved textures are typically on offer, but only 32 games so far have the full hat-trick of features. This means your experience across specific games will very much vary in terms of how ‘enhanced’ they actually feel.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, the whole thing is far from black and white, and at times is very technical and complex to get your head around. Outlets like Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry in particular go a long way to making the terminology accessible, but to the casual consumer it’s difficult to say how ‘wowed’ they’ll be without putting the original state of the game alongside the enhanced version.
This isn’t something which the Xbox One X does however, and it’s missed a trick by not clearly illustrating the difference you get for your money. There’s no denying the theoretical power, and even the distinct differences in practice, but the reality is most people likely won’t appreciate just how much effort has gone into this little (but very heavy) black box to push the envelope.
The experience as a whole is made even more clumsy by not taking you through an extensive setup to make sure you get the best from your display - particularly if it’s 4K - when the machine is first turned on. We found ourselves tweaking options on both the X and the TV itself for at least a couple of days before we got to what feels like the right place, but even then it’s difficult to be sure when different games have different interpretations of light and dark.
It might sound like we’re really down on the X, but there's actually no disappointment directed towards the console itself, just the missed opportunities which appear to be perfectly within reach. The Xbox games library arguably isn’t as strong as PlayStation’s blow-for-blow or title-by-title, but now we’re starting to see original Xbox games introduced there’s certainly the scope and potential to have something for everyone across all generations of Xbox, so why at launch are we left wanting?
It might sound like we’re really down on the X, but there's no disappointment directed towards the console itself, just the missed opportunities which appear to be within reach.
The strongest examples that the Xbox One X currently has to offer are, really, from third-party games like Wolfenstein, Shadow of War and Assassin’s Creed Origins, and the former doesn’t even score the enhancement hat-trick. The first-party offering is frankly poor, with just Super Lucky’s Tale on the new release front and even older titles’ updates still MIA. Halo 5, Forza 7 and Rise of the Tomb Raider are the only saving graces, delivering on spectacle and performance across the board, but it doesn’t feel like Microsoft are doing enough when they’re asking £450 to get involved.
Xbox One X as a machine ticks all the boxes, but it can’t exist in a vacuum. It might be the right time to release a console, but Microsoft have far from given it the strongest start out of the gate. That said, it is an incredible machine, and a lot of what you can currently play is impressive in all the right ways, so, providing the price tag isn’t something that bothers you and you can accept that the enhancement process is very much ongoing, it’s a piece of kit we can still recommend.