Xbox Series X review: A 4K beast in need of games

Gears 5, which is optimized to run on the Series X, feels like a completely new game. The campaign and cutscenes now run at 60 fps with a dynamic 4K resolution, and they both look better too with support for ray-traced lighting and higher graphical settings across the board. I honestly had a hard time telling the difference between the game running on the new console and on my gaming PC with an RTX 3080. Notably, the PC version of Gears 5 doesn’t even have that ray tracing feature yet.

On Series X, the game also loads levels in around 10 seconds, instead of the upwards of 30 seconds it took on the One X. That’s purely the benefit of running off an SSD — the game doesn’t support the full capabilities of the console’s faster “Velocity” architecture just yet. But it’s a reminder of just how big the leap can be when you move away from a mechanical hard drive.

Gears 5 also supports 120 fps in the multiplayer mode, which strips away some graphical fidelity to make room for more frames. It was the smoothest I’ve ever seen the game — rolling around enemies, mowing them down with shotguns and trading cover fire never felt better on a console. A higher frame rate also means less latency, which was particularly useful when aiming for headshots with sniper rifles. It’s as if there’s nothing getting in the way between your button presses and the game’s on-screen response. The smoother the framerate, the more your gamepad feels like an extension of your body.

While I was mowing down baddies in a massive Gears 5 set piece, I also noticed something strange: the Xbox Series X is practically silent. It turns out, that giant fan, and the system’s tower aesthetic, do a solid job of cooling things down without making much noise. Perhaps future games will make the fan kick up more, but I couldn’t make it any louder than a pleasant whir no matter how hard I tried.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon also offers three different performance modes, focusing on 4K rendering, a high 60 fps frame rate, and a balanced normal mode, which runs near 60 fps while balancing graphical fidelity. Every mode looked good, though, as always, I leaned towards the higher framerates. Even on a new TV like the CX, the immediate benefits of more frames are far more noticeable than native 4K rendering.

I’ll admit, I didn’t have many games to try that truly took advantage of the system’s capabilities. At the time of this review, I couldn’t play upcoming titles like Watch Dogs Legion and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. And of course, Microsoft’s one intriguing launch title, Halo Infinite, is now delayed until next year. Some first party games, like Forza Horizon 4, run more smoothly on the system, but there wasn’t a huge difference in visual fidelity from the Xbox One X version. A handful of titles though, like Sea of Thieves, get a better upgrade to 4K/60FPS, over lower rendering or 30FPS.

Even if a game isn’t optimized for the Series X, it’ll still benefit from running on a speedy SSD and having the headroom of a modern GPU. Red Dead Redemption 2, in particular, loaded a full minute faster compared to the Xbox One X. Getting into the game still took around 30 seconds, which isn’t the lightning fast next-gen experience I was looking forward to, but at least it’s better than the 90-plus seconds on the old console. Red Dead 2 also ran in 4K at a steady 30 fps, with no performance dips. I’m hoping Rockstar spends some time optimizing it for new consoles so we can see a 60 fps option and more graphical flourishes.

The Series X’s backwards compatibility with Xbox One, 360 and even original Xbox games is another draw. That’s a nearly 20-year library of titles to play, all of which will get some benefit from the new console’s hardware. Again, faster load times is key, but Microsoft can also dynamically add HDR to older games, a unique feature I’ve never seen before on any hardware. It’s not just like the faux-HDR settings you may have on your TV: It relies on AI to add lighting highlights where appropriate. That made playing games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Alan Wake transformative. Bright lights almost popped off my OLED screen, and it made me excited to try other old titles on the system.