For those of you (i.e. most people) without a large 4K HDR-enabled TV, home cinema audio set up, and an obsessive eye for detail, it probably seems a little over the top to spend £449 to get a prettier picture. But if you take your home entertainment set-up seriously, then the Xbox One X could make the Xbox worth paying attention to again for PS4 converts. Going for power is the brute force solution to tempting people back, but it comes at the right time. It nudges Microsoft to the front of the pack technologically at a time when 4K TV adoption is accelerating, and it's pretty future-proof, with more power than the PS4 Pro can boast. It's not actually using that power for much right now, however, which is one of the things to consider if you're a potential early adopter.
It's likely to be further down the line that we see what this machine is really capable of, particularly with first-party games. Right now, the Xbox One X doesn’t shake things up too much; it doesn’t have exclusives per se, but what it does do is theoretically run things better than any other console. After a week of fiddling with resolutions, here's what you need to know to figure out whether you should buy one.
Xbox exclusives can look amazing...
PR bluster to one side, what I’ve seen of the system to date tends to back up Microsoft’s claims of greatly enhanced visuals. As we’ve seen with the PS4 Pro, developers go about offering visual enhancements in various ways: some offer better frame rates, others higher resolution. Sometimes it’s native 4K, sometimes it uses the ‘checkerboard’ technique, which cleverly renders an improved image. Sometimes you can choose whether you prefer higher frame rate or higher resolution.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft has made doubly sure that its exclusive titles look the business. Honestly, I was always a little frustrated with how banner games like Quantum Break, Halo 5 and Gears of War 4 looked on my TV at launch. But with their respective enhancements applied, they now look like I always wanted them to, and I’m much more motivated to go back and give them a proper runthrough. Even Killer Instinct—a game I had little time for—looks incredible with its visual overhaul, with each character model now richly detailed and beautiful/horrifying up close. At the time of writing (November 2nd), Microsoft still hadn’t got around to applying the update patches to the likes of Forza 7, Forza Horizon 3, Recore and a bunch of others, but these will be rolled out over the coming couple of weeks.
...but some don't benefit at all
Super Lucky’s Tale definitely scoops the prize for the game least in need of Xbox One X enhancements. For cutesy, cartoony 3D platformers such as this, the console’s power is utterly wasted cleaning up a few jaggies and boosting frame rate (nice, inoffensive game that it is). And when it comes to Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure, Zoo Tycoon, and Disneyland Adventures, it seems utterly bizarre that these games have ended up being ‘enhanced’ for the One X at all—none of them benefit in any way. I suspect Microsoft wanted to quietly pad out its catalogue of improved games.
If you've already got the PC versions, there's nothing to see here
Of course, one of the things Microsoft doesn’t tend to remind people is that most games it has enhanced can be found already on the PC in approximately the same enhanced form (specs permitting). Admittedly not every game it puts out on Xbox One also comes out on PC (Halo 5 and Master Chief Collection, for instance), but all recent Xbox games also released on Windows 10, which somewhat lessens the lure of what the Xbox One X is offering.
Enhanced third-party games look great
Of the approximately 160-odd games currently confirmed as being ‘Xbox One X Enhanced’ in some form or other, a large proportion are existing multiplatform games, such as Titanfall 2, FIFA 18, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Shadow of War, The Division, Fallout 4, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, Mafia III, Hitman, For Honor, F1 2017, Doom, Dishonored 2, Diablo III, Ghost Recon: Wildlands and many more. Of the very few that have received their updates already (only FIFA 18 and Titanfall 2 landed in time for this feature), I can confirm that they look fabulous running in 4K on the Xbox One X. For a twitch game like Titanfall 2 you can not only see the benefit in the added visual fidelity, but also feel the difference in how fast and smooth the whole thing feels. Honestly, once you play things running this well, you won’t want to go back. Even though it has no skin in the TV industry, Microsoft is actively trying to drive 4K TV adoption with this console, and seeing games running on them really well is definitely one way to do that. It's a chicken and egg situation: TVs need the content for people to want to upgrade, but games also need the right kind of TVs to make them look amazing, and we’re definitely at a point where TVs are sufficiently highly specced and affordable enough to coax people into slapping their money down.
...but they also look great on PS4 Pro
The thing is, of course, a lot of multiplatform games have been enhanced for PS4 Pro over the past year, and comparing the same game side-by-side on both platforms reveals…not a startling difference. Admittedly, I don’t have a frame buffer analyser to go on to check when and where performance dips, but in terms of what I’m seeing and how it feels (which is what's important here), it is very hard to see or feel much difference so far. Titanfall 2, for example, I’d say is marginally better on Xbox One X over PS4 Pro, but we’re talking an incremental improvement that most people wouldn’t even notice. With FIFA 18, the two versions look and feel utterly identical. In the early months of the Xbox One X’s lifespan, I fully expect this will be the story of most multiplatform games—assuming that the platform holders don’t start making eyes at key publishers to prioritise their enhancement for one platform over the other (note Bethesda’s full-blown commitment to Xbox One X next to its patchy PS4 Pro support), or even outright buy some degree of timed 4K exclusivity.
Are there enough enhanced games?
On the face of it, yes. At this point, 160 are confirmed, which sounds like a big number, but most of those are either already enhanced on PS4 Pro, or almost certainly will be. This leaves Microsoft hoping to demonstrate that its enhancements are meaningfully better. The framebuffer analysts will probably favour Xbox One X, but how important to most people will that be? If real world performance is only slightly better than PS4 Pro, players won’t budge. It will take key console exclusives—and a fair number of them—before the tide will turn. Zeitgesity games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are a start, but there needs to be a concerted run of these kinds of games—and some ambitious new ideas, too—before gamers vote with their wallets. A new Halo or Gears every few years is fine, but neither are system-sellers anymore. The Forza games are great, but sales of driving games have been in decline for years. This is a decent reboot of the Xbox One (especially with the much-improved new dashboard), but there is a lot to do. Microsoft has to keep doing what the competition is not - like pushing the backward compatibility angle.
Enhanced Xbox 360 and original Xbox games are a surprisingly awesome bonus
It’s faintly absurd to consider buying the most expensive games console on the market to play decade-old classics, but hang on a minute—some games scrub up incredibly well, it turns out. I wasn’t expecting much when I popped Halo 3 into the machine, but—holy shit!—it looks pretty incredible. I ended up trying out all of the enhanced Xbox 360 titles and found that it's pretty much like getting 4K remasters of these games for free. Playing Ninja Gaiden Black this week was also a stunning reminder of how good some original Xbox games can still look all these years later.
The attention to detail is great for audio-visual enthusiasts
Probably the thing that impresses me most about the Xbox One approach currently is the sense of attention to detail—of Microsoft trying to go the extra mile to pack in features that others haven’t bothered with, even if they don’t make obvious commercial sense. Dolby Atmos is a good example. I doubt that many people know what it is, or even care that much, but for us nerds that do, it’s great to have the option to immerse yourself in awesome, lossless cinematic audio in games and movies. Earlier this year, Microsoft added support to the console via an app, which, weirdly, you have to download in the same way you also have to download the Blu-Ray or CD Audio player. Once set-up, you can experience Gears of War 4 in Dolby Atmos, or any number of 4K Blu-Ray movies. Even Netflix now supports Dolby Atmos (though in less than a handful of titles to date), and it speaks of a desire to be on the cutting edge in every area that early adopters will enjoy.
It's a great ultra-HD Blu-Ray player
The Xbox One S, until now, was by far the most cost-effective UHD Blu-Ray player on the market. And although the One X doesn’t offer anything new in that regard (and the playback quality appears to be the same), if you’ve held out on buying an Xbox One at all so far, then you’d be getting one at a time when there are more than 100 UHD Blu-Ray titles available—including an amazing re-release of Blade Runner, which looks and sounds utterly incredible. As with a lot of these things, until you see—and hear—a beloved movie in a way you’ve never seen it before, you might not believe the enhancements matter. My advice is get yourself over to a demo room at a reputable home cinema specialist, if you're considering an upgrade. You might be surprised just how much difference it can make.
What about the games, though?
The Xbox One X hasn't launched with a game specifically designed to show it off. But if you’ve been away from the Xbox One for a while, then there’s actually a pretty compelling backlog to come back to, as ‘safe’ as the familiar names may look at first glance. Driving game fans are particularly well served: Forza Horizon 3, for a start, is the highest rated racing game (by a mile) this generation, while Forza Motorsport 7 recently drubbed GT Sport critically. Sure, Halo 5 treads old ground, but it’s actually really good and Gears of War 4 is in the same bracket. In terms of third party stuff, Xbox One is awash with it—you’d be hard pressed to make the case that there are no killer games among the entire third party output over the past four years, even if most of them are also Ps4 Pro enhanced.
Is it worth the money?
Right now, £449 probably looks expensive, unless you’re a PC gamer used to dumping £650 on new graphics cards. In the context of consoles, of course it’s expensive, but for those wishing to make the most of an (increasingly affordable) 4K TV, this is the best system to take full advantage of that. True 4K gaming seemed like a distant dream just a couple of years ago. The Xbox One X has accelerated that process considerably, and with a UHD Blu-Ray player and Dolby Atmos sound thrown into the mix, it’s a decent price. The fact that a lot of the Xbox One games that have been enhanced for the system are now available cheap should also be taken into account: playing them in 4K makes them look and feel like entirely new games.
What other equipment do you need to get the most out of an Xbox One X?
When it comes to 4K, bigger is definitely better. Depending on your room size and screen size (check out this viewing distance calculator), you’re probably going to want a screen you’d previously considered enormous. Why? Because the benefits of a 4K image are likely to be lost on a smaller screen, especially if you’re sat too far away from it. If you’re tempted by the lure of 4K, you also want to pay attention to whether it has HDR (high dynamic range) capabilities (pre-2016 sets may not). This will provide richer colours and a wider degree of contrast, but also be mindful that the HDR standards are in flux. HDR 10 is the most common, but Dolby Vision is gaining traction and is generally considered better. Another factor to be wise to is whether the TV is LCD or OLED. The latter generally delivers better image quality, but is way more expensive, but the former can also deliver good results, so don’t rule it out. Image latency is also worth paying attention to: gaming on 4K sets can be notoriously laggy compared to 1080p sets, and the variance between sets is considerable, so do your homework.
Finally, don’t skimp on the audio set-up. The sound capabilities of the Xbox One X are fantastic, and even a good entry level home cinema setup will transform the immersive qualities of both games and movies. If you’re going to push the boat out a bit more, then make sure your home cinema amplifier is not only capable of handling 4K HDR, but is also Dolby Atmos compatible. Most amplifiers released this year can handle both with aplomb, but be wary of discounted older models.