I have owned all but a handful of the major video game consoles released since the NES. Some have been great, some mediocre, but all of them have felt special in their own way. Getting a new console has always been like getting a fresh start in gaming, with a whole new library to explore and new ways of seeing and experiencing games.
Until the Xbox Series X.
While the Xbox Series X is a significant upgrade over the Xbox One in a lot of ways it feels almost exactly the same as that console, especially if you had a One X. It runs the exact same UI. It has a very similar controller, and can use Xbox One controllers too. It seamlessly plays almost every game the Xbox One can play, and even when it has an upgraded version of a game your saves transfer automatically behind the scenes. If you're using an app or playing a game that's not graphically intensive the experience of playing on an Xbox Series X is only differentiated by faster loading times.
I know this to be true because while my Series X has become my 'default console' that I play most of my multi-plats on and use for streaming etc... I still use my Xbox One X in another room, and they feel like the same machine in most ways. I can play a game on one and then quit out and load it on the other without doing anything to upload the save or transfer it and it all works fine. Every UI shortcut and button press combo I have muscle memory for works the same on both machines. This doesn't feel like a new console, it feels like an upgrade. Like slotting a new gaming SSD and graphics card into your old PC, but still having your old drive with all your data attached and the same OS and keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
Of course the Series X can do things that the Xbox One X can't. It can run games at faster refresh rates (I don't have a TV that takes advantage of that) it can utilize the SSD for faster loading and, obviously, it can crunch more numbers and put up prettier graphics than its predecessor. It's not exactly the same. But it feels the same in a way that no other new console ever has. Its chief competitor, the PS5, has a totally new UI and controller and feels like a different machine. The Xbox Series X does not.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It's hard to say. There are definite advantages, such as being able to use your old Xboxes and accessories with zero pain and have access to your entire library (though the PS5 also does backwards compatibility) I've always been fine with the Xbox UI but a lot of people hate it and they could have had a chance at a full reboot to streamline certain things. It makes the machine 'feel' a lot less special, but how long does that 'new console smell' last anyway? It's not like I turn on my PS5 just to revel in the new UI.
You'll notice that I haven't talked at all about the games on the Series X yet, and that's because there are none. Well that's not true. There are literally thousands of games available for the machine, from four generations of Xboxen. But the Xbox Series X has literally zero exclusives. It has only a couple games that don't run on the Xbox One and even those have versions on other platforms. The Xbox Series X is a place to play games but it doesn't feel like Microsoft is pushing the hardware. It wants you in the Xbox ecosystem in whatever form that takes (Console, PC, streaming, whatever) and it's not going to try to convince you to buy an expensive new box if you don't want to. I've played a ton of games on my Xbox Series X and I frankly love the backwards compatibility. I played a ton of 360 games in October and I didn't have to hook up my older machines to do so. The Xbox Series X played them seamlessly and with better frame rates and sometimes resolutions. It was great. I was able to play American McGee's Alice, a 21 year old PC game, on my console. What a new frontier!
But that also shows how Microsoft just hasn't put out a lot of software for the thing. It's getting there. Psychonauts 2 was a multi-plat but showed that DoubleFine is still its old self even under the corporate umbrella. Obviously Forza Horizon 5 is a massive release, Halo's coming, and there's more stuff lined up for the future. It's not like the PlayStation 5 has had a massive slate of bangers. New consoles generally don't and Covid doesn't help. But all this contributes to making the Xbox Series X feel like an unnecessary luxury.
And that's ultimately how I feel about the box a year in. It's a luxury, like a new graphics card. The majority of the games I play on it don't benefit at all from the added power (though they load a bit faster) but those that do look nicer. The UI is a bit snappier. It's incredibly quiet. It's a good machine. I can't say I regret buying it and I'm lucky I was able to get one of the first shipments from the Microsoft store.
But for all that, it's also incredibly unexciting. When the OG Xbox was released people worried that consoles would become PCified and stop feeling like fun in the way they used to. The first few Xboxes weren't like that but at this point I'd say that fear has been realized. The Xbox Series X is a black monolith that does its job efficiently and effectively but isn't particularly fun to own in the way other consoles have been. It's just another platform. Maybe it's a sign of how gaming has grown up. Your new console is just like a fancier VCR or DVD player rather than a special fun machine. There are good reasons for things to work that way, and I'd argue that you probably gain more than you lose (especially with robust backwards compatibility) but something has been lost along the way too.
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