A couple of months ago I got a great deal on an Xbox Series X, which kind of explains why some of my free time has evaporated. Well, not all of it, but here are my thoughts on it so far.
Why a Console?
I have a long history with games (ever since the Sinclair Spectrum/Manic Miner days) and loved the potential for doing shiny things with computer graphics. That we’d go from Midway’s 1942 to full-blown VR experiences within my lifetime was something I sort of expected, although I was far from anticipating all the twists and turns game development and the industry took to get there.
But playing against a computer wasn’t very exciting, so I ignored most of the PC gaming scene until I started playing Doom and Quake on my 386/486 PCs and getting into multiplayer matches by shoving IPX packets into dial-up connections. That hobby actually got me a couple of jobs at ISPs and turned into a full blown dial-up games service I ran for a few years (mostly Quake 3 and Unreal servers), but that’s a story for another time.
The point is, until the Switch, console gaming was a series of moderately failed experiments for me.
When I moved to the Mac I stopped using PCs altogether, so I mostly played whatever was available on the Mac and stumbled through a couple of PlayStation generations, but I found most of the PlayStation games boring after a while.
Halfway through that I decided I wanted to play Halo and got myself an original Xbox exclusively for that (around the time the 360 was (literally) burning through its “red ring of death” phase), but I ended up finishing it on the Mac because playing first person shooters with a gamepad was a sub-par experience.
Throughout this entire rigmarole, I bought EDGE magazine regularly and wistfully leafed through job advertisements for UK studios, hacking my way through Unity tutorials (this was way back when it was a Mac-only affair). By this time I’m highly unlikely to work in the gaming industry, but it is still fun to dabble in it…
And, of course, I did the usual “let’s bet on some wholesome family games” thing with the Nintendo Wii (and the Switch, and now Apple Arcade). I love Nintendo, but wish they had more Zelda and Metroid-grade titles and stopped recycling Mario Kart ad nauseam. And, of course, I wish Apple valued games slightly above ringtones and wasn’t completely obvlivious to what is going on outside their walled garden, but I am getting off base here.
Then the pandemic came, and I got into the xCloud beta.
I quite enjoyed using the betas on my iPad and iPhone, but Apple‘s refusal to allow it on the App Store as a standalone streaming app meant that I gave up on ever having it on my Apple TV (which would likely have been the perfect device for it), so I got an NVIDIA Shield, sideloaded the Android app and pretty much struck Apple from my list of gaming platforms.
Which is a very long-winded way to tell you that it was through this xCloud setup that I finally got the hang of using a controller for precision aiming in first-person shooters.
And once I got hooked on Halo Infinite I just had to experience it in 4K with zero lag.
The Game Pass Rabbit Hole
Also, Game Pass was a huge draw. Apple Arcade is nice and cutesy and definitely worth the asking price for my kids and some casual gaming, but the Apple TV has effectively zero mainstream titles. Yes, playing games on an Apple TV can be an amazing experience (Crossy Road Castle is an absolute blast with three people), and the Apple TV has all the right plumbing and likely more than enough hardware chops to be an excellent game streaming device and low-end console, but Apple shot themselves in the foot.
Game Pass, on the other hand, makes it trivially easy to have access to a slew of AAA game titles, some available on it from day one. Besides those, there are games I know will make it there eventually, some that I’m curious about and some nice surprises.
Two examples are Doom Eternal, which I’d never buy (I’m not into the eldricht horror ambiance, and gave up on it around Doom 3 or so) but was able to try recently, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which I barely knew existed and has been a very thoroughly enjoyable experience.
But a big draw of Game Pass for me is also its huge chunk of the Xbox back catalogue, because (unlike Sony) Microsoft gets backwards compatibility:
The Steamy Alternative
Since I (obviously) have had a Steam account since the early days (even though it’s not that useful on a Mac), I briefly considered buying a Steam Deck instead, but canceled my pre-order because the way PC gaming is evolving it just makes more sense to build my own Steam OS console with a cheap mainstream Ryzen chipset.
You can do it right now with HoloISO and some patience, and given my experience with my Ryzen-based Lenovo I can certainly see myself taking the next step and building a powerful desktop PC with a beefy enough GPU that doubles as a Linux workstation and can also stream games to my TV1.
But the Xbox delivers nicely optimized, tweak-free gaming in a compact (and cheaper) package, and there isn’t a lot I want to play that is exclusively available on PC (except maybe Horizon Zero Dawn, which has zero chance of ever landing on the Xbox), and I can likely play those via NVIDIA’s streaming service.
The Xbox Itself
There’s not much to say about the hardware that hasn’t been reviewed to death everywhere. It’s a hefty, quiet black monolith that I squirreled away behind my TV with the bottom an inch off the furniture to maximize airflow (the top vent is impressive, and I do worry about how the thing will fare in our dusty flat and 40C summers).
As far as anyone’s concerned, it’s effectively invisible and just another good HDMI citizen. My TV supports 4K HDR at 120Hz, so things are crisp and smooth throughout.
Diving into 4K
Playing anything at 4K is… pretty amazing, really. And although I’m not one of those people who spend half their gaming time in photo mode, I can see myself dipping into it regularly:
I spent quite some time wandering through the Matrix demo, and every time I look at the photos I am reminded of how far we’ve come in computer graphics. Things like this now seem… boring:
There are some weird twists, though. For instance, Halo Infinite multiplayer co-op takes a lot of getting used to, and I wish that 4K screen real estate was used a little better:
But I really can’t complain. And in terms of bang for the buck and ease of maintenance, I’ll take the current experience over a supercharged, noisy and hideously expensive gaming PC any day.
Multi-User and Parental Controls
As usual with everything Microsoft, the parental control aspect is deeply baked in. Each of my kids has their own account and switching between profiles is seamless, as well as another reminder that Apple also doesn’t really get multi-user on anything.
Parents/guardians (of the home Galaxy at least) get screen time reports, can provide age exclusions for locally installed games, and can limit online interactions with quite some granularity.
So far no strict controls (other than a daily usage limit) have been necessary, since not everyone in the house likes gaming–although judging by the reports No Man’s Sky seems to be the most popular game in the house.
And it doesn’t surprise me in the least, really–everyone here seems to love open world games.
So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying it even though 1TB of storage seems paltry for today’s games (ours is already 80% full). But being able to try out games via xCloud before deciding to install them locally is great (I still play one or two solely online), and the only thing that I’m really missing… is enough time.
A pet annoyance of mine that surfaced while I was writing this is that screenshots are saved in
PNG formats, which need to be shared to OneDrive manually from the console.
Kind of makes sense since the default sharing is targeted at your friends on the Xbox network, but… annoying. And inconsistent: I always get
JXR, and the
PNG shows up a little later–but sometimes never, and I have to go back to the Xbox and re-upload it.
I can open
JXR screenshots just fine on Affinity Photo on the Mac (although I haven’t yet bothered to set up a decent SDR conversion profile), and on Linux you can install
JxrDecApp, which work just fine.
That’s probably because I overthink it and made it a point to go into every side mission the long way round so I can have as much tactical advantage as possible, but that’s just the way I am. That and I’m perfecting the art of sniping with the BR75. ↩︎