What good is a next-gen console without any “new” video games to play on it?
That question loomed as I unpacked an Xbox Series X console at my home office last week, nearly two months before its $499 retail launch on November 10. Such early access to a state-of-the-art gaming machine surely comes with some concession, and in my case, that was a severe asterisk on its compatible content. Unlike other console-preview opportunities I’ve had in my career, this one didn’t come with a single new or freshly updated game in the box.
The funny thing is, this is exactly what I’d asked for.
Earlier this year, I suggested to Microsoft’s PR team that it’d be fun to go hands-on with Series X during the limbo period before its launch, when new and upgraded games weren’t ready… but the backward-compatibility feature was. I got this idea after remembering Xbox chief Phil Spencer was already sneaking into existing games’ online lobbies with his own Series X. He joined the testing program in order to bolster his many proclamations about every Xbox generation’s games working on this new device (and in some cases, even benefiting from Series X perks).
With that in mind, I took my shot: Could I join that testing fray, too?
No, I didn’t get to all 1,000 games, sorry
The answer I eventually got was, “Sure, we’ll call your bluff.” Today, I’ve been given the greenlight to talk about the console’s current backward-compatibility testing phase, and Microsoft has had zero control of my tests or takeaways—other than limiting me to 1,000 games across every existing Xbox platform. While the program will eventually encompass every game that works on Xbox One consoles, the pre-release compatibility list is a bit more narrow. 1,000 is a big number, but it leaves some huge Xbox hits out of my testing.
Still, the results so far have been telling—and, for the most part, reasonably impressive. I wouldn’t dream of recommending a $499 game console solely based on how well it handles a sliver of existing Xbox games. But backward-compatibility sure is an interesting data point. My testing will be good news for anybody who likes the idea of a single, powerful Xbox that can juggle everything from Panzer Dragoon Orta to Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.
Most of the other impressions you might hope for in a “console preview” window are off the table for now; if one of your burning questions is missing from this article, that’s because I’m playing nice by Microsoft’s request, not because I’m holding back on any possible severe issues. There’s still more to come, promise. At least I have been given permission to talk about the console’s “industrial design” today. (That means discussion is coming about what happens when I shove stuff into the new console’s venting holes.)
Xbox Quick Resume: The drool starts now
The easiest thing for me to test in this early period is the “Xbox Quick Resume” feature, a perk so immediately and obviously impressive that I’m confident Microsoft staked this “Series X preview” phase on how much drool it foments.
Think about jumping from one game to the next on any Xbox One console. Hit “start,” and while the console dumps the last game out of system memory, a title card appears to advertise whatever you’re about to play, pausing the console for 20-30 seconds. Then a few typical information cards (legal notices, studio logos) appear, which either disguise necessary loading times or simply torture you when you just want to play a game (come on, Xbox). After all of those, you have to tap through menus, pick a save file, and wait for that specific content to load.
Should you change your mind and go back to your previous game, you have to sit on your hands for that one, too. Back and forth, on and on: swapping, loading, and more loading.
Jumping from one game to the next via Xbox Quick Resume usually clocks in around 8 seconds.
On Xbox Series X, all of that changes. Whenever you’re in a game and switch to the Xbox home menu, or to an entirely new game, the game you’re currently playing goes into a form of “hibernation.” This is how Xbox One worked, so you could leave a game and pick through menus, friends lists, the Microsoft Store, and other OS-specific stuff. But now, the Xbox Velocity Architecture includes a dedicated portion of NVMe 4.0-rated storage that juggles each gameplay session as its own virtual machine, no matter what generation of console it was made for… and it can do this for multiple games, not just one. A hibernated game doesn’t retain all the data for the game in question; rather it’s enough of a “save state” (like in popular game emulators) to get the game up and running again as soon as a player calls it back up.
In a surprising twist, this happens whether the game in question is installed on the console’s built-in NVMe storage (which is required for next-gen content) or on an external USB 3.1 drive (which can store and boot last-gen games). In my tests, jumping from one game to the next via Xbox Quick Resume usually clocks in around eight seconds and doesn’t exceed 13 seconds, even when grabbing beefy XB1 fare like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Borderlands 3 off a USB 3.1 drive.
Listing image by Sam Machkovech