Hands-on Impressions of Xbox Series X’s Launch Games

Article By 
Alan Walsh
November 9, 2020

Hands-on Impressions of Xbox Series X’s Launch Games

Article By 
Alan Walsh
November 9, 2020

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been hands-on with a wide selection of Xbox Series X titles, including first-party games like Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, Gears Tactics and Sea of Thieves, as well as unique indie puzzle-platformer The Touryst – all of which I’ve discussed and shared impressions of in my Xbox Series X Review.

This article focuses on some of the other Xbox Series X experiences you’ll find available on day one. Be it racing from rookie to superstar across a globe-trotting journey in DIRT 5 to leading the uprising of London and taking back control from a privatised patrol force in Watch Dogs London, there’s much to discover in the launch line-up and they each take advantage of the console in unique ways, as we'll be examining in this story.

Microsoft provided us with an Xbox Series X reviews package, so that’ll be the system focused on in this article. Whilst most games are expected to offer similar experiences on the Xbox Series S, albeit with lower resolutions, the general gameplay and overall visual enhancements should be in line. Xbox Series X is designed for native 4K gameplay, while its all-digital sibling is focused on delivering native 1080p and 1440p outputs.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

Arguably one of the best showcases today of the Xbox Series X’s hardware, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla stuns with its dynamic 4K target resolution and 60FPS lock. Its sprawling open-world is massive and beautifully detailed, with two vast locales to discover in Norway and England. Soak it all in on-foot, on horseback or by vessel. There are endless amounts of exploration to be enjoyed as you conquer each settlement and raid them for their hidden treasures. There’s just so much to discover and the Xbox Series X breezes through it all with ease. There are a few quirks, however. The framerate can occasionally dip causing noticeable screen-tear. This can be resolved by using VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) but requires a supported high-end display. It certainly won’t be a commonplace solution for everyone sadly, but the experience is still nonetheless spectacular. Hopefully, Ubisoft resolves this with a VSync solution in a future patch.

Truly what excites me most is how Assassin’s Creed Valhalla; a gigantic and elaborately detailed open-world RPG can be brought to life in 4K resolution at 60FPS on console with an elegant HDR implementation – one that uses sunbeams to intensify its brightness beyond the clouds with shadow cascades adding further depth to each lighting scenario in the English countryside. Fluid 60FPS performance in a game of this calibre was previously exclusive to the PC and one of the most convincing reasons to switch over to the platform. Now, that experience can be appreciated in all its glory on a modern-day console. It makes me genuinely excited to see how future open-world games built specifically for Xbox Series X|S relish the new hardware.

DIRT 5

DIRT 5 includes multiple performance options to curate the experience to your liking. The shiny graphics mode increases visual settings with a dynamic 4K output and a 60FPS target – it’s the perfect way to experience the game’s blend of colourful tracks and realistic environments. The resolution mode locks the game to 4K 60FPS by compromising on some of its more impactful visual settings. Meanwhile, the 120Hz mode only becomes available if your console outputs at that same refresh rate. Unsurprisingly, the visuals are turned down a few notches with noticeable pop-in, lower shadow quality and a vastly reduced draw distance, but it’s done to deliver a silky-smooth gameplay experience at dynamic 1440p.

In fact, when I also reviewed the game on PC, I targeted a similar spec on my RTX 2080 Super, so it’s awesome to see that also translate over to Xbox Series X. 1440p at 120Hz is the first of its kind for console and it shouldn’t be glossed over, but if you care about raw graphical fidelity, then DIRT 5’s other modes are certain to keep you covered.

There’s no wrong choice here, but I personally found myself drawn towards the graphics mode for that ideal balance of 4K resolution, high-quality visual settings and smooth gameplay aiming for 60FPS. DIRT 5’s art-style is one you don’t see all too often in the racing genre of today and it’s something I continuously appreciate in every race, so me personally, I recommend ripping through its vastly unique environments and soaking in all their colour with the flourishes offered by the graphics mode. But as I noted already, they’re all quite great.

For more on DIRT 5, be sure to read our full review.

NBA 2K21

I’ll immediately cut to the chase here, I’ve almost zero knowledge of basketball and the sports genre isn’t usually my forte. However, NBA 2K21 is the most visually pleasing sports games I’ve played and shows what next-generation hardware can bring to this sort of title. Every player is realistically modelled and detailed, though some of the animations appear quite janky and lessen the overall immersion. It’s neat seeing actual physical sweat build up on players over the course of a match, though it’s a more subtle feature rather than anything game-changing.

The arenas are also highly-detailed as the upper lighting reflects and bounces from the floor, it’s an aesthetically pleasing effect and it’s also backed by relatively high-quality audience models to boot. Being a noob to the sport, I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous interactive tutorials accessible from within the game that got me to grips with its controls and the moves you can perform in a relatively short span of time. I’ll not be going pro anytime soon, but at least I’m now able to score hoops quite frequently, so I’ll happily accept the confidence boost.

The most exciting aspect of NBA 2K21’s next-gen version is The City, a sprawling metropolis complete with towering skyscrapers, sprawling plazas and a city centre that can be fully explored using your customizable players in a shared online environment. It builds upon the franchise’s existing neighbourhoods and features four boroughs with mayors and rival affiliations to tackle, quest-givers with challenges to complete, training facilities to up your game, apparel stores for customizing your character, special courts to compete on – including one that commemorates the late Kobe Bryant, and so much more. There are even skateboards and BMXs for traversing the city or you can dribble your basketball as you walk from street to street.

It’s all extremely cool stuff and I didn’t expect it whatsoever, but it’s truly the ultimate paradise for any fan of the sport – and on the Xbox Series X, it all comes together in 4K resolution at 60FPS with HDR allowing each of its spotlights to glow vibrantly. The City combined with NBA 2K21’s authentic arenas and lifelike character models actually makes its massive 101GB install footprint worth it, especially if you’re a basketball fanatic.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

One of the most striking artistic styles in modern gaming has been further enhanced with Ori and the Will of the Wisps brought to stunning levels of depth on Xbox Series X. This one offers two excellent performance configurations – a native 6K resolution option at 60FPS or a native 4K output at 120FPS. Both are just fantastic and offer pristine image quality and fluid motion. As seen in The Touryst, the 6K mode brings further clarity to the picture with super-sampling acting as a form of anti-aliasing. I couldn’t spot a single jagged edge in this beautifully detailed world full of emotion and vibrancy. Ori and the Will of the Wisps has some of the most vivid colours I’ve seen in a game with its spectacular level design constantly encouraging exploration as well as trial and error. It’s one of the most atmospheric and poignant platform-adventure games I’ve ever played and stands out as one of the Xbox Series X’s most clever showcases.

It’s HDR implementation also deserves a mention, as Ori’s blend of luminosity and world detail showcases the depth and variety of the game’s colour spectrum in a way that feels so fitting to each of its environments. It’s a masterclass in unique artistic direction and the latest technology brings this vision true to life.

Tetris Effect: Connected

If you’re pairing your Xbox Series X with a brand-new 4K HDR TV, then make this one of the first games you boot up on it. Tetris Effect: Connected is a dazzling reinvention of the classic puzzle game with a multiplayer twist and several new ways to play. It never jumped at me before that Tetris would become a showpiece game for modern hardware, but it’s a splendid choice and is one of the best examples of HDR to date. If you’re playing in SDR, then frankly you’re missing out. The bright, colourful pixels of every block emit in pure vibrancy in HDR and in 4K, they each feel detailed and alive. Tetris Effect: Connected also features breathtakingly beautiful backdrops that prominently feature in every round you play.

In addition to the Career mode that features multiple unique challenges, the Effects mode allows you to curate the experience to your liking with several gamemodes and scenes designed to fit your mood. Whether you’re looking for a slow-paced, relaxing experience for meditation purposes or fast-paced, intensive and quick-solving action, or perhaps something that fits in-between. What’s more is that all this can be played with a friend in either versus or coop! The choice if yours but regardless of which you opt for, those colours and picturesque surroundings are certain to catch off you off-guard the first time you play, especially in HDR and before you know it, you’re hooked!

The Falconeer

Believe it or not, The Falconeer is a game that has no texture maps whatsoever for any of its in-game models, instead relying on its use of lighting and shaders. It lacks the grittiness or detail of most other games to give itself an abstract look. I don’t see this as a negative but rather as part of the game’s unique identity. This approach was taken because its developer focused on sharp lines and gradients throughout designing The Falconeer and it’s safe to say that it pays off. It’s a game that’s really built for 4K with the high-resolution ensuring each edge is perfectly detailed without jagged lines. Soaring through its skies and observing everything beneath is soothing and you can appreciate the game’s art-style when it’s played at such high fidelity.

The Falconeer operates at a stable 4K, 60FPS but it can also be experienced at 1800p, 120FPS for those with a capable display. With the latter being so close to a 4K output, it only makes sense to experience this one at 120FPS for some buttery-smooth big-ass bird motion! With loading times of just 13 seconds to experience its unique creative world, further enhanced by HDR for an even greater striking colour palette, there’s no reason to overlook this hidden indie gem on the Xbox Series X. The Falconeer delivers addictive fantasy aerial combat gameplay that feels both fun and incredibly satisfying, which is backed by spectacular environments that all stand out from each other. It’s a testament to the distinctive experiences we can look forward to from smaller studios over the course of the generation.

Watch Dogs Legion

Exploring the vast world of London in Watch Dogs Legion has been by far the most immersive experience I’ve had yet on Xbox Series X. Ubisoft has crafted one of their most detailed and alive open-worlds to date, one that constantly distracts you from the game’s main objectives as you go sight-seeing and look for hidden skill point upgrades or hackable areas. This condensed take on London is packed with things to do, missions to undergo, uprising citizens to recruit for your arsenal and futuristic cars to steal. It all looks great too, as it’s the flagship game on Xbox Series X|S to utilize DirectX Raytracing and the result is truly special.

I watched in awe as a spinning Underground sign lit up and reflected over the puddles it shone upon and created a specular effect on the traffic as it drove by. The mirage of colour and lights bouncing on each car looks impressive, but I couldn’t help my amusement from watching my character’s reflection leap from the side of each car as I walked past them. London is full of high-rise skyscrapers made of glass and seeing them mirror the city’s other towers was an incredible spectacle and one that left me beholden to all the vivid attractions that surrounded me. Inside buildings, any objects, furniture and lights would bounce off the metallic surfaces and blend naturally into the shadows.

If there’s only title you can pick-up for your Xbox Series X at launch, I seriously recommend this one. Watch Dogs Legion delivers its incredibly detailed and ray-traced take on the British capital at a native, albeit dynamic 4K resolution – but truthfully I had to check the spec sheet for that one as I just didn’t notice any scaling myself while being lost in the game’s metropolis. However, the game’s framerate is a limiting factor here. It’s 30FPS lock is quite reminiscent of the Xbox One generation and I’d like to have seen some options here to combat this. Native 1080p with DirectX Raytracing at 60FPS or 4K at 60FPS without the new reflection tech would’ve given players the choice to best curate their experience, if offered alongside the current visual-heavy option too. Considering Assassin’s Creed Valhalla delivers a native 4K, 60FPS output, I’d have loved to have seen the same option make its way into Watch Dogs Legion.

Yakuza Like a Dragon

The Japanese RPG series from SEGA radically shifts its gameplay design from action-focused gameplay in favour of a new strategic turn-based battle system. Your characters are upgraded through unique “jobs” that expand their combat skills, from being a beefy Bodyguard to an instinctual Gambler or a five-star Chef who uses cooking utensils as weapons. Featuring unique minigames to play, restaurants to appease your appetite and shops to browse items, Yokohama is a brand-new location to the Yakuza series. Explore it and the returning cities in either native 4K, 30FPS or 1440p, 60FPS. It’s your choice, but in this instance, I opted for the latter simply for its buttery smooth gameplay.

Discovering the landmarks of Yakuza Like a Dragon felt much better at the higher framerate, though the 4K mode certainly showcases much more detail around the cities and their various buildings. It’s great for image purists, but 1440p delivers a fantastic output nonetheless and offers the preferred all-around gameplay experience. It especially makes those combat sequences feel fluid as each move seamlessly flows into the next, but let’s not forget about the Mario Kart-style stunt themed races as well as those recycling trials which see you clean up the streets in the shortest time possible. Now this is when each frame really does count!

Further reading: Xbox Series X Review featuring our verdict of the console itself as well as gameplay impressions of Forza Horizon 4, Gears 5, Gears Tactics, Sea of Thieves and more.
Alan Walsh

Alan is the co-founder and co-owner of FullThrottle Media. As someone who enjoys spending all his free time playing video games, he delivers the latest in news stories, reviews, and feature articles to the website, as well as videos on his YouTube channel and livestreams over on Mixer.