The Worst Thing About The Xbox Series S

Xbox Series S screenshot taken by the author.

I’ve owned Microsoft’s “budget” next-gen console, the Xbox Series S, for just over a year now. It’s an awesome performer for the price, but the more time I spend with it, the more I notice the things that they had to cut in order to hit the $299 price point.

Which of these cuts bothers me the most? Is it the lack of a disc drive? The paltry 364 gigabytes of available storage on a digital-only machine advertised with a 512 gigabyte capacity? Or the fact that it lacks raytracing in several prominent titles in spite of that being the main marketing push for current graphics hardware?

Nope! Instead, it’s the disappointing performance in basically every Xbox game released before 2020. In spite of its beefy hardware, the Series S is stuck using base Xbox One settings in older games. It can’t take any advantage of the “One X Enhanced” game profiles released between 2017 and now without direct intervention from developers.

DW9 on Xbox Series S is a world of aliasing, lumpy shadows, and disappearing trees. Screenshot taken by the author.

As a result, I’m stuck playing games like Dynasty Warriors 9 at 720p. The loading times and overall framerate benefit somewhat from the hardware upgrades in the Series S, but so much of its power is left on the table because Koei didn’t manually patch the game to support the new generation. On my One X, the resolution is much higher, aliasing is greatly reduced, and the overall effects quality takes a huge step up.

On paper, this disparity makes a little sense. The One X has a larger pool of RAM (12 gigs vs 10 gigs) with more overall bandwidth available. Depending on the metric you use, its GPU might also win out. However, the Series S has a dramatically faster CPU, and its newer GPU architecture is much more efficient thanks to years of technological advancements.

The Series S is a next generation console. In games that have official support, it has a shocking amount of raw performance, coming impressively close to the level I’d expect from my high end gaming PC or the more expensive consoles. It doesn’t hit 4K in most games of course, but it regularly pushes games at 60 frames per second, or at 30 with high end visuals.

Xbox Series S screenshot taken by the author.

I’m grateful that Xbox’s backwards compatibility program means I can play every Xbox One game on my Series S, but so many of them look kind of terrible. Again, it’s great that they run at all, and I understand that the Series S is meant as a successor to the One S and not the One X. But there’s a dramatic performance gap between patched and unpatched games. The Series S is paying an unfortunate price for Microsoft’s past hardware decisions, all so that the Series X has one additional differentiator.

A few older Xbox titles have received support for Microsoft’s new consoles, and the Series S shines in these, only enhancing my frustration. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ran at 900p and 30 frames per second on the original Xbox One and thus the Series S as well. However, it recently got a next gen patch, and now owners of Microsoft’s modern budget console can play at 1080p and a full 60 frames per second. Newer Ubisoft titles, like Valhalla and Immortals offer Series S owners the choice between a 60 FPS mode that lowers the resolution, or a 30 FPS mode that mimics the settings level of the One X versions.

Dynasty Warriors 9 looks so much cleaner on Xbox One X. Screenshot taken by the author.

The extra CPU power and GPU power in the Series S could probably handle many more of the One X enhancements than it has access to right now, but I’m sure a big part of it is that developers don’t have the time or budget to enable support. And again, it makes the $499 model that no one can even find more enticing.

In an ideal world, I’d love to see something akin to the PS4 Pro’s old boost mode implemented, where older Xbox games could access the extra power in the new machines with a “use at your own risk” warning attached. That would not only help the Series S, it would also help the Series X in older non-One X-enhanced games.

Xbox One X screenshot taken by the author.

I love the Xbox Series S, and I think its balance of price and performance is probably the most incredible ever achieved in a game console. It supports tons of next gen features like ray tracing, near-instant loading, quick resume, and high frame rates. But it’s also weird to jump from an amazing session of Halo Infinite or Forza Horizon directly into the worst-looking version of an older third party game.

I know I’m probably one of the only people still playing old Dynasty Warriors games on a Series S, and that I could “fix” this by changing to a different platform. But that’s not the point. The Xbox Series S is just such a cool little console and it’s frustrating that sometimes its power gets left on the table untapped.

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