The Xbox One X is a mind-bendingly powerful machine that is very hard to get truly excited about.
(Photo via Microsoft)
1. When the N64 came out we spent the preceding months trying to doodle the 3D logo in the back of our jotters. You do not understand what the 3D logo for the N64 did to our previously 16- and 32-bit minds. You do not understand that leap from the second dimension into the third. It was as if books had learned to shout. The television grew hands that reached out of the screen. Imagine taking a ten-year-old boy's brain – already a malleable and chaotic and gullible and sweetly earnest thing – and then showing it a single screenshot of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. That brain explodes in its skull and the pink liquid turns and forms into something else. It becomes a chewed wad of possibility. Rumours of the N64 tore a rift into another dimension for us, into an entire new world.
"When the N64 comes out, the new Mario will have one thousand levels" – Gareth A, one of two twins who had pre-ordered the N64 system
"When the new N64 comes out, you will be able to see Mario from every angle. From every angle that exists" – Greg A, intersecting twin and N64 pre-orderer
"The N64 is the most powerful machine in the world" – Patrick "Paddy" H, a preternaturally horny ten-year-old who had a collectible sticker of 'X-Files' era Gillian Anderson on the wall next to his bed that he used to kiss goodnight, I mean this thing was soiled
"There is going to be a 'South Park' shooting game on the N64 and a 'South Park' racing game, and both of those games are going to be good!" – Gareth A, twin, 'South Park' fan, eternal optimist
For three straight months my breathing was quicker and my heart rate was higher merely at the threat of the release of the N64. The angles of it were too much for us to handle. All those angles, those hundreds of angles. Those three-dimensional angles. Then the 1st of March, 1997 rolled round. The day I first played Goldeneye I don't think I blinked even once.
2. The Xbox One X is not to be confused with the Xbox One S or the Xbox One. The Xbox that is about to be released – the most powerful console in all of history – is the Xbox One X. (You can also call the Xbox "Project Scorpio", but you are not going to call it that.) Xbox One X. Say it out loud. It is very difficult to actually say. The Xbox One X will be available on the 7th of November.
Anyway, right now it's early September and I'm mildly hungover and in a lavish vault-like room beneath Waterloo Bridge where anywhere between 20 to 1,000 [whatever the plural of "Xbox One X" is] are plugged into glimmering 4K TVs. Xbox One X fact: the Xbox One X is 40 percent more powerful than the next-most powerful console on the market, which is either the Xbox One S or the PS4 Pro, nobody seems to know for sure. Xbox One X fact: the Xbox One X is a console, it says here, "designed for immersive true 4K gaming" with, again it says here, "ultimate compatibility, and unrivalled craftsmanship". In real terms this means it's smaller than the Xbox One S (they designed special, more compact power management systems to make all that tech fit in a smaller box: they literally invented a new power management system to make this work), and it still plays all the old games, but thru complex alchemy known only as "supersampling" (which we will get to later), somehow makes them look better.
3. If you could capture, manufacture and bottle any feeling in the world, which feeling would make you the most money? Like: the slow creeping feeling of absolute hype that comes with carefully getting ready for a big night out. Or: those first few weeks of a sort-of-maybe-kinda relationship, where you might possibly capital-L Like somebody and they might maybe Like you back, and every text message notification comes with an electric thrill, every waking moment it's like you're thirsty for a glass of water that only their attention can provide? Or: the cosy month-long anticipation of Christmas? Or: the heart attack joy of waking up on your fifth birthday? If any of these feelings could be rubbed on your wrists, behind your neck, patted on your pulse points and your hands for you to feel again, which would you choose? You are wrong. You have made the wrong choice. The most commercially viable bottled feeling would be me, in the year 2000, looking at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty screenshots on the upcoming PlayStation 2, printed out in full glossy glory in Official PlayStation Magazine.
"Dad, dad, dad: did you know, the PS2, in the PS2 the CPU is called 'the Emotion Engine', and it runs at 294MHz?" – me, to my dad, y.2000
"Dad: dad dad dad dad dad. Did you know, in the PS2, in 'Tekken Tag Tournament', did you know, dad: every single blade of grass will be rendered separately?" – me, to my dad, y.2000
"Dad! Dad: the PS2 runs from DVDs, not CD-ROMs, so it makes sense just to get it as a DVD player, because it's cheaper than most DVD players, and also it plays DVDs!" – me, during a particularly unconvincing attempt at getting a PS2, to my dad, y.2000
"DAD THE DUALSHOCK 2 HAS SPECIAL BUTTONS WHERE IF YOU PUSH THE ANALOGUE CONTROL STICKS IN IT CLICKS. THEY ARE CALLED L3 AND R3. DAD. DAD." – me, to my dad, (unresponsive), y.2000
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4. What I am saying is: if you have never tried to draw a PlayStation controller because you are so excited about the release of an upcoming PlayStation, then i. you probably had penetrative sex during your adolescence, congratulations; but ii. you are not, and you will never be, my people.
Oh, right, the Xbox, yeah: Xbox has a new thing where you can go online and design your own controller in your own set of colours, and this is called Xbox Design Lab. There are a billion different colour combinations. It is very difficult to make one that looks Actually Designed, rather than when you are 17 and minorly crumple the front of your car and have to get a mismatching bonnet from a nearby scrapyard. You can carve your gamertag in the centre of the controller, near the base, right where – if the Xbox controller were a human body – right where the soul would be.
Are consoles even consoles any more? The Xbox One X isn't. It's as close to a gaming PC as the market has previously got: it is the Xbox One S but with better components, a more powerful core, more graphics power. It can take the same games that play on the One, and the S, and make them look better. This sounds like market hokum, but it isn't: all the textures are there, all the invisible boxes; it's just the Xbox One X has the power to truly draw all of them, spin more rendering plates at once. When you see it in motion it's a glorious thing, but it's basically a gaming PC in a nicer-looking box.
Look, Microsoft even think of the physical upgrading process like you would a gaming PC, the idea of actually unplugging an older console and replacing it with a new one: "We've done a backup and restore type of app now," Microsoft Senior Director Albert Penello tells me. "So if you're getting ready for the One X, you plug in your external hard drive and get it off the system in one swoop, and your system settings will be backed up. All the port locations are exactly the same, too, and use the same cables. So if you're switching just unplug the One S and plug the X back in. You don't have to move the whole cabinet: no getting behind the TV." You do not even need to get behind the TV.
Everything about this X-for-S launch has been so smoothly planned it's hard to get truly, earth-shakingly excited about it. Put it like this: the Xbox One X is a monster of near-unthinkable power. Looking at Albert's friends list, the majority of them are using theirs to watch Netflix.
5. A word on Albert: Albert is possibly the most enthusiastic and American man I have ever, ever met, and I want deeply to be his best friend, but – as our conversation unfolds – it becomes clear that he already has a best friend, and that best friend is the Xbox One X, available November 7th, and unless I have the capability to render 4K-quality footage on a non-4K TV, it is sadly going to be a very one-sided match in terms of who gets to be Albert's best friend, with me once again losing to an Xbox. "I am actually more of a PS4 man," I admit to him, and he says "ah" and then steps up to give me an impromptu PowerPoint presentation. "Okay, let's change that." At this point he spends about ten minutes patiently explaining the supersampling thing, and uh:
"One of the things we tell people is you don't have to have a 4K TV to take advantage of the One X. [Clicks through a succession of images of bee's legs, and lake-and-mountain vistas, switching from true 4K to supersampled to 1080p.] All of the data that is in the 4K image is still there – [Click] just like if you took a 10MP photo and put it on your phone: it still looks great because you still have all the information – and 'supersampling' [Click] is the same thing: 4K image rendered in 1080p."
As best I can tell: there is a lot of information on a game disk, more than an Xbox One S or a non-4K TV can actually handle. The Xbox One X takes selective parts of that information and displays in on your non-4K TV. It's basically a computer from the future struggling to dumb down enough to live inside the present. Albert again: "With the X, we can add environmental effects and texture details. So it's the 4K image supersampled down to 1080p. There's a reason we talk a lot about supersampling – it's really going to change the experience of 4K set." Listen: the games look really, really good, OK? Please don't ask me any more.
6. What was the first game that made you say, "Well, that's it: there will never be a better-looking game than this"? For me, it was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PS2. The first time I saw it booted up, cross-legged on Paul L's floor, staring up rapt at a CRT TV, watching the dusky orange sun rise over Los Santos, I actually said the words: "There will never be a better looking game than this." As CJ slid around on a BMX. As Grove Street made violent in-rounds into the Ballas. In October of 2004, San Andreas was mind-scramblingly huge: you could hammer in a cheat code and summon a jet, and it would still take minutes to rocket to the other end of the map. There is no way we would ever have the technology to have a bigger game than this, I thought. There is no way the PS2 will ever be bettered. Graphically, this is as close to real life as it gets.
This is a screenshot from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas:
I also thought there would never be a better-looking game than Halo. Here's me, aged 15, on Halo: "There will never be a better-looking game than Halo".
So it's been a while since I've dared to say "wow" out loud at a game, because history keeps proving me wrong. Then I played Assassin's Creed: Origins on the Xbox One X, and said "wow" a lot, and also "fucking hell", and "fucking hell: wow", and its variant, "fucking wow hell". Assassin's Creed: Origins is absolutely, inescapably, enormous: there is a feature where you can shoot up into the eyes of an eagle floating overhead, and see to the edge of every horizon, and that's still not all of the game. This, I am told, is thanks in part to the deep power and processing of the Xbox One X, which just makes me think that, one day, it could be ten years or it could be 15, this will all seem utterly quaint and backwards, that one day my wristwatch will be as powerful as this, progress only diminishes the fleeting success of the present.
How many more console launches until I die? Will I ever be excited about the future again?
"See that mountain," David Burroughs, Ubisoft PR manager-cum-Assassin's Creed savant, says over my shoulder. "That's there. That's rendered. You can go to it." I squint and look into the sea-deep distance. I want to go to it, I say. "Well, no, it— that'll take ages. This game is massive." He pulls up the map, and everything we can see takes up three quadrants of a 50- to 60-quadrant map. "We've basically made the whole of Egypt." I want to go to it, I reiterate. Tell me something is huge and I need to see the edges.
He sighs, we get on a horse, I gallop for hours in the direction of a distant sun.
The Xbox One X is released on the 7th of November.