It’s been a little over a year since I dove into the current generation of gaming with Microsoft’s most affordable (and, at the time, most accessible) “next-gen” console in the Xbox Series S. I put that term in quotations purposefully because when speaking strictly of hardware the Series S is not much more powerful than last generation’s Xbox One X, with its GPU actually even being less capable when compared side-by-side. Still, the SSD and better CPU does result in overall better performance for the S, with developers being able to utilize the hardware to bring their most recent triple-A titles to the console, albeit with notable concessions.
My time with the compact console has been a positive one. Paired with Game Pass, I’ve been able to play a smattering of titles across genres, both new and old, and have had a swell time doing so. Yet, if one were to ask me what my first “next-gen” experience was on the platform, I’d struggle to find an answer. I can answer that question with a fair amount of ease when thinking of generations past. Jak II and GTA III made me awestruck with their open-worlds on the PS2. Gears of War and Super Mario Galaxy blew my mind with both their visuals and gameplay innovations during the seventh generation, and Sony’s Uncharted 4 was the title to make me realize what the possibilites could be for animation and facial capture in the eighth generation. So far, however, I’ve yet to experience a title during my year and a half into the ninth generation of gaming that truly equals those experiences.
Now, to be fair, a number of things need to be considered when stating such a thing. For one, I have yet to play any of Sony’s exclusive outings over on the PS5, and it’s no news that Xbox have thus far struggled to output quality exclusive titles on a consistent basis. The only notable, triple-A, critically positive title outside of Forza Motorsport this year has been Starfield; a game which, though has its highlights, is a far cry from what I personally would consider to be a great game, let alone a generation defining one. Secondly, the term “next-gen” is vague in nature. Usually, the term is widely associated with graphical fidelity, which is fair seeing as how that has been the focal point for console-makers to compete with one another since the 16-bit versus 32-bit era of gaming. Graphics aren’t everything, of course, and I would argue that Hi-Fi Rush (an Xbox console exclusive) does things that I’ve never seen from this medium. But high-end visuals from big-budget games still remain a fun and exciting way to see a tangible jump in technology from which generations can be defined, even if recent years have proved to have diminishing returns. Unfortunately, even when such titles do make their way over to the platform, be they exclusive or third-party, the Series S is not going to be the place in which I’ll be able to experience them in all their glory. I have, for the past week, considered purchasing all my future AAA games for a different platform entirely. A platform that I had always considered in jest as “the dark side.”
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece outlining my experience playing Balder’s Gate 3 via the Logitech G Cloud—a device made solely for cloud gaming. I’m playing the game via NVIDIA’s GeForce NOW app, which allows players to play (some) of their Steam and Epic Store libraries via the cloud. The experience has been nothing short of phenomenal. Being able to play the game at ultra settings, something that even the PS5 is unable to do, on a handheld with no discernible reduction in video quality, is a treat. The transition from seeing Starfield’s glassy-eyed NPCs whose character models left much to be desired, to BG3’s sharply animated and brilliantly mo-capped ones was jarring in the best way. As far as graphical fidelity from a AAA title goes, this is one of the first times over my almost two years into the generation where I’ve been genuinely impressed. To the point where it’s made me wonder if I hadn’t missed out on such a feeling from games in the past due to me simply playing them on inferior hardware.
Any side-by-side comparison you look up on YouTube that pits the Series S against its beefier older brother in the Series X, as well as the PS5 and PC, illustrates the lack of fidelity on the Series S. From foliage density to texture quality to shadow rendering, the Series S consistently comes in last. Which is perfectly fair as those machines all cost hundreds (sometimes thousands when it comes to PC) of dollars more, and the objective for the S is simply to have the game run at a consistent 30fps. Thus far, I’ve been perfectly content with this situation as graphics weren’t the be all end all for me, and a consistent experience is what mattered rather than obsessing over every granular pixel. The problem, however, is that I’ve gotten a taste of what “the dark side” can offer. I’ve seen what Cyperpunk 2077 (a game I have yet to play) looks like on ultra settings with ray tracing turned on; a distinctively different visual experience when compared to the game’s console counterparts, especially the Series S. The recently released Alan Wake 2 is being touted by many critics as a “true next-gen” experience with its stellar visuals that help to elevate its innovative game design. I’m sure playing Alan Wake 2 on the Series S will be a perfectly adequate experience as the game itself is supposedly great, but a quick YouTube search shows just how impressive the game looks on modern PC hardware. Hardware that I now have access to via the cloud.
It’s to the point where I am now heavily considering purchasing all of my future, non-Game Pass, AAA titles for PC and playing them via GeForce Now through either my handheld, or a Chromecast if I want the big screen experience. It’s a scenario that I wouldn’t have even remotely entertained if asked about it a year ago, as the many concerns about cloud gaming, ethically or otherwise, aren’t lost on me. But frankly, I feel as though I’ve been compromising when playing the latest and greatest titles on the Xbox Series S, and right now this is the most cost-effective route to untether myself from those compromises—at least until I can save up for a rig of my own. The Series S is a great console, and paired with Game Pass is an unmatched value proposition. But when thinking of the term “next-gen” as it pertains to the technical audiovisual advancements of the medium, those experiences are still going to be enjoyed in their fullest with the Xbox Series X, PS5, and especially (if optimized) the PC.