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Xbox One X looks stunning - but we need to see more

A lack of code at E3 means the jury's still out.

Is this just too good to be true? After a Microsoft media briefing with so many spectacular moments, we couldn't help but wonder. As the briefing progressed, new Xbox One X titles arrived thick and fast, the majority promising 4K visuals with high dynamic range rendering - a target that has proved a touch elusive for PlayStation 4 Pro. But some of the major reveals went further - they showed us a level of visual accomplishment we hadn't seen before, in addition to that stratospherically high 4K resolution. The more we watched, the more we began to wonder: can the reality of Xbox One X match what we were shown? Perhaps more pertinently, how much of what was shown was actually running on Microsoft's new hardware? How much was authentic, dare we say it, real?

In at least a couple of respects, Xbox One X defies the norms set by current-gen hardware. Even the form factor of the machine challenges belief: had pictures of the unit leaked in the weeks leading up to E3, there's a strong chance that they would have been dismissed as an elaborate fake - but it is real, and even better in the flesh. The small, discrete unit you first saw in a flash, glitzy rendered sequence, we first saw at the end of March, at the tail-end of the Project Scorpio hardware deep dive we've previously reported on. After Leo Del Castille, general manager of the Xbox hardware team, constructed a console in front of us, we were directed to two Xbox One consoles - the initial set-top box model, and its S successor. It turned out that the OG model was simply an empty shell, which was lifted off to reveal the tiny Scorpio console.

Frankly, it was a brilliant piece of theatre - and we had wondered whether Microsoft would repeat the trick on stage. Side-by-side with the Xbox One S, it's instantly apparent that the new X is actually smaller, despite its enormous increase in performance - and it's the final flourish of craftsmanship on a beautiful piece of kit. And there's a nice story surrounding that Xbox One fake shell; beta testers of the console taking their machines home were compelled to hide their prototype Scorpio hardware under the empty casing, to ensure that the chances of inadvertent leaks were kept to a minimum.

From our perspective, the only unknown left concerns the performance of the cooling assembly, and how acoustics may vary between consoles. The 'Hovis Method' technique of matching each individual Scorpio Engine to its motherboard with tailored power delivery is a remarkable innovation, but not all silicon chips are created equally - power and cooling requirements will vary between every processor that comes off the production line, and some units may be louder than others (this is already noticeable between otherwise identical PS4/Pro units). Thermal management profiles were still being tested when we visited Microsoft, and back then, prototype hardware simply ran with fans maxed. This will not be the case on final hardware.

Rich and Tom sit down with their initial thoughts on the Xbox One X reveal.Watch on YouTube

And there's no doubt that the Scorpio Engine at the heart of this beautifully constructed unit is capable of hugely impressive performance. Forza Motorsport 7's media reveal and initial trailers are only showing a 30fps game, but make no mistake, this is a full-fat, native 4K 60Hz experience and it looks stunning. We've already covered how well a basic port of FM6's core technology ran on prototype Xbox One X hardware, and it's nice to see just how Turn 10 is extracting from the hardware using the extra 'couple of milliseconds' the engineers discussed shaving off the per-frame render time. The team wanted to add new features into the game, and the implementation of fully dynamic lighting and weather - which should appear in both Xbox One and One X versions - is a massive win for the new game. Forza 7 is, in effect, our first validation that Xbox One X can indeed live up to Microsoft's heady claims.

The spectacle ramped up with 4A Games' astonishing Metro Exodus demo, but hearts sank when Phil Spencer talked about the video as 'in-engine' footage. Offline rendering can make any game look as good as you like - not a trick you want to pull when you're trying to establish the credentials of a brand new $500 console. Deep Silver checked in with us after the event to see if we'd caught the reveal - a good opportunity to ask the golden question: to what extent is this exquisite trailer representative of the actual game? Is it anything like the real thing?

We're told that the sequence is built to target Xbox quality. A couple of 'flourishes' were added, but the player actions, the environments - 'that's all real'. And further: 'that sequence will be in the final game and it will stack up'. Let's bear in mind that 4A has yet to release a title built from the ground up for current generation hardware. In the 'post-downgrade' era, where developers have hopefully learned not to over-promise with pre-rendered video, we're prepared to give a developer with this much talent the benefit of the doubt and hope to report back soon with more on what looks like a simply astonishing game.

The Xbox One X software we've seen all looks good - Assassin's Creed Origins hands in a remarkable 4K presentation, even if - strictly speaking - it's not a 'true 4K' game.Watch on YouTube

Assassin's Creed Origins? We got an extended gameplay demo running on Xbox One X hardware, again promising 4K ultra HD and high dynamic range rendering support - though Ubisoft has since confirmed the utilisation of both checkerboarding and dynamic resolution. It certainly looks like an established current-gen engine scaled up to 4K with select embellishments, and traditionally, the Assassin's Creed titles have run at a native 900p. Can Xbox One X really deliver a compelling 2160p presentation? Well, we're lucky enough to have had access to an uncompressed 4K feed from the media riser at the event, and initial analysis suggests that - yes - the gameplay footage here passes muster on ultra HD screens, and it looks great. Look to Watch Dogs 2 on PC for how good 2160p checkerboarding can look, and you'll see the same level of accomplishment here on Xbox One X. As for the dynamic scaling? In the demo footage we're poring over, everything we've tested seems to resolves to full 2160p based on pixel-counts. This is seriously impressive stuff.

Between Forza Motorsport 7 and Assassin's Creed Origins, we have two cases that fully deliver the promises made by Microsoft - whether native or checkerboarding, both are clearly viable 4K experiences and look pin-sharp. And we really liked Microsoft's approach to messaging at the briefing: every ultra HD 4K title supported HDR, and of everything shown, all but three titles - Dragonball FighterZ, Code Vein and Life is Strange - are targeting 4K (this trio of games gets unspecified Xbox One X enhancements). The intent is clear: to position Xbox One X as the 4K games console, where its competition is well known for the inconsistency of its ultra HD support.

That said, while the messaging is razor sharp in its targeting, under scrutiny, Microsoft is being a touch vague about its definition of what 4K actually is, saying that games flagged as such at the media briefing have a 2160p framebuffer output, "including native 4K, checkerboarding and dynamic resolution". Using language like 'including' essentially means that anything goes and strictly speaking, the same could be said for any PS4 Pro title with a higher resolution mode - even those running at 1440p or even lower. We expect better from Xbox One X's higher performance GPU of course, but the point is that the wording here gives developers far more wiggle room in rendering resolutions than the actual phrase '4K ultra HD' may suggest.

By the time the briefing ended with the epic real-time reveal of BioWare's stunning Anthem, it's fair to say that we were hugely hyped for the future of Xbox gaming. Maybe it's not a generational leap, but if this epic, Frostbite-powered 4K ultra HD title looks this good on Xbox One X, we are fully, 100 per cent in.

[UPDATE: In a previous version of this article, we stated that it wasn't clear what hardware this demo was running on - in fact, EA's Patrick Soderlund does confirm that it is a real-time Xbox One X demonstration. Many apologies for the error, we will have a deeper look at the demo very soon, but we can confirm 2160p checkerboarding from our tests - something that would be unlikely on PC and very much in line with Frostbite's console technologies.]

You saw a 4K, 30fps version of the Metro Exodus trailer at Microsoft's E3 briefing - well, in-engine rendering lets you export at any resolution and frame-rate you want, so here's a 1080p60 alternative.Watch on YouTube

Suitably primed by the vast array of 4K content Microsoft laid out in its media briefing, John Linneman - our on-site Digital Foundry representative - was eager to visit the platform holder's media showcase, where on-site capture was allowed. That's the good news. The bad news is that the titles 100 per cent guaranteed to be running on Xbox One X hardware proved difficult to nail down. What we can say for sure is that Forza Motorsport 7, Super Lucky's Tale and Assassin's Creed Origins were clearly running on Scorpio dev kit hardware, but unfortunately, no capture of the Ubisoft title was allowed. Gears of War 4 was also shown to press - but alas, not to us.

Meanwhile, titles we had naturally assumed were running on Xbox One X during the briefing materialised on other, non-X hardware. Crackdown 3 was shown running on PC, while Sea of Thieves was represented on Xbox One S - and at this point, we started to wonder how much of Microsoft's blockbuster 4K conference was actually based on Xbox One X software. During the media briefing, at no point were we told we were looking at PC versions in a presser meant to herald the arrival of a true 4K console. On site, a Rare representative told Digital Foundry that while native 4K is the team's intention with Sea of Thieves, it's not 100 per cent definite as development kits had only turned up at the studio in the last month. This means that the extended 4K gameplay demo at the media briefing was likely running on PC. The other major gameplay demo - Shadow of War - was absent altogether from the press showing.

Meanwhile, a demo station running The Darwin Project, apparently hosted on an Xbox One X debug station, suddenly showed a Windows mouse pointer, strongly suggesting that it was PC code - a state of affairs the attendant owned up to. Later on, Microsoft told me that PC code is set to run at Xbox One X spec. To be clear, there's every chance that these simpler titles should easily hit the 4K target, but equally, showing an apparently active Xbox One X unit with a game that's actually running on a hidden PC isn't being straightforward with press or the public.

Sea of Thieves looked beautiful at 4K at the Microsoft briefing, but Rare only received Xbox One X development kits last month, meaning that the demo must surely have been captured from the PC version of the game.Watch on YouTube

We'd like to stress that everything we've heard from developers about Xbox One X behind the scenes has been positive, but in the wake of the big hardware reveal - which set the bar so high - E3 was supposed to be about the games, and we were hopeful of comprehensive validation of the bold claims made for what is clearly a remarkable piece of console engineering. Forza Motorsport 7 and Assassin's Creed Origins show that the hardware can deliver on the promise, and Super Lucky's Tale shows that pretty, Unity-based indie titles stand a great chance of delivering a native 4K experience. Beyond that, while we're sure Microsoft has the best of intentions, we can't feel we can report too much further on Xbox One X's capabilities because we're not actually sure we're looking at Xbox One X software.

The omission of other titles means that there are key unknowns remaining. The big one is simple - how does Xbox One X compare to the base Xbox One over and above the resolution boost? And in what ways is it better than PS4 Pro? With the small sample of software available, it's not possible to say right now - and this is crucial information for a core user with a 4K screen wondering which of the new consoles to buy.

We didn't get to see Gears of War 4's enhanced Xbox One X version, but we've seen developer documentation showing how well the most basic of Scorpio ports (including Gears) ran at native 4K before the studio even started to work properly on enhancements. Based on reports, it's clear that The Coalition have pushed this spectacular-looking game even further - and we can't wait to see it. But quite why Forza Horizon 3 or other older titles weren't given a spotlight is baffling. Halo Wars 2 was shown at the press showcase, but bizarrely it was only the PC version on display. Why not Xbox One X? It doesn't make much sense.

Ultimately, it's great to see polished, impressive running on Xbox One X hardware, but bearing in mind how crucial this hardware launch is for Microsoft and the $499/£449 being asked of the user, surely more software could have been shown? For example, Forza Horizon 3 sold millions, it's one of the best, most beloved Xbox One games, and the 4K upgrades we've seen on PC are simply magnificent. If the X version matches it - and we suspect it does - why not show it? For its part, Microsoft told us that it wanted to make E3 a focus for new games, with less of an emphasis on older titles, but surely existing Xbox One owners thinking about an upgrade deserve to see how much of an upgrade they'll get on their existing library? And if Xbox One X code is thin on the ground at E3, surely it makes sense to show as much software as possible, even if it is an upgraded version of an older game?

So, what have we learned about Xbox One X from its E3 showing? Tightly optimised first party engines like ForzaTech clearly look stunning on the new hardware, and in Assassin's Creed Origins we have compelling evidence that what was traditionally a 900p third party Xbox One engine can scale beautifully to a 4K display. It's a tantalising taster of what this hardware can deliver, but beyond that, there's little more we can add. We need to see more.

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