Xbox Series S is the perfect console for casual gamers – CNET

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Xbox Series S is for gamers who don't necessarily want to own games.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Can you guess the first game I played on the Xbox Series S? It wasn't Assassin's Creed Valhalla or Watch Dogs: Legion. It was Kingdom Hearts.

It's not because I had a burning desire to once again rescue the Seven Princesses of Heart. The games CNET was sent for review weren't yet activated, so to test the Xbox Series S I decided to find something on Microsoft's subscription service, Game Pass. It's a perfect metaphor for what the Series S is all about.

Launching on Tuesday, the Xbox Series S is a smaller, less powerful, cheaper version of the Xbox Series X. Unlike its bigger, bulkier sibling, it has no disk drive and, maxing out at 1440p, can't play games in 4K. But at $300, £250 and AU$499, it's not as expensive as you'd expect a next-generation gaming console to be.

As that price indicates, this is a console for more casual players. The Series X is for people with a dedicated home-entertainment setup: the 4K TV, the Dolby Atmos sound, the gaming headphones and probably some flashing RBG lights in the mix. The Series S is for those who don't have a setup designed to extract every last pixel.

And this is reflected in the way it makes you buy games. Or rather, how it encourages you to not buy games at all. Because the Xbox Series S is all about Game Pass.

Pass to ride

Whether you buy an Xbox Series S or X, Game Pass is going to be a big part of your future. It is to gaming what Spotify is to music, or Netflix to television. You pay $10 a month and get access to over 100 games, or $15 for Game Pass Ultimate, which lets you play on your PC and even your mobile phone. These include titles from Xbox 360, Xbox One. Soon it'll include Xbox Series games, too. 

If you get a Series S, you'll have two options for procuring games: Buy them individually, for up to $70 on the Microsoft Store, or play on Game Pass for $10 a month. With its low price and lack of disk drive, the Series S is absolutely perfect for Game Pass. 

That's no slight. If a service like this was populated by B-grade games it might be a problem, but that's not the case with Game Pass. Many of the biggest games on Xbox One -- Gears 5, Forza Motorsport 7, Halo: Masterchief Collection -- are on Game Pass. 

The idea of Halo Infinite coming out on Nov. 10 wasn't only to sell the Xbox Series X|S consoles, it was also to sell Game Pass. Again, would you rather pay $70 to download a copy of Halo Infinite or $10 to play it on Game Pass?

While Sony is investing in flagship exclusives, Microsoft is investing in its subscription service. Take a look at the two consoles' launch lineups. The PlayStation 5 has Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Demon's Souls, and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart. The new Xbox platform's biggest new games are all multiplatform AAA releases. Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, Watch Dogs: Legion. 

So instead, Microsoft is putting a huge emphasis on Xbox One games optimized for Series S|X. Gears 5, Gears Tactics, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves are all high-profile Xbox One games improved, with 4K graphics, quicker load times and higher refresh rates, for the new Xbox consoles.

From my testing so far, the improvements are real -- if you're playing on a good monitor or TV. I couldn't tell the difference playing Forza Horizon 4 on the old 1080p TV in my living room, for instance. But when I compared the game on Xbox One and Series S on a high-end, 27-inch Asus Strix monitor, the difference was clearer than liquid crystal.

Series X and Series S.

The first thing I noticed wasn't the improved resolution, it was the song that started playing after I booted the game up. Or rather, it was how smoothly the text that displays the song glided onto the screen. The Series S runs at 120Hz, meaning the screen refreshes 120 times a second. The Xbox One is technically capable of this, but many games don't support it. The result for Forza was a noticeably more responsive feel to driving. The improved resolution made the textures significantly smoother, too. 

That's if you have the hardware. If you're the type of person who would buy a 4K, 144Hz monitor like the Strix, I'm guessing you're the type of person who'd choose an Xbox Series X over an S. But regardless, know that the Series S is no graphical slouch. 

If you're a hardcore gamer, there's a solid chance you've already played the optimized games listed above. But for more casual players, Game Pass lets you play titles you may have missed or never got around to. That could be first-party games like Gears 5 that you missed from not owning an Xbox One, or acclaimed indie games like Untitled Goose Game and Dead Cells which you just never committed to buying. 

Or, for nostalgia addicts like myself, it lets you play an old game for the sixth time. So, yes. Kingdom Hearts

Something different

Microsoft's emphasis on Game Pass is smart. For two generations, there was little to distinguish the Xbox from PlayStation. With almost every third-party blockbuster landing on both, it was largely a matter of choosing between Uncharted and Halo, or God of War and Gears of War, or Gran Turismo and Forza. 

Now the distinction is starker. With the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X, it's a question of philosophy as much as it is a question of specific games. It's about how you want to buy and play games -- via subscription, on your phone via Project xCloud or the good ol' fashioned way.

The Series S takes this distinction further. While the digital-only PS5 takes the regular PS5 and removes the disk drive, the Series S feels like a different product from the Series X. It's not just the specs, it's also reflected in the design. The Series X is almost intimidatingly big, and don't even get me started on the PS5. The Series S is slick, but more reserved. It doesn't invite attention -- or ridicule -- like other consoles do. 

Which isn't to say it's better, it's just different. And that's why I like the Xbox Series S. Because after two generations of it feeling like Sony and Microsoft made basically the same console, it's a console that's intended for a specific purpose. 

I can see it being perfect for casual gamers who want to play the big hits, or for more dedicated PlayStation 5 owners who pick up the Series S and a Game Pass sub as a secondary console. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go rescue the Princesses of Heart for the sixth time. 

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