Microsoft recently launched the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, its latest console duo succeeding the Xbox One family. The systems dropped in tandem with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, the latest in the top-selling shooter franchise. And while available on Xbox One, the title also targets Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S with various performance upgrades, including 120 frames-per-second (FPS) and ray tracing support on the flagship console.
Publishers have taken various approaches to cross-generation video game releases this holiday, intending to ease the transition between systems. The vast majority have arrived as free upgrades, with Microsoft even presenting its own standardized solution on Xbox, dubbed "Smart Delivery." In the simplest terms, the feature ensures buyers can purchase supporting Xbox One titles with confidence in an automatic upgrade when booted on the new system.
But a few have trialed paid upgrades, with Activision among adopters of the model for the release of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. The game ships with two distinctly different editions, with Cold War for Xbox One priced at $60 in the U.S. at launch, while the Xbox Series X version costs $70. But that divide also makes buying the latest title a downright mess, with confusingly deceptive box art likely to mislead some throughout the coming year.
Look at the image below for a few seconds — which product would you pick off the shelf?
While enthusiasts may quickly identify the few identifying traits, you have to admit this makes for a horrible shopping experience. I've asked several casual gamers to choose between the two products, and many ultimately failed to identify those differences.
For those confused, hold tight — Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War ships in two standard versions, one tailored to Xbox One and the other tailored to Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S buyers. The Xbox Series X version is pictured on the right, optimized for new consoles with upgrades, but with a free Xbox One version included. The left provides only the Xbox One experience without Xbox Series X enhancements. With Microsoft supporting blanket backward compatibility, the non-upgraded version also works on Xbox Series devices, hence the Xbox Series X tag.
There are several giveaways upon closer inspection, namely with the Xbox Series X sticker in the top right-hand corner of the box and the bottom-right label, emphasizing the two versions. But the shared box design makes this hard to understand quickly, with many likely to buy the wrong edition this holiday. Many we spoke to didn't see those differences until explained.
The situation is further worsened with no upgrade path from Xbox One to Xbox Series X with the physical disc. It means those with the Xbox One boxed version can't switch to the full Xbox Series X experience unless double-dipping with a second full-price purchase. The PS4 disc version does provide an upgrade opportunity, with users presented a PS5 upgrade for free via the PlayStation Store. Digital versions on Xbox One and PS4 can upgrade for $10, however.
And that's not even touching on technical issues, with many Xbox Series X/S owners experiencing crashes and instability when playing the Xbox One version.
While confusing marketing is far from unusual, it's worth stressing for those buying the new Call of Duty, whether a casual gamer or holiday gift shopping. That comes from someone who defended the Xbox Series X name, which is still a fundamentally different product, despite name similarities to Xbox One X. This is easy to miss — and it's just as easy to do the same thing with a digital license via the Microsoft Store, with no warning if opting for the "standard" $60 version.
It all stems from Activision sidestepping the free upgrade provided by most publishers, providing those graphical upgrades at a premium price point. Microsoft equally hasn't made it clear, with similar box designs and an online storefront that fail to differentiate these products. It's not an issue with the PS5, where Sony has adopted a white box with clear branding this generation.
When shopping this holiday season, stay aware. It's currently only an issue for Call of Duty, and while we expect more cross-generation releases to experiment with paid upgrades, the exact implementation may differ across publishers. Just triple-check the box before you hit the checkout.