Here in the early stages of next-gen gaming, it can be tricky to see some of the benefits that machines like the Xbox Series X offer. I’ve had the Series X for several weeks now and have tried a number of games, old and new. In my early experiences with the console, I was impressed by how snappy the game loading was—it was tremendous to have the ability to instantly resume a title I was playing without several minutes of load screens and waiting.
But, it wasn’t until I tried the ray-tracing upgrade in the Watch Dogs: Legion that I really appreciated the difference between this generation and the previous one. It’s mostly about the reflections you see within the world of the video game, like with windows. Ray-tracing tech, or RTX, fundamentally changes the way light moves around in a game. It started creeping into PC gaming last year with Nvidia’s powerful graphics cards, but now it’s present in both Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles.
Ray tracing translates into much clearer and more realistic reflections in everything from shop windows to puddles. There are tons of puddles everywhere in Watchdogs: Legion, presumably because they’re a nice way to show off the fancy new graphic tech. The reflections actually represent what the in-game world looks like. The lighting is much more authentic and the scenes are more immersive. I didn’t think it would make as much of a difference as it did.
The other impressive feature that Xbox Series X promises comes in the form of 120 frames-per-second (fps) gaming. The more times the screen refreshes every second, the smoother the on-screen motion will look. This smooth motion gets a bad rep when it comes to movies—and rightfully so—but it’s wonderful when gaming.
In order to max out that 120 fps performance, however, you’ll need a compatible TV. Fast refresh rates will push the price up if you’re planning to purchase a new set, but it’s what you need to do in order to get the best performance out of your pricy new console.
Even if you don’t plan to make a new TV purchase, however, the graphics still look smooth and fantastic on a typical 4K HDR display, but you’ll know that the console can do more when you’re playing. Whether you can live with that or not is up to you and your TV budget.
Navigating around the Series X is a better experience than you’d find on older Xboxes, if only because it’s a lot snappier. It feels very familiar—Microsoft has been refining the Xbox interface for years now and you won’t find any major tripping points. The apps you’d expect to work actually do work.
A large part of that speed comes from the new solid state drive, which loads titles in less than half the time you’d expect even on the Xbox One X, which was the most powerful edition of the previous console. While the storage is fast, it’s also limited. Games stretch over 75 GB, which quickly eats into the 800-ish usable GB of space you have when you set up the system.
The new controller is solid, but it’s not a huge upgrade from the Xbox One controller that came before it. In fact, you can bring your old Xbox One gear over to the new machine if you want to stick with what you have. I have an Elite 2 controller that I switched back to after some time spent on the Series X sticks. If you like the Xbox One controller, the new one should feel just fine. Just don’t expect anything close to the kind of upgraded experience Sony provided with its advanced DualSense controller.
Like the PS5, the Xbox Series X still has years to go on its lifecycle and the game selection will get much better as the months roll along. The new Halo title, for instance, got delayed from launch and won’t show up until next year.
Right now, the Xbox Series X feels like it has a ton of untapped potential. Older titles are beginning to roll out their next-gen updates, which emphasizes how well Xbox has handled backwards compatibility. Your old games should work just fine with your new machine—in fact, they’ll load much faster.
With 4K gaming at 60p becoming the new norm, going back to an older console feels dated. It’s not like reverting from a GameCube back to an N64, but it’s a noticeable difference. And as developers wrap their collective heads around the next-gen development rules, the games will only get smoother and better-looking.
Eventually, the 8K gaming chops will come into play as well. Right now, 8K TVs aren’t a great buy since they command a high price premium without providing a ton of native content to watch on it. That will change, though. Last year’s CES saw 8K creeping down into manufacturer’s lineups, and that high-res trend will only continue. Once you’re ready to make the leap to 8K, the console will go with you.
The Xbox Series X will currently set you back $500 if you can find one. They sold out quickly during pre-orders and aren’t likely to sit on the shelves of your local big box store any time this year.
The all-digital Xbox Series S deserves its own review, but it’s an interesting machine on its own. It doesn’t have an optical drive and the internal hardware isn’t as fast, but it retails for $299. It only does 1440p instead of true 4K, and only packs a paltry 512 GB onboard storage, but it does most of what its big sibling does for 60 percent of the price. I still think it’s worth paying the extra money for the disc drive and the maximum performance if you can afford it, but don’t feel too bad if it’s not in your budget.
If your TV is old and you don’t plan on upgrading for a while, it’s probably fine to wait it out. While the system will still look great, you may not get your money’s worth out of that old display you bought a decade of Black Fridays ago.