Video game console generations used to represent massive leaps forward in technology. The NES had 8-bits. The Super Nintendo had 16-bits. It didn’t matter what a “bit” even was, the important thing was that one system was a regular Nintendo and the other system was a super Nintendo. Or take the Xbox 360, which made huge advances in HD capabilities and online features when compared to the original Xbox. When Microsoft got to the Xbox One, though, the pitch was a little less clear. Rather than pushing game-centric advances, the idea was that the One would be the “one” box you need in your living room. It could play games, sure, but with HDMI pass-through you could watch TV through the Xbox and use the motion/voice-sensing Kinect sensor to change the channels. That wasn’t really a thing anyone wanted, though, and yelling at your Xbox to control the TV didn’t exactly make playing video games any better. So Microsoft gradually shifted the identity of the Xbox One toward being an all-out powerhouse with the One X revision, effectively arguing that—on a technical level—the Xbox was simply the best console to play video games on.
That philosophy permeates every aspect of Microsoft’s latest console, the Xbox Series X, which is absolutely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the best game console that Microsoft has ever made. It’s faster, it’s more powerful, it’s practically silent, and it just straight-up looks like a damn beast. It does everything that the Xbox One and One X can do but better in every way, save for the stuff that no one wanted the One to do in the first place (there’s no HDMI pass-through, but you won’t miss it if you never used it).
Existing controllers and Xbox-branded TV remotes still work, and any game you can play on an Xbox One—including tons of Xbox 360 games and a solid collection of original Xbox games—can be played on a Series X (except for games that were entirely dependent on the Kinect camera, which is no longer supported). Some games have been optimized over the years to take advantage of the more powerful Xbox One X hardware, and more still will be optimized to take advantage of the even more powerful Series X, but you’re likely to notice an improvement on literally anything you choose to play, whether it’s something small like faster load times or something more noticeable like sharper graphics or implementation of modern buzzy features like ray tracing.
For example, a Series X can get you from the start menu of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to walking around the world in about five seconds. In Star Wars: Republic Commando, an original Xbox game, the levels pop up so fast that load screens are done in the blink of an eye. Even a massive modern game like Red Dead Redemption 2 only takes about 15 to 30 seconds to get going, and then that’s it for noticeable load times. Microsoft also updated a handful of existing games with Series X enhancements ahead of the launch, like Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea Of Thieves, all of which look downright fantastic now (even if you don’t have a 4K TV), in addition to getting shockingly fast load times.
It’s also hard to overstate the value of Microsoft’s Game Pass service—a Netflix-like subscription system that’s supported right out of the box and gives you access to a curated list of Xbox One and Series X games for a flat fee (for a higher fee you can even throw some PC games in there). One of the ways Microsoft is selling the Series X is on a monthly payment plan, and that plan includes access to Game Pass (though you’re on the hook to keep paying it off for two years). That means that even if you aren’t coming in with your toe already dipped into the Xbox ecosystem, it’s pretty easy to load up on games for a reasonable price—though you don’t own Game Pass games, and you’ll lose them if you stop your subscription.
If the Xbox Series X is supposed to be the ultimate system to play games on, though, there’s a disappointing lack of software that really makes it feel as magical as the Super Nintendo or the Xbox 360. With Game Pass being a thing, it’s impossible to argue that there’s not a lot to play on the system, but this is a launch without one must-have exclusive that you can only play on the Series X and can’t get anywhere else (or at least one that is so much better on the Series X that it can justify the purchase). Halo Infinite could’ve been that game, but a tepid response to a big trailer and some possible issues with the developers transitioning to remote work during the pandemic forced Microsoft to delay it into next year. Series X games will support all sorts of graphical advancements like 4K quality and 120 frames per second, but only if your TV setup also supports those things, and even then the slim launch lineup means a lot of games won’t have features like that enabled until later.
It could be argued, then, that the world simply isn’t ready for the Xbox Series X. It’s more of a future-proofed platform that will definitely continue to be top-of-the-line for the foreseeable future than a thing that everyone must have right now. If you do absolutely need something now, Microsoft has the lower-tier Xbox Series S system, which is cheaper, a little less powerful, and has no disc drive (meaning, you can only play digital games or Game Pass offerings). In theory, it should do most of the cool stuff the Series X can do, like the faster load times and a feature called Quick Resume that lets multiple games run in the background, but Microsoft only provided us with Series X hardware, so we can’t speak to how it works in practice.
The Series X is definitely the best game console Microsoft has ever put out. But it’s still not necessarily an easy item to recommend. For one thing, it costs $500, and there’s no single game or feature that sets it apart from previous Xboxes in a dramatic way. Then again, the improvements that it does make from the Xbox One are really cool, and the Game Pass service is only going to get better once it adds the EA and Bethesda libraries and more games are updated to take advantage of what this console is capable of. The Xbox Series X might not be the platform you need to have now, but there’s a very good chance it’ll be the platform you’ll want to have for the future.