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Next-gen games on Xbox Series X look fine but feel amazing

Dirt 5 and Yakuza: Like a Dragon make a strong first impression

The friends in Yakuza: Like a Dragon pose for a selfie. Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Before you play games on your new Xbox Series X, reset your expectations. The value of the next-generation consoles is not in the graphics — at least not this year. The real benefits at launch will be the invisible but appreciable quality-of-life improvements. The upgrades aren’t so glamorous, but I suspect you’ll love them once you notice them.

Over the past week, I had the opportunity to finally play next-gen video games on my Xbox Series X. I sunk hours into the arcade racing game Dirt 5 and the turn-based role-playing game Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Both of these games look good — certainly better than their Xbox One and PlayStation 4 counterparts. They have higher resolutions and better frame rates. Little things like the reflective puddles in Dirt 5 and the detailed faces of Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s characters would occasionally remind me I was playing on newer, more powerful hardware. But within a short time, I took the better graphics for granted.

All of this is to say, don’t expect next-gen games to be an Ark of the Covenant-style face-melting leap into the future. They look like more polished versions of games designed first and foremost for the current generation of hardware. Because that’s what they are.

Over the past three decades, new video game consoles have been celebrated largely for their graphical improvements, but this go-round, I’m struck by how much better next-gen games feel.

A truck takes a slippery turn in Dirt 5 on Xbox Series X. Image: Codemasters Cheshire/Codemasters via Polygon

For example, load times are negligible. In Dirt 5, I’d select a race, and a short moment later, I was in the car waiting for the green light. This fundamentally changed my relationship with the game. Without the friction of load times, I repeatedly found myself committing to one more race. Then “one more race.” Then “one more race.” I didn’t appreciate the degree to which lengthy load times had been a cue to quit.

Similarly, the new Yakuza benefits from rapid loading. The creators have stuffed it with minigames and side quests. In my time with the game, I became a vigilante superhero, a semi-professional aluminum can collector, and a budding cineaste who fights imaginary rams to resist falling asleep while watching classic films. Every little adventure blends seamlessly into the campaign, the reduced loading times giving the series the casual, lived-in flow it deserves.

I can’t say how often I’ll use the Xbox Series X’s Quick Resume function in the future, but it was a godsend for testing two games in a short period of time. Whenever I got frustrated losing races in Dirt 5, I’d pop open the Xbox overlay and click on Yakuza, and a few seconds later, I’d be wandering the streets of the game’s lovely re-creation of Yokohama, Japan.

The hero of Yakuza: Like a Dragon celebrates collecting hundreds of aluminum cans. Image: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

I’ve long expected new video game consoles to deliver the best possible graphics, but now I realize that quality-of-life improvements get at the true appeal of a console versus a PC: ease of use. With a console, you plug in the system and it works. No shuttling between storefronts. No need to fiddle with settings or ensure you have the latest GPU drivers. No mysterious errors that you try trace back to your monitor or your motherboard or your power supply unit. The new consoles further deliver on removing hurdles, maximizing the time you want to spend on playing video games with actually playing video games.

The irony, of course, is that PC gamers have had high-end RAM and ultra-fast NVMe storage for years. However, they also had to know what the hell those terms mean. Appreciating PC gaming (without spending a small fortune) demands learning how PCs work. Which, again, means less time spent playing games.

Now console gamers will have the luxury of PC gaming. Yes, that will eventually mean ritzy graphics and ray-traced lighting. And in a few years, we’ll undoubtedly see games truly built, from top to bottom, to make use of these systems’ power. But in the meantime, the quality-of-life upgrades will be enough reason to consider making the leap to the next generation. To put it in the most basic language possible: Playing games on the new, faster hardware is just more fun.

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