Metro GameCentral video game review of 2020 – gaming vs. the pandemic

GameCentral looks back at a year many will want to forget but which will end up being an important milestone in the history of video games.

Most are sensible enough not to crow about the fact, but as far as video game companies are concerned 2020 was a really good year. Some had their fair share of disasters but the fact that so many people were stuck inside with nothing to do saw gaming enjoy previously unimagined levels of mainstream success.

Although there were numerous delays, on a production level gaming was much less affected by the coronavirus than film and TV and so although the release schedules were certainly thinner than usual there were a number of excellent video games released in 2020. Not enough for it to be considered a classic year but certainly better than many.

Rather than the next gen consoles themselves, the launches of which are always quickly forgotten, it will be the coronavirus itself which will be the lasting legacy from 2020, even if its influence seems relatively mild at this stage. There will be a knock-on effect of delays for several years to come and that it is going to mean less games than usual for a long while and, potentially, less reliable quality assurance.

Cyberpunk 2077 was an extreme example but not an isolated incident and testing has proven to be one of the most difficult things to organise when most people are working from home. Also, any major game released this year has been in development for years, so it remains to be seen how easy starting a project from scratch is, when everyone is working from home, compared to just trying to finish one.

Different companies have clearly coped in different ways though and Sony certainly deserve praise for how bug free the PlayStation 5 launch has been in terms of hardware and software. Even with delays they had one of their best ever launch line-ups and seem well placed for the future, with several big projects well underway for 2021.

But what’s been obvious from this year is that Sony is playing the old game. The PlayStation 4 was a huge success and so naturally they’ve sought to replicate how it achieved that success with the PlayStation 5. It may well work for them a second time but they will have to contend with the fact that Microsoft is not competing as an equal.

Microsoft’s attempts to position Xbox as a brand, not just a console, are already well underway thanks to xCloud and Game Pass and Sony has nothing to compete with either at the moment. Even when they do, inevitably, create their own belated equivalents Microsoft will have had years of extra experience and brand exposure. They also have near infinite resources and after spending $7.5 billion on Bethesda the first thing they said was that they’re looking for more companies to buy on top of that.

It will take a long time, perhaps the best part of the generation, until their first party studios are properly integrated but that just makes for two ticking timebombs from Sony’s perspective.

Although it should be remembered that despite those infinite resources Microsoft made an absolute hash of 2020, especially in terms of marketing. From the unnecessarily confusing names of the Xbox Series X/S to the debacle of the Halo Infinite reveal their actions in public have seemed like those of a stumbling amateur compared to Sony’s much slicker corporate identity.

Launching a new console without a single first party game is the sort of failure you’d expect from a no-budget upstart, not the biggest company in the world. And despite all their money they continue to buy only American and UK developers, who seem ill-suited to changing the Xbox’s reputation for focusing squarely on the tastes of American audiences and no-one else.

Although Sony has taken a clear lead in this new generation it’s by no means an unshakeable one and the mistakes made by both companies only makes their future success harder to predict. Of course, compared to Nintendo they’re open books but there’s almost nothing to talk about when it comes to the makers of the Switch this year, so little have they said or done.

Perhaps they’ll release a Switch Pro console in 2021 or perhaps they won’t. Maybe they have a suite of announcements waiting to drop in January, including release dates for Zelda: Breath Of The Wild 2 and Metroid Prime 4, or maybe they’ll just go another six months without announcing anything more substantial than another Wii U port. With Nintendo it is always impossible to tell.

Equally unclear is exactly how any game will be announced in 2021 and beyond. Hands-on previews almost ground to a halt in 2020, with only a few companies going to the effort of streaming demos, and that clearly aggravated the situation with Cyberpunk 2077 – where it became much more difficult to hold companies to account or get any advance information on a game that wasn’t a carefully pre-recorded video (although, again, Microsoft even managed to make a mess of that).

2021 is a year of uncertainty for everyone and we’re not just talking about video game. But if there’s one lesson that 2020 has taught it’s that while there are far more important things going on in the world today than video games, they can no longer be disregarded as a worthless triviality. Gaming and the virtual socialising that they encourage has been a lifeline to many in 2020, creating new fans and providing comfort for existing ones.

Whether the Xbox Series X outsells the PlayStation 5 is clearly not an important question outside the bubble of gaming fandom but if there’s one thing the coronavirus has proven it’s that video games do matter. Not just as quality entertainment but as a social platform that can help you make better sense of the world… or simply avoid it for a few precious hours.

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