Weekend Hot Topic, part 1: Are you impressed by the Xbox Series X?

GameCentral readers evaluate Microsoft’s next gen Xbox plans and reveal what they’d do if they were in charge of the company.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was inspired by the recent Xbox Games Showcase and asked the obvious question: how do you think Microsoft are doing with their next gen plans so far?

There were, as you might expect, a lot of criticisms of Microsoft’s approach, especially in terms of apparently contradictory statements and the impression that they seem unprepared for their own console. But many were still optimistic about the Xbox Series X and many of its games, including Halo Infinite.

Give me a reason
From my perspective, it seems as though Microsoft are actually completely unprepared for this generation. We had rumours of the PlayStation 5 devkits leaking out from Sony early-mid last year, (prompting the 9 teraflop rumours) and as certain rumours go this year, developers only started to receive the final dev kits for Xbox Series X within 2020.

I think there is credibility to this as well, given that pretty much every single ‘gameplay’ video has been highlighted to be running on a PC with equivalent or targeted performance, unlike Sony showing off PlayStation 5 in-engine footage (not really gameplay as such) for nearly every game they have showcased so far. Microsoft has also alluded to the fact that ‘true’ Xbox Series X games won’t be coming until 2022…

I also feel their focus is lost, whether that is related to the above, or just because they simply want to push too many key messages all at once, I can’t say. On the one hand, they’re saying ‘the most powerful console ever’ and on the other, they’re saying ‘but don’t worry, all Xbox exclusive games will be available through Game Pass on all platforms’.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a generational transition. People want to know how powerful or innovative the hardware is, and they also want to see the results of that (via games) so there is something tangible to latch ‘hype’ onto and give them a reason to adopt the hardware.

Game Pass, as fantastic as it is, already exists, and its value is already well known – so why are they talking about it so much? If anything, the focus on Game Pass is actively hurting the Xbox Series X with all the talk of playing Xbox games on hardware other than the Xbox Series X. Sony have kept the messaging simple: it’s all about the games coming exclusively to PlayStation 5. But make no mistake, PlayStation Now and the growth of their digital platforms will be at the top of Sony’s priority list.

This isn’t close to the levels of fail during the Xbox One launch build-up, but Microsoft needs to refocus its efforts to give people a reason to adopt their new console – and quickly.
DevilsNeVverCry (gamertag)/DevilsNeverCry (PSN ID)

The real next gen
I’m pretty torn on this. First off, I thought the Xbox Games Showcase was disappointing because I was expecting a lot more gameplay than was shown. I don’t know how the two presentations actually compare but it felt like Sony’s PlayStation 5 reveal contained considerably more gameplay than the Xbox Games Showcase, where almost every reveal seemed to only consist of a CG trailer.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s killer app for next gen is Game Pass, which is already incredible value, but in combination with xCloud it could be a real game changer. If this lets people without Xbox consoles play Game Pass games on their TVs via a Chromecast, or similar device, then I’ll no doubt subscribe to Game Pass because it offers access to an unrivalled number of games for a really affordable monthly cost. However, I won’t buy an Xbox Series X just for Game Pass, as I wasn’t impressed by the games revealed in the Xbox Games Showcase and Microsoft has had a pretty barren slate of exclusives this generation.

This is the problem that I see with Microsoft’s plans for the next gen so far: in my view, their exclusives are neither as good or as numerous as Sony’s. I personally wouldn’t want to spend £500 or more on a next gen console to play games that current gen consoles can already play, which is the case if Microsoft are still sticking to their ‘no new exclusives for two years’ approach (I’ve genuinely lost track of whether this is still their policy or not after the Xbox Games Showcase). However, if I decide to buy a PlayStation 5, I know I’ll be buying into a system that will have a fairly constant stream of exclusives that I enjoy, based on their last couple of consoles, at least.

If you already have an Xbox One and all first party games will play on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X for the first two years, how many people are going to choose, or be able, to pay £500 just to play the best version of these games? You’d think most people would just play the lesser versions of these games on the console they already have until games start actually being exclusive to the Xbox Series X, by which point the console’s price is likely reduced.

I get the feeling that Microsoft see Game Pass/xCloud as their real next gen system and just need the Xbox Series X to enable that. And it feels like the Xbox Series X is being undermined because of this.

Not bad
This might be controversial, but I don’t think Microsoft have done that badly with their next gen plans.

The Xbox Series X (terrible, confusing name) looks like a solid, powerful console with a great controller and Microsoft’s usual roster of games, plus a few more that will dribble through as their recent spending spree on studios begins to kick in.

I don’t have a problem with the cross-gen compatibility drive – I’ve long gamed on PC and graphics are highly scalable. I think it’s more likely Xbox One players will get half-cut titles than the Xbox Series X will suffer. I share other people’s enthusiasm with new technology, like Sony’s super-fast SSDs being able to improve games at a fundamental level, but – call me cynical – I’ll only believe in the revolution once I’ve seen it.

I suspect that backwards compatibility won’t hold next gen games back that much, if at all. Saying that, I think Microsoft’s doubling down and aggressive defence of the policy in the face of people’s concerns did not help their situation at all. I think Microsoft have helped make a minor, non-issue into something much bigger.

But while I think Microsoft’s reveals have been fine – on par with Sony at this stage I’d say – is fine enough? They’re coming back from a pretty dismal showing last gen and have a lot to prove. And while it might not seem fair, they’ve got to go above and beyond Sony if they want to convince people. I’m not sure they’ve done this. Look at Nintendo rebounding from the Wii U with the Switch.

Saying that, I think Game Pass is excellent, and I’m very excited to see how it develops over the course of the next few years. It could be a real gamechanger.
PS: Halo Infinite looked… fine? I don’t think we saw enough of it to say either way, but it could be promising. I just remember that Miyamoto quote, ‘a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is bad forever…’

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My Phil
Having had some reflection time following the event I’ll break down my thoughts into two distinct categories, 1: what I thought of the games and 2: did the show make me want to buy an Xbox Series X?

1. I really liked a lot of the games announced and for me there will be quite a few must have purchases for sure. I really, really enjoyed the gameplay shown for Halo Infinite and can’t wait to see more. Forza Motorsport, the new role-playing game from Obsidian and Fable, plus State Of Decay 3, are all titles I could get excited for… although given the absence of gameplay for most it’s really a question of hope at this point!

2. Oh dear…. purely as an advert for Xbox Series X this was a travesty. Phil Spencer just over two weeks ago publicly stated that the idea of cross-generation games being held back was ‘a meme that gets created by people who are too caught up in device competition’. Well he certainly got his memes! No matter what people say an Xbox One game with increased resolution and frame rate is still an Xbox One game.

Somewhat more disturbing were the quotes that said Halo Infinite was using the full power of Xbox Series X… I hope that was untrue. Bland textures, lots of pop-in… where was the spectacle? The physics, hundreds of grunts charging at you with huge environmental destruction and particles? Nowhere! I do admire Sony’s restraint. I’d have YouTube videos running 24/7 showing Halo Infinite comparisons with the new Horizon game!

If I was Phil, I’d fire the marketing team and make sure I got lots of tech demos made just to display the power of the machine to counter the Halo problem for the short term. I’d also calm the messaging down if you don’t have visuals to back it up, as setting hype with talk of leveraging the power of Xbox Series X and then showing Halo Infinite and Ori And The Will Of The Wisps does no favours.

My version of Phil would not let any gameplay be seen this side of the console launch that doesn’t scream, ‘This is incredible, buy me!’ Even if it’s, say, a smaller scale game with amazing destruction, fluid simulations, etc. My Phil would never have shown Halo in that state! Do you see blockbuster film trailers with plenty of green screens and actors wearing ping pong balls? No you do not, so why show a game that looks like there is so much more to do on it?

I will buy an Xbox Series X but not now at launch, I’ll take a wait and see approach for a couple of years. As despite the showing so far I am sure incredible games will come… I love Xbox and as a gamer I know the steps I would take while launching a console. Have short term spectacle to lure customers in while larger experiences are worked on behind the scenes, think the equivalent of the PS1 T-rex or manta ray. Now imagine a photo real T-rex stomping round using a controller. Doesn’t even need a complex background but I guarantee better press coverage than the Halo showing!

Yours happy about games but disappointed about Xbox Series X.

Failure to demonstrate
I can see what Microsoft are trying to do. They have built a subscription service that is full of good games at a decent price so once you are in you never want to leave. This is fundamentally excellent for both gamers and Microsoft. And by making games forwards compatible there is also no need to cancel your subscription when the new generation comes, as you can still play the new games on your old console. And with full backwards compatibility you lose nothing when you do upgrade.

The problem however is I see no reason to jump in, in the first place. There is no Mario, Zelda, Uncharted, The Last Of Us, God Of War, Super Smash Bros. or Bloodborne. There is not even an Animal Crossing, Luigi’s Mansion, Ratchet & Clank, Horizon or Spider-Man. There did however appear to be games I would play if I bought an Xboz Series X, which is a big improvement over the Xbox One, but as of yet nothing to actually buy the console for.

I think the criticism for Halo Infinite comes in two parts. Firstly, there must be a lot of people, like me, that skipped the Xbox One but have fond memories of the original Xbox and Xbox 360. We were looking at this presentation, wanting Microsoft to give us a reason to buy an Xbox Series X. We wanted to see a return to form for Halo, a highly polished game that we absolutely needed to play. What we saw however looked like a cross between the first Halo and a Destiny 2 patrol, which did not look ready for an imminent release.

The second part was that the Xbox Series X is touted as the more powerful of the next generation consoles, with more teraflops than the PlayStation 5. Everyone expected Halo, as Microsoft’s flagship series, to be paving the way graphically but it failed spectacularly. This is made worse given a lot of people have just recently played The Last Of Us Part 2.

The Last Of Us Part 2 is a slow-paced game divided into small segments that took nearly a console generation to make, so comparing it to Halo Infinite is unfair. However, with all the talk of SSDs loading environments instantly it does not seem that farfetched to expect the Xbox Series X to be capable of running a game with the same fidelity a launch PlayStation 4 managed but on a larger scale. And if Microsoft were going to invest the resources into any game to achieve that it would be Halo Infinite.

At the very least a slow-paced game, focused on character interactions, like Tell Me Why, should have characters that look as good as Ellie and Joel but that too fell a long way short. Only The Medium showed gameplay that looked next generation. Sure, some of the other cinematic trailers also looked good, particularly Everwild and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, but they were just trailers. Most of the games did not look next generation, let alone industry-leading next generation.

If Microsoft had shown evidence to back up their claim that the Xbox Series X was the most powerful next generation console many people would buy a Xbox Series X to have the best version of third party games. That coupled with lots of exclusive titles, which are all included day one on Game Pass, would make a solid proposition even without the very top tier exclusives, but Microsoft failed to demonstrate the power of the Xbox Series X.

Overall, there was a lot to look forward to from Microsoft’s studios and the presentation was a great advert for Game Pass. It was however a rather poor advertisement for the Xbox Series X and if anything it has made me lean further towards the PlayStation 5.

Extraordinary proof
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to think about the Xbox Series X because the console Microsoft keep describing bears no relation to the one they’ve been showing. Most powerful console ever? So why can’t you prove it?! Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and so all we’ve got is a brief glimpse at Forza Motorsport and an embarrassing demo of Halo Infinite.

Not that Sony has done much better but at least things like Ratchet & Clank show the SSD in action. I have no idea what is supposed to make the Xbox Series X special or why I should be excited about yet more sequels.

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Blue ocean
Reflecting on what we’ve seen from Xbox this year, and indeed over the past few years, it feels like they’ve had a good sit down and looked at what’s stuck best out of everything they’ve thrown at the wall over the past two decades. The answer almost certainly isn’t first party exclusive killer apps or direct head-to-heads with rivals (except when those rivals are being completely complacent and incompetent).

Those who find it baffling that a business with the wealth of Microsoft behind it doesn’t just pump infinite money into ensuring the best possible first party talent need to be more realistic. Even (or, rather, especially) the biggest companies have to be massively risk averse to ensure they get the best return on their capital and I’m not sure Microsoft would see sense in dumping truckloads of cash into projects and resources to directly engage with Sony when, historically, simply delivering a good value platform that’s propped up by third parties has been more fruitful.

The Xbox 360 was one of my favourite ever machines and I don’t think the main reason for its success was first party games. To me it was down to Sony messing up with the PlayStation 3 and the fact I could get an Xbox 360 in mid-2007 (when it was becoming worthwhile to buy into that generation) for £280 with Gears Of War and Crackdown. I picked up Oblivion from Woolworths (pours some beer on ground) for £25 at the same time. PlayStation 3 had no exclusives of note and still cost something like £425 with no games, because it was relatively new.

My point is, other that Halo, I’m not sure Xbox has ever been that concerned with trying to deliver killer apps as opposed to an affordable well-rounded platform where third parties bring the real talent while Microsoft focus on the infrastructure. Y’know, basically what Sony offered with great success up until they started to be recognised for their internal development talent at least as much as their third party support.

If, alternatively, killer apps really have been an Xbox priority, maybe they’ve finally realised they’re not that good at delivering on that front. It still feels like they’re definitely interested in acquiring and cultivating internal talent, but it won’t be top priority because that continues to be a long game. (Even Sony arguably didn’t have an absolute classic, really high quality first party title till maybe Uncharted 2, halfway through its third home console’s life.)

Instead, it feels at a high level like Xbox is where Nintendo was at the end of the GameCube’s lifecycle. Why run into a fight you’re probably not going to win when you can build an arena that better suits your strengths? To an extent, Game Pass and cloud processing constitute this blue ocean that rivals have only merely dabbled in.

While this is all new and fresh from the perspective of how we consume content, getting Xbox into a position that represents much better value for money because of cheaper (or unnecessary) hardware, plus Game Pass, might also indicate they’re trying to recreate those favourable conditions of the Xbox 360 era.

There needs to be an acknowledgement, though, that success might still be contingent on Sony messing up again. On top of that, it’s easy to forget that back when the Xbox 360 was clawing more and more market share away from Sony, PlayStation’s foremost talent – Naughty Dog, Guerrilla Games, Santa Monica, etc. – had nowhere near the same status they have now. So I predict it’ll be much harder to pull people away from Sony than it was back then when third parties were more of a PlayStation crutch.

Ultimately, when I reflect on what I want out of gaming – what excites me most – it’s not better value for money. I already have no time to play every game I want that isn’t on Game Pass and I don’t feel like I overspend by any means as it is, so the service would currently only constitute an additional unnecessary cost for me.

Rather, I’m looking for the best possible games that aspire to move the hobby to new places or to further perfect what it already offers. With that in mind, maybe it’s fine if Xbox is trying to reignite the flame without primarily appealing to people who want the same thing I do, people who think Sony and Nintendo are currently better placed to offer it irrespective of the asking price or the underlying business model. It just doesn’t strike me as the most exciting way to set yourself apart, particularly if it looks like there’s something over the fence that’s genuinely worth paying for.

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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length.

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