Xbox Series X console

Xbox Series X – does it favour multiplayer over single-player? (pic: Microsoft)

A reader is critical of the Microsoft’s next gen reveal strategy so far but thinks that could still end up beating Sony in the long run.

I didn’t watch it live, nor did I spare the skip button through the talking heads sections, but just like the Sony game reveal before it, I watched the Xbox Series X game showcase with interest. I’ve already written a feature about why I think Sony are more likely to come out ‘on top’ for a fifth generation running, but, even after the Sony show I’m not blind to the possibility that Microsoft have learned enough lessons to finally turn the tables.

Now, whilst not much about what I saw during the game reveal show last Thursday did a huge amount to change my mind, nothing about it made me think, ‘Oh God! What a horror show!’ either. Has everyone forgotten the unmitigated disaster of the Xbox One reveal? Or some of its dire launch line-up? That Roman combat thing that sank without a trace or the utterly awful looking creation with some guy caught in the back of a motorbike being perpetually dragged along? That was embarrassing.

By comparison, what they showed during the recent showcase was a virtual triumph.

I’m not saying it wasn’t without its problems. In many ways, like the rest of Microsoft’s next gen strategy, it was a flawed presentation. But let’s face it, Sony’s wasn’t perfect either. Neither of the big hitters have exactly covered themselves in glory trying to convey to the paying public why they must have the expensive new systems they’re about to unleash.

I’d also say that much of Sony’s momentum is the result of them having treated their massive userbase to such a great time this generation, rather than the result of the hype they’ve built up around the PlayStation 5. Although seeing that story about 84% of UK gamers leaning towards the PlayStation 5, maybe I’m wrong and Sony are doing a better job than I thought.

But, bringing it back to the Microsoft show and focusing on the games element for a moment… I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve stepped into Master Chief’s boots from time to time. As far as I could see, Halo Infinite looked exactly like what I’d expect a new Halo to be like. Especially given the pre-stated intention to invoke the feelings of ‘good old Halo, like it used to be’, and the widely publicised fact that it’s had to be developed as a cross generational/scaleable title to fit in with Microsoft’s questionable ‘Xbox family’ strategy.

More on that point later, but for now, let’s stay with the games.

Looking at the tidal wave of Halo brute memes, I can understand how anyone who bought into the ‘velocity architecture’ hype and whipped themselves up to believe 343 were about to unveil a bleeding edge, ray-traced portal across the uncanny valley felt aggrieved, but really, in the heat of a mid-game firefight, how much does it matter?

After the story about that clearly passionate 343 developer engaging with the raging fan base over their disappointment with the graphics, I feel compelled to suggest that even the best first party developers can’t have had access to finalised dev kits for long enough to make a modern, hardware optimised, graphical tour-de-force with industry changing gameplay yet.

The whole generation spanning, ‘scalable’ mantra must have had a significant impact on the development too. How do you effectively tailor something to get the maximum results from a specific set of hardware when your paymasters are insisting it simultaneously works just fine on a much older specific set of hardware as well?

There’s also the fact that, anyone seriously outraged that a new, most likely sub-£500 console won’t launch with a dozen killer, AAA exclusives all running at 60+fps, with pop-up and load-free, ray-traced 4K visuals has probably drunk waaay too much Kool-Aid.

So a character model in an unfinished game looked a bit… Quake 1ish for a split second before it got shot in the face and the action moved on. Regrettable? Yes. Embarrassing for a company who like to pride themselves on their hardware’s raw power? Most definitely. Game breaking? I doubt it. Platform ruining? Only if it was the only game they had. But the point of the show was, it wasn’t, so onwards!

I’m pretty far from being some Digital Foundry technical wizard, nor would I really pretend to be a huge graphical fidelity connoisseur, but during the PlayStation 5 reveal, I thought that one of the graphical stand outs was Gran Turismo 7. Yet what I saw of the new Forza Motorsport in that Xbox reveal made it look… undercooked. I’m really not into realism in my racing games. I’ll play Mario Kart and WipEout all day long but actual cars just don’t do it for me. But damn, that there Forza is a head turner and no mistake.

It felt like Sony unveiled more games during its reveal, but in terms of exclusives, Microsoft’s show didn’t exactly seem sparse to me. Sure, there were a lot of pre-rendered trailers and not much gameplay, but I thought S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 looked fantastic. Although there were no real clues as to what it was, Everwild’s art style and general feel was my pick of the night. The Medium and Scorn seem like promising new IPs and Grounded looked fun. The Fable tease? Predictable and lacking in any kind of substance, but at least it hints Microsoft are trying to give the series fans what they want.

It seemed to me like there was a lot there for existing Xbox fans to like. And yet, the last time I scribbled my two pence worth on the subject, I said I needed convincing before I considered buying any Xbox branded hardware. As a potential new customer for them, I wanted to be wowed. And I’m sorry to say, I wasn’t really. Nor would I be surprised if many others weren’t either.

None of Microsoft’s main legacy franchises have managed to get their hooks into me in the past, so I was mostly looking for new stuff. I was certainly pleased to see they had some, and whilst none of it put me off, my current feeling is I’ll be waiting in the wings for the post launch reviews and it’ll have to be a scorching hot first year for the Xbox Series X before I’ll want to throw down my money.

The trouble is, from what I could see, very little of what was featured in that showcase was good-to-go, day one launch. If nothing else the lack of gameplay and ubiquitous ‘coming to Xbox Series X’ banners heavily supports that. Two years is a long time to wait for a reason to buy something when there’s a proven competitor offering something brand new, and potentially great, right now.

A bit like Nintendo, something about Microsoft’s attitude and approach to producing video games seems a little off. For a long time now there’s been the assumption that, once it was clear Sony’s hardware sales would see them run away with the console generation, Microsoft would divert all of their energies to producing an off-the-bat stellar line-up for the next generation. However, just as people assumed Nintendo focussing all of their gaming wizardry into a single format would produce a sustained surge in AAA output for the Switch, this doesn’t quite seem to have happened.

Like most people watching, I’d have loved to have borne witness to the kind of innovation, game-changing graphics and gameplay that blows minds for a generation. Sadly, history has increasingly shown us that it usually takes a good year or two before any next gen system really starts to shine. Yet… the original Xbox, the N64 and going back even further, the SNES all managed to ship with killer apps on day one. Like I say, I understand to a degree, but Microsoft have had so much time to fine tune their battle plan for the new generation.

It’s disappointing and a little confusing for them to be trying to push a whole new, cutting edge format but have so little ready to make more effective use of it on day one.

This in turn, leads into my other issues with how Microsoft are handling things for the upcoming console generation. They’ve had so long to hone a coherent vision, yet four-ish months out it still seems unfocused, uncoordinated and in many ways outright contradictory.

Claims are made about having the most powerful hardware, then they go out of their way not to prove it. They promise that lessons have been learned and that the Xbox Series X will be supported by a flood of high quality games, yet what they show during their big game reveal is mostly undated, with the Xbox Series X exclusive banners implying they’ll be up to two years away.

Grand, yet vague, statements boast about having created an all-encompassing Xbox family of consoles where no one is forced to upgrade and everything will work cross platform/generationally, completely undermining the traditional primary reason to buy a new console.

Then news breaks that production of their existing hardware has ended; they deny it, blame the story on third party suppliers, then come clean, all in the space of 24 hours. They refuse to announce the prices or release dates of their new hardware, or even confirm the existence of the open industry secret Lockheart variant, instead preferring to play chicken with Sony.

Phil Spencer makes out like it’s not a competition, and that they’re forging their own path, then makes sniping comments about rival companies. It’s all just a bit chaotic and disorganised to watch.

So, what about the rest of their ‘strategy’?

Implying that backwards compatibility is the same as launch titles is one hell of a stretch.

Yes, Game Pass is a fantastic concept. With the current pricing structure its value for money is unquestionable. A ‘Netflix of gaming’ service isn’t a revolutionary new idea though. If it was, we’d be running around calling Netflix the ‘PlayStation Now of TV’ (sorry Microsoft, Sony’s equivalent beat you to the punch by three years).

What it is, is a natural evolution of how gaming is consumed by the masses, just as Spotify has been for music and Netflix and all the rest have been for TV. I can get Spotify and Netflix on pretty much any device with internet connectivity and a screen/headphone jack. In much the same way I could also get Game Pass on my PC. I don’t need to buy a specific (Series X) box to do it.

Now, xCloud is clearly a true vision of The Future (™). It’s obviously Microsoft’s endgame, and in theory could become the fabled single format that occasionally gets heretically hypothesised in gaming circles. However, to produce the visual fidelity and lag free experiences some people are demanding from the upcoming next gen consoles, it’s reliant on the kind of infrastructure that most people can only see by watching an episode of Star Trek.

Only last week I attended an online course. It was basically a glorified, one way, Zoom chat. Yet the second it kicked off my five-green-bar internet strength nosedived into a one-red-bar danger zone from which it never recovered. The audio was largely unaffected, but the visual aspect was often grainy and sticky. Ultimately it didn’t really diminish the benefit of me attending, but if my on-grid, urban, super-fast fibre internet connection can’t handle two and a half hours of live video feed, how is someone in the sticks ever going to run a 4K, ray-traced, 60fps+ future blockbuster with no input lag?

Then there’s the fact that, if they do somehow make it work for everyone, it’s very existence negates the point of Microsoft being in the hardware business. It is the antithesis of a reason to buy an Xbox Series X.

We all know Microsoft only got into the console business to try to prevent Sony dominating the market. Whilst they’ve never quite managed to topple them, they have made plenty of waves over the years and I don’t doubt the industry would be in a worse state without them. Sadly, the time when their fully subscription service, streaming-only vision becomes the global norm is still a long way off.

In the meantime, it feels like they need the Xbox Series X hardware to try to maintain brand awareness and the appearance of a foothold in the market. I just can’t buy into the idea that how things currently stand on the new console equals everything proceeding exactly according to their desires.

There are too many broad and conflicting strokes, not enough hard detail. Even though I’m basically complaining they haven’t done enough, in fact it’s almost like they’re trying to do too much. At this point I’d just like to be seeing a clear, decisive, unwavering and most of all simple message from them, backed up with hard dates on finished, high quality software. No faff. No frills.

As it is, it seems they’re not even keeping their existing fanbase happy.

Obviously, Microsoft themselves are an invincible global megacorporation, who aren’t suddenly going to suffer a Sega style nosedive out of the hardware business. Despite every setback they’ve had, or mistake they’ve made, they remain a titan. However, in the console game, Microsoft are still underdogs.

True, elements of their overall strategy towards the video game industry hint at a godlike, long term, master plan bubbling away behind the scenes. Yet current ongoing events suggest that, even after all these years in the game, many of the finer (or even medium to large) details of being kings of the console hill have just passed them by.

For all Sony’s unit sales and plaudits, and in spite of what I’ve said, I have no doubt that one day Microsoft will get their wish and oversee the world’s primary gaming platform, but based on what I’ve seen from them in the last seven to eight years, I can’t help but wish the future of gaming was in more dexterous and coordinated hands.

By reader yourhomeisatrisk

The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

You can submit your own 500 to 600-word reader feature at any time, which if used will be published in the next appropriate weekend slot. As always, email gamecentral@ukmetro.co.uk and follow us on Twitter.

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