Last month, after a strong PlayStation 5 reveal from Sony, I said there was “more riding on [the] July showcase than there’s ever been for another event in the entire history of the Xbox.” Now that the Xbox Games Showcase is complete, it’s time to evaluate how Microsoft did. Rather than give it a traditional review, I thought it’d be more constructive to highlight the games and moments that worked as well as the ones that didn’t.
Fable: The rumors were all true, and Playground’s Fable was introduced exactly how this longtime Fable fan was hoping it would be: with a clear indication that the new second team at the incredibly talented Forza Horizon studio would preserve the charm and humor that made Lionhead’s series so delightful in the first place. The reboot’s debut cinematic trailer, short as it was, hit all the right notes. It seems to have left Fable 3’s steampunk setting behind (series co-creator Peter Molyneux said he regrets the time jump) and returned to its medieval fantasy-ish roots, and coupled with the colorful art style, familiar British narrator, and lighthearted humor, the one-minute trailer left nothing but optimism in its wake. Now begins the fun speculation: will it be built off for Forza Horizon’s open-world game engine, complete with Horizon 4’s stunning four-season weather effects? Will it bring back any familiar characters? Can you be evil? It may be awhile before we get any answers, but this new Fable could not have gotten off to a stronger start.
Avowed: We knew Obsidian would be at the Xbox Games Showcase, but the question of whether or not they’d just show Grounded again or debut something new remained unanswered until the event began. It turned out that Obsidian did both, dropping a self-deprecating new trailer for their four-player, Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Kids-inspired survival game before introducing a brand-new first-person RPG set in the Pillars of Eternity universe. Part Elder Scrolls and part Dr. Strange, Avowed has perhaps the biggest hit potential among Microsoft’s new first-party efforts. After all, Obsidian has not one but two Bethesda-style hits under its belt: the beloved Fallout: New Vegas and last Fall’s excellent The Outer Worlds. Couple the studio’s talent and experience with what is likely to be a bigger budget and more resources than it’s ever had as a for-hire developer – plus the fact that Sony doesn’t have an RPG in its otherwise-impressive first-party stable and that The Elder Scrolls 6 is still years away – and Avowed could be the start of something really big for Microsoft.
Avowed could be the start of something really big for Microsoft.
Xbox Game Pass: Microsoft’s Netflix-like subscription service has long been gaming’s best bargain, but it hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves due primarily to the Xbox’s lack of first-party games, period, but especially its lack of phenomenal ones. The Xbox Games Showcase was the best advertisement for Game Pass yet, as every single game shown – 22 of them in all – is launching into Game Pass. That includes both first-party content like Halo Infinite, Everwild, Hellblade 2, State of Decay 3, and the aforementioned Fable and Avowed a well as third-party notables such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, Destiny 2 and its new Beyond Light expansion, and Warhammer 40K: Darktide. Xbox Game Pass already was and is incredibly compelling and leagues ahead of anything its competitors offer, but as Xbox Game Studios’s newly planted first-party trees start to bear fruit, it’s going to lift the entire platform up with it.
What Didn’t Work
Halo Infinite: Whether it’s deserved or not, Microsoft has a Halo Infinite problem. The deck was already stacked against Master Chief’s comeback coming into this – by Microsoft’s own doing after the technical debacle of The Master Chief Collection and the campaign debacle of Halo 5 – but Halo Infinite’s long-awaited campaign debut carried quite a burden. Some were merely disappointed by the reveal, while others flat-out mocked it. Plenty of people, including me, were happy to see its new vibe. From a pure gameplay perspective I honestly feel really good about Infinite so far; this is a new direction for the series, breaking from Bungie’s 20-year-old template in favor of a more modern open-world direction. It needed a refresh, and I like the Halo 1 vibe it’s intentionally going for. But on the technical side, criticism is warranted. Microsoft’s honesty in showing real gameplay from an in-development build rather than faking it or post-processing it in any way is admirable – and refreshing! – but fans rightfully expected more from a game that Microsoft itself has spent two years pumping up as the Xbox Series X’s flagship launch title, meant to boldly usher in the next generation on the world’s most powerful console.
fans rightfully expected more from the game meant to boldly usher in the next generation on the world’s most powerful console.
Mixed Next-Gen Messaging: Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that a number of games in the showcase were only listed as Xbox Series X and PC releases, with no mention of Xbox One. That’s despite Microsoft consistently hammering home a cross-generational mantra that you won’t have to upgrade to a new console right away to play new games. Does that just mean that the games that didn’t specify Xbox One are further out, or does it simply mean that they’re being built to take full advantage of the Series X? I can understand Microsoft not wanting to put “2022” on anything – in this pandemic, 2022 feels like it’s 20 years away – but the ambiguity here didn’t help clarify Microsoft’s ‘gaming is for everyone on every device’ next-gen message.
Ninja Theory’s Weird Moment: Dom Matthews from Hellblade 2 developer Ninja Theory took the virtual stage not to introduce the first-ever gameplay of Hellblade 2 or even show off a new trailer as a follow-up to its impressive debut at The Game Awards last year. Instead, he reminded everyone that the team is using the very technologically impressive Unreal Engine 5 and said that they’re going to be developing the game “with the fans.” This was an odd moment in the show, as without any substantial content to show, it probably would’ve been best to omit Ninja Theory entirely. After all, not every Xbox studio was included in the event (the most notable example being The Initiative and its is-it-Perfect-Dark-or-not? project); it would’ve been better for this show to have saved Ninja Theory for another time.
Though not the slam dunk I was hoping for, The Xbox Games Showcase was a step in the right direction for the future of Xbox, and while Microsoft still has work to do as it tries to win back more of the fans it lost to Sony in this generation, it’s exciting to see the company finally starting to address its first-party games problem with progress we can see on the screen in front of us. However, there’s still time to win over more gamers still on the fence.
In August we expect the reveal of the Xbox Series X’s price and release date, along with the same for the so-called Xbox Series S (aka Project Lockhart), a long-rumored lower-spec console that will come with a lower price to boot; basically a next-gen version of the just-discontinued Xbox One X. If the Series X comes in cheaper than the PS5 – something Xbox boss Phil Spencer has hinted at – then it will certainly help convince more than a few people to choose Series X for their next-gen console needs. Price is always a big motivator, as Microsoft found out this generation and Sony found out in the last one. We’re into the home stretch of our year-long wait now; I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for the next generation to begin.