We’ve known for a long time that Microsoft’s Project Scorpio, now called Xbox One X, was going to be an awesomely powerful console, and as they kicked off their E3 press conference, they got off to a good start.
They unveiled the form factor, a rather sleek looking box that keeps the Xbox One S form as a whole, but slims it down even further. This isn’t just the most powerful Xbox model to date, it’s also the most compact, with high end manufacturing and cooling techniques that go some way to justifying the cost. They also gave it a name that, while it doesn’t exactly give the greatest distinction, at least keeps the Xbox One branding intact, ensuring that these are viewed as siblings in a console generation.
However, an uber powerful games console is meaningless without games to play on it. Again, Microsoft started well, leaning on the tried and true Forza Motorsport 7 to lead the way with simply sublime graphics and the next iteration of the sim-like racer. OK, so they probably spent a bit too much time taking about a new Porsche that’s going to be in the game, and they do love to bring these cars out onto stage, but graphically, it had that wow factor that the Xbox One X needs.
The second punch of a 42 hit combo of games that Phil Spencer promised us – 22 of which would be console exclusives in some form – was something new and exciting, a third game in the Metro series, Metro Exodus. Instantly familiar to fans of the series, it’s clear that there’s a major tonal shift from the first two games. Naturally it opened in an underground setting, but what surprised was that the open outdoors areas weren’t the same uninhabitable cityscapes of the first two games.
Then came the heavily leaked and yet much anticipated Assassin’s Creed Origins, with a good lengthy gameplay demo showing some incredibly pretty graphics and tasty assassin action. It was at this point that things started to slide, however.
Don’t get me wrong, having games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds on console and for it to be an exclusive/timed exclusive to Xbox One? That’s big news, given the crazily popular Early Access version on PC. It’s even great to see Microsoft fostering indie developers on their platform, with Deep Rock Galactic, The Last Night, The Artful Escape and plenty more being paraded in the form of quick fire, back-to-back trailers.
There was a certain Sony-like quality to the way that Microsoft decided to simply bombard us with trailers, a form that the Japanese giant has perfected over the last few years, keeping fans on the edge of their seats and games journalists frantically typing and publishing news stories as quick as they can. What Microsoft couldn’t match, however, was our insatiable desire to see lots of brand new and blockbusting titles exclusively for their platforms.
Microsoft’s first and second party studios are struggling at the exact time they need to be firing on all cylinders. You’ve got Forza 7, a much prettier Minecraft, an Xbox One X launch day release of Crackdown 3 – made all the more bombastic with a swearing Terry Crews – and a long awaited release for Cuphead this year. In 2018 we then have Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2, and we expect to see Ori and the Will of the Wisps and… that’s it? Really? Xbox One X needs to come out of the blocks feeling like a new console generation. It’s anything but.
Microsoft have had to lean upon timed exclusivity deals and exclusivity of convenience that allow Early Access games onto Xbox One. That’s not necessarily bad or actively nefarious, with a number of these games coming first to Xbox One simply because of the console’s early access scheme, but after the fuss and negativity that surrounded the Rise of the Tomb Raider exclusivity, it’s disappointing that Microsoft had to trot out the “Xbox One console launch exclusive” phrase so regularly. When they do it, Sony disguise it much better.
Those pointing to Microsoft’s backward compatibility and scoffing that the only reason they support it is because there’s “no new games” on the console will delight in the fact that Microsoft are now plundering the original Xbox and adding backward compatibility for their first console as well. Laugh at all those suckers buying $500 consoles so they can play upscaled games from fifteen years ago! In truth, it’s actually a great move for all Xbox owners, and it’s going to revive a number of absolute gems not deemed worthy of a remaster. It should just feel like a sprinkling of something extra as opposed to one of the main reasons to own a console.
Microsoft just needed one, maybe two new blockbuster exclusives to announce. They’ve been hurt over recent years through not building up their internal studios and through both first and second party game development not panning out as they’d hoped, most recently with the cancellation of Scalebound this year. Sadly it seems that they’re struggling to find and commission more games to fill those gaps in their portfolio, and that’s now become a real concern. They can’t continue to rely solely on their three core series of Forza, Gears of War and Halo. Ironically, it’s a Halo 3 Anniversary announcement that would have been ideal for the launch of Xbox One X, bringing lapsed Xbox gamers back in their droves to revisit what’s often seen as the series’ high water mark. Instead, Halo was completely absent this year.
Of course, Xbox One X will be made more enticing by the sumptuous 4K gaming that third parties will deliver on the platform – BioWare’s newly announced Anthem looks visually stunning, and was a great way to close out the show and demonstrate the power of this console – and it certainly helps that Sony went first with the PlayStation 4 Pro, getting developers to think and cater to 4K gaming (or near 4K as the case may be) in their development plans. It’s true that Microsoft have tended to rely on the strength of that third party catalogue more than their in house efforts, so you certainly won’t be starved for 4K games, but is that going to be enough this time?
When the price at the door is $499.99/€499.99/£449.99, I’m not so sure it is. There’s such a vast gulf in price between the Xbox One X and the Xbox One S, which is roughly half the cost, or you can get the “usually not true 4K, but still looks very pretty” of the PS4 Pro for a hundred quid less. When Sony announce new games for fun at both E3 and their own PSX shows, you’d be buying into a console that just feels that bit livelier and exciting right now.