The Xbox Series X gameplay reveal left one question: where was the gameplay?

It didn’t take long for yesterday’s Xbox Series X gameplay event to feel like it was grinding to a halt. Once the funky music was done and the countdown hit 00:00, we all edged forwards in our seats to see what the next generation of console was capable of. I’m sure there are many people who are still none-the-wiser.

Aaron Greenberg – head of Xbox – immediately impressed by having used none of his undoubtedly huge salary to replace a webcam that seems to have come from 2011. Surely, he could have at least repurposed one of the leftover Kinects? Don’t worry though Aaron, you’re only here representing one of the globe’s biggest tech companies. I’m sure no one will have noticed, especially now that he’s been disappeared from the video stashed on the Xbox Youtube channel.

Once we’d got past that, and at least had a snicker at his Zoom background with its fridge-sized Series X, it was up to Matt Booty and Damon Baker to get the show going. The only real problem they had was that, on a stream titled ‘First Look Xbox Series X Gameplay’ we were treated to a parade of game trailers that largely featured in-engine cutscenes at best, and where they purported to show ‘gameplay’ they had the addition of a fairly major caveat that “In engine footage representative of expected Xbox Series X visual quality”.

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They actually started off strongly in that regard. Bright Memory Infinite, the first game out of the gate, was a visual feast, matching the previous PC gameplay demos shown with GeForce RTX ray tracing released from the game, and hitting many of the same gameplay beats with a largely HUD-less design. It’s absolutely stunning, especially when you learn that it’s being created by a single person. That, however, felt like the real high point of the show.

You see, someone decided long ago that in-game footage of games didn’t make for very exciting trailers, and that we’d much rather see a flashy series of quick cuts and in-engine or pre-rendered images that represented the game instead. I’d argue that the success of Twitch fairly comprehensively proves that idea wrong, and, beyond the most casual of casual gamers, the game itself is the most important fact.

Dirt 5 had action-packed wheel to wheel racing, but not once did we get a true follow cam or in-cockpit view. Scorn lavished us with a dark, phallic alien world, Chorus was largely comprised of cinematic, with brief flashes of spaceship flight and combat, and NFL Madden 21 boiled down to Patrick Mahomes chatting away before a single slow motion replay showed off the detail of the players kits. As announcement trailers, showing off the concept and tone of the game, they excelled – well, except for Madden – but surely that could have been accompanied by the developers talking about their game and a slice showing off actual in-game footage?

Other games got this balance right, such as The Medium having a separate gameplay segment filled with tense supernatural moments, The Ascent’s showing plenty of top down cyberpunk action RPG action, and getting to see plenty of action game combos from Bandai Namco’s Scarlet Nexus.

The biggest disappointment though, and surely the main reason some people will have tuned in in the first place, was the outright fib that we would get to see Assassin’s Creed Valhalla gameplay. After the cinematic announcement trailer last week, everyone was salivating at the chance to see what the game would look like in action, you know, like they’ve done with previous gameplay reveals for AC Origins and the like. Certainly we got to see an approximation of what the game’s graphics will look like on Xbox Series X, but any claim that what was shown was gameplay is ridiculous.

The problem throughout is that the lines have now been blurred (and I’m not just talking about YouTube’s compression algorithms). If Valhalla’s trailer is apparently gameplay, then that undercuts the perceptions of everything else that was shown. The subconscious throws out those split-seconds of third person space combat from Chorus and remembers the cutscenes that made up the bulk of the trailer. Our past experience with game announcements for the current generation of console makes us down that Bright Memory Infinite can possibly look like that.

In fairness, Aaron Greenberg has held his hands up to the fact that expectations going into the stream were accidentally set too high:

Similarly, we have to accept that everyone, from Microsoft to the publishers and developers have been working in a very challenging situation for the last few months now. Adapting Inside Xbox into a mini-game console reveal will never have been the original plan for Microsoft, and it led to a lopsided stream with back-to-back trailers early on before returning for interviews bolted on at the end.

The thing is, Microsoft aren’t the only ones struggling with the weirdness of streaming. You only have to think back a couple months to the strange fake audience shadows as Mark Cerny dryly rolled out the technical details of the PlayStation 5. It’s clear that both companies have some improving to do as they try to build up excitement for their next generation consoles.

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Written by
TSA's Reviews Editor - a hoarder of headsets who regularly argues that the Sega Saturn was the best console ever released.

14 Comments

  1. I didn’t watch the stream but I did watch a bunch of the trailers and noticed the common “this is what it’s expected to look like” theme but to be fair perhaps most of these games are still very early on in development and a lot could change between now and release. Or perhaps with Xbox straddling both home console and PC platforms, PC is the lead development platform and then it’ll be an easy matter to transpose the games to Xbox architecture when they are done. Or perhaps the worldwide covid situation is holding everything back. If it’s the latter, we can probably expect a similar situation if Sony do a PS5 reveal/briefing next month.

    I’m envious and a little annoyed that Scorn will be Xbox-exclusive and what they showed was wonderfully bizarre imagery but i’m surprised that they didn’t show existing PC gameplay footage in lieu of Xbox footage. Perhaps as a game that’s already been in development for a few years, existing gameplay footage didn’t look ‘next-gen’ enough?

    Perhaps the next Xbox briefing will be the one to watch.

    • Obviously it depends heavily on the individual game and access they’ve had to dev kits. The dev tools for Xbox are shared across generations, so devs will have been able to hit the ground running, especially with the maturity of things like Unreal Engine 4. Most games shown are targeting 2020, I believe.

      As for what was actually shown, I’m not too worried about the progress of any game. It’s more been a case of maybe not miscommunication, but a misplaced emphasis on gameplay as opposed to reveals and trailers. Perhaps some things slipped, and the lack of first party games meant it lacked some glitz and glamour, but it was more having “gameplay” in the stream title and then only having that so sparingly.

    • Just watched the Scorn trailer. I’m torn between thinking it’s indeed a shame this is not coming to PS, and ‘Boah! What a Giger rip-off! If they steal all those designs, they should pay licensing fee or be sued!’

      • He’s been dead for almost 6 years, so that might be an issue.

      • I know the master is dead a while, but they got a beautiful museum with his works to run in Gruyère, and especially nowadays that gets financially difficult quickly.

  2. So which is worse then?

    Someone sat in what was quite clearly a spare bedroom with an XBox controller just sat on top of a cupboard on a little stand while nobody shows off any gameplay?

    Or someone telling us all sorts of interesting things, and not showing off any gameplay, with a sort of MST3K thing going on?

    Or is it “here’s how shit our game looked 20 years ago compared to the new one, which you’re only allowed to see 3 seconds of”?

    Personally, I’d go for “here’s none of that new gameplay we promised we’d show off, but it’s got ships in, because everyone loves the terrible ship combat bollocks in the previous games”.

    Or possibly the small print about being representative of the game running on “expected” hardware. Which I guess explains the lack of gameplay. Easier to fake cutscenes, maybe?

    • I expect none of these upcoming ‘lockdown’ streaming gaming events are going to be a good replacement for the on-stage live w/audience presentations that have excited us in the past.

  3. I didn’t watch the stream, but a couple of the trailers. My question would not be ‘where was the gameplay’, but rather what the improvement over this gen would be. There’s nothing I saw which my PS4 couldn’t handle, and I’ve not even got a Pro. Of course, I’ll be ordering my PS5 on day one, as this gen I couldn’t get one later, when I wanted one, and that was annoying. But I expect them to at least make an effort to show off some sort of progress, even it’s not about the visuals (where you won’t really see much of a difference anyway).

    • I do wonder if that’s something that’s particularly going to be a problem for Xbox next gen. I love the idea that no one is being left behind, but equally, why get on board if you’ve already got something that’s going to play most of these games in a decent fashion.

      I’m sure that the Series X versions will look and sound as good as humanly possible, and the same for PS5, but this presentation didn’t make the distinction, or explain why we should be that excited yet.

  4. And now MS have said they “set some wrong expectations” and that reactions would have been different if they hadn’t said anything beforehand.

    So don’t say anything rather than lie? Sounds like a sensible plan. I expect it to last until the next one they do. Maybe.

    Sony’s plan seems to be “just wait for MS to fuck up again”. With the odd bit of “we did exactly what we said and you’re still not happy” mixed in with “Surprise! Here’s the controller”.

    And Nintendo are just churning out sequels and ports of old games while “forgetting” to make enough consoles.

    • Sony’s plan seems to be “just wait for MS to f*** up again”… Lol
      That worked out perfectly in the past..! :-)

    • I don’t think we’ll see anything as catastrophic as last gen from MS, despite this bungling. This is definitely the sit-on-our-laurels approach from Sony though.

      Which didn’t work out so well for the PS3 at the start, but then they’ve got the clear leg up on the exclusives front, and MS are most likely going to be playing catch-up from day one unless the PS5 ends up looking like an egg carton that someone sat on.

  5. It’s a shame, because it looked like there were some good games in there, but a lot of watchers will feel misled I imagine.

    I watched the digital foundry take on it – something they noted was that there was nothing that showed off the system (i.e. why you would upgrade), in part because there was not a lot of gameplay

    These new consoles are still beasts on paper and I have no worries about that

    Also I had no idea that the audience in Cerny’s presentation was not real! Good effort whover did that

    • I haven’t seen what Digital Foundry said about it, but if their reaction wasn’t “I’m sorry, I’ve just soiled my underpants with excitement”, then there’s definitely a problem.

      I did see the developer of one of the games shown interviewed. Couldn’t say anything about developing for the Series X compared to the PS5 and then said there’s more to it than just the raw numbers (Teraflops and all that). Sounded a bit like “MS paid us not to say anything” and that there’s really not going to be a huge difference between the Series X and the PS5.

      Both are going to be absolute beasts though, definitely.

      And how did you not realise that “audience” wasn’t real? They were clearly just MST3K style shadows. I was wondering where the robots were for the whole thing.

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