Xbox rocked up to E3 2021 with a lot to prove – stop me if that sounds familiar. With PlayStation 5 setting or matching records through its first six months on sale, already touting a strong lineup of exclusive games, it’s felt like Microsoft are still having to sell people on the idea of their new generation of games console. Yes, the acquisition of Bethesda, announced just as Xbox Series consoles went up for pre-order, turned a lot of heads, but Microsoft hasn’t been able to shift the perception (or at least the joking perception) that Xbox has “no games”.
Opening with Starfield was a big power play, that’s for sure. The acquisition of Bethesda is still fresh in the memory, and I’m sure many PlayStation fans out there still held out hope that Bethesda’s games could be cross-platform. I’m sorry to break it to you for the 13th time, but no… Starfield is an Xbox and PC exclusive (and before you start, Windows is a Microsoft platform, so yes, these are exclusives).
The somewhat bitter pill here is that Starfield is still a long way off, with a release date pencilled in for 11/11/22. The same was true for most of the other new first and second party games announced, as Arkane’s new co-op shooter Redfall is expected in 2022, and there’s no hint of when Contraband from Avalanche might be coming out.
There’s a soft underbelly to Microsoft’s first-party lineup, as they repeatedly announce new games with CGI teaser trailers years and years before they are ready to release. You just have to think back to E3 showings of the last few years. Everwild, Avowed, Fable, Forza Motorsport, Perfect Dark, Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II, State of Decay 3… none of these games appeared at E3 2021, a clear sign that their announcements and CGI or in-engine reveals all came very early in their production.
Heck, you had the announcement of The Outer Worlds 2 from Obsidian, poking fun at Microsoft’s own practice of cooking up a glitzy trailer well before a game was really ready to show. It’s a problem that Microsoft need to dig their way out of, and that can only happen by showing more restraint in when they announce their games.
The one shining light here wasn’t Halo Infinite – the multiplayer gameplay reveal looked great, but the segment for the game was perhaps the slowest part of the showcase and there’s still no release date – but rather Forza Horizon 5. The game looks sublime, the rendition of Mexico on Xbox Series X and high-end PCs absolutely stunning, and the studio having consistently pushed their arcade racer series to new heights.
We’ve been here before, though. Forza, Gears of War and Halo have been the three constants of the Xbox lineup for years now, and as excellent as they typically are, they’re also game series that preach to the choir of Xbox fans. Microsoft is diversifying their line up considerably, there’s tons of new first party IPs announced for their platforms, and yet the end of 2021 will rely once again on their most reliable of franchises.
Just focussing on Xbox exclusives and this particular calendar year kind of misses the point for what Microsoft want to do this generation. With Sony’s first party games now costing £70 at the till, Microsoft is effectively countering that by pitching Xbox Game Pass as the best value proposition in video games. There’s 18 games joining Xbox Game Pass on day one through the rest of 2021, and Microsoft can always add to that number.
There’s all of Xbox Game Studios’ first-party titles, which includes Halo: Infinite, Forza Horizon 5, Age of Empires IV, Psychonauts 2 and Flight Simulator, but then there’s the compelling third party games like Back 4 Blood, Scorn, Hello Neighbour 2, The Ascent, Sable and the sublime Hades. They cover a wide range of genres, come from all sizes of developer, and they’re just… there if you have Xbox Game Pass.
It’s that point that makes Game Pass a great tool for fence-sitters, gamers who see a price tag and suck in air through their teeth. How many people were on the fence about Outriders, but thought “You know what? It’s on Game Pass, so I might as well try it.” I can see that argument coming up quite a lot through 2021 and beyond. It’s the same reasoning that has powered some of the most successful films released on Netflix.
On the whole, Microsoft got the job done. Again. I feel like I say this every year. It wasn’t a knock your socks off showing, but there remains a huge amount of potential for Microsoft’s upcoming lineup of games, especially with Bethesda’s games now in their portfolio. The problem is that Sony could be out of sight in the console sales race before we truly get to see it.