Microsoft made its best next-gen showing yet with the Xbox Games Showcase this week, which marked a big step up from the misfiring first effort back in May.
But it still wasn't great. A couple of its biggest new Xbox Series X games only appeared in cinematic trailer form, and while the much-touted Halo showing surely looked appealing to most long-time fans, it's been mocked online by some for how ugly its screenshots look.
Sony's The Future of Gaming PS5 presentation had its own issues (starting with GTA 5 was a weird choice), but I generally thought it was a lot stronger, with more interesting third-party reveals like Deathloop, Resident Evil Village and Project Athia from the Final Fantasy 15 developers. Crucially, too, it felt like Sony demonstrated more of its future games in action, with clear (if sometimes brief) gameplay showings for Gran Turismo 7, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Returnal.
Below, I'll compare how the two console manufacturers are hyping people up for their hardware launches later this year.
- Xbox Series X games: which ones do we know about?
- PS5 games: what's coming to the console?
- PS5 vs Xbox Series X compared
Xbox didn't show much gameplay outside of Halo
Some of Microsoft's more enticing titles like Avowed or the new Fable game seem very far away from release, based on how their announcements went down.
Choosing to release cinematic trailers for these games makes sense if they're not ready to be shown, and both games sound enormously appealing based on their developers, RPG specialists Obsidian and Forza Horizon creators Playground Games respectively. But the lack of release dates or many details means they don't feel like reasons to get excited about the Xbox Series X right now.
Of Microsoft's big exclusive games at the Xbox Games Showcase, only Halo felt like it made a meaningful gameplay showing. Rare's Everwild trailer, too, appeared to feature in-game visuals, but the footage didn't offer much of a sense of what it's like to actually play despite looking very nice. Forza Motorsport's in-engine showing looked convincingly lovely, but it was only a minute long.
Sony, meanwhile, began its PS5 presentation with the message, "All game footage you are about to see from this point forward in the show has been captured from PlayStation 5 systems." Still, even its impressive Horizon Forbidden West trailer looked like it was mostly made up of cinematics. That said, Sony did show off what Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, Returnal and Spider-Man on PS5 actually look like in action, if only briefly.
It means it's weirdly hard to get an idea in your mind's eye of what games will actually look like on either system – which is arguably a drawback of having no E3 this year, where gameplay footage is more freely circulated by the media and streamers for scrutiny.
Elusive release dates
Microsoft didn't have many release dates or windows to offer for its big new games, either. Avowed, State of Decay 3 (which is in early pre-production), Fable and Everwild weren't given any dates at all.
It was a surprise, too, that the new Forza game doesn't seem to be targeted for launch. Not that I mind – making a new Forza game for next-gen with ray-tracing no doubt offers plenty of challenges, but it means the mainline series will have taken a break of more than three years when it releases. Traditionally, Forza players get a new entry every two years.
Some exclusives got dates: The Gunk is coming in September 2021, and Halo Infinite, of course, is coming this holiday season. We also know about a few other partner games coming to Xbox this year, like The Medium and Call of the Sea. It's weirdly hard to tell what next year is going to look like for Xbox when it comes to big games, though. My best guess is you'll see both Forza and Everwild as its major titles in 2021, and Avowed and Fable further off.
While the PS5's initial release calendar looks pretty bare, with Spider-Man: Miles Morales marking the only PlayStation Studios title to release alongside the console's launch this year, it also has the added bonus of the Bethesda-published Deathloop as a timed exclusive around launch.
Sony could've been better with providing release dates for its games, too. Guerrilla Games mentioned a target release of 2021 for Horizon Forbidden West, but only after the game's actual reveal had occurred. Still, it at least gives us some idea of what shape the PS5 line-up will take next year. I'd also expect to see Ratchet and Clank at some point in 2021.
What about Halo?
With almost nine minutes of Halo Infinite gameplay footage, Microsoft deserves credit for making a meaningful showing of what its flagship game actually looks like during its presentation (even if it was apparently running on PC).
But did Halo actually look good? It's become a strangely contentious issue, with the screenshot above becoming a lightning rod for memes and general mockery. I really liked how Halo Infinite looked in motion, honestly, especially as a fan of older Halo games, but it's true that some of these screenshots looked rougher than you'd expect from a game set to launch alongside a next-gen console.
The choice of the developers to lean towards nostalgia with the choice of setting, too, also prompts questions over whether Halo Infinite looks too insular for modern audiences to get excited about.
The world has moved on around Halo, with games like Fortnite, Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone emerging as monster hits while the series took a five-year break after Halo 5.
Most Halo fans were no doubt excited by the footage shown by Microsoft, but if I didn't already know what Halo was, I don't know if that demo would blow my mind enough to invest in a new console. And after a generation of being dominated by Sony in sales, that's surely what Microsoft is hoping will happen with Halo Infinite.
What happens next
Sony is rumored to have a State of Play livestream planned for August 2020, where it'll supposedly reveal more games for PS5. Microsoft still has the Halo Infinite multiplayer reveal in its back pocket, which for many people will be the reason to play.
Neither Sony nor Microsoft is likely to have a particularly prolific launch for big exclusives based on what we currently know, but they both at least have one big game. Halo is Xbox's focus, and Spider-Man is Sony's. Deathloop, as mentioned, is a nice bonus for PS5, and it comes from the developers of Dishonored 2, one of this generation's best games.
Xbox also has a few console exclusives like Call of the Sea, The Medium and The Ascent to shore up its line-up, alongside the only next-gen release of Yakuza: Like a Dragon at launch.
Xbox's commitment to Game Pass was the best thing about its showcase event this week, with every game featured in the show set to land on the subscription-based service, which is remarkable.
A quietly great announcement from Microsoft was the announcement that Destiny 2 will be added to Game Pass, including its upcoming Beyond Light expansion. That game will run at 60fps in 4K resolution on Xbox Series X, and could give Bungie's title a real second wind beyond its core base of hardcore players.
Both consoles will have big multiformat games this year, too, like Watch Dogs: Legion, Marvel's Avengers and Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
In the short term, Sony still feels like it's got the better exclusives to me, and Horizon will be a huge deal when it lands next year as a showcase for the PS5 hardware.
Long-term, though, Microsoft looks like it's getting its act together on making the right exclusives. Avowed, a clear attempt at moving into Skyrim's turf by Obsidian, and Fable, which will hopefully be an open world game to rival the likes of Horizon, are exactly the kind of big-budget gambles Microsoft should be making with its sizeable stable of studios.
The Xbox One has spent this entire generation without a great cinematic open world game, whereas Sony figured out a long time ago that this is the singleplayer genre people are interested in right now. Even though both games seem far, far away, they hint at Microsoft's long-term strategy to play catch-up with Sony.
Xbox is making some good moves moves, then. It just feels like its most exciting games are a long way away, based on this week's Showcase – and the world might need to see more compelling evidence that Halo Infinite really is the game that'll sell people on the Xbox Series X this year.
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