You don’t get very many second chances in the video game market – as I’ve spoken at length before, first impressions matter, and a lot. But Microsoft managed to buy themselves more time, and gain just that – after May’s disastrous Inside Xbox, they promised an event in July that would be the real Xbox Series X games showcase. And after Sony’s great PS5 show last month, expectations were high.
And to be fair, going in, Microsoft was well positioned – far better positioned than they have been in years. The Series X is undeniably the more powerful console. Xbox has been doing great on the services front, with Game Pass especially being a home run. And on the games front, we had reason to be optimistic – after all, Microsoft had gone on a heck of an acquisition spree a few years ago, and tripled the size of their first party roster. And they got themselves some big names! Double Fine, Ninja Theory… surely with these new studios, as well as the long awaited Halo Infinite, which promised to be a back to basics bold reinvention of the once beloved IP, they would be comfortably positioned to at the very least have a show that met expectations – if not outright exceeded them.
And, yet again, Microsoft fumbled. It’s become a pattern with the company to be able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at this point. Time and time again, Microsoft seems to be on the verge of greatness, and then decides to turn back and walk away. And it’s getting impossible to justify these missteps anymore, really hard to keep making excuses.
Let’s start at the absolute, most basic level: one big reason that May’s Inside Xbox got so much criticism was that in spite of promising “next generation gameplay” footage, actual gameplay was scarce in that show. Most of the trailers we saw were CG or in-engine targets. The backlash was severe, and Microsoft admitted they had mismanaged expectations, promising to do better on this front going forward. Spoiler: they did not. Actual gameplay footage was an endangered species during this show. Outside of Halo Infinite, there was very little meaningful gameplay footage shared at all, in fact.
We’ll get back to Infinite in a moment, so let’s talk about everything else first. We saw a short trailer for a new Forza game. No gameplay footage. Not out this year. We saw State of Decay 3 announced, again, with no gameplay footage, and no announced release window. Everwild, Rare’s fascinating new game, was also shown off – with no gameplay footage, and no announced release window. Which makes total sense, because even Rare doesn’t know what the basic mechanics of Everwild are yet, as they admitted in an interview with Video Game Chronicles. So that one’s probably not coming for years – maybe not even until the end of the generation.
We got to see Avowed, and I have to be honest, this one really excites me on a personal level. Psychonauts 2, delayed to next year. Hellblade 2, just a passing mention, with the confirmation the game takes place in Iceland. And then there was Fable.
We’ve wanted a new Fable game for a really long time now. It’s a fan favorite series, and it’s been dormant for a decade now. And given that the last two Fable releases were the Kinect-only The Journey and the hugely disappointing Fable 3, it’s been even longer since the last good one (you’d have to go all the way back to Fable 2 for that). And this game has been rumored for a really long time now. An open world Fable game by Playground Games, the folks behind Forza Horizon. We’ve been hearing about Playground’s new open world RPG project since 2017, when the release of Horizon: Zero Dawn demonstrated to Phil Spencer that there is still a market for singleplayer games (why it took that long for this realization, I can’t say, but this isn’t the time to get into that). So surely this game would have a meaty showing, something for fans to chew on, maybe some gameplay footage, or even an in-engine glimpse at the world and- Haha, nope. It was a short CG trailer, that confirmed the new Fable game, and that was it. No gameplay footage. No release window.
This is a broader pattern, as you’ve probably caught on to by now, and it’s an issue on a lot of levels. The most fundamental problem is, if you have all these games that have no release window attached to them, and no gameplay to show, then they are nowhere near release. Most of these games, at least the most interesting seeming ones, like Everworld or Avowed or Fable, are probably late 2022, early 2023 at the soonest. Which means that the Xbox Series X’s slate of exclusive first party content for the first year after launch seems dire.
In and of itself, this doesn’t have to be an issue. The PS4 and Xbox One both sucked on the first party front for a year or so after release, only starting to pick up the slack in 2015. But that’s exactly the thing – both consoles were doing poorly with exclusives back then, so neither had a disadvantage. This isn’t that – Sony seems to have stacked the PS5 with major exclusives, at least console exclusives, starting right from launch. So Series X needs to match the PS5 on that, especially since Microsoft, unlike Sony or Nintendo, needs to establish that its console will have enough compelling exclusive content to be worth buying into for. And Series X isn’t doing that. As far as big exclusives go, the buck starts, and ends, with Halo Infinite.
So, Halo Infinite. Halo‘s big return. The 2018 teaser has become legendary, for how gorgeous it looked, and for its promise of a new, reinvented Halo game that realized the vision of the original. And Halo Infinite is confirmed to be a Series X launch game. So this had the potential to be Microsoft’s Breath of the Wild moment, except, as seems to be endemic to the Xbox division right now for some reason, they have fumbled on the execution.
Look, I think Halo Infinite looks good. I like the idea of a more open Halo, and I think the series’ core gameplay loop is incredibly fun, fun enough to rope me back in. But that’s really all Halo Infinite looks like – more Halo. Except in a bigger sandbox now. There’s no major gameplay reinvention like Zelda or God of War, it is the exact same Halo game as before, but in a bigger play area. And amidst all of this, it looks… not that impressive.
Again, I don’t think it looks bad. It looks pretty good if put against the average current generation game – but it’s not a current generation game, it’s a next generation title. Not just any next generation title, the flagship title for the most powerful next generation console. A lot was riding on Halo Infinite, for so many reasons: it’s the big return of Halo, and the game that can hopefully make the IP as big in the mainstream as it once used to be. It’s the premier launch game for Xbox Series X. It’s the only meaningful major exclusive for Xbox Series X for the foreseeable future. And also, if ever there was a game that could justify Microsoft’s cross-generation support strategy, this was it. If Halo Infinite had delivered, it would have been so much easier to believe Phil Spencer when he says that having to make games for Xbox One won’t hold back Series X games.
But Infinite didn’t deliver. Again, not to say it was bad. It looks cool. But it looks like more Halo. It’s preaching to the choir. It’s not winning any new converts, not bringing in new or lapsed fans to expand the reach (heh) of the series like God of War or Breath of the Wild did. And it certainly does not look like a next generation game at all. Some of its screenshots, in fact, look shockingly bad (the game does admittedly look better in motion). And the information 343 Industries has shared since the show – it’s a “platform for ten years”, new stories will be “told within Halo Infinite“, it won’t even have raytracing (a basic next generation feature) at launch – only deflate the hype further (especially when you realize that the 2013 Xbox One hardware will provide the base for the next ten years of Halo. Sigh).
I’m not even angry at this point, I’m just disappointed. I wanted Xbox to come out swinging. I wanted to love Halo and Fable again. I want Microsoft to be a strong player, and keep Sony and Nintendo on their toes. But they are not doing the most important thing they need to as a gaming platform holder. They are doing great with hardware, sure, and services, fantastic. But they are, time and time again, failing with games, and games are ultimately what matters, not hardware, not services. And if there’s one thing today’s Xbox show demonstrated, it’s that, Halo notwithstanding, Xbox won’t have those kinds of games for a while.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.