If word from the very mouth of Master Chief (voice actor Steve Downes) is to be taken as gospel--and it isn’t entirely, as of yet--then the release of the Xbox One’s Halo 5 could slip to 2015. Obviously, if that happens, then it’ll be very disappointing for players, not to mention a rather sizeable blow for a console increasingly struggling to compete in the face of much faster-selling competition. The most recent sales figures give the PS4 a 2:1 lead against Microsoft’s machine for January in the US, and the (relatively) imminent return of the Xbox’s biggest franchise would have gone some way toward building the One’s momentum.
Both next-gen machines are currently lacking killer apps, but the PS4 is making great headway by way of a lower price and its attractive status as a PS+ machine. There might be little in the way of big hitters landing soon, but the constant flow of strong, free games gives the PlayStation 4 a unique value all of its own. So if the Xbox One is to compete in the near-term, what does it have to fall back on? With work on the next-gen Gears of War only just starting, surely the console’s biggest hope is EA and Respawn Entertainment's Titanfall.
Titanfall, arriving in mid-March, is excellent. I’ve played rather a large amount of it at various preview events, and I continued to have a great time with the beta at lunchtime today. I’m thus far finding it to be the freshest, most interesting, most exciting multiplayer-only shooter I’ve played in years, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone, based on my current experience of it. Is it enough to turn around the Xbox One’s fortunes though? I’m not entirely convinced.
Because as fantastic a game as Titanfall is, it has three attributes that I feel might limit it as a hardware saviour. Firstly, it is only one game. For those looking forward at the tangible future potential of a console (ie. those who Microsoft really needs to convince to buy an Xbox One), one great game, however great, probably isn’t enough. Secondly, while it’s the best MP-only shooter I’ve played in years, that caveat is important. It is an MP-only shooter, and historically those don’t set the console world on fire. It’s ironic, of course. Millions buy a new Halo or Call of Duty, only to rinse through the campaign in a matter of hours before spending months online. But give a console player a game that caters only to multiplayer and--unlike on the PC--its commercial prospects seem limited.
The third problem? Although not heading to the PS4, Titanfall is not an Xbox One exclusive. It’s releasing on the PC at the same time, and on the Xbox 360 a couple of weeks later. That third format in particular could be a problem for the XO. As I've mused before, this new hardware generation is plagued like none before it by cross-generation releases, and that’s seeing the new consoles struggle to distinguish themselves as must-buys with exclusive selling points. Titanfall will look better on the Xbox One, but mechanically it does nothing that couldn’t be replicated on a 360. And does it look £400 worth of better? No, no it doesn’t.
I’m in no way writing off Titanfall or the Xbox One. The former is an amazing game, and the latter has years to prove itself. But Microsoft’s first steps in doing that cannot rely on one single release. The PS3 started out troubled, but Sony realised that long-term consolidation of a strong, eclectic exclusive line-up was the key to success, not quick-fix hype. If Master Chief really is going to be delayed in his arrival to next-gen, Microsoft needs to be thinking in those same terms. The spirit of Sony’s successful PS3 strategy is arguably alive and well in its generous approach to PlayStation Plus. Going in a similar direction, ideologically if not strictly in terms of emulated policies, would be a great way for Microsoft to start.