After years of speculation and anticipation, we were finally given an opportunity to get the PS5 and Xbox Series X under our televisions last November. With the release of these new systems, Sony and Microsoft ushered in the next-generation of interactive entertainment, but it's 2021 where we get a real sense of what these consoles are truly capable of delivering.
Crucially, the first year of a new console's life cycle is where we will begin to see how video games may change in the future, as well as the types of experiences and players the platform holders will be attempting to court in the years ahead. Studios will be unburdened by the limitations of ageing architecture, and the arrival of new and more powerful technology has a tendency to push bold concepts and big ideas in development. 2021 is an opportunity for video games to push beyond the boundaries of what we believed was possible in this space, and that makes it one of the most consequential years for gaming in recent history.
When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005 and the PS4 in 2006, the platform holders leveraged console exclusives to highlight the differences between the two. Xbox 360 owners enjoyed The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, as well as the debut of both Gears of War and Dead Rising once the sparse launch window was cleared. That first year established the Xbox 360 as the home of a next generation of 'core' games and power-hungry new IP, a perception that it embraced in the years that followed.
The PS3's first year might be remembered for Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Heavenly Sword, but I'll always love it for the weirder, uniquely-PlayStation experiments that landed alongside them – Eye of Judgment, Folklore, and Warhawk. These cult-classics might have been a tougher sell later in the generation, but made perfect sense in its earliest days, as Sony and its partners were trying to figure out how to migrate the large PS2 player base over and best leverage the console's powerful(ly complicated) cell architecture.
With 2021 set to be a consequential year for the future of games, we are exploring the most anticipated games on the near horizon all month. Visit our Big in 2021 coverage hub for more editorials, exclusive interviews, hands-on reports, and more.
As Microsoft and Sony look to 2021, each publisher will lean on established first-party and timed third-party exclusives to help set the early tenor and direction of the generation – and it would appear that Sony has a clear edge. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Horizon Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7, and the next God of War will no doubt land as dazzling technical showcases that highlight the power of the PS5 and give us a solid indication of the direction each of these key genres are heading in the years to come. Third-party releases such as Returnal, Deathloop, Ghostwire: Tokyo, and Season (among others) show Sony's desire to invest in weird and wonderful new IP, with these unconventional genre-splicing releases working to build diversity into the core offering of the system.
Microsoft is a more precarious position. It is expected to close its $7.5 billion acquisition of ZeniMax Media in early 2021, taking its slate of first-party studios under the Xbox Game Studios umbrella from 16 to 24. The problem the platform holder has is that while we know what large swaths of these teams are working on, 2021 release dates seem unlikely for Everwild, State of Decay 3, Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2, Avowed, and reboots of Fable, Forza Motorsport, and Perfect Dark. Instead, Microsoft is expected to pin its hopes on Halo Infinite – an open-world reimagining of the famed shooter – acting as enough of a showcase of the Xbox Series X's power to pull people out of the PS5's orbit.
A further embrace of live-service games
Interestingly, Microsoft is investing in spaces that Sony isn't, with a slate of live-service, ever-evolving, Xbox Game Pass oriented titles to maintain. It's all too easy to be distracted by the adage of 'new is always better', but the way that Sea of Thieves, Minecraft, Bleeding Edge, and Grounded – even Gears 5, to a certain extent – continue to update and grow over the next 12 months will invariably be informative for the future of the Xbox ecosystem. If these titles continue to succeed, it would be difficult to see Microsoft releasing an Xbox Series X exclusive that didn't come equipped with some type of live-service component.
The rise of console-focused live-service experiences can be traced back to the first year of the Xbox One and PS4 era. When those consoles launched in 2013, the year that followed was undoubtedly sparse on the exclusives front – notably, Xbox One had two new IPs in Titanfall and Sunset Overdrive, meanwhile the PlayStation 4 arrived with Infamous Second Son, Driveclub, and The Last of Us: Remastered – but the real showstopper that year was the arrival of Destiny.
Love it or loathe it, Bungie's live-service shooter had a seismic impact on the makeup of the industry. Where the MMO had a famously difficult time gaining a foothold on console (and I say this as somebody who sunk far too much time into the outliers, Phantasy Star Universe and Final Fantasy 11), Bungie was able to harness the powerful energy of these time vampires and imbue it into one of gaming's most successful, and long-lasting genres. The result was an experience that would change the industry as we know it, its influence almost impossible to grasp on the last generation.
In these earliest days of 2021, it's difficult to foresee any game that's primed to land with that sort of impact – although there's still plenty of new releases that developers and publishers are yet to show to the public. However, it's clear that developers are eagerly embracing the speed and technical prowess of these new consoles and, throughout the next 12 months, we will finally see what that will ultimately mean for the future of games. Regardless of whether you have invested in an Xbox Series X, Series S, or PS5, 2021 is destined to be one hell of a year for games.
Big in 2021 is GamesRadar's exploration of the most anticipated games on the near horizon. Check back in throughout January for brand new previews, hands-on impressions, and exclusive developer interviews of the games that will define 2021.