Xbox had everything to prove in 2021. The truth is, it's impossible to overstate the momentum that PlayStation had coming into it. The PS5 hit the ground running with an undeniably impressive lineup of first-party titles – conversely, Xbox Series X launched with perhaps its weakest to date – while Sony prepared to build on that success with a trio of clearly roadmapped system showcases in Deathloop, Returnal, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. All Microsoft had was Halo Infinite suffering an indefinite delay.
That, and a lofty mission statement; a loosely-defined commitment to tear down traditional barriers to play. As redundant as the console wars are, particularly as a framing mechanism, points of comparison are easily drawn between Microsoft and Sony's diametrically opposed business models, and they haven't always connected favourably for Xbox. But as 2021 draws to a close, we're seeing just how powerful Xbox can be as a platform when it is able to build momentum of its own.
Head in the clouds (gaming)
For Microsoft, judging success in 2021 means looking beyond the boundaries of the Xbox Series X. Especially as two of the best games it published this year weren't even platform exclusive. After investing in its delay and subsequent improvement, Xbox Game Studios pushed Psychonauts 2 out across all formats to rave-reviews – the first title out of Double Fine since its high-profile acquisition in 2019. And the company honored the deal that would keep Deathloop (GamesRadar's 2021 GOTY) held at arm's length from Xbox Series X players, even after the eight-billion dollar acquisition of Zenimax Media closed.
As a gift to those who stuck by Microsoft's side through the Windows Gaming dark ages, the iconic Age of Empires franchise was revived with an unexpected level of finesse. Meanwhile, Microsoft Flight Simulator – perhaps the ultimate totem of gaming on PC – arrived on Series X with surprisingly little sacrificed in the conversion. The dividing line between home console and PC priorities was further eroded as Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite dominated the Steam charts.
Xbox also showed that Cloud Gaming wasn't just theoretically viable in 2021, but an attractive addition to the platform. Be it to play AAA games with handheld devices, act as easy way to sample new releases on Game Pass without committing to a full download, or for how it could improve fidelity and performance for those stuck with ageing Xbox One hardware – especially important amidst the ongoing component shortage, leaving both Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S difficult to obtain throughout the year.
But if Microsoft had any one thing to prove this year, it was that it could deliver high-quality first-party titles. It was the least it could do after leaving Xbox Series X players with little more to play than optimized Xbox One releases and supercharged Xbox 360 classics during the launch window. It might have taken it a while to get there, but the end of the year showed just what the Xbox Game Studios division is capable of once it is able to pick up some speed.
Forza Horizon 5 is arguably the best racing game on the market, a sublime series entry from Playground Games that works to showcase the sort of high-fidelity and powerhouse performance the Xbox Series X is capable of capturing. Meanwhile, 343 Industries released Halo Infinite, which is inarguably the best the series has been in over a decade.
Launch issues with Halo Infinite multiplayer show that Microsoft has learned little from its experience in the live service space – be it from the failure of Fable Legends way back when or from the success it found with the launch of Sea of Thieves: Season One in January and the excellent A Pirate's Life expansion in June. While the Halo Infinite multiplayer servers are largely stable (a far cry from the problems that plagued The Master Chief Collection), a number of issues have stemmed from taking Halo free to play – a decision which has impacted progression, customization, game modes, and more.
It's easy to pick apart these things, but the truth is Halo Infinite is fun enough at a fundamental level that many players are pushing through the turbulence. That Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite joined the likes of Psychonauts 2 and Microsoft Flight Simulator in the Game Pass service on day one – not to mention the high-profile additions of third-party releases that run the gamut between Back 4 Blood and Outriders through to Destiny 2 and GTA 3 San Andreas – is seriously impressive. A vindication of Microsoft's assertion that it would keep the subscription service curated, regularly updated, and impossibly attractive to all Xbox players.
In 2021, Microsoft demonstrated that it is capable of making good on its promises. For Xbox, the year has been defined by fantastic first-party releases, the continued expansion of Game Pass, and refinement of its broader platform initiatives. Xbox Game Studios is building real momentum for the first time in a very long time, and I can't wait to see what it can deliver in 2022 and beyond.
Don't forget to check out our picks of the best Xbox Series X games so far for more.