The apprehension going into the Xbox Games Showcase was palpable. In the weeks leading up to the event, a cascade of executives broke cover to keep expectations in check – a necessary evil given the tepid response to the Xbox Series X third-party showcase in May. It was beginning to feel as if the PS5 was gaining momentum after a solid showcase of its own on 11 June; no amount of messaging from Microsoft on the services, compatibility, and power afforded by the Xbox platform can beat Sony's natural penchant for amplification.
For my money, the Xbox division needed to get us excited not just about the launch, but the years after it too. It would be difficult to argue with the assertion that Microsoft delivered in that respect. 10 world premieres, 22 timed-exclusives for the platform, and a fresh look at what nine of the 15 first-party studios are up to. If that weren't enough, Xbox Game Pass solidified itself as among the best value for money proposition the industry has to offer, with every game in the showcase confirmed to land in the subscription service day-and-date when they launch. Earlier this week, I laid out the biggest questions Microsoft needed to answer going into this thing, let's see how they did.
First party studios shared the spotlight
Microsoft is finally beginning to make good on its investments. Let's put Halo Infinite aside for a second and look at the wider Xbox Game Studios group. While we are still in the dark as to what The Initiative and Compulsion are working on, we did get to see new titles from Playground Games, Obsidian, Turn 10, and Undead Labs – glimpses of them, at least.
Going down the list in order, we've got a reboot of Fable, first-person RPG Avowed arrives with big Elder Scrolls Obsidian vibes, Forza Motorsport is getting a major overhaul, and State of Decay 3 looks real pretty – the series has been crying out for more resources and support to bring that core vision to life since its inception. It's great to see Microsoft investing, publicly, in the future – even if it is with little more than sizzling CG trailers. There's some wariness, of course, given the publisher's penchant for announcing games only to cancel them years later throughout this generation, but you've got to have faith that the Xbox division today is different from the one that struggled to steady itself in the early years of this decade.
Elsewhere, we received a fresh look at Everwild (Rare), Grounded (Obsidian), Hellblade 2 (Ninja Theory, and Psychonauts 2 (Double Fine), which has sadly been delayed to 2021. The Coalition is working on Series X optimised versions of Gears 5 and Gears Tactics for launch, and you'd assume Mojang is doing the same with Minecraft and Dungeons. Honestly, I'm a little surprised we weren't hit with passing updates on how inXile and World's Edge are getting on with Wasteland 3 and Age of Empires 4, just to complete the circle.
Overall, it was an incredibly strong showing for the first party. The problem for some will be that so much of it is so far away. Grounded is landing in Game Preview imminently, but outside of that it would appear that Halo Infinite is the only first-party game ready for launch. Still, it's clear now that Xbox is investing in a diverse portfolio of titles that span a surprisingly wide variety of genres. Whether that will be enough to give the Series X an edge over the PS5 in the short term remains to be seen. Whether Microsoft cares about that, and is instead merely interested in bolstering Game Pass subscriptions, is debatable. Either way, it's difficult to debate the notion that Microsoft isn't hitting harder with its first-party offering than it has for this entire generation cycle.
Halo Infinite split opinion
I think it would be fair to say that Halo Infinite has proved to be more divisive than Microsoft would have liked. 343 has positioned this as a soft reboot, not for the next-generation but in general – and it looks it. The scope of this open-ended adventure is impressive, the sprawling mass of the Halo Installation looks like a space I'll be eager to explore at a smooth 60 frames-per second, although it doesn't have the sharpness or density of detail you'd expect from a title positioned to shift systems. Perhaps Microsoft is hoping it shifts subscriptions instead.
It would appear that social media has had a visceral reaction to the art direction, although I'm admittedly a fan of the somewhat stripped back design. For me, it appears as if 343 is attempting to echo the sights offered up by Halo: Combat Evolved; iconic views originally born out of limitation, and that's difficult to recapture when there's 8.3 million pixels of resolution to play with – not to mention more memory than the developers at Bungie could ever had dreamed was possible back in 2001.
We need to see more of Halo Infinite to gauge its true impact, and how successfully the multiplayer changes are received will likely be a make or break moment for 343, but there's a lot positives lurking at the edges of the FOV in Halo Infinite's first campaign showing. The movement looks buoyant, the combat and weapon tracktion looks tight-as-all-hell, and the classic enemy archetypes seem to be handling the transition to even wider space well.
I noted ahead of the show that "Halo Infinite will need to demonstrate that the series is as relevant today as it has been in years past" and I'm not sure that the campaign demo achieved that. But perhaps it didn't need to. It's made me excited to play Halo again, even if it was lavished in the brand of nostalgia that makes me wish that I was a kid again. That's more than I could say for Halo 4 or Halo 5: Guardians, titles that all but ended my love affair with the series. And let's be honest, even if you aren't into Halo Infinite at a first glance, are you seriously going to tell me that you won't at least give it a try if it's waiting there for you there in Game Pass this November?
Not one to Game Pass up
Factor in some solid reveals from third-party partners which will all be landing on Game Pass, such as INT/NIGHT's experimental debut As Dusk Falls, Thunderfall's The Gunk, Enhance's Tetris Effect: Connected, and the reemergence of GSC Game World's S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, and I think it's fair to say that Microsoft put on its best show since the reveal of the Xbox Series X.
I'm not certain that Microsoft hit as hard as Sony was able to manage with its early showing of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon Forbidden West, but there was enough here that demonstrated Xbox looking in better shape than it has for quite some time. What it needs to do now is close the loop; it needs to demonstrate the faster loading, the power of ray-tracing, and put a convincing case forward for why we should make an investment in Xbox Series X now rather than waiting (at least) two years for Fable, Forza, and the rest.
Want to catch up with all of the reveals? Here's a recap of every Xbox Games Showcase trailer.