Xbox’s first big next-gen push falls flat

In the absence of any news at all about the PlayStation 5, Xbox has had the floor to itself when it comes to marketing for their next-generation console, the awfully-named Xbox Series X. They announced the console back in December, and its design, controller, and even its specifications have all been shown off. The next thing Microsoft had to do was show off gameplay, which they finally did in a trailer which was released alongside a scaled-down promotional event.

The trailer has not been well-received, with its like-to-dislike ratio on YouTube skewing very negative, and I think that there are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that the trailer promised “gameplay”, and much of what was shown was not actual gameplay, but concepts and “in-engine footage”, which is industry code for pre-rendered visuals. There can be a world of difference from CGI created using a game’s engine and how a game actually looks when being played – something gamers are ever more aware of in an age of shady marketing.

Promo image of the Xbox Series X.

So for Xbox gamers who wanted to see how good games might actually look on the Xbox Series X, the trailer didn’t deliver, at least for a significant amount of its runtime. But there is another issue, a bigger issue which speaks not just to Microsoft’s current strategy but to the pace of development in the games industry overall.

Games on a current-gen console can look pretty good. Even titles that are five or six years old can still look absolutely amazing – many people cite The Witcher 3 from 2015 or 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II as being among the most beautiful games ever made, and I’d add into the mix titles like Project Cars, which was released in 2015, as being another example of a game that is still visually stunning. These titles and others were, as all big-budget titles have been this console generation, limited by the available hardware – in Microsoft’s case, the Xbox One, which was released in 2013. Any game had to be able to run on 2013 hardware efficiently, otherwise it wouldn’t be able to be sold. So all of the titles mentioned had that limitation and still managed to look fantastic.

I was struck when writing an article earlier this week by two screenshots. The screenshots were from games released only a decade apart, both in the same franchise, and the difference in what was capable is truly remarkable. The first screenshot was taken from Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back on the SNES, a game from 1993. The second was from Knights of the Old Republic, a 2003 title for the Xbox and PC. See the difference for yourself below:

Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1993) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003). The games were released a decade apart, and the difference between them is massive.

What’s immediately apparent is how far games had come in such a short span of time. Not just the visuals, though that’s a huge part of it. But Super Star Wars was 2D, with no voices and only text. It was a fun game, but it was just a game. And this is partly my own bias showing, as Knights of the Old Republic is one of my favourite games of all time, but that game feels cinematic; it’s a beautiful 3D world which the player can explore, fully voiced by some pretty great actors, and it drags the player into the story in a way the older title just… didn’t. In short, it was leaps and bounds ahead of Super Star Wars and came a mere ten years later. Many of today’s games – even the big-budget, AAA titles – could have been made ten years ago and wouldn’t feel terribly out of place.

The change from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 was probably the smallest ever, especially in graphical terms. To stick with Microsoft, as they’re the subject of this piece, games produced in the latter part of the Xbox 360’s life, like Mass Effect 2, for example, still hold up today as being perfectly acceptable in terms of how they look. In fact, if Mass Effect 2 were released today, I’d be perfectly happy with a game that looked like that even in 2020 – and herein lies Microsoft’s challenge, and the groundwork for their undoing.

For a variety of reasons, the pace of advancement in computing has slowed. Where processor speeds rocketed up through the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, the rate of change has slowed. Modern CPUs and GPUs are still better and offer more by way of performance than their predecessors, but the change is less noticeable with each iteration than it used to be. There’s also the general lack of a major new feature or way of playing compared to the introduction of 3D worlds, or even the creation of new genres which means that a new generation of consoles in 2020 lacks a “killer app” – something brand-new that the current generation can’t offer.

In Microsoft’s case this is compounded by a strange decision to make all Xbox Series X titles also available on the current Xbox One during the new console’s first couple of years of life. To reiterate the point I made earlier, every single title is thus limited by the system specifications of 2013’s Xbox One. In order to remain compatible with that console, a game is constrained in what it can do and how far it can push boundaries.

The Xbox Series X controller is practically identical to the Xbox One controller – which was itself very similar to the Xbox 360 controller.

That combination of factors has come together to make the Xbox Series X an underwhelming prospect. In addition, many of the games scheduled to launch alongside the console are from franchises that have been around for a long time. Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Forza, and many others are all game series that that players are familiar with, and that combination – the similar visuals and the familiar games – makes the Xbox Series X feel like nothing new. And with all of its titles supposedly available on Xbox One, I’m left wondering – as many people seem to be – just why anyone would bother buying an Xbox Series X, especially at launch.

The new console offers a barebones upgrade in terms of graphics, which is even less noticeable compared to the Xbox One X, and no unique titles or ways to play. That just doesn’t seem like good value – or offer any value at all. About the only thing that the Xbox Series X claims to offer that’s new is the ability to output 8K visuals – but there are very few 8K screens right now, and no games that run natively in 8K. While that might be great future-proofing, as of right now it represents a big dose of nothing.

The only other changes and improvements on offer are minor quality-of-life things: the battery life of the control pad, the reduced loading times thanks to switching from a hard drive to a solid-state drive, and perhaps a shinier interface are really all the Xbox Series X has to offer. In a previous console generation, if you were to stack up a Nintendo 64 against a Nintendo GameCube, or a Sega Saturn against a Dreamcast the differences are immediate and obvious. Nothing in Xbox’s “gameplay reveal trailer” looked any different to what’s already available, and while we don’t yet have the console in our hands to confirm this, I would bet good money that an awful lot of consumers would genuinely struggle to tell the difference between an Xbox One X and an Xbox Series X version of the same game. I will be really interested to see a side-by-side, frame-by-frame comparison when the new console launches!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this image of Dirt 5, but if you told me it was an Xbox One title instead of something meant to show off the Xbox Series X I’d believe you.

I really do sympathise with Xbox fans who feel let down. And in a way, even though this console generation has dragged on to become one of the longest, if there really isn’t much to gain from creating new consoles, there’s an argument to be made that companies should wait and continue to make the most of what’s already available; trying to force what looks to be a pretty minor upgrade onto gamers seems, at least on the surface, to be rather anti-consumer. I’d wager that’s the main reason why a lot of people came away from Microsoft’s trailer unsatisfied: none of the titles on offer or the graphics shown off feel better than what’s already available – or even any different – and the end result is that people feel as though they’re being asked to buy a very similar product to what they already have to access these samey titles.

Nintendo realised a long time ago that the value of a new console is tied to innovation and doing things differently. By focusing less on graphics and raw power, two of Nintendo’s three most recent consoles (the Wii U being an exception) have been wildly successful by offering players something genuinely different to what was already on offer. Xbox doesn’t do that, and when all the Xbox Series X has to offer is an increase in power and graphical fidelity, it’s no longer good enough for its games to look “great”; they need to look significantly better than those titles that are already available. The verdict from the trailer is that they simply don’t.

The Xbox Series X and Xbox One are the copyright of Microsoft. The Xbox Series X is due for release before the end of 2020. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.