Xbox turns 20!

On the 15th of November 2001, the original Xbox launched in the United States. That makes today the 20th anniversary of the console and Microsoft’s gaming brand, so I thought we should mark the occasion with a look back! I haven’t yet had the chance to play on an Xbox Series S or X, but I’ve owned an original Xbox, an Xbox 360, and an Xbox One at different points over the past couple of decades so I like to think I’m qualified to comment on the brand!

It’s hard to remember now, especially for younger folks who’ve quite literally grown up with the games industry looking the way it does, but the Xbox was a massive risk for Microsoft in 2001. The games industry at the turn of the millennium felt settled – Nintendo and Sega were the “big boys” and PlayStation had been the new kid on the block, shaking things up as the world of gaming moved from 2D to 3D titles.

Xbox turns 20 today!

For practically all of the 1990s, it had been Japanese games companies – Sega, Nintendo, and Sony – that had dominated the video game hardware market. Challengers from the ’80s like Atari and Commodore represented American manufacturers, but they’d fallen away by the end of the decade leaving the worldwide video game hardware market the sole domain of the Japanese.

I remember reading more than one article in 2001 promising that the Xbox would be an expensive failure for Microsoft, arguing that “no one” was looking for a new console manufacturer at that time. It would be impossible to enter a market where things were already stable, and even with Microsoft’s money, challenging the mighty Sega, Nintendo, and PlayStation was just going to be a waste of time. How wrong is it possible to be, eh? We should all remember articles like those before making big predictions!

Bill Gates unveiled the Xbox and showed the console to the world for the first time in 2001.

The video games industry was far less settled in 2001 than anyone seemed to realise, of course. Sega’s Dreamcast would prove to be such a significant flop that the company ended up shutting down their hardware business altogether, and Nintendo’s GameCube – which also launched in November 2001 – would struggle to compete with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in terms of sales.

So the market was definitely more receptive to a new entrant than a lot of folks at the time were predicting! But that isn’t why the Xbox succeeded. It helped, of course, that the console was created at a time when Sega was getting out of the way and Nintendo had uncharacteristically faltered. But those external factors weren’t key to the success of the Xbox, and anyone who claims otherwise is doing the console a disservice.

The original Xbox logo.

The Xbox was a great machine. Microsoft had decades of experience in software and plenty of money to boot – they were one of the world’s richest companies even then. Bringing their considerable experience and financial resources to bear led to the creation of a truly world-class machine, one that massively outperformed two of its three competitors in terms of raw processing power and graphical fidelity.

All of those stats would have been meaningless, though, had the console not had a killer lineup of games – and Microsoft delivered there too. Though Microsoft had made some games of their own before 2001, like Age of Empires for example, they didn’t have as much game development experience as the likes of Nintendo and Sony. While development of the Xbox was ongoing, Microsoft worked with a number of third-party developers, signing exclusive contracts and having games built for their new machine from the ground up.

The Xbox was Microsoft’s first video game console.

We can’t talk about the Xbox without talking about its “killer app” – Halo: Combat Evolved. After GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 had proven that first-person shooters could work well on home consoles, Halo honed the console shooter genre to near-perfection. It was the must-have game of 2001 and 2002, one of the most talked-about and debated titles of the day. Nintendo and PlayStation simply didn’t have anything in reply, and Halo absolutely dominated the conversation going into 2002.

It wasn’t only the first-person shooter genre where Microsoft invested heavily. They contracted a studio called Bizarre Creations – who’d developed a racing game called Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast – to work on an Xbox-exclusive racer: Project Gotham Racing. The game played differently to other racing games at the time – with an emphasis on “kudos” points rather than just winning the race. Project Gotham Racing didn’t quite succeed at eclipsing the likes of the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation 2, but it was a fun romp nevertheless.

Halo: Combat Evolved was the console’s big launch title.

My personal experience with the original Xbox came in the wake of the Dreamcast’s demise. I’d invested in a Dreamcast as a replacement for my Nintendo 64, but when Sega announced in early 2001 – scarcely a year after its launch – that the Dreamcast would be discontinued and development would cease I knew I’d have to find a new machine again! The Dreamcast was a great console in its own way, but it felt iterative rather than transformative. When I was finally able to upgrade to an Xbox in early 2002 I was blown away by how modern-feeling the machine was.

The control pad – affectionately known as the “Duke” – was the first thing I noticed that was so much better. The addition of a second analogue stick made controlling all kinds of games so much easier and smoother, whether they were racers, shooters, or third-person adventure titles. The black and white buttons were a solid addition too, giving games more options than older control pads on other hardware. The Duke wasn’t wildly popular, though, due to its large size making it heavy and unwieldy for a lot of players. Within a matter of months, Xbox had released the S-controller as an alternative, and that design has stuck. The popular Xbox 360 control pad was based on the S-controller, and the design has remained more or less unchanged since.

The S-controller replaced the Duke – and its design has been honed and refined in the years since.

Some of my favourite gaming experiences of all time took place on the Xbox. I played my first true open-world games on the platform, with titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind showing off the console’s power through the size, scale, and density of their worlds – something completely unprecedented at the time. Knights of the Old Republic completely blew me away with its story, and at one point I can vividly remember sitting with the control pad in my hand, mouth open in shock at the way that game’s story unfolded. That’s a moment in gaming – and a moment as a Star Wars fan – that I will never forget!

The Dreamcast had shown me the first game that I felt was genuinely cinematic; a title that would’ve felt at home on the big screen: Shenmue. But that console still had its limitations, and relatively few Dreamcast titles came close to reaching the high bar set by Shenmue. The Xbox feels – at least to me – like the first modern video games console; the first machine to bring together all of the foundational elements of 21st Century gaming.

Knights of the Old Republic was a fantastic Xbox exclusive.

The launch of the Xbox marked a sea change in the video games industry. Sega was getting out of the market, and Microsoft jumped in. Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox would go on to be the two big powerhouses of gaming in the 2000s, settling their status as the decade wore on. It was also around this time that Nintendo stopped focusing on trying to compete with PlayStation and Xbox in terms of raw power and began looking at different ways to play – culminating in the launch of the Wii a few years later.

Twenty years ago the Xbox was seen as a risk. Now, as we look back on two decades of Microsoft’s gaming hardware, it’s patently obvious that it’s a risk that paid off – and then some! As we stumble into another new console generation, Xbox feels like a safe, solid bet. And the brand is, in many ways, just getting started. Xbox Game Pass offers fantastic value as a subscription service right now, and as Microsoft looks to harmonise their console and PC players in a single conjoined system, things are definitely changing for the better for Xbox as a brand. There have been some bumps in the road over the past couple of decades – the rocky launch of the Xbox One and the failure of Kinect being a couple of big ones – but overall, it’s been a success for Microsoft. I knew a lot of people in 2001 who would never have expected to see Xbox as one of the top two gaming platforms twenty years later.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, and/or publisher. Xbox and all associated properties are the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

After years in development hell, will the Halo series deliver?

Plans for a television series based on the Halo video game franchise have been kicked around for well over a decade at this point. One incarnation of the project, which languished in development hell for much of that time, even included famed director Steven Spielberg, and appeared to have a decent budget set by franchise owner Microsoft. That version of Halo never made it to screen, and despite some still images and a web miniseries in 2012, Halo remains firmly a video game franchise.

But according to Paramount+ – which is also the home of Star Trek – all that will change in 2022. As part of the advertising campaign for Paramount+ earlier this year, it was announced that the Halo series, which was originally planned to debut on American television network Showtime, will join the streaming service’s lineup. With a lot of sci-fi already on Paramount+ this seems like a good fit – at least in theory. However, after so long in development, and with production clearly suffering from some setbacks, can Halo live up to the hype that fans of the series have? And perhaps more importantly, will Halo be successful at bringing in a wider audience of viewers who are less familiar with the games?

Halo is based on an acclaimed video game series.

On the first point, production on Halo has not gone smoothly. The series was picked up for a ten-episode order, after years in pre-production, over three years ago. Filming began in 2019 in Canada, and while the pandemic has been a disruptive factor, it doesn’t seem to be the only factor in why Halo is still being worked on today. There have been behind-the-scenes changes including major script rewrites and a mid-production switch to a new showrunner, and while neither of those things necessarily spell disaster for Halo, they are hardly encouraging signs.

Sometimes when a series makes these kinds of changes, what results is better than the original version would’ve been. And we have to hope that will be the case with Halo! Still, talk of reshoots, script revisions, and so on doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, and while I’m hopeful that the series will eventually present a fun and exciting story, at least some of the information coming out of the project is ringing alarm bells.

Teaser image for Halo.

As to Halo’s broader appeal, that’s still an open question. The Halo video games are best-sellers on Xbox consoles, but until last year, when Halo: The Master Chief Collection was ported to PC, that was the only place to play the main series. Though the franchise is well-known to gamers even on other platforms, a lot of folks simply don’t have much experience with Halo, and might not be as interested in the series as a result. That being said, having any kind of pre-built following is generally a net positive for any new film or television series, as at least Paramount+ can be sure that some Halo fans will show up to give the series a try!

Sci-fi is doing well at the moment, though, with shows like The Expanse, The Mandalorian, and the reinvigorated Star Trek franchise all bringing in viewers by the millions – so there’s hope that non-fans and those interested in sci-fi in a more general sense might be tempted to check out a new, high-budget sci-fi series. With a decent marketing push, I’m sure there’ll be some interest beyond Halo’s pre-existing audience.

Halo should be able to bring in a wider audience beyond fans of the video game series.

The story of the series remains unknown beyond a simple tease of its premise, and the question of whether it will be a direct adaptation of the first game – or any other title in the series – remains open. The casting of Natascha McElhone as Dr Halsey – the creator of the Spartan project in Halo: Reach – could imply that the show plans to revisit the events of Reach. This could be a prologue, as Reach was a prequel, or it could be a significant adaptation lasting a full season.

Unlike a lot of shooters, which prioritise action and gameplay over story, the Halo games always managed to strike a good mix and had single-player campaigns that were fun, engaging, and suitably long. I’ve always felt that the Halo series – at least, the first couple of games and Reach – were far better as single-player or co-op experiences than multiplayer ones – but then that could just be my general preference for single-player gaming showing through! Regardless, Halo clearly has a lot of story and material from the games that could be adapted, and I would suggest that there are several seasons’ worth of television if the show plans to follow the story of the mainline games.

Will the new series include parts of the storyline of Halo: Reach?

One thing that will be interesting is how Halo deals with the franchise’s two enemy factions – the Covenant and the Flood. Not because the factions will be difficult to adapt from game to screen from any story point of view, but because video games (or animation in general) are able to make use of far more “alien-looking” aliens. None of Halo’s aliens are humans with a forehead or nose prosthetic – like we see often in Star Trek! They’re different shapes and sizes, and practically all of them are very inhuman. Adapting grunts, brutes, hunters, and the Flood for the screen will be a challenge, particularly if the series doesn’t have a wildly-high CGI budget!

Special effects and CGI are improving all the time, and television shows today can easily be more visually impressive than even films from fifteen or twenty years ago, especially on the CGI front. But if we’re talking about animating several major characters, as well as enemy aliens that could be present in practically every episode… well that would eat up a CGI budget pretty quickly!

The Halo games have some very unusual-looking aliens (pictured: a Grunt)
Picture Credit: Halo Wiki

Though Halo never quite broke into the top tier of sci-fi franchises along with Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like, it’s still a richly detailed setting for any television show, film, or game to explore. The idea of humanity fighting a major war against a superior alien force has been done before in many different ways on screen – the Borg in Star Trek, the alien invasion in Falling Skies, and even aspects of the Marvel cinematic universe all put different spins on the same basic concept. Though Halo doesn’t do anything radically different, it will still be a chance for the franchise to put its own stamp on the “evil aliens” narrative.

Though I do have some concerns based on what I’ve heard about Halo’s rocky development and production, I’m cautiously optimistic for what the series could bring to the table. There’s a lot of lore and story to adapt, and even if the show doesn’t intend to be a direct adaptation of any of the stories seen in the Halo games, the universe that those games created is a potentially very interesting setting for the new show to play with. Hopefully, when it debuts on Paramount+ next year, we’ll be in for at the very least an interesting, engaging, and action-packed show.

A promotional screenshot for 2004’s Halo 2.

Adaptations of video games have generally been poorly-received, but the late 2010s seemed to see an explosion of video game spin-offs. There’s the Uncharted film, a television series based on The Last Of Us, a show based on the Fallout games, and even Minecraft: The Movie. Hopefully some or all of these will be better than the likes of Doom and Super Mario Bros. – though the latter film is one of those “so bad it’s actually good” titles that’s fun to watch for a laugh!

So Halo is in good company at the moment! I’m looking forward to it, and at the very least it’ll be interesting to see the various factions and settings brought out of the video game realm into wholly new territory. Whether it’ll be as enjoyable to watch Halo as it is to play the games… well that’s an open question. But I’m curious to find out.

Halo will be broadcast on Paramount+ in 2022 in the United States, Australia, and other countries and territories where the platform is available. Further international distribution has not yet been announced. The Halo franchise is the copyright of Microsoft and 343 Industries, and Halo (the series) is further the copyright of Amblin Television, Showtime, and ViacomCBS. Some screenshots used above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

EA Play joins Game Pass

EA Play is bringing a huge library of new games to Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service! Because it’s been overshadowed by Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Bethesda, and the arrival of those games to Game Pass in recent weeks, this news seems to have flown under the radar. I almost missed this altogether, and it was only when I saw it on Twitter (of all places) that I realised what a monumental win this is for Microsoft, Game Pass, and quite frankly for subscribers as well.

I initially signed up for Game Pass for PC last year in order to play Forza Horizon 4, and it was well worth it! I’ve since played a few other games on there, and it’s easily value for money at £7.99 ($9.99 in the US) per month, in my opinion. One thing is clear, though, and that’s the fact that Microsoft has continued to invest heavily in the service. The addition of Bethesda’s lineup of titles brought the likes of Fallout 4, Skyrim, and Doom Eternal to Game Pass. And now EA Play has brought games like FIFA 21, Titanfall 2, The Sims 4, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and many others to the service, too. It seems all but certain that the upcoming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will be available there as well – so maybe I’ll play it after all!

EA Play and Game Pass have struck a deal.

Game Pass has expanded rapidly, and continues to go from strength to strength. Right now, there’s no question that it’s the best way to get into current-gen gaming, and picking up a preowned Xbox One or – when availability improves – an Xbox Series S will mean that a huge library of games is available to even players on a limited budget. For less than the price of a Netflix subscription there are more games than I could play in an entire year, including some absolutely fabulous ones!

The only pang of regret I feel is because I’d bought a few of these games over on Steam! Of course if you’re worried about permanence it’s better to buy than subscribe, because it’s possible that EA Play and/or any of its games will be removed from the service in future. But just like we’ve seen happen with television and films thanks to the rise of streaming, many people are quite okay with that concept. Sure, losing access to a title is disappointing, and when Netflix removes a big name there’s often a minor backlash. But people have generally come to accept the impermanence of films and television shows on streaming platforms – so I daresay that will happen with games as well.

A few of the titles now available.

In the worst case, if a game you adore is removed from Game Pass, you can always buy it elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be the huge drawback that some folks insist it is. We increasingly live in a society of renting: we rent our homes, vehicles, and sometimes even our furnishings. We rent our films, television shows, and music via services like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Spotify. And now, Microsoft is pushing hard to convince people to rent their game libraries too.

Having built up a Steam library over the better part of a decade I’m not willing to part with it, and I still don’t see Game Pass as a full-time substitute for buying games in a general sense. But you know what? I could be in the minority on that very soon. As mentioned, Game Pass now offers a colossal library of titles, and not only Xbox-exclusive games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Sea of Thieves. The FIFA series of football (soccer) games are literally the most popular titles around the world, and now the most recent entries are on Game Pass, with this year’s entry almost certain to follow. And huge multiplayer titles like Apex Legends are as well. Heck, you can even play Anthem… though goodness only knows why you’d want to.

Very specific there, EA.

For a player on a limited budget, Game Pass is now my number one recommendation. Whether it’s on PC or console, I honestly can’t recommend anything else. There’s simply no alternative that offers such a variety of major titles for the cost, and even speaking as someone who doesn’t use it as often as I could, it’s 100% worth it. This new addition of EA titles has taken what was already an enticing offer and made it even better.

There are still some issues with the Xbox app on Windows 10, and it doesn’t always work perfectly. But the games it launches do, and whether you’re interested in a strategy title like Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition or a racer like Forza Horizon 4, there are so many games now that it’s worth a try for almost anyone interested in gaming.

The Xbox Series S with a Game Pass subscription is the most affordable route into this generation – or at least it will be when availability improves!

Microsoft took a risk with Game Pass, banking on players turning away from the model of buying and owning individual titles to rent them via a Netflix-style subscription. As the service continues to grow and expand, both in terms of its library and its playerbase, I think it’s fair to say that the risk is paying off.

So what am I going to play first? That’s a good question! I was tempted by the Mass Effect trilogy, which I otherwise only own on Xbox 360. But with Legendary Edition coming soon I think I’ll wait to see if it comes to Game Pass, which hopefully it will. Titanfall 2 is calling out to me, and despite being a big fan of fantasy I’ve never played the Dragon Age games, so maybe I’ll finally give those a shot. Or maybe I’ll go back and replay Sim City 2000 – there’s nothing like a hit of nostalgia, after all. I feel spoilt for choice!

I might sit down to play some Titanfall 2.

This move makes a lot of sense for both companies. EA’s Origin platform and EA Play have both struggled to bring in huge numbers of players since they launched, and with EA diversifying and bringing many of its titles to Steam, joining in with Game Pass feels like a no-brainer. And from Microsoft’s point of view, anything they can do to increase the appeal of Game Pass shores up the service, and that can only have the effect of bringing in new subscribers as well as convincing existing ones to stick around.

When taken alongside the recent Bethesda acquisition and the launch of the weaker but cheaper Xbox Series S, I have to say that Microsoft is off to a very strong start in this new console generation – far better than I had expected even six months ago.

Xbox Game Pass is available now for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Prices were correct at time of writing (March 2021). This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Why is everybody so surprised that future Bethesda titles will be Xbox/PC exclusive?

A few months ago I briefly touched on the Microsoft buyout of ZeniMax – parent company to Skyrim developer Bethesda. The deal, which was announced back in September last year, has finally gone through after months of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling, meaning that Microsoft now officially owns Bethesda Softworks, its subsidiaries, and all of the games they’ve developed and produced. This is a significant acquisition for Microsoft, and looks sure to shake up the games market – at least the single-player games market! It will also certainly provide a big boost for Xbox Game Pass, which has already been touting the arrival of Bethesda’s back catalogue to the service.

Almost all Bethesda titles for at least a decade have been multiplatform, with releases on Sony’s PlayStation consoles and some select releases on Nintendo hardware too, and those games aren’t going to be taken away. Microsoft has also pledged to honour existing contracts for upcoming titles, meaning that both Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo will still have timed exclusivity on PlayStation 5. After that, however, we can expect to see future titles arrive exclusively on Xbox Series S/X and PC.

Ghostwire: Tokyo will still be a timed PlayStation 5 exclusive.

Some games industry commentators seem taken aback at this notion, asking with mouths agape if Microsoft will seriously make upcoming Bethesda projects like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI Xbox/PC exclusive. To those folks I ask a simple question: really? This seems like a surprise to you?

Microsoft paid $7.5 billion for Bethesda, and for that huge investment they’re going to want a lot more than a few new titles in the Game Pass library. Exclusive games sell systems, and in 2021 exclusive games drive subscriptions too. Microsoft fell way behind in the last generation as the Xbox One was massively outsold by the PlayStation 4, and a lack of decent exclusive games was a huge factor in explaining why that was the case. Microsoft has tried to rectify the situation by acquiring Obsidian Entertainment, Compulsion Games, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, and other studios, and guess what? Those studios now make games for PC and Xbox only. Some of these investments will take time to pay off, but as the new console generation rolls into its second and third years, I think we’ll see a big push from Microsoft with some of these new exclusive games.

Expect to see future Bethesda titles be Xbox/PC exclusive.

Titles from Microsoft-owned franchises like Halo, Gears of War, State of Decay, and standalone games like Sea of Thieves aren’t going to be released on PlayStation (or Nintendo) so I’m afraid that people are getting their hopes up if they expect to see future Bethesda titles on any other platform. Microsoft wouldn’t have spent such a huge sum of money not to capitalise on their acquisition, and while in the immediate term nothing is going to change, give it a couple of years when Starfield is ready, The Elder Scrolls VI is preparing for launch, and Bethesda are working on new entries in the Fallout or Doom series and you can guarantee they will be Xbox/PC exclusive.

Sometimes I sit down to read through opinion and commentary by other games industry writers – including some pretty big names – and I’m surprised how they can get it so wrong. It seems naïve in the extreme to be banking on any future Bethesda title – including huge ones like The Elder Scrolls VI and a potential future Fallout title – to be anything other than exclusive to Microsoft’s platforms. That’s how these things work, and it’s why Microsoft was willing to get out their wallet in the first place.

I wouldn’t bet on being able to play Starfield on your PlayStation 5.

Though it may seem “unfair” to lock games to a single platform (or pair of platforms, in this case) it’s how the industry has operated since day one. Nobody got upset about Marvel’s Spider-Man being a PlayStation 4 exclusive, even though that game wasn’t made by Sony, but rather one of their subsidiaries. It was just expected – Insomniac Games make PlayStation titles, just like 343 Industries make Xbox titles. Bethesda’s acquisition means they join Team Xbox. It may not be great fun for PlayStation gamers who had been looking forward to a future Bethesda title, but that’s the reality of the industry.

Be very careful if you hear an analyst or commentator saying that they believe Bethesda titles will still come to PlayStation. Rather than getting your hopes up or setting up false expectations, it may be better to plan ahead. If Starfield or The Elder Scrolls VI are games you’re dead set on playing, consider investing in Xbox. The Xbox Series S is a relatively affordable machine at £249/$299, and if you only need it for a couple of exclusives that you can’t get elsewhere it could be a solid investment – certainly a lot cheaper than a gaming PC.

The Xbox Series S might be worth picking up.

Despite all of this, I still feel Sony has the upper hand in the exclusives department, at least for now. It will be a couple of years or more before Microsoft can fully take advantage of their new acquisition, and other titles from developers like Obsidian – who are working on a game that looks superficially similar to The Elder Scrolls series – are also several years away. Sony, on the other hand, has games out now like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the Demon’s Souls remake, as well as upcoming titles like God of War: Ragnarok and Returnal to draw players in. Microsoft is still pursuing a frankly bizarre policy of making all Xbox Series S/X games available on Xbox One for the next year or so, so for exclusive next-gen gaming in the short term, Sony is still the way to go.

I remember when Microsoft entered the home console market for the first time in 2001. A lot of commentators at the time were suggesting that Microsoft were buying their way in, that they would throw their wallet around and other companies would find it hard to compete. It never really happened, though, at least not to the extent some folks feared. The acquisition of Bethesda is a big deal, but Bethesda and all its subsidiaries have published only around 20 games in the whole of the last decade, so in terms of the wider gaming market, and considering how many games there will be on PC, Xbox Series S/X, and PlayStation 5 in the next few years, it’s a drop in the ocean.

That doesn’t mean it won’t sting for PlayStation fans who want to play Starfield or The Elder Scrolls VI, though. Better start saving up for an Xbox!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Fifteen games worthy of a second look in Spring 2021

Spoiler Warning: Though there are no major spoilers, minor spoilers may still be present for a few of the titles on this list.

Anthem is gone, Cyberpunk 2077 is still a stinking mess, and there are delays aplenty across the games industry as the pandemic rolls on. What’s a gamer to do? Well, I might have the answer for you! Tomorrow will be the first day of March, and to me March has always meant the beginning of Spring. There are small snowdrops beginning to bloom in my garden, and the nights are getting shorter. A few times this past week I’ve even managed without the heating on in my house – much to the dismay of the cats!

There are still plenty of great games that – all being well – will be released this year. If you missed it, I put together a list just after New Year of ten of the most interesting titles! But considering the delays and that this time of year is typically fairly quiet in terms of releases, I thought it would be a great moment to consider a few games that deserve a second look. I’ve limited the list to titles that are readily available to buy on current-gen platforms and PC, so no out-of-print games this time.

Without any further ado, let’s jump into the list, which is in no particular order.

Number 1: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Nintendo Switch, 2017)

Nintendo’s most recent karting game is a ton of fun. It’s the kind of arcade racer that has a very low bar for entry – anyone can pick up and play this fun title. But mastering Mario Kart 8 – especially if you choose to head online – is no small task, and there’s a surprising amount of skill involved to be truly competitive with the best players! I’ve adored the Mario Kart series since its inception on the SNES, and this version is the definitive Mario Kart experience… at least until they make Mario Kart 9!

Number 2: Fall Guys (PC and PlayStation 4, 2020, coming to Xbox and Nintendo Switch this summer)

Among Us gained a lot of attention not long after Fall Guys was released last summer and stole at least some of the cute game’s attention! The fact that Fall Guys isn’t on mobile probably counts against it as far as finding a broader audience goes, but despite what some have claimed, the game is by no means dead. Season 4 – which promises to bring a new set of futuristic rounds – is being released soon, and for less than £15 (at least on PC) I honestly can’t fault Fall Guys. It’s an adorable, wholly unique experience in which your cute little jelly bean character runs a series of obstacle courses in a video game homage to the likes of Total Wipeout. Each round lasts only a couple of minutes, and it really is way more fun than words can do justice to! I’ve recently got back into playing after taking a break, and there’s plenty of fun still to be had.

Number 3: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC and Xbox, 2002)

You can find Morrowind on PC, and despite being an older title it’s compatible with Windows 10. There has been an active modding scene for almost twenty years at this point, so even if you’ve already played the base game it may still be worth going back for more. In my subjective opinion, Morrowind is the high-water mark of the Elder Scrolls series. It certainly offers players more to do than its predecessors or sequels – more NPCs to interact with, more factions to join, more types of weapons to wield and spells to cast, and so on. Especially if you hit Morrowind with some of the visual/graphics mods that are available, it can feel almost like a new game!

Number 4: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PC, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, 2002)

Another older title that you can find on PC, as well as on iOS and Android, Vice City was one of three Grand Theft Auto titles released between 2001 and 2005. Remember when Rockstar was able to put out more than one game per decade?! If you’ve had your fill of Grand Theft Auto V by now – and it’s been out for eight years, so I wouldn’t blame you if you were ready to play something else – maybe going back to one of the older games will be a nostalgic blast. Many fans of the series consider Vice City to be the best entry, and while I don’t think I’d go quite that far, I had a ton of fun with it back on the original Xbox.

Number 5: Banished (PC, 2014)

There are some great city-builders out there, but one of my favourites from the last few years is Banished. The game was built entirely by one person, which never fails to amaze me! It would still be a fantastic title if it had been made by a full studio, but the fact that the game and all its complex systems were programmed by a single developer is an astonishing achievement. Banished isn’t easy, even on lower difficulty settings, and it will take a little time to get into the swing of how to plan your town and manage your resources. But if you’re up for a challenge it’s a wonderful way to lose track of time!

Number 6: Skully (PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One, 2020)

Skully is a game that I’ve been meaning to write a proper review of since I picked it up last year, but it keeps slipping down my writing pile. From the moment I saw the trailer and heard the game’s premise – a 3D platformer in which you play as a disembodied skull – I was in love, and the game did not disappoint! The environments are beautiful and the game is plenty of fun. It manages to feel at points like an old-school 3D platformer of the Nintendo 64 era, and at others like a wholly modern experience. It’s also an indie title, and it’s great to be able to support indie developers wherever we can!

Number 7: Jade Empire (PC and Xbox, 2005)

If the demise of Anthem has got you missing the “golden age” of BioWare’s role-playing games, make sure you didn’t skip Jade Empire. The Xbox exclusive was overlooked by players in the mid-2000s, and while other BioWare games from that decade, like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age Origins are all held in high esteem, the Chinese-inspired Jade Empire is all but forgotten. When Steam has it on sale you can pick up Jade Empire for less than the price of a coffee, and for that you’ll get what is honestly one of the best and most interesting role-playing games of all time.

Number 8: Star Trek: Starfleet Academy (PC, 1997)

Starfleet Academy is unique among Star Trek games because it features the cast of The Original Series in video clips recorded especially for the game. These aren’t scenes from films or episodes of the show; you literally will not see them anywhere else. Starfleet Academy is a starship simulator, and while its visuals obviously don’t look as good in 2021 when compared to other titles, the overall experience is fantastic. You won’t find another game quite like it – especially because ViacomCBS has all but given up on making Star Trek games since the release of Star Trek Online!

Number 9: Forza Horizon 4 (PC and Xbox One, 2018)

I signed up for Game Pass in order to be able to play racing game Forza Horizon 4 – and it was totally worth it! The Forza Horizon series attempts to find a middle ground between true racing sims and arcade-style titles, and generally manages to do so quite well. Forza Horizon 4 has a map which represents parts of Great Britain, and that’s something unusual! I didn’t see my house, but it’s always nice when a game uses a familiar setting. There are plenty of fun cars to race in, and different kinds of races too, including going off-road.

Number 10: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Multiplatform, 2013)

Is it just me, or has every subsequent game in the Assassin’s Creed series struggled to hit the highs of Black Flag? Origins and Odyssey were decent, but even in 2021, I think that Black Flag is the definitive title in the franchise! There’s something about its pirate setting and the wonderful crop of NPCs that make Black Flag a truly enjoyable experience from start to finish. For a game that’s approaching its eighth birthday it still looks fantastic, too!

Number 11: The Last Of Us (PlayStation 3, 2013)

Despite its severely disappointing sequel, The Last Of Us is fantastic. If you’re looking for a game with amazing characters and a deep, engaging story, it simply can’t be bettered. I put The Last Of Us on my list of games of the decade as the 2010s drew to a close, and for good reason. Joel and Ellie’s trek across a hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic United States was absolutely one of the gaming highlights of the last few years. The characters are so well-crafted that they feel real, and every twist and turn in the intense storyline carries emotional weight. The game is being adapted for television, and I’m interested – cautiously so in the wake of The Last Of Us Part II – to see what will happen when it makes the leap to the small screen.

Number 12: Age of Empires: Definitive Edition (PC, 2018)

Though I know Age of Empires II is the title most folks prefer, I’ve always appreciated what the original Age of Empires did for the real-time strategy genre. If you’ve been enjoying the recent remake of the second game, it could be a great time to give the original a try as well. Age of Empires didn’t invent real-time strategy, but it was one of the first such titles I played after its 1998 release – and I sunk hours and hours into it in the late ’90s! There’s something about building up an army of Bronze Age warriors to smash an opponent’s town that’s just… satisfying!

Number 13: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, 2019)

I played through Jedi: Fallen Order last summer and documented my time with the game here on the website. Suffice to say I had a blast; the linear, story-focused title is exactly what the Star Wars franchise needed after the Battlefront II debacle! Having just seen the dire Rise of Skywalker I was also longing for a Star Wars story that I could actually enjoy for a change, and Jedi: Fallen Order did not let me down! I had a great time swinging my lightsaber across a galaxy far, far away… and I think you will too.

Number 14: No Man’s Sky (PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, 2016)

No Man’s Sky was incredibly controversial at launch. The pre-release hype bubble got wildly out of control, egged on by a marketing push that oversold the game. Remind you of any recent titles? But despite the backlash in 2016, Hello Games has since put in a lot of hard graft, and five years on No Man’s Sky genuinely lives up to its potential. Had it been released in this state I think it would have been hailed as one of the best games of the decade – if not of all time. I understand not wanting to reward a game that was dishonestly sold, and that the “release now, fix later” business model is not one we should support. But there’s no denying that No Man’s Sky is a great game in 2021, and if you haven’t picked it up since its 2016 launch, it could be worth a second look.

Number 15: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 (PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, 2020)

A full remake of the definitive skateboarding game is hard to pass up! In the Dreamcast era, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater launched an entire genre of skating games, and its amazing soundtrack is a nostalgic hit of late ’90s/early ’00s punk rock. The remade version, which you can pick up on Switch and the two new consoles later this year, is great fun, and has managed to do something rare for a remake: genuinely recapture the look and feel of the original title. Obviously the visuals are brought up-to-date, but the feel of the game and the way tricks are performed are fantastic. I was able to slip right back into playing as if I’d never put the Dreamcast controller down!

So that’s it. Fifteen games that I think are worth your time this Spring.

There are plenty of fun titles on the horizon, but some of the ones I was most looking forward to – like Kena: Bridge of Spirits and Hogwarts Legacy – have recently been delayed, prompting me to look at my library and put together this list.

I hope this has inspired you to find something to play over the next few weeks! If not, stay tuned because there will be plenty more gaming-related articles here on the website. Happy gaming!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promo artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The real price of next-gen consoles

Were you lucky enough to secure a pre-order of the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5? If so, congratulations! You’re one of the few who managed that feat. Both consoles sold out as soon as pre-orders were available, meaning a lot of people hoping to pick up one of the new machines this year were left disappointed.

A lot of factors came together to make this happen, and we’ll look at them in turn. First is the confusing way in which both Sony and Microsoft made their consoles available. Pre-orders for the PlayStation 5 “accidentally” went live hours ahead of schedule, meaning a lot of people who had planned to pre-order at the promised time missed out. There is no one place where consoles may be pre-ordered either, with retailers from big outlets like Amazon and supermarkets down to smaller specialist games or electronics shops all offering to take customers’ money. As many found out later, problems with stock availability and allocation meant that a lot of pre-orders were either cancelled, rejected, or could not be fulfilled on launch day.

The newly-released PlayStation 5.

Then there are the “bots.” Automated computer programmes bought up a significant percentage of the available supply of new consoles, leaving many machines in the hands of touts and scalpers. These consoles are currently being re-sold for well over the asking price to disappointed gamers who missed out.

Finally there’s the question of how many machines were manufactured. When coronavirus hit China hard earlier this year, production of next-gen consoles was majorly disrupted. Some factories were closed for weeks, others cut back their output, and the consequence for both Sony and Microsoft was that far fewer next-gen consoles were available in time for launch than they expected. I noted this a few months ago when I asked the question: is now really the right time to launch these machines?

There was always going to be high demand for these machines, and both Sony and Microsoft knew that they’d sell out on launch day. In fact that’s usually part of the plan; selling out makes a machine look exciting and cool, and fear of missing out drives sales. No company wants to see images of huge numbers of unsold machines sitting on shelves in the period after launch.

An Xbox Series S/X control pad.

But even in that environment, the reduced manufacturing capability has had a huge impact, make no mistake. The plan had been for millions more consoles to be available; Sony told us this directly when they announced a few months ago that they would have several million fewer consoles ready to go on launch day than they initially planned. When their business model was already based around artificial scarcity, the loss of several million units has made an already difficult pre-order process practically impossible when combined with the other factors listed above.

So on to the title of this article: how much does an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 really cost if you want to get one before the end of the year? I went to a popular auction website and compiled a short selection of listings. Take a look:

A selection of auction listings for Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles in the UK on the 17th of November 2020.

As you can see, prices are approaching double the recommended retail price here in the UK, with scalpers and touts even selling pre-ordered consoles that they don’t actually have in their possession yet. Anecdotally I’ve heard from friends in the United States of PlayStation 5 consoles being sold for upwards of $1200 – well over double the asking price.

In a way, this is “pure capitalism.” This is what happens when companies don’t have enough stock for consumers; the law of supply and demand kicks in. If someone is willing to pay £900 for a PlayStation 5, then there will be a market for that. The true price of these machines right now, in November 2020, is not the recommended retail price of £450. It’s £700, £800, or £900. And with no indication of the availability of either console improving before Christmas, those prices may yet rise further.

Companies are totally fine with this. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to Microsoft or Sony whether a genuine player buys a console or a bot picks up that console for a scalper or tout to re-sell later. They still make just as much money no matter who the buyer is, so they have absolutely no incentive to find ways to stamp out this behaviour. Likewise, retailers from game stores to supermarkets to giants like Amazon don’t care – and it’s through online retailers that the vast majority of pre-orders have been taken.

The market – that amorphous entity that economists love to talk about – determines the price and value of products. If people are willing to pay £900 for a PlayStation 5 then that’s its true value. But is it worth it? Could any video game console possibly be worth £900?

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that my answer is a resounding “no.” Not only are these machines not worth such a ridiculous amount of money, they’re probably not even worth their official price right now.

This new console generation is, at best, a minor improvement over the current one in most of the ways that matter. Add to that the fact that practically every game currently available for the PlayStation 5, and every single game currently available for the Xbox Series X, are also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, most players would find it hard to tell the difference between playing on a current-gen or next-gen machine. There are iterative changes, such as faster loading times, better controller battery life, and so on. But there’s nothing significant in terms of graphics or gameplay that make either console a “must-buy” in 2020. Any such improvements won’t be seen for a year or more; perhaps by 2022 you could make the case that games are getting better thanks to these machines. But not yet.

There was a lot of hype and buildup to the launch of these new consoles, as is to be expected. And a lot of players were sucked in by the hype and decided that they needed a new Xbox or PlayStation on launch day no matter what. If they paid over the odds for their machine from a scalper or tout, I bet a lot of them regret that investment today.

With the new consoles offering small improvements at best, there’s no need to get one right now. Don’t reward the scalpers and touts with their scripts and bots who bought up as many consoles as they could. Jump off the hype train and be patient, and enjoy the exact same games on current-gen hardware. Chances are you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway.

The Xbox brand – including the Xbox Series X and Series S – is the copyright of Microsoft. The PlayStation brand – including the PlayStation 5 – is the copyright of Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

That Microsoft-Bethesda deal came out of nowhere!

I’m a couple of days late on this one, but if you didn’t know already, Microsoft surprised and upended the games industry by announcing a deal to buy ZeniMax Media. ZeniMax is the owner of Bethesda – the company behind such titles as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Fallout 76. The deal also includes id Software, developers of Doom and Doom Eternal, as well as several other associated companies, including the developers of The Evil Within, The Elder Scrolls Online, and the Wolfenstein series. Wow.

I’ve seen a lot of… interesting commentary to have come out of this acquisition, including people who seem to think this means there can be no more console-exclusive titles ever, and some overly-optimistic PlayStation fans still expecting their favourite Bethesda/ZeniMax titles to come out on that platform. A lot of the details of the deal and its fallout (pun intended) are still under wraps, but I think we can make some reasonable assumptions – and cut through some of the nonsense.

Buying ZeniMax Media gives Microsoft control over all of these game series – and many more.

First off, let’s clear something up. Microsoft wouldn’t spend $7.5 billion on this company and its subsidiaries for no reason. There are unquestionably going to be changes as a result of this deal. There are several ways it could manifest, but if we look to recent history we can pick out a couple of examples. The Outer Worlds was late into its development when Microsoft purchased developer Obsidian. With the game already scheduled for release on PlayStation, Microsoft honoured that commitment and didn’t make any changes. Likewise when they bought Mojang, Minecraft didn’t become an Xbox/PC exclusive. Those games were either already released or releasing imminently, likely with deals and agreements already signed, so Microsoft kept to those agreements.

The titles people seem most concerned about are The Elder Scrolls VI, which was announced a couple of years ago but is still several years away, and the next game in the Fallout series. No announcement has been made of a new Fallout title, but the assumption is that there may be one in pre-production. As someone who worked in the games industry for a time, I really feel that no company in Microsoft’s position spends this much money not to have exclusive titles. Unless this is part of some longer-term strategy to force Sony to bring their exclusive titles to Microsoft’s Xbox and PC platforms – which it almost certainly isn’t – we can say goodbye to the idea of any upcoming games being multiplatform. Despite Microsoft’s statements that they don’t care what platform someone plays on, they obviously do or they wouldn’t be investing so heavily in the Xbox brand and in PC gaming.

When The Elder Scrolls VI is finally ready, it may not come to PlayStation 5.

The Elder Scrolls VI is far enough in the future that I’d argue it won’t affect the purchasing decisions of 99% of gamers in 2020/21. Even hardcore Elder Scrolls fans should feel confident buying a PlayStation 5 if they want to this Christmas, because the next game in the series is years away and there will be time to get a cheaper Xbox Series S later if necessary. But thinking strategically and thinking long-term, the reality is that if players want to guarantee access to upcoming titles in any of these franchises, they’ll need to look at Xbox. That could be in the form of a console or it could mean getting a PC capable of running newer games. Either way, right now there’s no guarantee any of these titles will come to PlayStation – and if I were advising Microsoft, I’d say they’re in a rock solid position to demand compromises from Sony if Sony want to make any of those games and franchises available on their new system.

As we gear up for the launch of the two new systems, it’s hard to see that many people who had been planning to get a PlayStation will be swayed by this move – at least not in the short-term. All titles which have already been released – including the likes of Doom Eternal, Fallout 4, etc. – will still be available on Sony’s systems. On PlayStation 5 specifically, upgraded and/or re-released versions of some games are coming, and backwards compatibility with PlayStation 4 will mean all current-gen titles will run on the new system. Also the upcoming Ghostwire: Tokyo and Deathloop, which have already been announced for PlayStation 5, seem certain to keep their console releases. So anyone looking ahead to the next year or two need not be too concerned. It’s the longer-term prospects that may worry some PlayStation gamers.

Future ZeniMax/Bethesda titles may not come to PlayStation 5.

With this acquisition, Microsoft will be bringing all of Bethesda’s titles – including upcoming releases – to their Game Pass service. I wrote recently that Game Pass is already a pretty great deal, not to mention the cheapest way to get into current- and next-gen gaming. Add Bethesda’s titles into the mix and the value of the service goes up even more.

This is the real genius of the move. Exclusivity will certainly pull in some players, as those unwilling to miss out will have no choice but to buy into the Xbox ecosystem in some form. But Game Pass is Microsoft’s killer app right now; a subscription service offering players hundreds of games for a monthly fee instead of shelling out $70/£65 per title is not only in line with the way people consume other forms of entertainment (like music and television) but also feels like a good value proposition as we enter what could be a long-term spell of economic uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m a subscriber to Game Pass for PC – and it just became a much better deal!

Game Pass is already available on Xbox and PC, and has been steadily growing its subscriber base. It doesn’t have the library that a service like Steam has, but I can absolutely foresee a time in the future – the near future – where Game Pass will be the platform of choice for many players, perhaps with Steam as a backup to buy occasional titles that aren’t available elsewhere. And once someone has signed up for Game Pass, Xbox Live, and started racking up achievements and making friends, they’re hooked into the ecosystem. It isn’t impossible to switch or leave, of course, but Microsoft will make staying as appealing as possible.

As far back as 2000/01 when Microsoft decided to jump head-first into the home console market, commentators were wondering when they’d start throwing their wallet around. A company with the resources of Microsoft is in a unique position to spend, and we’ve seen them do so several times. On the whole, for players mostly interested in single-player titles I can understand why this feels huge. It is. But at the same time, the deal to buy Mojang a few years back was probably more significant!

In summary, this is good news for PC and Xbox players, and anyone who’s a Game Pass subscriber or on the fence about the service. PlayStation players shouldn’t notice any major short-term ramifications, but if you desperately want to play an upcoming game like the sequel to Doom Eternal, Starfield, or The Elder Scrolls VI, I think you’re going to need a PC or an Xbox.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. The Xbox brand is the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Is it the right time for new video game consoles?

A lot of things in the world are a mess right now, upended by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the tragic loss of life we’ve seen lockdowns, job losses, and economic chaos on a level unseen for a long time. And tech companies – including Sony and Microsoft – have suffered as a result of major disruption to supply chains and manufacturing facilities. Yet despite all that, both companies are pressing ahead with their new video game consoles, scheduled for release in November. But is that the right decision? Or might it have been better to wait a year or two?

One of the things that struck me most when looking at all the gameplay and footage released by both companies is how absolutely minuscule the so-called “upgrades” are, at least in terms of the way games will look on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Both companies use graphics as one of their major selling points, yet when you stack up a current-gen and next-gen version of the same title side by side, it’s hard to really see a difference.

Perhaps some consumers who have an incredibly fancy (and incredibly expensive) television – or superhuman eyesight – will notice a big change. But I didn’t, and from what I can tell by reading and listening to the reaction from players, a lot of other folks can’t either. There is more to a good game than graphics, but when it’s a key selling point I think it’s not unfair to say that players expect something more than either new console is able to offer.

The trouble is that even on the oldest version of current-gen systems – those consoles released in 2013 – games look pretty good. Players have been enjoying the visual style of titles like The Witcher 3 for years, and even some launch titles from 2013, like Ryse: Son of Rome, look fantastic. Any upgrade was always going to be minor, and things like slightly more realistic controller rumble or faster loading times are difficult things to market to the average player. The result? It’s hard to escape the feeling that the two new consoles already feel like a minor upgrade at best… and a waste of time and money at worst.

That’s before we account for the fact that disruption across all areas of the industry has massively complicated matters.

The Xbox Series X is going to be released without its key launch titleHalo Infinite. This game should have been one of the console’s selling points – despite its simultaneous launch on Xbox One. Without it, the Xbox Series X will be released with some cross-platform games and not a lot else.

However, things are even worse for Sony. The company recently announced that they were producing several million fewer PlayStation 5 consoles than expected. As a result there has been pre-order chaos. Initial plans to hold a “lottery” to determine who could pre-order a machine didn’t pan out, and the console sold out within minutes of being made available. Reportedly, some shops have either cancelled pre-orders outright, or informed irate gamers that they may not receive their console on launch day despite thinking they’d secured a pre-order.

We’ve seen consoles launch without sufficient stock numerous times. Here in the UK, getting a Nintendo Wii was nigh-on impossible in 2006 and throughout most of 2007, such was the lack of stock. Even with that in mind, though, this feels worse. Reducing the number of units available worldwide is clearly indicative of a company struggling with production, yet rather than delay or take steps to rectify the situation, Sony has been quite happy to make the PlayStation 5 impossible to get hold of – something which will only be to the benefit of shady resellers who’ll happily sell the console for double its asking price in the run-up to Christmas.

All of this comes at a time when many people are in financial difficulty or face an uncertain financial future. As the pandemic drags on and the idea of “getting back to normal” seems further away than ever, companies are closing left and right, and as temporary schemes like the furloughing of employees come to an end, many people will be out of work. A £450/$500 outlay in that environment is an impossible ask, and feels decidedly anti-consumer. This is made worse by price rises of games themselves, many of which look set to retail for £65/$70 when the new generation arrives.

As we approach what could be a bleak and lonely Christmas for many people, players and parents are looking at these companies and asking themselves how they could possibly have the audacity and lack of awareness to go ahead with something like this. The minor upgrade that most people perceive is incredibly overpriced at £450, and even the Xbox Series S with its lower price will still be out of reach of many in 2020.

I look at these consoles, and the footage the companies selling them have released, and I’m asking myself who would be interested? At least Microsoft can say that their policy of releasing games on Xbox One for the next couple of years – bizarre though that is in many ways – means that players can stick with their current systems and don’t need to shell out a ton of money for this minor upgrade. But Sony still plans on having exclusive games, and are in effect gating off those titles behind a very expensive paywall, one which will prove insurmountable for many players in 2020.

“Big companies do something anti-consumer” is not a surprising headline, either in the games industry or beyond. And as someone who worked for a large games company in the past, I understand that there are many factors at play, including research, development, and manufacturing contracts that were almost certainly too far along to be undone at the time the pandemic hit. Even so, I’m struggling to see how releasing these machines now is a good idea. A one year delay would allow both companies to resolve manufacturing issues, produce far more stock, and allow more development time for launch titles in order to overcome pandemic-created problems. We might even see marginally better graphics as a result. And a delay of a single year wouldn’t mean the internal components of either machine would feel out of date – they would still be cutting-edge devices even if they weren’t launched until November 2021.

Regardless of what some of us may think, the console launches are going ahead. Manufacturing is well underway, and with mere weeks to go until launch day it would be very difficult – if not outright impossible – to slam the brakes on at this late stage. Despite my misgivings both machines will still sell, and will be picked up by enthusiasts with enough disposable income. The beginning of a new console generation always leaves behind those who can’t afford to make the switch; this time around there’s just more people in that position. Hopefully things really will get back to normal soon so everyone can enjoy the next generation of consoles… and the minor changes they have to offer.

The Xbox brand – including the Xbox Series X – is the copyright of Microsoft. The PlayStation brand – including the PlayStation 5 – is the copyright of Sony. Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will be released in November 2020. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Xbox Series S is an exciting prospect for players on a budget

I haven’t exactly been the biggest supporter of Microsoft’s strategy as we approach the new console generation. In particular, the company’s decision to make all Xbox Series X titles also available on Xbox One for the first couple of years of the new console’s life seems like a weight around its neck, and makes it a much harder sell at what was already a difficult time. But the leak/announcement of the Xbox Series S – along with its reasonable price at £250 – has definitely shifted my opinion.

The launch of a new generation of consoles is a fun and exciting time for enthusiasts with a suitably high budget, but for a lot of people it can be a moment where they feel left out and left behind. Technology moves on and new games are released, but only for those who can afford it. For players who’ve had to save up just to get a current-gen machine, it can be disappointing to see the newest and best titles be beyond their reach. It’s a position I’ve been in several times, and I know it’s not a nice feeling.

The Xbox Series S.

The Xbox Series S is a unique piece of kit. Though there have been cheaper variants of consoles – there’s even an Xbox One S available now – none were released simultaneously with the brand’s flagship machines, meaning that the beginning of a new console generation has always offered players a binary choice: pay up or don’t participate. The Xbox Series S offers players that budget option right from the start, and for many people who have been in the position of thinking next-gen will be unaffordable at launch, it’s undoubtedly a welcome surprise.

The Xbox Series S is not as powerful a machine as the Xbox Series X, and for some players perhaps the perceived downgrade will be a disappointment. But the Series S is still more powerful than the current crop of consoles, and for the market it’s aimed at, I think few will care about 1440p compared to 4K, a smaller, possibly slightly slower NVMe solid-state drive, and other minor differences. The processor at the system’s core is the same one used in the Series X, and while its graphics chip is a less-powerful version, it’s built on the same architecture as its sister console’s.

The console promises to be smaller than the Series X.

In short, the Xbox Series S is like getting a mid-tier gaming PC instead of a high-end one. And the PC comparison is apt, because compared to many PC gaming setups, the Series S blows them away. It would be impossible to build anything even vaguely comparable to the Series S for £250 or less, so it feels like a decent machine.

I recently took a look at Game Pass for PC, and the subscription service is also available on Xbox – where it offers over 100 games. The combination of the £8-a-month subscription with the cheap console is an incredibly enticing proposition for budget gamers, and one which is honestly hard to beat. It will likely be hard to beat for several years at least!

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is on Game Pass.

For less than the price of a standard Netflix subscription, players will have access to a huge library of titles, including every Xbox exclusive and every new game from a Microsoft-owned studio. Titles already on the service include: Dead Cells, Forza Horizon 4, all five games in the Gears of War series, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Kingdom Hearts 3, Minecraft, No Man’s Sky, the two Ori games, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, State of Decay 2, Streets of Rage 4, The Outer Worlds, and Wasteland 3. Those are just some of the highlights, and it’s not unfair to say that Game Pass offers phenomenal value to console players. Combined with the low asking price of the Series S, I think it’s a steal.

There are still some concerns. The fact that Microsoft still plan on releasing games for Xbox One for the next couple of years or so means that realistically, buying an Xbox One S or even a preowned Xbox One is still a cheaper prospect. And I have to confess a degree of concern at the possibility of the Series S’s lower specs potentially holding back next-gen titles within the next five years or so. In short, if Xbox games have to be built with Series S compatibility in mind, will that slow the pace of game development considering that the Series S is comparable to a PC you could buy today?

The Xbox Series S won’t take discs.

The first of those points – that the Xbox One is still the cheaper option – may sway some budget gamers. In that sense, as I wrote once before, the biggest competition that the Xbox Series S/X will have won’t come from PlayStation – it’ll come from the Xbox One. But despite that, I think that players who don’t just want a console for the next couple of years could future-proof their gaming setups with a Series S. The low price still makes it a solid option, even if it’s possible to pick up an Xbox One for less money. The price difference between an Xbox One – even preowned – and the Series S won’t be that large, and when the Series S will be able to play new games for the next six-eight years instead of one or two, it ends up being better value in the long run.

If you couldn’t tell, I like this console. I like it far more than the Xbox Series X or the PlayStation 5! It fills a niche that no major company has tried to fill before, and offers players on a budget a way into next-gen gaming right from day one. There are a lot of people who fall into that category, and for some of them who may have felt next-gen was simply out of reach, they may now feel that they will be able to join in. Expanding the gaming hobby to more people is a great thing, and helping people who would have otherwise missed out or had to wait get a foot in the door is fantastic. I applaud this decision from Microsoft.

The Xbox Series S will be available in November. The Xbox brand is the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Game Pass for PC – first impressions

Xbox Game Pass for PC has been out for a little while now, and after weighing up the options I decided to finally take the plunge and sign up. In this article I’ll cover my reasoning behind becoming a subscriber as well as my initial impressions of the service and its Windows 10 app. This won’t be a fully in-depth review, it’s really just my first impressions of the service.

First up, I’ll explain why I became a subscriber – and why you might want to as well. In short: I wanted to play Forza Horizon 4 and Game Pass was the cheapest option. I no longer own an Xbox One – I gave mine away years ago – so the only way to get that game is on PC, which is my primary gaming platform these days. But the “standard” edition is £50, and with the game not available on Steam (where sales happen more often) I hadn’t felt committed enough to trying it out to spend that much money. It’s rare that I’ll pay full-price for a game these days, and as someone on a limited budget £50 is just too much.

I subscribed to Game Pass as an inexpensive way to play Forza Horizon 4.

Enter Game Pass. At time of writing, the PC version of Game Pass is still in its “beta” phase, and costs £4 per month with the first month for just £1. That seems like a pretty good deal – even if the price is set to double when the service fully launches at some point in the future. At £4 per month I could play Forza Horizon 4 for a full year, cancel the service, and still have a few pounds left over compared to buying the game outright – and also have access to dozens of other titles to play in that time. It seems like a solid deal, and that’s why I signed up.

In recent months I’ve been critical of Xbox, mostly because of some of their odd decisions in the run-up to the launch of the Xbox Series X. But I have to admit that for Xbox gamers, Game Pass is a great deal. It’s by far the cheapest way to jump head-first into current-gen gaming, and when the Xbox Series X releases in a couple of months, it’ll be the most economical way to get into next-gen gaming too. Even if the Xbox Series X is priced similarly to the PlayStation 5, Game Pass provides an incentive for players to at least consider Microsoft’s platform simply because of the number of titles on offer. We’re primarily looking at Game Pass for PC today, but the console version currently offers more titles than the PC version and is thus an even better deal.

Microsoft currently plans to launch all of their major first-party games onto the service, and besides Forza Horizon 4 you’ll find such titles as Ori and the Will of the Wisps, The Outer Worlds, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and even the brand-new Microsoft Flight Simulator. Upcoming titles I’m looking forward to include Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, and I’m sure that there will be others. Although Xbox’s lineup of exclusives hasn’t been stellar this generation, Microsoft have made moves in that direction in recent years, snapping up studios like Obsidian and Ninja Theory who will now create titles exclusively for their platforms. Obsidian announced a new title a few months ago called Avowed, which looks to be their take on the fantasy/roleplaying genre and seems to have great potential. Avowed is just one title I’m following with interest from Microsoft, and guess what? When it’s released it’ll come to Game Pass.

Avowed, the upcoming title from Microsoft-owned Obsidian, is one game I’m anticipating.

So those are the key points in favour of Game Pass as I see it. It feels like a cost-effective way to play some of the newest titles, and even if there’s only one or two games on the list that you’re interested in, Game Pass can still be the cheaper option compared to buying them outright.

Now let’s look at the Windows 10 app.

This has been the least enjoyable part of the Game Pass experience so far. The app is very much a “beta” app, with a weird glitch that signs me out often and a small window that seems to constantly try to pop up only to immediately vanish. This happens every few minutes, and if I have the Xbox app minimised it flashes orange on the taskbar. It’s a minor annoyance, and one I’m sure will be fixed in future, but if you like perfect, seamlessly smooth experiences, the Xbox app for Windows 10 isn’t quite there yet!

However, signing in is a simple procedure – which is good considering how often it signs me out – and most importantly, downloads are at least as fast as those offered by other PC game launchers. The area where I live doesn’t have great internet; I don’t have fibre broadband or 5G or anything like that, so my downloads are never especially fast. But those from Game Pass are as fast as I get elsewhere, so from my perspective that’s about as much as I could have expected!

Game Pass for PC titles download at least as fast as those on Steam and other platforms.

One other issue that I have is that the same notification keeps popping up every time I sign in. It tells me something like: “your Xbox Live Account is not the same as your Microsoft account!” even though they are both the same account, linked together. Not sure if this is an issue which just affects me or if it’s something everyone has to put up with at the moment!

This is an incredibly minor point, but in the past Xbox allowed players to upload custom pictures to represent themselves and their gamertag – as other platforms like Steam do. But the current version of the Xbox app for PC only allows you to choose from a set list of pictures. As someone who has no friends (on Xbox Live, not in real life!) it doesn’t matter all that much to me, but it’s worth pointing it out.

One thing I did like about the app is that is has a “Surprise Me” button – when clicked this recommends a random game from the Game Pass collection. It’s a bit of fun, and for someone unsure what to play next could even be useful! I don’t see myself using it all that often, but it’s a neat little inclusion.

This is a neat feature – albeit one I doubt I’ll use often!

I’m sure that Microsoft is working on the app behind the scenes to fix its issues and get it ready for prime-time. In a way, it makes sense for them to focus on the console market at the moment, with the launch of the Xbox Series X being imminent. Minor gripes with the PC version can wait while they focus on having as good a console launch as possible under the circumstances.

With enough time and attention, though, Game Pass for PC has the potential to go from strength to strength. At this stage I don’t see it as a Steam competitor – there simply isn’t a big enough library to say that. But it is something that PC gamers could use to augment their Steam libraries, as well as a way to save money on some impressive new titles.

The caveat with any service like this is that you don’t own any of the games, and they can in theory be removed from Game Pass at any time. Game Pass itself could also cease to exist at some point in the future, making replaying games more difficult. In that sense it’s less permanent even than a Steam library, which while wholly digital does at least have a degree of permanence in that you “own” the games you bought. As someone who grew up when renting games – and even consoles – was a big deal, however, that doesn’t bother me all that much.

Game Pass aims to position itself as “the Netflix of games”, and just like Netflix adds and removes content, so too will Game Pass. Most Netflix subscribers are happy with the deal – the subscription provides a huge amount of things to watch, and not owning them doesn’t feel like a particularly big drawback. The same applies to Game Pass – it’s a different, but not altogether unfamiliar – way of gaming.

If you’re someone with an unlimited budget for gaming and a full Steam library, perhaps you don’t need Game Pass. But for budget-conscious gamers looking to get value for money, it really feels like a decent offering. At its supposed full price of £8/$10 a month you’ll be paying £96/$120 per year, which is the cost of around two full-price games. But when you consider you get far more than two games included in Game Pass, from my perspective as someone on a low income that definitely seems like a good deal – provided there are two or more games currently included with the service that you actually want to play! For me it was Forza Horizon 4, but I’ll also surely check out The Outer Worlds and several others, and when my first month only cost £1 and I can now play Forza Horizon 4 immediately, it feels like I saved a packet compared to buying the game outright.

Game Pass isn’t going to totally revolutionise the way we play games – at least, not on current form. But for gamers on a budget it offers an inexpensive way into the hobby, as well as a way to complement an existing library of games for everyone else. Despite the issues with the Windows 10 app, I recommend taking a look.

This post was not sponsored; I purchased a Game Pass for PC subscription for myself and these are my genuine opinions based on my experience. The Xbox and Game Pass brands, as well as others mentioned above, are the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

How long can Sony and Microsoft get away with hiding their prices?

For me, the beginning of September has always marked the start of the slow march to the holiday season. It’s the end of the summer holidays, kids return to school, the weather slowly cools, leaves begin to fall, and sunset gets earlier – all signalling that autumn has begun. It’s around this time of year when thoughts turn to the holidays, and to budgeting for big expenses at that time of year. With that in mind, now that we’re into September, it’s a surprise to me that we don’t know how much the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are going to cost.

It’s pretty obvious that both companies are playing a high-stakes game of “chicken” – neither wants to announce first so they’re both holding fast, waiting for the other to make the first move. Looking back at past console launches, the cheaper system has been by far the best-seller. The Xbox 360 undercut the PlayStation 3 and enjoyed great success in that console generation, and the PlayStation 4 came in $100 cheaper than the Xbox One, and while in that case price arguably wasn’t the only factor in the Xbox One’s troubled launch, the fact that the cheaper console sold significantly better is clearly impacting Microsoft and Sony’s decision-making at this critical time.

The upcoming Xbox Series X. Price? Unknown.

But in past cycles, prices were announced much earlier. By the middle of June 2013 we knew the prices for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – more than five months ahead of their launches. Microsoft promise the Xbox Series X is coming in November, and it’s assumed that the PlayStation 5 will follow suit. But November is literally in just a couple of months now, and there’s still no price information.

If it were good news, I think it’s fair to assume we’d know by now. If either company were planning to launch a system for less than say £350, they’d have made that abundantly clear and would be using it as a selling point. The fact that they’re keeping their pricing plans secret is in part because of how they’re in competition with each other, but it’s also at least in part because it’s bad news – both consoles are going to launch with a hefty price tag, which is not a good look in 2020 with the economy flailing.

Microsoft has perhaps the most riding on pricing. As I’ve said before, undercutting the PlayStation 5 is perhaps their last good strategy for the already-beleaguered Xbox Series X, which has seen incomprehensibly bad business decisions already hamper its launch. If the Xbox Series X could find a way to be a hundred dollars (or more) cheaper than the PlayStation 5, suddenly it seems a better proposition and Microsoft is back in the game.

The soon-to-be-released PlayStation 5. How much will it cost? Nobody outside Sony knows.

Sony seems better-placed than Microsoft right now, with a good lineup of exclusive games that are being built from the ground up for the PlayStation 5 instead of being limited by current-gen hardware. But an excessively high price could see them repeat the problems faced by the PlayStation 3 two generations ago, and even if they don’t end up charging $600-650 as some have suggested, if Xbox is able to undercut them they could still suffer. So while Microsoft has arguably the most to gain from a positive reaction to pricing, Sony certainly has the most to lose from a negative reaction.

At this late stage, though, both companies are going to suffer criticism and negative feedback for as long as they keep their prices covered up. With two months to go until launch, players and parents need to know how much to budget; keeping this information private is incredibly anti-consumer. Both Sony and Microsoft know their prices by now, having worked out how best to break even and turn a profit. They’re staying quiet on purpose, and people are starting to talk about that.

These are undoubtedly going to be pricey machines.

Sooner rather than later, both sides are going to have to rip off the metaphorical bandage. If the prices are high, reaction will be negative, especially from players whose jobs are under threat in a seriously disrupted economy. But going into the launch with that negativity around their necks will be harmful to Sony and Microsoft, and the more time they have after making price announcements means more time for their marketing and PR departments to spin it in a positive way – or at least blunt the edge. In short, if it’s bad news, giving players more time to get used to it rather than going into the launch window with potential buyers still reeling from the shock announcement will be beneficial.

A delay helps no one, and in the end will backfire on both companies and hurt them as they go into their most important sales window in seven years. In the absence of news, people will make their own assumptions – and the assumption right now is that if they had something good to say on pricing, they’d have said it ages ago and built their marketing around it! The conclusion gamers are drawing is that both consoles are going to be expensive – perhaps the most expensive machines ever, even topping the $600 mark. That’s putting people off right now, as in the current economic climate it’s increasingly hard for many people to justify such a large expense on a “luxury item” like a games console.

We need to see both companies make immediate announcements on price and stop messing around. The corporate game of “chicken” has gone on too long, and its anti-consumer nature is already causing both companies and their brands harm. They can’t keep this up any longer – players have a right to know how much they’re going to be expected to fork over for the new consoles.

At this stage I don’t know when we could expect an announcement. It may be imminent from one or both companies… or it may not be something we’ll get for weeks or even until next month. That would be a mistake for the reasons I’ve already given, and at a time like this, consumers need clarity. Both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are going to be expensive pieces of kit. We get it. But please just tell us how expensive so we can either start saving up or get the disappointment out of the way.

Both companies have been looking at this situation selfishly. Microsoft sees a pathway to a better-than-expected launch, and Sony fears losing the dominance they’ve enjoyed for years. But both companies’ selfishness has crossed a line into being something decidedly anti-consumer, and it needs to stop. At this point, I’d even wager that the company willing to make an announcement will get at least some positive reaction simply by demonstrating they’re not covering up their price. Either of them could even stage an event based around how their competitor is keeping their price a secret – something that could give them at least a temporary boost.

Either way, this has gone on too long. It’s past time that players around the world got to learn how much they’ll have to play for next-gen gaming in a couple of months’ time. We shouldn’t be in this position of having to ask and ask and ask – this information should have been available ages ago. From this point on, every day that Microsoft and Sony continue this cover-up is going to hurt them – and hopefully when they see that, they’ll finally come clean.

The Xbox Series X is the property of Microsoft, and the PlayStation 5 is the property of Sony. Both consoles are due for launch before the end of 2020. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

A low price might be Xbox’s last hope

A couple of days ago, Microsoft showed off another collection of games coming to the Xbox Series X. The console will launch later this year – barring any last-minute delays – and will be facing very stiff competition from Sony’s PlayStation 5. In fact, Xbox seems like it’s repeating some of the same crucial mistakes which left it lagging far behind PlayStation’s sales numbers this generation – and the only way to salvage that, at least in the short term, may be to massively undercut Sony’s new console and sell the Xbox Series X at a very low price.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom from Microsoft’s second attempt at showing off gameplay – I like the look of Avowed, the upcoming game from Obsidian, for example – but generally the reaction to what they showed was muted and underwhelmed. The most stinging criticism was reserved for Halo Infinite, particularly in the graphics department. As I’ve said on a number of occasions, games already look pretty good on current-gen consoles in 2020. And if “better graphics” is basically all a new console has to offer, then those graphics need to be outstanding in order to win people over. Microsoft has shot itself in the foot in that regard by making every Xbox Series X title – including Halo Infinite – also available on Xbox One, at least for the first year or so of the new console’s life. What this means in practice is that any new title is constrained by the system requirements of the original Xbox One – hardware which is now seven years out of date.

Halo Infinite has been criticised for the way it looks.

Many commentators have said that Halo Infinite looks like a current-gen title. But it is a current-gen title – it’s literally going to be released on the Xbox One, which is a current-gen machine. Everything in Halo Infinite from the ground up has had to be built with that limitation in mind. Even being “enhanced” for the Xbox Series X, Halo Infinite could only go so far. And as I said, when graphics already look decent on current-gen consoles, it’s already a difficult task to show off how much better a game could look on a newer device. That’s without deliberately limiting that game by making it compatible with machines that are now seven years old.

The Halo series has been Xbox’s “killer app” since the first days of the original machine in 2001, but its star quality has been in decline since Bungie left the series a decade ago. The generally average-looking graphics that the newest entry in the series offers, combined with its simultaneous release not only on Xbox One but also on PC, will leave many gamers scratching their heads. Why exactly should I buy an Xbox Series X this winter?

The Xbox Series X.

I literally cannot see a reason. Games are what sell consoles – good, pretty, exclusive games. Many of the titles that will be available will be good; Avowed, as mentioned, looks like it has great potential, and I’m also looking forward to Grounded. While some of these games will be designed to take advantage of the Series X’s features to look shinier and prettier, line them up side-by-side with the Xbox One versions – which will look good, as games on that system already do – and if folks struggle to tell the difference, how does Microsoft intend to convince them to spend several hundred pounds (or dollars) on a new system? When none of the games are exclusive and can be played on the older system, if I’m a gamer who already has an Xbox One, what’s the point in upgrading?

In that sense, Microsoft is now having to compete not only with Sony, but the Xbox Series X is competing against the Xbox One – and there’s a clear winner in that regard. Exclusive games can shift millions of systems – I’ve known many people over the years who’ve picked up a console because one game in particular enticed them, and I’ve even been in that position myself. Launching a console with zero exclusive games, and with all of its games also available on the previous generation console seems absolutely bonkers – and I have no doubt Microsoft will see a lacklustre launch for its new system.

The current-gen Xbox One may prove to be the Xbox Series X’s main competitor.

The only possible saving grace at this stage is to massively undercut the PlayStation 5 – if the Xbox Series X can be £100-150 cheaper, suddenly it seems a little more enticing. £100 could score two new launch titles, or almost a year of GamePass, the subscription service which is one of Xbox’s few genuinely appealing offerings. Price can play a role in console launches, and it’s no coincidence that the consoles which had the strongest launches in the last two console generations – the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 4 – were both the less expensive option compared with their competitors.

I primarily play on PC. In fact one of my projects over the next few months is to make some upgrades to my gaming setup so I can enjoy things like ray-tracing and perhaps even higher frame rates. So I wasn’t going to be a day-one console buyer this generation regardless of how the new lineup looks. But if I were, I can’t see any reason to buy an Xbox Series X at launch. The only thing that might be able to sway me is price, because if I could make such a significant saving that I could get a year’s subscription to GamePass, and thus access a large library of titles from day one, that’s not a bad offering.

Another scene from the Halo Infinite trailer.

Maybe Xbox will surprise me, and it will turn out that this policy of having no exclusive titles will be a masterstroke, bringing more people into the Xbox brand. I’m just having a hard time seeing how it’s supposed to appeal to a gamer looking for a new console – and as someone who owned all three Xbox consoles in the past I want to see them do well. In fact it’s arguably a necessity – if Xbox fails, there’ll be far less competition in the home console market. Monopolies rarely end well for consumers, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to see at least two companies making a go of it.

At the end of the day, I’m simply not convinced that Xbox has the best approach. PlayStation’s offering for the imminent console generation just seems far more appealing, and unless Xbox can find a way to offer their new machine at a much lower price, I’d expect a clear majority of people who plan to get a next-generation console this year will opt for a PlayStation 5. I know I would. And I’ve always been an Xbox guy.

The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are scheduled to launch in time for Christmas 2020. All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their parent companies, studios, developers, publishers, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.