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.

New consoles one year later – was it worth it?

It’s been a whole year since the launch of the Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5. The consoles debuted a week apart in early November 2020, and I thought I’d mark the occasion by taking a look back on what has to be considered a pretty rough year for both machines.

At time of writing, both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are out of stock in the UK – and this has been the case for twelve months. Occasional deliveries of consoles to retailers are either sent out to folks who pre-ordered or are snapped up within minutes of going on sale – often by bots. Availability of the less-powerful Xbox Series S has been spotty, but generally better than its more powerful cousin, which is good news for gamers on a budget. However, availability overall has been poor.

Promotional image of the Xbox Series X.

These aren’t the first machines to launch without the supplies to meet worldwide demand, and it’s likely that they won’t be the last. But as I argued last year, this particular console launch feels far worse and more egregious than practically any other. It’s certainly true that other consoles in the past had supply issues. Getting a Nintendo Wii in the UK in 2006 and into 2007 was difficult, for example. But this feels far worse than that, and when compared to the launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2013 it’s pretty damn bad.

As we keep hearing on the news, issues with “supply chains” abound across the world, and this was true a year ago as Microsoft and Sony prepared to launch their new consoles. Many components involved in the manufacture of the machines – from silicon to microprocessors – were feeling the pinch due to a number of factors. The pandemic had hit manufacturers in China and Taiwan hard earlier in 2020, but there were also additional pressures from a growing cryptocurrency mining craze that ate up vast numbers of graphics cards and other components. As a result of all of these factors and more, both the Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5 launched with far less availability than necessary.

Two PlayStation 5 editions – with and without a disc drive.

Ever since the transition from 2D to 3D, it’s taken game developers a while to truly get to grips with new hardware and release games that can fully take advantage of the computing power on offer. As a result, for at least a couple of years following the launch of a new console many games are in transition – looking slightly better, perhaps, than the prior generation, but still nowhere near as good as they could. With the diminishing returns on offer considering that Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles could already look decent, many games released for the two new systems over the past year haven’t really felt new or innovative.

This generation, like the one before it really, will almost certainly go down as an iterative step rather than a transformational one. When consoles from the previous generation could knock out visually-stunning titles like Red Dead Redemption II, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Ghost of Tsushima, it really feels like there’s limited room for improvement! Put the average player in a room with the best-looking games of the last generation and some of the first titles from this generation and they’d struggle to tell the difference.

Last generation’s Red Dead Redemption II is a stunningly beautiful game with an expansive open world.

There’s a case to be made that Microsoft and Sony should’ve waited. Rather than letting down their audiences by having totally inadequate supplies, if they’d delayed their releases by a year and used that time to build up stock in anticipation of a bigger launch in 2021, we could be talking about the new consoles releasing this month. It’s still possible that they’d both sell out just like last year – but it’s also possible that the extra manufacturing time, without the pressure of fulfilling pre-orders from increasingly irate customers over the past twelve months, would have led to a better launch window for both consoles.

So I guess that’s where I come down on the issue. The consoles were launched callously by both companies without adequate levels of stock to meet the demand that they knew existed. The predictable outcome has been that scalpers and touts have been re-selling consoles all year long for close to double the recommended retail price, lining their own pockets in the process. It seems as though Sony and Microsoft don’t care about this in the slightest, and they’ve been content to leave the problem of bots and reselling to retailers. Some retailers have tried to put in place mechanisms to prevent bots from buying up every available machine, but as we’ve seen all year long these reactions have been more miss than hit.

A handful of Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles being offered for sale via a popular auction website. Prices are easily approaching twice the recommended retail price for both machines.

In terms of games, both Microsoft and Sony – as well as practically all third-party developers – have pursued a year-long policy of making titles available on last-gen consoles as well as the two new machines. Only a handful of titles have been true exclusives, with PlayStation games like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Returnal carrying their flag. Microsoft fans have to be content with basically no exclusives right now, with games like Forza Horizon 5 and the upcoming Halo Infinite also launching on PC and Xbox One.

Might there be some buyers’ remorse among PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X players? I would think so – especially if they paid over the odds for their console to an eBay scalper. Neither machine feels like particularly good value even at their recommended retail price, let alone at the prices folks have actually had to pay to get their hands on them! The handful of exclusive games are backed up by “enhanced” versions of last-gen titles, but in many cases I’ve genuinely struggled to tell the difference between different consoles’ versions of the same title. The improvements on offer over the past year have come in terms of things like frame rate – jumping to 60fps from 30fps for certain titles – and then in comparatively minor areas like controller battery life. These things are hard sells.

The PlayStation 5 DualSense controller.

There have been some changes over the past year, though. Microsoft’s aggressive pursuit of the Game Pass model represents great value for players on a budget, opening up an entire library of titles for a relatively low monthly fee. Sony still hasn’t caught up and doesn’t have a functional Game Pass competitor yet. Both companies have also made big moves into supporting PC gaming – with games that were once PlayStation exclusives making their way to a new platform. In lieu of having enough PlayStation 5 consoles to sell, perhaps that’s something of a consolation prize for Sony!

Overall, I can’t even be generous enough to call the past year a “mixed bag.” There are far more negatives than positives as I see it, and unless both companies can get to grips with the supply and demand issue, this Christmas will be the second in a row where folks are either going to have to pay silly money for a new console or go without. That isn’t a good look, and the longer these problems drag on the worse it will get for the reputations of both Sony and Microsoft.

Last year I felt that it was wrong to launch the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X given the low levels of stock and the myriad other issues that a pandemic-riddled world was facing. The past twelve months have done nothing to change my mind or convince me I was wrong about that. Inadequate manufacturing capacity has kept both consoles out of too many players’ hands, and those who did succeed at getting a pre-order – or more likely who paid close to double the price to a scalper – have found a perishingly small number of exclusive games on a machine that doesn’t feel like much of an improvement over the last generation. The Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5 have potential – but over the past twelve months, neither have come close to reaching it.

Xbox and all other related properties mentioned above is the copyright of Microsoft. PlayStation and all other related properties mentioned above is the copyright of Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only is not intended to cause any offence.

Forza Motorsport 7 – the first big mistake for Game Pass?

The Forza Motorsport series – and its Forza Horizon companion – is Microsoft and Xbox’s answer to PlayStation’s long-running Gran Turismo, and also competes well against other racing sims like Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, and many more. The games are Xbox and PC exclusives, which makes perfect sense because their developers, Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios, are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Microsoft, and the games are published under the Xbox Game Studios brand. So why, then, is Forza Motorsport 7 about to be removed from Xbox Game Pass and pulled from sale altogether?

Forza Motorsport 7 is less than four years old, having been released in October 2017. Yet for some reason the game will soon be unavailable to purchase or to play via Game Pass, effectively killing the game and reducing it to a single-player experience for those who purchased it ahead of its imminent withdrawal date. I only spotted this a couple of days ago on the Xbox Game Pass for PC app, but I felt compelled to comment.

How has Microsoft managed to lose Forza Motorsport 7 (far right) from Game Pass?

To say that all of this struck me as odd would be an understatement. Xbox Game Pass does periodically lose games, and to be fair to Microsoft and Xbox these are always announced ahead of time as has been the case with Forza Motorsport 7. But the games that tend to disappear from the service have thus far been third-party titles, and usually unimportant, smaller, older, or indie games rather than major titles. This is the first time I’ve seen a major Microsoft-published title by a Microsoft-owned studio disappear, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to figure out why this has happened.

The reason, according to Turn 10 Studios, has to do with licensing. Specifically the licenses they hold for certain vehicles and racetracks are set to expire, and when they do the game will no longer be able to be sold. Rather than pay more money to update or extend their license agreements, evidently the decision has been taken to shut down the game, remove it from Game Pass, and pull it from sale altogether.

Forza Motorsport 7 features a number of different real-world cars and racetracks – the licenses for which are apparently due to expire.

This technical, legalistic reason makes perfect sense – but it shows how ill-prepared Turn 10 Studios and Xbox Game Studios have been. This should never have happened; they should never have been caught out with such short-term licenses in the first place. There have been other occasions where games have had licensing issues – the remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, for example. But in every other case that I can recall, the licenses involved were musical tracks and songs featured on the game’s soundtrack, not something as integral to the game as the vehicles and racetracks themselves.

Many other racing games remain available despite being far older than Forza Motorsport 7. The aforementioned Project CARS (2015) and Assetto Corsa (2014), along with titles like F1 2014 (2014), Dirt Rally (2015), NASCAR Heat Evolution (2015), and even titles like Euro Truck Simulator 2 (2012) all use real-world vehicles and racetracks, and are still on sale at time of writing despite being older than Forza Motorsport 7. Is Microsoft skimping out on paying for longer licenses for cars and racetracks compared with other companies? That seems to be the obvious conclusion.

Older racing titles, like F1 2014, are still on sale.

In some ways, this is a reflection of gaming as a whole moving away from the “buy it and own it” model to a subscription-based model. Just like Netflix periodically loses films or television series from its service, so too will Game Pass. That’s kind of priced into the scheme when we sign up; we know that any title could be removed at any time pending license agreements on the service’s side, and that’s generally okay. Most folks are still happy with the content Netflix or Game Pass can provide, so the price is worth it.

But Game Pass losing Forza Motorsport 7 – one of Microsoft’s own titles developed and published by its own subsidiaries – is akin to Netflix losing The Witcher or Paramount+ losing ten of the eleven Star Trek films that it had… oh wait, that one already happened because ViacomCBS is pathetic at managing its own brands. But you see my point, right? The one sure thing that subscribers have when they pay for a subscription is that a company’s own titles will be available, and Microsoft has violated what feels like the only “golden rule” of these kinds of subscription services.

I hope you’ve played Forza Motorsport 7 if you wanted to, because it’ll be gone in a matter of days…

Are there mitigating circumstances? Sure. Does that excuse the loss of Forza Motorsport 7 from Game Pass? Absolutely not. If vehicle and/or racetrack licensing agreements are the issue, Microsoft should’ve done better at negotiating those licenses in the first place, or at the very least made sure that they had licensing agreements in place for longer than three-and-a-bit years. There are newer racing sims to play, for sure, but Forza Motorsport 7 simply isn’t that old. To see it removed from sale altogether after having had such a short shelf life just feels wrong.

Though Forza Horizon 5 is coming up before the end of the year, the Horizon series is a fundamentally different one; arcade-style racing to Motorsport’s simulation-oriented approach. Without Forza Motorsport 7 Game Pass won’t have a racing sim at all. It’s got F1 2019 and MotoGP 2020, but those are both much more specialised titles with limited appeal. With no new Motorsport game coming imminently, fans of this kind of racing sim will be missing out if they play on Xbox or PC, and the Game Pass service will be noticeably worse for its absence.

Xbox Game Pass will be worse for this decision.

The pace of game development has definitely slowed over the last decade, with big AAA games taking longer to make than ever before. That’s certainly a factor here; a decade ago or more we’d almost certainly have expected to see a new racing sim ready to take Forza Motorsport 7′s place. But as we enter an era of subscription services, companies need to be on the ball when it comes to these things, and ensure that they have longer licenses to make certain their games last as long as possible.

Game Pass is still good value, in my opinion, considering the sheer number of titles available. For players on a limited budget it still feels like a service that has a lot to offer. But slip-ups like this will end up costing Microsoft in the long run if they aren’t careful. Losing a third-party title might be forgiven, even if a game was popular. But losing one of their own games for a totally avoidable reason and with no like-for-like replacement is poor, and it diminishes Game Pass and the service’s reputation. Hopefully Microsoft will learn the lesson here and ensure that Forza Motorsport 8 doesn’t suffer the same ignominious fate a few years down the line.

The Forza series – including Forza Motorsport 7 and all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Turn 10 Studios, Playground Games, and Xbox Game Studios. Other titles copyright of their respective developers, owners, and/or publishers. Some promotional 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.

Bethesda teases more information about Starfield

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Starfield.

The in-engine teaser trailer for upcoming space-themed role-playing game Starfield was a bit of a let-down at E3 back in June. There’d been a lot of hype and rumours before the event that something big was coming from Bethesda and that we’d get our first major look at the game, so to only see a highly stylised teaser that might as well have been totally “fake” wasn’t the best. But the company has recently put out three new mini-trailers showing off three of the locations in Starfield, as well as dropping some more tidbits of information about the game, so I thought we could take a look at what’s been revealed and start to get excited!

Remember, though, that too much hype can be a bad thing! Just look at the disastrous Cyberpunk 2077 as a case in point. As fun as some of these bits of Starfield news may seem, it’s worth keeping in mind that we haven’t yet had a real look at the game itself. And as much as I hate to be too negative, Bethesda doesn’t exactly have a good track record in recent years when it comes to big releases. Their overreliance on a massively out-of-date game engine is also a concern. But Starfield is still over a year away, so hopefully there’s enough time to iron out all of the issues!

With that caveat out of the way, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about Starfield since E3 – with a healthy pinch of speculation and guesswork thrown in for good measure!

Promotional artwork for Starfield.

The United Colonies is described as “the most powerful established military and political faction in the game.” Their capital city – or capital planet, not sure how best to describe it! – looks like a futuristic Dubai or New York City; a wealthy, clean megacity. This is the city of New Atlantis, and it’s described as being a “melting pot” of different peoples.

The “melting pot” reference is clearly meant to give the city and the faction an American vibe; the United States often likes to see itself as a mixture of cultures. But it could also mean that the United Colonies is akin to something like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets – semi-independent cultures and worlds co-existing, perhaps under some looser federal form of government.

Concept art of New Atlantis (with a starship in the foreground).

I could be way off base with this, but it seems like the United Colonies isn’t going to be an evil or villainous faction. I didn’t get the sense that this was something like Star Wars’ Empire or First Order, but the fact that it’s described as being powerful – and with a strong military to boot – could mean that the player character is operating outside of the law, or that large parts of the game take place in areas beyond the United Colonies’ jurisdiction.

There were trees on New Atlantis, so the United Colonies clearly have some respect for greenery and the environment – even if just for aesthetic reasons. This is also something I think we can assume to be positive, as at least New Atlantis doesn’t have that overly industrialised, dystopian feel of some sci-fi megacities.

Concept art of New Atlantis showing a couple of trees!

If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that only parts of New Atlantis will be able to be explored and visited. The teaser image depicted a huge building complex with more buildings and lights in the distance, but it seems like making all of that part of the map might be too difficult to pull off; the last thing any of us want is a bland, mostly empty map that’s superficially large but has nothing going on or no one to interact with (looking at you, Fallout 76). New Atlantis was specifically mentioned in the context of a spaceport, so perhaps the spaceport and surrounding area will be able to be visited.

Going all the way back to 1994’s Arena, Bethesda has created contiguous open worlds – that is, game worlds that are one large, single space. There have been examples where smaller areas branched off from the larger game world – such as Morrowind’s expansion pack Tribunal, for example. But by and large we’re talking about single open worlds. Starfield, with different planets to visit and a spaceship being used to travel between them, seems like it will be a game where the game world is broken into smaller chunks. Some of these planets may be quite large, but the concept represents a change from the way Bethesda has worked in the past.

Large open worlds have been a Bethesda hallmark since 1994’s Arena.

Moving away from the United Colonies brings us to Neon, a watery planet with a facility run by the Xenofresh Corporation. This floating city resembles a large oil rig, and although the upper levels look well-lit and probably quite wealthy, I wonder if the lower levels of the platform might be home to the kind of sci-fi dystopia that didn’t seem to be present on New Atlantis!

The backstory of Neon was interesting – and perhaps the closest we’ve got so far to any “lore” of Starfield. The Xenofresh Corporation established Neon as a fishing platform, but soon stumbled upon a drug called “aurora” that they used to turn Neon into a pleasure city. Neon clearly operates outside of the jurisdiction of the United Colonies, and is the only place where this drug is legal.

Concept art of the floating city of Neon.

Previous Bethesda games allowed players to take drugs and drink alcohol, complete with screen-wobbling consequences! I can’t imagine that the developers would mention this aurora drug at this stage if players weren’t going to be able to try it for themselves in-game, so I think we can be pretty confident that aurora will play some role in the game’s story. Perhaps smuggling it from Neon to planets where it’s illegal will be an option for players to make some extra cash! Neon also gave me vibes of Star Trek: Picard’s Freecloud – a similarly independent, pleasure-centric world.

The final location shown off was Akila. The Freestar Collective, of which Akila is the capital, is described as “a loose confederation of three distinct star systems.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but singling out the word “confederation” could indicate that this faction is villainous or adversarial. The Confederacy or Confederate States was the official name for the pro-slavery southern states that seceded in 1860-61, instigating the American Civil War. We’ve also seen the name “Confederacy” used in Star Wars, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems was the antagonist faction in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Concept art of Akila, a city in the mountains.

Perhaps I have recent news reports on the brain, but something about the concept art for Akila reminded me of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain, smaller buildings, and hooded or cloaked figures all gave me the impression of that kind of settlement. Perhaps a better analogy, though, would be a Wild West frontier town, and this is reinforced by the narrator saying that all of the people in the Freestar Collective place a strong emphasis on personal freedom and liberty. The whole faction seems very libertarian, then!

Akila was definitely the most Star Wars-seeming settlement, and there are several locales from the Star Wars franchise that Bethesda may have used for inspiration here. It was on this planet that we learned about the first confirmed alien enemy – the ashta, described as being a mix between “a wolf and a velociraptor.” Yikes! As above, there’s no way this critter would be mentioned at this stage if it wasn’t going to be something players could interact with, and like other iconic Bethesda open-world monsters like Fallout’s deathclaw or The Elder Scrolls’ slaughterfish, I think this is something we’re going to do battle with!

A closer look at some of the people and buildings in Akila.

So we know of three locations, each of which is controlled by a different faction. Presumably the Freestar Collective has at least two other planets under its control, as the narration specifically mentioned that the faction controls three star systems. Whether all three will be able to be visited or not is not clear, so I guess watch this space!

The Xenofresh Corporation could easily be in control of more worlds or settlements; I got the impression that it was the kind of mega-corporation that we often see in sci-fi, and thus it seems plausible that it controls holdings on other planets as well as its settlement of Neon.

The United Colonies would seem to be the most widespread and populous faction, but if players are potentially operating outside of its jurisdiction we may not get to visit all of the worlds that make up the United Colonies.

Is the United Colonies going to be similar to Star Trek’s Federation?

Then there’s the player’s faction or group – the organisation called Constellation, described as “the last group of space explorers.” The ship shown in the E3 teaser appears to belong to this group, so it’s assumed that the player will have some kind of relationship with them as well. If this faction is interested in exploration, they may not have a large settlement or permanent colony – but that’s pure speculation!

So that’s it for now. Starfield is still on course for a November ’22 release, but it goes without saying that that’s subject to change at any point between now and then. I’m tentatively looking forward to it, and nothing we’ve seen or heard so far has been offputting. If anything, these little teases are intriguing and make me want to learn more about the game, its backstory, and its factions and locales. I’m a little surprised that Bethesda didn’t include some of these details at E3; it would’ve been more impressive to give players a bit more information about the game rather than just sharing that stylised teaser trailer, and none of what’s recently been revealed seems like it couldn’t have been included a couple of months ago. This is all just backstory and concept art – things Bethesda certainly had at the time. But regardless, we’ve got another little tease of Starfield to pore over!

Starfield will be released on the 11th of November 2022 for PC and Xbox Series S/X. Starfield is the copyright of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. Concept art featured above courtesy of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

So Windows 11 is happening…

I avoided covering the rumours and so-called leaks a few weeks ago, but it turns out that Windows 11 really does exist and will begin being rolled out later this year or early next year. I was surprised to hear that Microsoft planned to release a whole new operating system so soon after Windows 10’s 2015 launch; Windows 10 was billed as the “final” version, with the prospect of updates and tweaks but no replacement. A mere six years later – or fewer, assuming that the new OS has been in development for a while – and Microsoft is ready to abandon that pledge.

Windows 10 is far from perfect. It’s an improvement over past versions of the operating system, of course, but it has its problems. For me, though, the worst thing about Windows 10 has been Microsoft’s lack of care. Bugs and issues which were reported to Microsoft more than five years ago – such as 4K displays not being able to use extra large icons – are still in the OS and it seems Microsoft just opted to ignore them.

Windows 11 is coming. Prepare yourself!

An update to Windows has been needed for a while, not just to address some of these bugs but to give the whole OS a bit of a refresh. But does it need to be a completely new operating system? Though Windows remains dominant across the PC space, a lot of people were initially sold on the upgrade to Windows 10 based on the promise that it would be the final version of the OS. Windows 10 had a solid launch because people were keen to upgrade from Windows 7 and Windows 8 on that basis – something that was helped by the upgrade being free at first.

To abandon that promise so soon after making it is going to sour at least some people on Windows 11 – even more so if the new upgrade won’t be free. I can’t find any information on that, by the way, so watch this space. Windows 10 has, over the course of the last few years, come to eclipse Windows 7 and 8 as the most-used operating system around the world, and with a renewed growth in the PC market partly thanks to lockdowns and working from home, I would have argued that Windows 10 is well-placed to ensure Microsoft’s continued dominance of the PC space going forward.

An example of a Windows 11 desktop.

Windows 10 will be Windows 11’s main competitor, at least in the first few months and even years of the new OS’ life. Apple Mac is its own walled garden, and Linux, despite some attempts to make “user-friendly” versions, is still a niche, enthusiast product. So Windows as a whole has no major competition in the PC realm – but Windows 11 will have to stand up against Windows 10, an OS with a built-in userbase that numbers in the billions.

Windows 11 will have to strike the right balance between offering improvements and changes but without being so different as to discourage users familiar with the basic Windows interface. Moving the Start button to the centre of the taskbar instead of leaving it in its familiar left-hand position is one of those dumb aesthetic things that’s likely to prove costly. Windows isn’t Mac, and shouldn’t try to imitate everything Apple does. Folks need familiarity, especially considering the prevalence of Windows in the business world, where many users aren’t as tech-savvy and just want something that they know how to use.

Does Windows need to copy Mac?

If Windows 11 can smooth some of the rougher edges of Windows 10, perhaps it will see success. And in the longer term, unless we get a repeat of the Vista problem followed in short order by another upgrade, I think Windows 11 will, simply by default, gradually roll out to more and more devices. As noted above, there simply isn’t a viable alternative for most PC users.

There are some concerning elements, though. I mentioned Vista, and that greatly-disliked operating system brought some elements to Windows that seem superficially similar to Windows 11. Widgets for the taskbar and desktop are the most notable. And from Windows 8, which was also considered a major disappointment, Windows 11 is bringing back the “multi-device” design, with the new OS supposedly being able to work on phones, tablets, touch-screens, and laptops as well as PCs.

Gaming was mentioned as part of Microsoft’s Windows 11 presentation.

One thing Windows 10 got absolutely right was its return to a focus on PC and standard keyboard and mouse input devices. I’m not convinced that enough people want a Windows 11 tablet or laptop to make building the entire OS around that concept worthwhile. Doing so risks making the desktop PC experience worse for users – and considering 99% of folks who use Windows do so on a desktop PC or laptop, that’s a mistake Microsoft can’t afford to repeat.

All that being said, I’ll give Windows 11 a shot when it’s ready. I like to stay up-to-date, and the newest version of Windows is an inevitability for someone who uses a PC daily. Might as well get in at the ground floor and start getting used to things – that’s been the attitude I had with every version of Windows since I first owned a Windows 95 PC!

I’ve been using Windows for a while now…

One point to note is that Microsoft’s current policy is to continue to support Windows 10 “through October 14, 2025.” That’s a scant four years away, and if it should happen that support for Windows 10 ends on that date, as Microsoft seems to be implying, then everyone will need to upgrade to Windows 11 at that time. If there’s a free upgrade offered for a limited time, as there was with Windows 10, it would make sense in my opinion to take it.

Despite lofty promises in 2015 about kids being able to grow up with the ever-present, unchanging Windows 10, six years later Microsoft is ready to ditch it in favour of a new operating system. It looks to offer some superficial visual changes, and while I’m hopeful it’ll fix some of the problems with 4K displays that Windows 10 has suffered from I don’t know that for sure. It feels unnecessary, but as Microsoft is utterly dominant in the PC realm, anyone with a Windows machine should think seriously about taking the upgrade when it rolls out in the months ahead.

When the official Windows 11 upgrade or launch happens, I hope you’ll check back for my full thoughts on the latest version of the operating system. Until then, all that’s left to say is I hope it’s a success along the lines of Windows XP, and not a disappointment like Windows 8 or, god forbid, Windows Vista.

Windows 11 is being released in late 2021 or early 2022 by Microsoft. Windows 11, Windows 10, and all other properties 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.

E3 Roundup

Spoiler Alert: There are minor spoilers ahead for several of the games shown off at this year’s E3.

E3 2021 is over, and it was an interesting long weekend of games and gaming! I’m sure some people will come away disappointed – a lot of the games that were shown off aren’t being released imminently, with many of the bigger, most-anticipated titles not being launched until 2022. But overall, I had a good time. Because E3 was all-digital this year, the presentations were slicker and smoother, and while there were a couple of cringeworthy moments as presenters and CEOs were clearly talking to an empty room instead of a crowded auditorium, on the whole I think E3 benefits when the public stays away!

I mentioned this last year when Electronic Arts had their big annual presentation, but digital events really feel like the future. Live events have the potential to go wrong – very wrong, in some cases – and also drag on a lot longer. E3 this year was more concise, and several of the big presentations packed a lot of games into their hour or two. Though this is still a pandemic-riddled world, and that’s why E3 has gone digital this time around, I won’t be shocked to learn that future years will keep this kind of format.

With Sony skipping E3, Microsoft dominated proceedings. A number of big Xbox exclusives were shown off, and with the eyes of the world on the games industry in a way that seldom happens, I wonder if Sony will come to see the decision to stand alone as a mistake. There will be a Sony event later in the year – perhaps even this summer – but having missed the party at E3, Microsoft will come away dominating the gaming headlines in the days and weeks ahead.

Pandemic-related delays continue to afflict the industry, and some of the bigger titles shown off won’t hit shelves until next year at the earliest. Despite that, however, there are still big games coming out in the next few months – hopefully enough to tide us over until 2022! Though I didn’t subject myself to every minute of the presentations and chatter, I had fun with this year’s E3. It was generally well done, with plenty of exciting upcoming games to talk about – which is the point, after all.

Let’s take a look at my E3 roundup. I’ve picked out twenty games that I considered to be the most interesting (or the biggest) from this year’s E3. Here they are – in no particular order!

Number 1: Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was the game that tempted me to sign up for Xbox Game Pass last year, so I’m definitely going to take a look at the next game in this fun racing series when it’s ready. Forza Horizon 5 will see the action jump to Mexico, using a similar semi-open world to the previous game, with different types of races, a multitude of cars to choose from, and a focus on a more arcade style of racing over the simulation of the mainline Forza Motorsport titles.

Forza has grown from humble beginnings to become Microsoft’s answer to Gran Turismo, and a fine addition to the Xbox and PC lineup. Mexico is an interesting idea for a setting, and it seems like there will be plenty of dusty deserts and paradise-like tropical beaches to race around. Racing games always manage to look fantastic, and Forza Horizon 5 was definitely one of the prettiest games on show at this year’s E3.

Number 2: Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora

This one was a surprise; I don’t think anyone had it on their radar! Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora was shown off during Ubisoft’s presentation, and was really the highlight of what was otherwise a dull hour populated by updates, expansions, and sequels. The game is due for release next year, which is also when the first of four sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled to hit cinemas. It doesn’t seem like the first-person action game will be a direct adaptation of the film – at least, that’s the impression I got – but the timing can’t be coincidental!

Despite Avatar becoming the highest-grossing film of all time when it was released, more than a decade later it’s not unfair to say that it hasn’t made a huge impact in the cultural landscape, even within the sci-fi genre. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say Avatar has been largely eclipsed by titles released in the decade since, and is almost forgotten at this point. Commissioning what looks to be a big-budget video game of this kind is a bit of a risk under those circumstances, but it seems like it has potential – and the Avatar sequels may succeed at establishing the basis for an ongoing franchise of which this game could be a big part. We’ll have to wait and see! So we can add this one to the pile of games I’m tentatively excited about.

Number 3: Starfield

I was rather surprised to see so little of Starfield – even though its “in engine” trailer was well put-together, and it was certainly our biggest look so far at a game Bethesda chief executive Todd Howard described as both “a new universe” and something set in the future, I had expected to see more actual gameplay. Considering Starfield is still a year and a half away, perhaps the game just wasn’t ready for a more in-depth look.

What we saw was interesting, though. Starfield seems to be doing something superficially similar to television series like The Expanse in the way it handles its spacecraft – a combination of modern military, industrial, and astronaut aesthetics seemed present in the design and layout of the ship we saw in the trailer. I quite like that style, it arguably gives stories a semi-realistic feel when compared to the likes of Star Trek or Star Wars, which both rely on technobabble and fictional technologies. Spaceships in Starfield are said to be fuelled by helium-3 – a real-world substance that can be used for spacecraft fuel.

But, of course, this is the studio that brought us The Elder Scrolls and the modern Fallout games, so it won’t just be a realistic spaceflight simulator! It seems as though there will be exploration involved, as well as encountering alien races!

As I predicted, Starfield will be exclusive to Xbox and PC following Bethesda’s acquisition by Microsoft. This seemed patently obvious to me, but doubtless some PlayStation fans will still be disappointed.

Number 4: Elden Ring

Upcoming hack-and-slash title Elden Ring was one of the first games shown off this year, debuting on Thursday as part of the “Summer Games Fest” presentation. I stated in my preview of E3 that Elden Ring might not be the kind of game I’m interested in, personally speaking… and having seen more of it I can now say that with certainty!

If you’re looking forward to Elden Ring, that’s fantastic. I have no doubt that for fans of certain genres it will be a fun time – but as someone who doesn’t much care for the “extreme difficulty” hack-and-slash gameplay of other FromSoftware titles, this is one I’m going to skip. Nothing in the trailer – from its dark, bland colour palette to its monsters that looked like they’ve been copied and pasted straight from one of the Dark Souls games – appealed to me, and you could’ve told me this was Dark Souls 4 and I’d have believed it.

The involvement of author George R. R. Martin did admittedly pique my curiosity when the game was first announced, and I have no doubt his input will help craft a fantasy setting that is, at the very least, interesting. But that’s about the nicest thing I can say about Elden Ring. It might have an interesting setting with enjoyable lore. Everything else about it makes it look like a game I’ll happily skip.

Number 5: Sea of Thieves crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean

What?! What on Earth did I just see? This crossover between Rare’s multiplayer pirate game Sea of Thieves and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean looks utterly bonkers, and was a total surprise. Multiplayer generally isn’t my thing, as you may know, so I haven’t played much of Sea of Thieves. But this crossover looks like a blast, and I’m sure fans of the game will have a lot of fun.

Sea of Thieves underwhelmed when it launched in 2018, with criticism for feeling rather barebones. But in the three years since launch, developers Rare have added a lot of new content, and the general consensus seems to be that the game is in a good place in 2021. This crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean will surely bring in a lot of new players, and it looks set to give Sea of Thieves a significant boost.

Number 6: The Outer Worlds 2

The Outer Worlds 2 wins the award for “funniest trailer!” Other than a very early tease at the fact that the game exists, we don’t know much at all about the sequel to Oblivion’s 2019 role-playing game. The Outer Worlds drew positive comparisons to the Fallout franchise; Oblivion having made Fallout: New Vegas a few years earlier. With Fallout 76 floundering, The Outer Worlds was talked up as a kind of spiritual successor. I think that description sells it short – The Outer Worlds is its own thing. And now a sequel is on the way which will hopefully be just as much fun and expand the world that the first game created.

As with a number of big, hyped-up titles this year, The Outer Worlds 2 isn’t coming any time soon. However, knowledge of its existence might be enough to tide fans over until its eventual release.

Number 7: Battlefield 2042

So many games nowadays are ditching their single-player campaigns to focus entirely on multiplayer, and Battlefield 2042 is the latest to do so. Sometimes it feels as though games companies are deliberately making shorter and less interesting campaigns, so that when fewer people play them they can say “see, no one wants a single-player mode! That’s why we didn’t make one!”

Battlefield 2042 was shown off with a very slick cinematic trailer, before showing off proper gameplay during Microsoft’s presentation a couple of days later. The gameplay looks… fine. If you like the Battlefield series, I daresay you’ll find this game familiar and enjoyable when it releases later in the year. Following on from 2006’s Battlefield 2142, as well as the likes of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and even Arma III, Battlefield 2042 is taking a near-future setting that will likely allow for a degree of creativity on the part of developers Dice.

In that regard I have to say I like the diversity of settings on offer from modern shooters. Long gone are the days when everything was either sci-fi or World War II, and after the most recent entries in the series looked at World War I and World War II it makes sense to change things up and give fans a different experience. This won’t be one I dive into, but it looks like a solid shooter for folks into that kind of thing.

Number 8: Age of Empires IV

We’ve known for a while that Age of Empires IV has been in the works, but E3 finally gave us a release date: the 28th of October. I’ve had a great time with the remastered Age of Empires games over the last few years, but the initial teaser for Age of Empires IV a few months ago left me distinctly underwhelmed. The game just looked incredibly outdated, and I was genuinely worried for its prospects.

The E3 trailer, however, looked a heck of a lot better. Though Age of Empires IV will be taking a different approach to past games, and will feature fewer factions at launch, it has potential, and I shall certainly give it a try when it arrives on Game Pass this autumn. The original Age of Empires and its Rise of Rome expansion were two of my most-played games of the late 1990s/early 2000s and cemented my love of the real-time strategy genre. After successful remakes of those classic games, it’ll be great to welcome the Age of Empires series to the modern day!

Number 9: Mario Party Superstars

The Nintendo Direct broadcast began with a far-too-long look at a single new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character that really dragged. After that weak start, however, there were a couple of interesting announcements. Mario Party Superstars is probably the one that seemed most exciting to me, as it will be bringing back boards and mini-games from the Mario Party games of the Nintendo 64 era. I have fond memories of playing the original Mario Party with friends on the N64, so this new game seems like it has the potential to be a wonderful blast of nostalgia.

There is already a Mario Party game on the Nintendo Switch, of course, and at first it seemed as though Superstars was simply going to be an expansion for that title. However, it’s a standalone game instead, and is going to be retailing for full price (£50 in the UK). That seems a bit steep to me, and it might end up putting people off. But the idea is interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how Mario Party Superstars does.

Number 10: Chivalry II

Chivalry II is already out – it launched last week. But E3 provided developers Torn Banner Studios another opportunity to plug the game, and they seized it! The game is a medieval combat multiplayer title, with players jumping into large-scale battles with dozens of others. There are a variety of different game modes, including sieges, pitched battles, and others, and despite the fact that I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer, I have to say that the fast-paced hacking and slashing looks like fun!

In a multiplayer scene dominated by first-person shooters, Chivalry II is something different. Stepping back in time to the medieval era, and arming players with swords, shields, bows, and battle-axes instead of guns and rocket launchers really does feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s likely going to remain a fairly niche game by multiplayer standards, but that’s okay. It looks like fun, and maybe I’ll be convinced to check it out some time soon.

Number 11: Shredders

I like winter time and winter-themed titles – especially when it’s summer and there’s a heatwave going on! Shredders will be an Xbox/PC exclusive snowboarding game, and it’s due for release in time for Christmas. The game looked stunning, with great visuals and a snow effect that looked incredibly realistic. The trailer was very cinematic, though, so I’ll wait to see how good the finished product looks in comparison!

There have been some great snowboarding and winter sports games over the years, and I remember games like 1080° Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 and SSX Tricky in the Xbox days with fondness. Shredders looks to be cut from the same cloth as those older titles, so perhaps it’ll be just as much fun when it’s released this winter.

Number 12: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild II

Regular readers may recall that I haven’t played Breath of the Wild – nor indeed any Zelda game. But fans have been clamouring for a sequel to the 2017 Switch launch title ever since it was released, and Nintendo has been hard at work on Breath of the Wild II (real title unknown!) for some time now. We finally got a look at the game at E3.

It looks like… Breath of the Wild. If you liked the first game, what we saw at E3 should be encouraging because it looks very much like more of the same. Link may have new abilities or new weapons, and of course there’ll be new monsters to fight and a new story. But in terms of visuals and the way the game seems to be played, there’s nothing earth-shattering or radically different from the last game.

Number 13: Redfall

I like Redfall’s visual style. The cartoon-inspired art style takes what could’ve been a horror title, featuring a vampire apocalypse, and turns it into something more fun and casual. Billing itself as a team or co-op shooter, Redfall stars a unique cast of characters tasked with fighting off vampires. It’s a game made by Arkane, the studio best-known for the Dishonored duology, as well as a personal favourite of mine from the Xbox era, Arx Fatalis.

Redfall looks to build on the studio’s work with the Dishonored games, but at the same time will take a different approach. It’s definitely one to watch, and I like the idea of using vampires in this way. Vampires in entertainment often follow the Dracula model: one or two very powerful enemies to outsmart and defeat. Television series The Strain stepped away from that and gave us a vampire apocalypse – and it looks like Redfall will try to do something similar in its own unique way.

Number 14: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania

Super Monkey Ball has always been a niche product, even by Nintendo’s cartoony standards! But there’s no denying that the original game was a lot of fun, and with the series hitting its 20th anniversary this year, Nintendo evidently felt that the time was right for a remaster. That’s what Banana Mania is, in case the trailer wasn’t clear – a remaster of the first three Super Monkey Ball games.

I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one. If you like Monkey Ball games, you’ll probably like Banana Mania when it launches on Switch.

Number 15: Bear & Breakfast

One of the few indie games to really shine at E3 this year was Bear & Breakfast. In short, you run a bed and breakfast (i.e. a small-scale hotel) in a forest. But you’re a bear. That’s the gimmick. The art style looks cute, the premise sounds like fun, and I liked the trailer that new developer Gummy Cat put together. I got kind of a Stardew Valley vibe from Bear & Breakfast, which is certainly no bad thing.

All I can really say is that I like this kind of management/tycoon game, and the uniqueness of the premise, combined with the neat visual style, makes Bear & Breakfast appealing to me. There’s currently no release date, but the developer hopes to have the game ready before the end of this year.

Number 16: Grounded

Grounded is currently out in early access (or a “game preview” as Microsoft calls it). For that reason I haven’t checked it out; early access games are hit-and-miss, with far more misses than hits in my experience. But developers Obsidian have been working hard on this Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-inspired title, and a new update to the game looks to add a lot more content.

Though I’m probably still going to wait until Grounded is ready for prime-time, I love the premise of being shrunk down and playing in the grass. There used to be a Disney World attraction based on the 1989 film in which you could walk through an area of the park where grass and everyday items were scaled-up to huge sizes. Grounded reminds me of that!

Number 17: Halo Infinite

We already knew Halo Infinite was in development, but after a disappointing trailer left fans upset last year, the game didn’t launch alongside the Xbox Series X in November. We got to see a little more of the game at E3, and Microsoft dropped the big news that the game’s multiplayer mode will be free-to-play. This is definitely an interesting development, but the only thing I could think was that most Xbox Series X players will already be interested in the Halo series… so I’m not sure that making the multiplayer free will see Halo Infinite pick up a lot more players! But free things are always nice.

The game has definitely been polished since last year’s controversy, and the graphics look decent. The Master Chief’s return after a long absence will definitely be attractive to fans of the series, and with a Halo television show also in production, it seems like the Halo brand is about to undergo a renaissance after a decade in which it arguably underperformed.

Though the Halo series has been a flagship for Xbox, the sheer number of other games on offer as Microsoft snaps up studios and pushes Game Pass hard makes it feel a little less relevant in 2021. Halo Infinite is shaping up to be a good game – but Xbox’s success is no longer as closely-tied to the series as it once was.

Number 18: Dying Light 2: Stay Human

Zombies have been overdone in the last few years, with so many open-world zombie horror games that the industry is more or less burned out on the concept. Dying Light 2, which fans of the original game have been anticipating since 2015, has a mountain to climb, then – but there are positive signs.

There will be no guns in Dying Light 2, with players having to make use of crafted melee weapons in the post-apocalyptic city they find themselves in. There will likewise be no vehicles – the in-universe explanation being that there is no fuel any more, since the zombie virus devastated the world. Both of those semi-realistic concepts feel like they add value to a genre that’s otherwise played out, and Dying Light 2, with its interesting parkour-based movement system carried over from the first game, may have found a niche that will bring players back.

Number 19: Rainbow Six Extraction

I enjoyed Rainbow Six in the early 2000s, and I had the first couple of games in the series on Dreamcast. Rainbow Six Siege was never my thing; a multiplayer live service just held no appeal. And though Extraction brings back characters from Siege, it does so in a very different way. With a focus on cooperative play as opposed to competitive, and with an interesting-sounding premise involving an alien parasite, Extraction has all the elements in place for a fun experience.

Some have criticised the decision to take the previously straight-laced action series in a different direction, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a series like Rainbow Six trying something new. Siege was something new itself when it launched in 2015; the series had previously been a story-centric game with a main campaign, not a multiplayer one. So let’s see what Extraction brings to the table when it launches in September.

Number 20: Slime Rancher 2

One of the most colourful and vibrant games shown off at E3, Slime Rancher 2 is the sequel to 2016’s Slime Rancher, a first-person farming/life simulator. Though we didn’t see much in the way of gameplay – nor even get any significant details – I assume at this stage that the game will take the same premise as the original title and build on it.

Expect to see more of the same, but with new varieties of slimes and perhaps some new crafting or character abilities as well. It looks like fun, and will be released in 2022.

Notable absences:

Before we wrap things up I wanted to mention a few games that were notable by their absence at E3. Though there were plenty of titles we did get to see – the list above is nowhere near comprehensive – there were some titles I was hoping or expecting to hear news of that didn’t appear for one reason or another.

Anything from the Star Wars franchise:

There had been rumours earlier in the year of a Knights of the Old Republic sequel. There’s also Jedi: Fallen Order II (though that’s an EA game, and EA didn’t have a presentation at E3 this year) and Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, which has been delayed multiple times. With so much new content to come from Star Wars, and with the brand ditching its exclusive arrangement with EA, I’m sure there must be more video games in the works. I genuinely expected to hear something about at least one of them!

Grand Theft Auto 6:

Still radio-silence on this from Rockstar, despite Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive having a slot at this year’s E3. We don’t even know for certain that Grand Theft Auto 6 will be Rockstar’s next big game, and with the recent announcement of a port of Grand Theft Auto V to new consoles, it seems like they’re planning to continue to milk that 2013 title for as long as possible. Disappointing.

Mario Kart 9:

As soon as Nintendo said, in the first minute of their broadcast, that they would be focusing on games releasing this year I was sure we wouldn’t see Mario Kart 9! The series’ 30th anniversary is next year, and in my opinion 2022 remains the most likely release date for the next entry in the Mario Kart series. Despite that, however, before E3 I felt there was the potential for the game to be announced in order to begin to get fans hyped up.

Hogwarts Legacy:

Originally announced for 2021 before being delayed to next year, Hogwarts Legacy still sounds like it’ll be good fun. Actual information about the game has been hard to come by, though, with no new information since last year’s reveal. The time seemed right for an update on the game’s progress, but alas!

So that’s it.

With Sony and PlayStation being absent, Microsoft and Xbox dominated proceedings. Nintendo showed off a collection of smaller games that will be of note to their existing fans, but their biggest releases – like Breath of the Wild II and the next Metroid Prime title – are still a long way off. There were plenty of interesting games, though – far more than I’ll ever be able to play!

E3 worked well in this stripped-down, audience-free format. I hope they decide to stick with it going forward, even when the pandemic settles and in-person events are okay again. I just found the whole thing much simpler and more enjoyable, with less of a focus on presenters and staging and more of a focus on the thing we all care about: games.

The games I found most interesting are listed above, but there were many more shown off as well. Practically all of the trailers are now online on YouTube and similar websites, so take a look. I’m sure there’s something for everyone!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of Xbox, IGDB and/or E3. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

E3 2021 – predictions and/or wishes

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers present for the following games: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Knights of the Old Republic I & II, Mass Effect 3, and Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

After taking a year off in 2020, the Electronic Entertainment Expo – better known as E3 – is returning later this month. In fact, many large games companies have events or announcements scheduled for June, meaning we could be in for practically an entire month of previews, trailers, teasers, and demos for a number of great upcoming titles. This time I thought it could be fun to look ahead to E3 – and other June events – and maybe make a few predictions about what we might see! There might also be a few wishes or fantasies thrown in as well!

From Microsoft and Electronic Arts to Nintendo and Ubisoft, practically all of the big names in the games industry will have something to say over the next few weeks. Much of the attention will be focused on this year’s digital E3 event, which officially takes place from the 12th to the 15th of June, but I think we can expect other big announcements outside of those dates as well.

My usual caveat applies: I have no “insider information.” Today’s list is nothing more than guesswork and speculation, with a fair amount of hoping and fantasising thrown in for good measure! With that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of my predictions (and wishes) for what we might see at this year’s E3!

Number 1: Starfield

Teaser logo for Starfield.

Bethesda’s next game has been common knowledge for years, and even while they’ve been working on Fallout 76 and porting Skyrim to smart fridges, development on this sci-fi role-playing game has continued. Rumour has it that Starfield is now edging closer to being complete, and it’s possible we could even see a release date announced at E3 – maybe even for later this year or the first half of next year.

Other than a sci-fi setting that may include some degree of space travel, actual information about Starfield has been hard to come by. The disappointment of Fallout 76, and Bethesda’s refusal to consider developing or licensing a new game engine to replace the outdated Gamebryo/Creation Engine that they’ve used for more than two decades, leaves me at least a little anxious about Starfield’s prospects, with any hype or excitement I might’ve felt at the latest big Bethesda release replaced by cautious interest. However, there’s potential in Starfield, and I hope that we’ll get a fantastic game.

Microsoft now owns Bethesda and all its current and upcoming games.

If Bethesda hadn’t learned their lesson following the calamitous launch of Fallout 76, December’s Cyberpunk 2077 catastrophe should serve as another reminder that players simply will not tolerate a broken, unfinished, “release now, fix later” mess. So as interested as I am to see Starfield, I’d very much rather that it was delayed if needs be. It would be great to see it at E3 and begin to get excited for its release, but only if it’s ready!

Bethesda has recently been acquired by Microsoft in a multi-billion dollar deal, so Starfield will almost certainly be announced as an Xbox and PC exclusive. Sorry PlayStation fans!

Number 2: Mario Kart 9

Is a new Mario Kart game coming soon?

I’ve talked about the possibility of a new Mario Kart game several times over the past few months here on the website, and the reason is simple: next year will be the Mario Kart series’ 30th anniversary. Nintendo loves to make a big deal of anniversaries, as we saw just a few months ago with the 35th anniversary of Super Mario. Although nothing is confirmed and I should point out that we don’t even know for sure that Mario Kart 9 is in development, putting the pieces together makes this one seem at least plausible!

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has been the best-selling game on Nintendo Switch since it arrived on the platform, but it’s only a port of a Wii U game from 2014. After more than seven years, this is the longest dry spell the Mario Kart series has ever endured, and it seems like the perfect time to give the Switch its own original Mario Kart title.

2022 will be the series’ 30th anniversary.

As a celebration of all things Mario Kart, it would be great to see racetracks from past iterations return, as well as drivers from across Nintendo titles and even from other games altogether. If Mario Kart 9 is to be released in time for the anniversary next year, announcing it at E3 makes a lot of sense – building up the hype and giving fans plenty of time to get excited!

I’m not sure whether to classify this one as a wish or a prediction, because I feel certain that Nintendo will be doing something to mark the Mario Kart series’ anniversary – but will they announce it this month? We’ll have to see!

Number 3: Anything Star Trek

Could a new Star Trek game be on the horizon?

The Star Trek franchise has not done well in the gaming realm. In recent years, Star Trek Online has been the only game in town – literally – and as someone who isn’t big on massively multiplayer online games, it just isn’t “my thing.” I’d love to see ViacomCBS take advantage of Star Trek’s return to the small screen and commission a video game adaptation. Whether that would be something connected to a classic show or something based on modern Star Trek wouldn’t matter to me – though I could see the advantages of a game based on Discovery or Picard from the company’s perspective.

This is definitely a pure wish, because I’ve heard no rumours nor seen any indication that ViacomCBS has any plans to license out Star Trek in a big way. There are mobile games, the online game, and there was even a browser game earlier this year, but when it comes to putting together the kind of single-player title that I’d really love to see, the Star Trek franchise hasn’t shown any interest since the disastrous 2013 Kelvin timeline game.

2013’s Star Trek was not a good game, unfortunately.

It’s possible that that buggy, poorly-received title has harmed Star Trek’s brand from a gaming point of view, which is such a shame. There should be a pretty big overlap between Trekkies and gamers, but the franchise has consistently failed to capitalise on that, with Star Trek games going all the way back to the ’80s being of little interest to most folks.

If ViacomCBS could contract a big studio to put out the equivalent of a Jedi: Fallen Order or Mass Effect I’d be beyond thrilled. Will it happen at E3 – or ever? I have no idea. Probably not, but there’s always hope!

Number 4: Fall Guys coming to Switch and Xbox

Fall Guys is coming to Switch… eventually.

Though Fall Guys promised earlier in the year that a release on both Switch and Xbox is on the cards, there’s currently no release date on the schedule. Announcing one at E3 would be a big boost for the fun little obstacle course-battle royale game, and as I’ve said on a few occasions now, Nintendo Switch in particular feels like a perfect fit for Fall Guys.

There have been some improvements made to Fall Guys recently, like the addition of cross-platform play, the introduction of new rounds and round variants, and additional challenges that make logging in and playing more frequently feel rewarding. But there’s still a ways to go for Fall Guys if new owners Epic Games hope to break into the upper echelons of multiplayer gaming.

Hopefully Fall Guys will continue to improve – as well as finally be released on other platforms.

Fall Guys had “a moment” in August last year, in the days immediately following its release. But issues with cheating soured a lot of players on the game, and there’s work to do to rebuild both its reputation and playerbase. The announcement of Switch and Xbox versions of the game would bring renewed attention to Fall Guys, perhaps convincing lapsed players to pick it up again.

Though developers Mediatonic have stated that there are no current plans to make Fall Guys free-to-play, the delay in getting the Switch and Xbox versions ready makes me wonder if a bigger overhaul is on the cards. Announcing it at E3, with the eyes of players around the world on the games industry, would make a lot of sense and drum up plenty of hype.

Number 5: Knights of the Old Republic III/Knights of the High Republic

A new Knights of the Old Republic would make a lot of fans very happy indeed!

Rumours swirled earlier in the year of a new entry in the Knights of the Old Republic series of Star Wars role-playing games. Originally developed by BioWare, with a sequel created by Oblivion, the Knights of the Old Republic games are among my favourite games of all-time, and a sequel just sounds fantastic!

The Star Wars franchise is seemingly stepping away from its exclusive deal with Electronic Arts, so perhaps a studio like Oblivion could come back to pick up the mantle. Or we could learn that BioWare is coming back to the series that laid the groundwork for titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

These two games were just fantastic.

It’s been 17 years since Knights of the Old Republic II was released, so that could mean a new entry in the series won’t be a direct sequel and will instead focus on new characters. The so-called “High Republic” era is currently a big deal in Star Wars spin-off media, focusing on a time period about 300 years prior to the film series – and several millennia after Knights of the Old Republic. I can’t help but wonder if a new game could be Knights of the High Republic instead!

However, Knights of the Old Republic II definitely teased a sequel, and the stories of both Revan and the Jedi Exile are arguably incomplete (despite some mentions or appearances in the online multiplayer game The Old Republic). The Star Wars franchise has recently been in the habit of announcing games shortly before their launch – like last year’s Squadrons. If that happens again, maybe we’ll get a new Star Wars game later this year!

Number 6: Jedi: Fallen Order II

Jedi: Fallen Order was amazing.

Sticking with Star Wars, we know that Respawn Entertainment is currently working on a sequel to 2019’s Jedi: Fallen Order. Though development may have only begun in earnest when the success of the first game became apparent, it’s not inconceivable that there’ll be something concrete to show off at this year’s E3, even if the game isn’t coming any time soon.

Cal Kestis’ story could take a different direction in the sequel, as the end of the first game left things open-ended and with no clear destination. Jedi: Fallen Order introduced us to some amazing characters, and it’s going to be wonderful to find out what comes next for all of them. I doubt Jedi: Fallen Order II will be released this year – it may not even be released next year – but a little tease to keep fans interested is no bad thing at an event like this!

It would be great to see Cal and the gang return.

Jedi: Fallen Order definitively proved to companies that have been moving away from single-player titles that there’s still a lot of room for success and profit in the medium. That’s an incredibly positive legacy for any game, and after fans had been vocal about wanting a single-player, story-focused Star Wars game, the fact that it succeeded and sold millions of copies showed Electronic Arts and other big companies that it’s worth investing in this kind of title.

I’m happy to wait for Jedi: Fallen Order II. The original game was released without major bugs or glitches, something which should be expected but which won it a lot of praise in an industry where “release now, fix later” has almost become the norm. Rather than rush the sequel, I hope Respawn and EA take their time to give it the polish it deserves.

Number 7: Mass Effect 4

Promo art for Mass Effect 2.

It would make a lot of sense for BioWare and Electronic Arts to capitalise on the successful release of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition to at least tease or hint at what’s coming next for the franchise. We know, thanks to an earlier announcement, that Mass Effect 4 is in early development, but aside from a cinematic teaser we know nothing about the next entry in the series.

One of the reasons Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t succeed (aside from its bugs and launch issues) was that it ignored the ending of the third game and tried to do its own thing off to one side. The end of the Reaper War was a significant moment for the Mass Effect galaxy and its races, and piecing together what happens next is something many fans are interested in, despite the disappointment many felt at the three ending options for Mass Effect 3.

With the Reaper War over, where will the drama and action come from in Mass Effect 4?

Mass Effect 4 has a difficult task. It has to follow on from an epic “war to end all wars” type of story in a way that doesn’t feel anticlimactic and small. That’s not going to be easy, and I can understand why BioWare instead chose to tell a side-story in Andromeda instead of trying to confront this challenge head-on. With the game in development, though, I assume they’ve figured something out!

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition can be seen as a test or a dry run for a new game, and judging by the success it’s seen over the last couple of weeks, I have no doubt that a new entry in the series will be highly anticipated by fans.

Number 8: Grand Theft Auto 6

After almost a decade, surely a new Grand Theft Auto game can’t be too far away?

For too long Rockstar have been milking Grand Theft Auto V’s online mode, and it’s time for a change. After the longest gap between games in the history of the franchise, a new title in the open-world crime saga is long overdue, and it would be great to get some kind of news – even just the tiniest tease – at E3.

Rockstar has already committed to porting Grand Theft Auto V to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X, diverting time, money, and development resources away from making a new game. I’ve said before that Grand Theft Auto V has run its course by now, and the disappointed reaction from fans to news of a port to new consoles backs that up. It’s high time for a new title.

Grand Theft Auto V’s port to new hardware left many players upset.

Will it happen, though? I mean it will eventually happen, of course; there’s too much money in the brand to let it end with Grand Theft Auto V. But despite the fact that some players have been vocal about wanting a new title, Rockstar has thus far shown no signs of working on a sequel. In some ways, perhaps the success of Grand Theft Auto V has become a problem for the franchise; the more time passes, the harder it will be for any sequel to live up to its illustrious predecessor.

Finding a way for Grand Theft Auto 6 to differentiate itself from the current iteration of the series is also a challenge. Another sunlit coastal city in the present day probably won’t cut it – so where should Rockstar take the series? Maybe we’ll see the first indications soon!

Number 9: Civilization VII

Promo screenshot of Civilization VI.

It’s been almost five years since the release of Civilization VI, so it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a new entry in the series is in development. The most recent expansion pack for Civilization VI – titled the New Frontier pass – may be the game’s last, with no further announcements of DLC coming since last year. Perhaps Firaxis has already begun to shift development to a new game?

I was pleasantly surprised by Civilization VI when I picked it up in 2016. Having not been a big fan of previous turn-based strategy games I was initially sceptical, but I’m glad I took the plunge! I ended up sinking hundreds of hours into Civilization VI as the last decade drew to a close, and there’s a lot to be said for the series.

The Civilization series has come a long way since its inception in the early 1990s!

A new game would shake up the formula without reinventing the wheel, introducing different ways to play or bringing back successful features from past entries in the series. There would also be the potential to introduce brand-new factions and leaders – a subject I took a look at a few weeks ago.

Series like Civilization, which don’t see annual releases, can sometimes cause controversy if a new entry is regarded as being released “too soon” after the previous one. But the Civilization franchise has usually put out a new game roughly every four to five years on average, so the time could be coming for a new entry.

Number 10: Hogwarts Legacy

Promo image for Hogwarts Legacy.

Hogwarts Legacy – a single-player action/role-playing game set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – was announced last year with a short trailer. It’s since been delayed, with a release now scheduled for 2022 instead of later this year. But developers Avalanche Software and publisher Warner Bros. might take the opportunity provided by E3 to update fans on the game’s progress.

It’s been a long time since anything set in the Wizarding World was of much interest to me, but Hogwarts Legacy feels like it has potential. The trailer hinted at a morality system as well as different styles of magic and player choices having an impact on the game, all of which are things I find thoroughly enjoyable in a single-player title. I got a kind of Knights of the Old Republic vibe from the way the game was described!

The trailer we saw last year looked very exciting!

I’m a big supporter of games being delayed. I’d very much rather a developer take the necessary time to polish their title rather than releasing it too soon to meet an arbitrary deadline. In the wake of the disastrous launch of Cyberpunk 2077 last year – as well as other titles that failed as a result of their “release now, fix later” model – I’m glad to see Warner Bros. and Avalanche are prepared to take their time. But it would still be nice to see some more of the game if there’s something ready to see!

One of the aspects of the game I’m most interested to learn more about is how it’ll handle school lessons within the overall storyline. Games set in schools have not always managed to strike the right balance, and mini-games supposedly mimicking “classwork” have often fallen rather flat. If the player character is a student, surely they will need to spend at least some of their time in class – and figuring out that aspect of the game could be key to its success!

Number 11: Xbox Game Pass

Xbox Game Pass is a great and inexpensive way to get access to a large library of titles.

Game Pass has taken off over the last few months, and is one of the most compelling arguments in favour of buying an Xbox right now, as well as offering a relatively inexpensive way into gaming in general. Microsoft will be making a big appearance at E3, and I can’t help but wonder what news they’ll have regarding Game Pass.

Some have suggested that a deal might be on the table to bring Xbox Game Pass to Nintendo Switch or even PlayStation; I’m not sure that’s practical considering the divide between Microsoft and Sony in particular, but you never know! After Bethesda and EA Play have both brought significant libraries of games to the service in recent months, I’m beginning to wonder what’s left for Microsoft to possibly add!

EA, Bethesda, and more… Game Pass continues to grow!

Regardless, I’m sure that any titles Microsoft show off, including big Bethesda titles like Starfield or even The Elder Scrolls VI, will be coming to Game Pass, so that’s a good start. But using the opportunity of E3 to really push the service and show how it’s continuing to expand would be great from Microsoft’s perspective.

PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles are still sold out everywhere, but there seem to be more Xbox Series S consoles available at the moment. Game Pass also makes picking up a pre-owned Xbox One a pretty good proposition in the short term, so Microsoft has a lot of scope this month to hook in and convert players to their platform – and Game Pass is the way to do it.

Number 12: Halo Infinite

Halo Infinite was delayed, but it’s still being worked on.

Speaking of Microsoft and Xbox, following a disappointing reveal last year, Halo Infinite was postponed. Originally the game was supposed to be the Xbox Series S/X’s flagship launch title, but as I predicted at the time, its absence ultimately didn’t prove a huge hurdle for the new console’s launch.

Since original developer Bungie abandoned the Halo series to pursue Destiny in 2010, the series has struggled to hit the highs of earlier titles. Halo 4 and Halo 5 were both well-received by some fans but disliked by others, and there’s a sense that the Halo series really needs a win with its next iteration. As above with Hogwarts Legacy I fully support developers 343 Industries delaying the project and taking the necessary time to bash it into shape. Maybe we’ll see what they’ve been working on at E3!

Promo art for the Halo series.

With a Halo television series also in the works, it should be a good time to be a fan of the sci-fi shooter series. Hopefully the issues with Infinite have been ironed out, and even if there’s still no definite word on when it’ll be released, there will be something to show off to tide fans over and restore hope in the series’ future.

I enjoyed playing Halo and Halo 2 back on the original Xbox, and I’ve recently had fun with The Master Chief Collection on PC, which included a couple of titles I hadn’t played. I’m interested to see what Infinite will bring to the table.

Number 13: Elden Ring

A figure from the Elden Ring teaser trailer.

I have to be honest: I’m not sure if Elden Ring is going to be “my kind of thing.” Don’t get me wrong, I like George R R Martin – who’s working with developer FromSoftware on the project – but the teaser trailer gave off a kind of horror vibe that just rubbed me the wrong way, I guess.

I’m also not a fan of FromSoftware’s “extreme difficulty for the sake of it” style of gameplay. There’s no indication that Elden Ring will be as horribly difficult as the likes of Dark Souls, but the developer’s reputation precedes them, and their unwillingness to add difficulty options in their games is not something I appreciate. For those reasons and more it may end up being a game I skip!

A rather creepy moment from the teaser trailer.

Despite that, I like the idea of a new dark fantasy role-playing game. The involvement of George R R Martin has a lot of fans understandably excited, as he’s one of the best authors working in the genre today. Other than that, and a short cinematic teaser, we don’t know very much at all about Elden Ring – so this could be the moment for Bandai Namco to finally show off some gameplay!

If I were being hopeful, I guess I’d say that I’d like to see a darker, more polished looking version of The Elder Scrolls, with plenty of side-missions, lots of factions to join or fight against, and a main story that can be played through right away or sidelined in favour of doing other things. Whether Elden Ring will be anything like that, or whether it’ll be closer to Dark Souls is anyone’s guess at the moment!

Number 14: Super Mario 64 remake

Battling Bowser in HD? Yes please!

This is a game that I truly felt was a possibility last year, when Nintendo was marking the 35th anniversary of the Super Mario series. Ultimately the company opted to include a pretty crappy version of Super Mario 64 – with a weird screen resolution that left black bars on all four sides of the screen – as part of the underwhelming Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection.

But maybe the rumours of a reimagining of this classic 3D platformer from 1996 weren’t just made up! Maybe Super Mario 64 is being remade using the engine from Super Mario Odyssey, and maybe it’ll be announced this month! Maybe.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars did not do justice to this game. A full remake would be amazing, though!

There are relatively few games that I’d be really excited to see remade, because in a lot of cases – especially when dealing with relatively recent games – the original versions still hold up pretty well. But after 25 years, there’s definitely scope to remake Super Mario 64, bringing it up-to-date for a new generation of players.

With the game’s 25th anniversary happening this year, perhaps Nintendo’s love of anniversary events will have convinced them it’s worth putting together a remake! Either way, if you can find a copy the original game is well worth playing if you missed it first time around.

Number 15: Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

Teaser art for Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.

The third Star Wars title on this list is a fun one! Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga was originally due for release last year, before being delayed. The game will be a follow-up to the very successful 2007 game Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga, which if you haven’t played I can’t recommend highly enough!

The chance to revisit the Star Wars world with a fun Lego twist – in high definition, this time – has been appealing since The Skywalker Saga was announced a couple of years ago, and this is one game I’m definitely looking forward to. When it was delayed there was mention of a 2021 release, but no date or even release window has yet been elaborated on. Maybe E3 could be the right moment!

Rey and Kylo Ren clash in another promo screenshot for the game.

Though they arguably overdid it and burned out somewhere in the late 2000s or early 2010s, Lego adaptations of popular franchises have been a lot of fun. Lego Star Wars was one of the first to really go mainstream and see big success, but other titles which adapted properties like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean were good fun as well.

It would be great to get a solid release date and see a little more of the game. Adapting all nine films in the Star Wars series into a single game is no mean feat, but it’s a challenge that developer Traveller’s Tales has never shied away from. I’m sure that The Skywalker Saga will prove to be a worthy successor to previous Lego Star Wars titles.

So that’s it! A few of my predictions – and wishes – for this month’s E3.

The official E3 2021 logo.

Could you tell which were predictions and which were wishes? I’m not sure I could tell you which were which in every case, so don’t worry! After a rough year, which hasn’t been helped by myriad delays and shortages, it’ll be nice to see players getting genuinely excited about upcoming titles once again. Whatever is ultimately announced or revealed, I’m sure there’ll be something of interest to me, something I can put on my wishlist for later in the year!

Though I’ve never been to E3, I did attend two iterations of GamesCom – Europe’s biggest games fair – in the past when I used to work for a large games company. As I said last year, these digital events are arguably the future of games marketing. Not only are they substantially cheaper than paying to rent a convention centre in California, but it gives the companies greater control over their own messaging. Though the headline this year is “E3 is back!” I would argue that it isn’t – not really. E3 was an in-person event, an overblown trade fair that started allowing members of the public to attend. What we’re going to see this month will be all-digital and quite different.

I hope this was a bit of fun as we look ahead to E3. There are plenty of upcoming games to get excited about, and I shall be watching the various presentations with interest!

All titles mentioned above are the trademark or copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of press kits on IGDB. E3 2021 takes place digitally from the 12th to the 15th of June, with additional events taking place throughout the month of June. 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.

The first big video game announcement of the year is… Indiana Jones?

Early January isn’t usually a good time for big announcements as folks are still getting back to work and school after Christmas and New Year. But 2021 is different with lockdowns and such, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a new video game announcement!

Bethesda Softworks – the company behind The Elder Scrolls series which was recently acquired by Microsoft – has announced their latest project: a new Indiana Jones game. In addition to Bethesda and legendary producer Todd Howard on the publishing side, the game will be developed by MachineGames, the studio responsible for the recent Wolfenstein titles. Obviously there’s a lot that we don’t know at this stage about the project, which was announced with a cinematic teaser and little else, but any title featuring Indiana Jones has the potential to be fantastic.

Doesn’t it?

Despite being a successful film series (alright, three successful films and one crap one) Indiana Jones hasn’t been anywhere near as successful in the interactive medium. Indiana Jones’ Greatest Adventures back in the SNES days was the last time any game featuring the scrappy archaeologist could be considered a hit. There have been a couple of Lego games and a couple of original stories during the 1990s and 2000s, but although Indiana Jones has inspired some fantastic games and game franchises, it never really took off as a game series of its own.

Indiana Jones’ Greatest Adventures on the SNES.

The likes of Tomb Raider and Uncharted owe a lot to Indiana Jones, but those series have gone on to far outperform and eclipse their inspiration, at least in the gaming realm. Since the mid-1990s no Indiana Jones game has felt like anything other than an afterthought; a second-tier game picked up by some fans but soon afterwards found in bargain bins. What can Bethesda and MachineGames do to stand out and make sure their new project doesn’t suffer that ignominious fate?

Because it’s been a while since there was an Indiana Jones game, and with the films’ standing remaining high, there will be a lot of interest in this game whenever it’s ultimately released. In fact the reputation of the Indiana Jones films has only grown, such that some people even consider Kingdom of the Crystal Skull “watchable!” With a new film in the works too, it would be great to see the series end on a high note.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was… interesting.

The new film may have been the catalyst for this game’s creation, but there’s no indication at this stage that it will be a direct adaptation. As I’ve said before, the days of the film tie-in seem to be long gone, and in some respects making this new game a tie-in would arguably reduce interest in it, such is the low regard for film adaptations in a general sense.

So what can we expect from this game? At this stage, very little is known. MachineGames’ previous titles have all been first-person shooters, so perhaps a first-person perspective could be on the agenda. But Indiana Jones films have always been more about adventure than guns-blazing action, so I wouldn’t expect a game using this setting to simply be a shooter.

If I had to guess, I think what I’d say is that the new game will draw inspiration from those very games that Indiana Jones inspired years ago: Tomb Raider, Uncharted, and the like. We’ll get a third-person action-adventure game with puzzles, mystery, and plenty of villains to outmanoeuvre and defeat. But I could be completely wrong on that – it could be a multiplayer-only kart racer for all we know at this stage!

Indiana Jones inspired the Uncharted series of video games.

Right now, the hype around this project is almost entirely built on name recognition. Both the Indiana Jones brand and the studio and publisher behind this title have reputations that are generally respected – although it’s not unfair to say that Bethesda has been through the mud recently, especially with Fallout 76. Nostalgia for the Indiana Jones films will certainly help drive sales, but as we’ve seen from some recent projects – including one that was also part of a franchise created by George Lucas – nostalgia alone isn’t good enough. Sometimes too much nostalgia can even do harm, taking away a potentially-interesting story’s own merit.

So Bethesda and MachineGames will need to tread carefully. Indiana Jones has never really proven itself a colossal money-making success in the video game realm, and while the generally good reputation of (three of) the films and the nostalgia many folks have for them will bring a degree of interest, the game will have to offer more than that. It will have to be… a good game.

Shock horror! A game will have to be good in order to sell? I’m afraid so. In fact, “good” won’t be good enough. Any game using nostalgia as a hook will have to go above and beyond in order to make good on players’ and fans’ lofty expectations. A redux of Uncharted but set in the ’30s with Harrison Ford replacing Nolan North will not cut it. We’re in a new generation now, and what this game needs is something different and next-gen to really push the boundaries of action-adventure titles, setting a new precedent for future titles to look to.

A glimpse of Indiana Jones’ hat, whip, and other accessories as seen in the new game’s teaser.

That seems like a high bar. But no one forced Bethesda and MachineGames to pick up the Indiana Jones license. If they wanted to create their own unique adventure game, perhaps an Uncharted knock-off would be seen as good enough. But there’s power in brands and names, and while Indiana Jones has arguably never been a franchise that truly made it to the pinnacle of cinema or geekdom in the way Star Wars did, for example, it still has a cadre of fans who won’t settle for anything less than a unique and exciting experience. There’s a lot to be excited about from this game – and a lot that could potentially go wrong or be disappointing.

There’s no information currently on when this as-yet-untitled Indiana Jones game may be released. I’d be surprised if it were this year; Bethesda has previously announced games years ahead of time, and the cinematic teaser we got didn’t show off anything close to gameplay, which is usually an indication that a game is early in its development. Perhaps 2022 or 2023 might be when we’ll see it.

I’m interested to learn more, and if this game seems like my cup of tea (i.e. not a massively-multiplayer thing) I daresay I’ll check it out when it’s available. If we get any significant news between now and then I may cover it, so be sure to check back from time to time.

Indiana Jones is the copyright of Disney and LucasFilm. MachineGames and Bethesda are owned by ZeniMax Media, which is in turn owned by Microsoft. Some screenshots above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition – First Impressions

Earlier in the year I wrote an article looking at Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and my experience getting back into it after it was remastered. I had a lot of fun with that game, and I’ve even gone back and played a few matches here and there over the summer. I played the first two Age of Empires titles to death in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but when Age of Empires III was released in 2005 I was less than impressed. While the core gameplay was similar, the addition of features like “home cities” and “cards” complicated things and, in my opinion at the time, detracted from the real-time strategy experience that I hoped to have. This also coincided with a period where I was particularly busy with my professional and personal life, and as such there were a number of factors involved in me putting down the game and not picking it up again.

Until now, that is! Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was released a few days ago and follows on from last year’s Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and 2018’s Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, completing the trilogy. The remastering process has brought all three titles in line with one another, at least from a visual standpoint, and were it not for differences in building and unit styles, it would be hard to tell them apart. Age of Empires III, being a more recent title, was visually better than the first two titles to begin with, and in that sense perhaps the upgrade doesn’t feel quite so dramatic. However, the game looks great and a lot of work has been put into that side of things.

A promotional screenshot depicting a naval battle.

I wouldn’t have necessarily rushed out to buy Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, especially not this close to its release. But as you may recall, I recently became a subscriber to Microsoft’s Game Pass for PC service, and in line with the company’s policy of bringing every new first-party release straight to Game Pass, it was available to me. So I downloaded it! Game Pass for PC is still not a seamless experience, and frustratingly logs me out every time I so much as minimise the Xbox app. Also, for some reason the download progress bar wasn’t working right; although the title did download, it told me it was stuck at having downloaded 14 megabytes the whole time. These are pretty basic things that Microsoft will need to work on if they want Game Pass for PC to be taken seriously, and now that the service is about to exit its “beta” phase, I hope to see such problems fixed. However, this isn’t meant to be another review of Game Pass!

The first thing players see upon booting up Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a note from the developers explaining that some changes have been made to the game compared to its 2005 iteration. While there are gameplay changes (quite a lot of them, though many are minor) this message focuses on the way Age of Empires III treated indigenous peoples. The names of the game’s two Native American tribes have been changed – in the 2005 version of the game they were called the Sioux and the Iroquois; in 2020 they use the more accurate native names of Lakota and Haudenosaunee respectively. There have also been some changes to the way Native Americans are portrayed within the game, and Microsoft worked with Native American advisors in order to help shape the remaster.

The developers’ note in full.

This speaks to a much broader point, one which a single article can’t sufficiently cover. How can developers make history-based games that accurately depict the vast range of cultures and civilisations that existed? And how can a game like Age of Empires III possibly be made “fair” to all players when there are major differences between cultures and their levels of technology? This is an issue present in a lot of strategy games in particular, and the way developers have tended to handle it has been to “westernise” non-western civilisations, giving them technologies and resources they didn’t historically have in order to keep them competitive from a gameplay perspective. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition does this too, and we see it prominently in other games, such as Civilization VI.

I don’t have a good answer when it comes to depicting history in media. On the one hand there will be people who say “it’s just a game,” as if to shut down the argument and just focus on whether or not the gameplay itself is good. And there will be others who practically want a boycott of titles that even try to deal with colonialism and the like. In a title like Age of Empires III, the entire aim of the game is to build and maintain a colony. Colonialism is the absolute core of the game, and that can’t be removed without fundamentally changing it into an altogether different experience. However, I like to think that we’re getting better with the way we treat history and different cultures in 2020, and the way that Native Americans are depicted in the game is not particularly historically accurate, despite attempts to make it better.

History, and the legacy of colonialism, can be a complicated subject for entertainment media of all types.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition brings in several changes to the original experience in order to make the game more accessible to new players. One change that I particularly appreciated was to the user interface; there are now options to either retain the original 2005 UI, to use a new UI developed for the remaster, or to use a UI that’s almost identical to the one seen in the first two games. This definitely helps move much more smoothly from one game to the next, and when remastering a title there’s no excuse for things like radically different UI or controls. One thing that I found extremely annoying in the 2018 re-release of Shenmue I & II was that on PC, the main action button (used to interact with the environment) changed from one game to the next. That’s the kind of annoyance that should be fixed in any remaster, and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition has certainly made changes with players in mind.

As someone who isn’t all that familiar with the original version of Age of Empires III I’m not well-qualified to speak on gameplay changes between the two editions. That said, there are some that seem quite major, such as a big expansion of the “revolution” system, the changing of resource gathering rates, changes to resources on certain map types, and many more besides. For players used to the original version of the game who may have well-established ways to play, it’s worth reading through the entire list of changes on the Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition website. Even having done so, however, it will no doubt take time to get used to the new way everything works!

The beginning of a deathmatch game, showing the revamped user interface.

There are two new civilisations in the game – the Inca and Sweden – bringing the total number of civilisations to 16. Compared to the 35 playable civilisations in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition this may seem paltry, but unlike in the other two games, each civilisation has more unique features. For example, in Age of Empires II each civilisation would use one of a handful of architectural styles, meaning no civilisation looked unique. In Age of Empires III, each civilisation has its own distinct look.

The addition of home cities (which also look unique for each civilisation) which I disliked back in 2005 also adds further distinctiveness to each civilisation, as do the cards which are used to set up each game. In a way I stand by what I would have said about the game fifteen years ago – these factors complicate gameplay. But at the same time that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and after getting used to the way the game works and figuring out each of the systems, their value to gameplay cannot be understated.

Promotional screenshot showing the Swedish civilisation.

Overall, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition lives up to its name, at least based on the short amount of time I’ve spent with it so far. It is undeniably the definitive version of the game, having not only been given a visual overhaul, but with the development team having worked hard to rebalance the game to address player feedback. After fifteen years of a dedicated playerbase enjoying the original version, the developers had plenty of information to go on! It has been pointed out by those who know more about the game than I do that many of the changes made for Definitive Edition reflect changes and rebalances in some of the original version’s most popular fan-made mods. That says a lot – the developers have listened and tried to make the game as fair and fun as possible while still retaining some of its original quirks.

For me, as a Game Pass subscriber, getting Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was a no-brainer. On Steam it sells for £15/$20, and for that price I think you’re getting a good strategy game with visuals comparable to any of today’s better games, and gameplay that has been improved based on fifteen years’ worth of player data and feedback. That seems like a pretty good deal, and for that matter all three of the remastered Age of Empires titles have been good value. Though I have heard from others that there are bugs and even crashes, I didn’t experience any of that during my time with the game. I would also add that if there are issues of that nature, they will almost certainly be patched out soon as the team behind Age of Empires are continuously working on updates. Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has received regular updates since it was released last year, and I see no reason why the same won’t happen here. That said, I found nothing game-breaking in my time playing.

Some of the changes made will be controversial with fans of the original version of the game, but that’s to be expected with any major overhaul. In the case of the first two titles in the Age of Empires series, the remastered versions are widely acclaimed and even considered superior in many ways to the original versions by fans. Whether that will be the case here is uncertain, and some of the more contentious issues – like those surrounding the nature of colonialism itself – will take time to settle down. However, for my two cents I think Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is fun, and gives me a second chance with a game I mostly overlooked first time around.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is out now for PC. The game is the copyright of Microsoft, Xbox Game Studios, Tantalus Media, and Forgotten Empires. 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.

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.

Two Microsoft products – a controller and a keyboard

By sheer coincidence, I replaced both my keyboard and game controller in August. And also by coincidence – or at least, not by design – both of my replacements came from the Microsoft Store. This short review will detail my experience with each of them; rolling two items into one article is certainly a rare example of efficiency from me!

First let’s look at the controller. This one, I have to admit, is a bit of a luxury. I’d had an Xbox One controller for years – it may have been the one I got when I bought an Xbox One at launch in 2013. Now that was a bad decision if there ever was one – the console may have improved somewhat in the years since, but at launch it was bad value and offered precious little to play! But we’re off-topic already; you can read more about my Xbox One experience by clicking or tapping here. I decided that it was time to replace the controller – one of the thumbsticks was loose, making it harder to make very precise movements in some games, and in addition its vibration/rumble function didn’t seem to be working right. It still vibrates, but it does so in a much more clunky way than it used to.

I considered a few different controller options, including the Hyperkin Duke, which is a reimagining of the classic Xbox controller from 2001. That controller was one I greatly enjoyed using during the original Xbox era, but unfortunately the new version is difficult to get hold of here in the UK. I found one on Amazon, but at quite a mark-up. So I decided to check out Xbox’s Design Labs website, where Microsoft sell customised controllers. I went with an all-blue design, with a metallic D-pad, black Start and Select buttons, and black A, B, X, and Y buttons with the proper colours for the letters. I’m sure some people feel that removing the coloured letters and replacing them with a grey or black design looks more sleek, but the colours can be a great visual reference when it comes to things like quick-time events or any other occasion where split-second button presses are required.

My new controller.

Microsoft stated when I bought the controller that it could take up to a month to arrive, so I wasn’t expecting it much before the beginning of September. To my pleasant surprise, though, it arrived much sooner – on the same day as my keyboard, no less! The design was just what I’d chosen – which it should have been, of course – and so far I’m satisfied with it. Was it worth the extra money to get a different colour compared to buying a standard controller? I don’t play that many games any more, so I guess you could argue that it wasn’t. The control pad is fundamentally no different from a standard Xbox One controller; unlike the Xbox One elite controller it doesn’t have swappable parts or extra buttons, and its construction is wholly plastic instead of the “rubberised” feel of the elite. But the elite controllers are twice the price! For around £20 more than a standard controller, Xbox Design Labs offer a huge range of colours, and different areas of the controller can be different colours. They brag about millions of colour combinations – most of which you’d never want, of course – but all of the main colours are there, and they have a couple of “fades” and “camo” options too.

Controllers can also be engraved – though to be honest, that’s a pretty impressive-sounding term for what seems to be just laser printing. But for someone who wants their gamertag on their controller – or to make a fun gag gift, perhaps – it’s nice that the option exists.

The Xbox One controller was very similar to the Xbox 360 controller, which was itself not massively different from the second iteration of the original Xbox controller. So I’m not really reviewing the controller from that perspective. I already know I like it as I’ve been using something similar for years! The Design Labs experience was solid. There were a number of options, the website worked smoothly and was well laid-out, and the colours on screen match perfectly with the product I received. Add to that the quicker than expected delivery and it’s hard to find fault.

The Xbox S controller from 2002 or 2003. The “S” may have originally meant “small”.

As someone who has never really been a “PlayStation guy”, I think I’ll always prefer Xbox’s controllers than those made for the rival console. They feel chunkier and more substantial in my (admittedly oversized) hands, but at the end of the day once you get used to a particular design you want to stick with it. That’s presumably why the Xbox Series X’s controller won’t be a significant departure from the current design.

Up next we have the keyboard.

I write almost every day, not just for this website but for other projects that I have on the go, as well as typing messages to friends and the like. For the last three years or so, I’ve been using a Corsair Strafe mechanical keyboard. The variant I have has a red backlight and Cherry MX blue mechanical switches – the “clicky” kind. I bought this keyboard on the recommendation of several tech reviewers who said that the blue switches were great for typing.

The Corsair Strafe.

This keyboard has been fine. It was interesting at first to go back to a keyboard that, for all its modern aesthetic, had a very retro feel and sound. It reminded me of the kind of keyboards I first learned to type on when I was very young. I actually remember the first time I ever used a computer, being concerned that the keyboard only had capital letters when I wanted to type something in lowercase! That was when I was at school, and the “computer” in those days was little more than a word processor. And of course there was no internet. How things have changed, eh?

Although the typing experience has been good overall with the Corsair, after very long typing sessions it can get a little tiring on my old fingertips. The space bar in particular has a strange, almost rough texture to it, and I often find that my thumb – which I use to hit the spacebar almost all of the time – can start to not exactly sting, but rather notice this texture in an unpleasant way after longer typing sessions. The mechanical keyboard has also proved a nightmare to keep clean, with deep chasms in between the keys that seem to attract dust and cat hair like magnets! Finally, several of the keys have started to wear down, and the backlight shows through on the edges of several of them now. Perhaps that’s simply the result of heavy use, but for something I haven’t owned that long it seems like it shouldn’t have happened so quickly. Regardless, the keyboard doesn’t look as nice as it once did, and while it does still work I thought I’d try out a replacement.

I don’t need backlighting on a keyboard, as I can type from muscle memory – something that will happen as you spend more time hunched over your computer! And my computer setup is in a well-lit room, so on the occasions where I need to look down to see what I’m doing I don’t need the keyboard to be its own light source. The keyboard I ultimately bought as a replacement is not backlit, and I don’t consider that to be a problem at all.

After looking at several options, both mechanical and non-mechanical, I opted for the Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard. I’ve used a Microsoft mouse in the past (though my current daily driver is a white Logitech G305 wireless mouse) and I’ve always considered Microsoft’s hardware products to be solid and of decent quality. After ruling out a few other options for a variety of reasons, I chose the Microsoft Surface.

The Microsoft Surface bluetooth keyboard.

Initial impressions were good. The packaging was premium – as the Xbox controller’s had been too – and I was very impressed with the look and feel of the keyboard. It has almost no give to it when pressure is applied; it’s very solid. The keys, despite being low profile, have a satisfying press, and unlike the loud “click” of the Corsair, are relatively quiet.

The keyboard also has a full number pad, which is important to me as I often use the right Enter key when writing. It takes AAA batteries instead of being rechargeable via USB, which for some people may be offputting, but it’s a feature I really wanted to have. AA or AAA batteries last ages in devices like mice and keyboards. I used to use a Logitech MX Master mouse, and that thing needed to be charged every few days, which was incredibly annoying. In comparison, a mouse I have in my bedroom which takes AAs has been using the same pair of batteries for at least a year – probably longer. And since I replaced the MX Master with the G305 I’ve gone through precisely one battery. Why anyone would favour rechargeable devices that have such a short battery life over devices that take AA or AAA batteries that last months or years is beyond me. But we’re off-topic again! The battery cover is magnetic, which was a very neat feature. The magnet seems strong enough to keep the battery compartment closed, which is important for obvious reasons, and I like the modern touch it offers over an older-style plastic latch.

I did have an issue with the keyboard – but it’s one that seems almost unique to me that anyone with a modern setup should be able to avoid. The keyboard connects via bluetooth. Duh, right? It’s in the name. But my PC doesn’t have bluetooth connectivity built in, as several years ago I didn’t see any need to spend extra money on that additional feature. Most wireless keyboards come with a dongle so you can plug them into your PC, but presumably Microsoft’s expectation is that the Surface keyboard will be paired with a Surface PC – which must all come with bluetooth as standard. Like I said, this is a minor gripe that probably won’t affect anyone else who buys this product, but if your PC lacks bluetooth connectivity like mine, you’ll need to buy a separate dongle to be able to use the keyboard.

As with many things I’ve accumulated over the years, I could have sworn I owned a USB bluetooth dongle – but I haven’t the faintest idea where it is. I had to get a replacement on Amazon – not a big deal as they aren’t expensive, but it meant waiting an extra couple of days after the keyboard arrived before I could use it! It reminded me of the Christmas where I got a Nintendo 64 – I was all set to play with my new console when there was a power cut! The N64 sat in its box for what seemed like an eternity, unable to be played because the electric was out. Decades later and I’m back in that position. Life is funny like that sometimes.

Ah, memories.

When the dongle finally arrived, pairing the keyboard was easy. From the settings menu in Windows 10 – for which the keyboard has a designated button – it’s possible to see the device’s battery status. The keyboard is also in the standard UK layout – which means that a few symbols are in different places than on a US layout keyboard – which is obviously important to me as that’s how I’m used to typing. I’m on Windows 10, but the keyboard should be compatible with Windows 8.1 – or indeed any device capable of using bluetooth.

The typing experience is pleasant. As mentioned, the keys have a satisfying press, and they also have a slightly soft feel that’s definitely nicer than the hard plastic keycaps of the Corsair that I’d been using. It feels closer to typing on a laptop – a premium, high-end laptop – than any desktop keyboard I’ve ever used. Microsoft promises a whopping five million presses per key over the lifespan of the keyboard – so let’s put that to the test over the next few months and years! Unlike in the picture above, the Return/Enter key is full-size, which is something else I greatly appreciate. A single press of the Function button switches between the F-keys (F1 for help, F5 for refreshing web pages, etc) and a variety of other functions. The aforementioned settings button is one, and there are also keys to control the volume, media player keys to play, pause, etc. and even screen brightness controls. I don’t use such keys that often, but the additional functionality is nice, and not having to hold down a second key to use them is also a neat feature.

Of all the “premium” keyboards I looked at, the Microsoft Surface seemed like the best option for me at this point. I was ready for a change from the clicky mechanical switches I’d been using for the past few years, and as someone who does a lot of typing I wanted something I’d be comfortable with. So far, the Surface has accomplished that and I’m happy with my purchase.

It’s hard to make product recommendations, because I don’t know your circumstances. If you have a spare £20 burning a hole in your pocket and you like customised things, get the Design Labs controller and show off your unique style. But if you’re on a budget, skip that and just get a standard controller. Or better yet, find a pre-owned one or a 360 controller and save even more money.

Likewise for the keyboard. If you write as much as I do on a daily basis and want something solid and premium, the Surface could be a good option if you don’t want a mechanical keyboard. But it’s impossible to deny that you can get a perfectly functional keyboard with a number pad – wired or wireless – for a fraction of the price. I just looked on Amazon, and one of the top results was a Microsoft wired keyboard for £10 – a full £80 less than I paid for the Surface. So the question is – what do you want from a keyboard? If you don’t type a lot – or even if you do but are on a tight budget – save your money. Nothing the Surface does is essential and you could get identical functionality far cheaper.

Speaking for myself, though, I’m happy with what I got. Sometimes it’s worth spending the extra money on a higher-end product, and sometimes it’s worth splurging a little on a cool-looking or custom product just for the fun of it. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what best suits your setup and where you want to invest your money.

The Xbox and Surface brands are the copyright of Microsoft. No sponsorship was involved; these are products I purchased for myself with my own money and the article comprises my genuine impressions regarding them. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Halo Infinite’s delay doesn’t matter at all for the Xbox Series X

The blogosphere and the gaming world have been aflame today, following the announcement that Halo Infinite has been delayed. 343 Industries – the studio which acquired the Halo brand when original developer Bungie left the series a decade ago – made the announcement earlier, and it’s significant because the new game will no longer launch alongside the Xbox Series X. Well, unless that gets delayed too!

The general consensus is that this announcement is the worst possible news for the Xbox Series X and could ruin its launch. But will it?

I don’t think the Halo Infinite delay will prove to be all that significant for one major reason: the Xbox Series X was going to have an underwhelming launch anyway. The hardest of the hardcore Xbox fanatics will buy a console, and perhaps a few well-meaning aunties and grandpas will buy one for their relatives for Christmas, but the console most gamers are interested in and excited for is the PlayStation 5. And I’m not saying that as a PlayStation fanboy – for the longest time I was an Xbox guy. It’s just the reality of where most console gamers are right now.

A scene from the recent Halo Infinite trailer.

Microsoft – as I’ve noted several times already – has made the incomprehensible decision to launch the Xbox Series X with literally no exclusive games. Not even one. Halo Infinite is also scheduled for a release on Xbox One and PC, as are a number of other first- and third-party titles that Microsoft has shown off. The arguments in favour of buying an Xbox Series X this year were already nonexistent, so removing one non-exclusive game from its launch lineup will have no material impact on sales. I can practically guarantee that.

With all of the issues that are stacking up right now – including those of Microsoft’s own making – I’d argue there’s a pretty solid case for delaying the console’s launch until next year. In the current economic climate, I’m already expecting that fewer people than usual will be interested in a brand-new console for the inevitable £400+ price tag, and many fans – even those who are genuinely interested to play some next-gen games – may have no choice but to wait it out.

If the Xbox Series X launches alongside the PlayStation 5, all it will do is draw unfavourable comparisons. The lack of exclusive titles is a large part of that, and it’s not inconceivable to think that there could be hundreds of thousands of unsold units sitting on shelves or in warehouses come January. It feels like it’s going to be an expensive flop, and while it may eventually build up a solid user base a few years down the line, the Xbox Series X is already lining up to be the upcoming generation’s second- or even third-tier machine.

The upcoming Xbox Series X.

The Halo Infinite delay will upset some Halo diehards who were excited to see their favourite franchise get a new release for the first time in over five years. But in terms of the launch of the new console – where it wasn’t a system exclusive – it’s genuinely hard to see how it will have any impact whatsoever.

When considering the more general issue of game delays – and, incidentally, delays in other entertainment media as well – I’m all in favour of them. How many titles have been released just in the last few years that would have benefited massively from some additional development time? I can think of many, such as: Anthem, Fallout 76, Mass Effect: Andromeda, No Man’s Sky, 2013’s Star Trek, and WWE 2K20. All of these games released to negative reviews and underwhelming sales, so from that point of view, I fully support the delay to Halo Infinite – and to any other upcoming title that needs it.

I think Mass Effect: Andromeda is a good example of how to screw up a launch, and a great comparison to Halo Infinite. The Mass Effect series was already tarnished by the ending of Mass Effect 3, and was relying on Andromeda to be a semi-reboot of the series. Similarly, the Halo series has been experiencing gradually declining reviews, and while there isn’t one moment fans can point to on a par with Mass Effect 3′s ending that really upset the fanbase, there’s a sense that the series isn’t as good as it once was. Halo Infinite has billed itself as a soft reboot, aiming to return Halo to its roots and put some recent disappointments behind it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda launched in a broken, glitch-riddled state.

When Mass Effect: Andromeda launched, it was a bug-riddled mess. It was mocked online, and the mockery and memes hurt its sales far more than the mediocre reviews the game received. Halo Infinite has already seen its trailer come under heavy criticism for its visuals, which many felt look decidedly current-gen – an odd criticism for a game that literally is a current-gen game as it will be released on Xbox One, but that’s beside the point. If Halo Infinite were to release later this year in its current form, it would have undoubtedly drawn criticism on a scale similar to Mass Effect: Andromeda. And that game killed the Mass Effect series, which was “put on hiatus” in the aftermath of its disappointing launch and underwhelming sales.

It’s clear that 343 Industries and Microsoft feel that Halo Infinite needs more development time to work on the issues it currently faces. And to them I say: take all the time you need. I’d rather wait a little longer for a better, more polished game than play a rushed, broken mess.

Another moment from the Halo Infinite trailer.

But I don’t agree that it will damage the reputation or sales performance of the Xbox Series X. That’s not because the game doesn’t matter to that console – the Halo series is one of Xbox’s few strong selling points, after all – but because behind-the-scenes business decisions have already condemned the Xbox Series X to second place behind the PlayStation 5. In fact if I were advising Microsoft, I’d ask them if they wanted to take this opportunity to delay the console as well.

Flip the issue on its head, and let’s think about it this way around: would Halo Infinite have been a massive help to the Xbox Series X at launch? Because that’s the fundamental assumption people are making when they say its delay will hurt the console, and from where I’m sitting that doesn’t feel true. If I don’t own an Xbox or a PC and – for some reason – have a desperate need to play Halo Infinite, my best bet is to pick up a cheap Xbox One S or a preowned Xbox One from 2013 and play it there. I don’t need to buy an expensive Xbox Series X to play a game that I could play on a console that costs less than half the price. And if I’m already an Xbox One owner, I’m in no rush to upgrade because every Xbox Series X game is coming my way, including Halo Infinite.

So at the end of the day, Halo Infinite’s delay should be good for the quality of the finished title. I’m all in favour of that. And it won’t have any material impact on the launch of the Xbox Series X – because that console is destined for a seriously disappointing launch anyway.

Halo Infinite is the copyright of 343 Industries and Xbox Game Studios. The Xbox Series X and Xbox One consoles are the property of Microsoft. Header image and Mass Effect: Andromeda promo screenshot courtesy of press kits on IGDB. 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.

Xbox’s first big next-gen push falls flat

The “Xbox Series X Gameplay” trailer

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

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

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

Promo image of the Xbox Series X.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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