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.

The real price of next-gen consoles

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

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

The newly-released PlayStation 5.

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

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

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

An Xbox Series S/X control pad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games of the Generation

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the titles on this list.

The launch of the Xbox Series X earlier today marked the beginning of a new console generation – and thus the end of one too. That generation began in November 2012 with the release of the Wii U, and saw both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 arrive a year later. I’ve been incredibly fortunate over the last eight years to have played a number of different games across all four major consoles, and while I need to say for the record that there are still plenty of big titles I haven’t got my hands on, there’s certainly enough to put together a list like this.

As we say goodbye to the current generation of consoles and jump headfirst into next-gen, let’s take a few minutes to look back at some of the best gaming experiences of the generation… in my subjective opinion!

But before we dive into the list, here’s a short recap of each of the major consoles. The Wii U came first, but was blighted by horrible marketing (even months after release, many gamers were confused as to what the Wii U even was, with many believing its clunky plastic controller to be nothing more than an accessory for the Wii). Nintendo began making losses during this period, and even laid off a number of staff. The console saw some very fun games, but I was one of less than fifteen million people who bought the machine – which in 2012 was clearly not good enough to cover Nintendo’s costs – making the console an expensive failure. For the sake of comparison, the original Wii sold over 100 million consoles, and the Switch is currently sitting at over 60 million a mere three years after release.

The Wii U kicked off this generation in November 2012, but was unsuccessful overall.

Next came the PlayStation 4. Only a few months earlier I’d bought a PlayStation 3, the first Sony machine I’d ever owned. I’d done so solely to play The Last Of Us, and I wasn’t disappointed! After the Xbox One suffered a rocky run-up to launch (we’ll come to that in a moment) PlayStation seized the chance to convert gamers to their platform after running behind for the entirety of the previous generation. And many folks who had previously been invested in Xbox made the switch – PlayStation 4 has almost certainly sold twice as many units as Xbox One, and that couldn’t have happened without Xbox 360 players jumping ship. PlayStation 4 has also had by far the better crop of exclusive games, and that’s another huge factor in its success this generation.

The PlayStation 4 arrived in November 2013 and has been the generation’s best-seller by far.

Xbox One arrived only a week after the launch of the PlayStation 4, but it was not a smooth road for Microsoft’s console. From the moment the console was announced it attracted the ire of gamers. First was its complicated always-online nature, which Microsoft had to backtrack on. Next was the issue of trading in games or sharing them with friends, with Xbox initially seeming to “lock” each disc to a specific user account. This was also something Microsoft U-turned on. Those fiascos were bad enough, but next came Kinect. Bundled with the system – and with no way to opt out – Kinect bumped up the price of the Xbox One at launch, making it $100 more than PlayStation 4. Looking back over several console generations, the cheaper machine usually sells better, and so it proved again. Xbox One also struggled with a lack of decent exclusive games to compete with those available on the PlayStation 4. Despite all of that, however, Xbox Game Pass (a paid subscription service which gives players access to over a hundred titles) definitely found a foothold as the generation drew to a close.

The Xbox One launched a week after the PlayStation 4 – for $100 more.

Finally, 2017 saw the launch of the Nintendo Switch. Where the Wii U had been Nintendo’s attempt to recapture the “hardcore gamer” market, the Switch saw Nintendo realise that its success with consoles like the Wii and the handheld DS and 3DS lineup was due to their appeal to casual players. A console deliberately less powerful than its two competitors, the Switch retained the motion controls that had proven popular on the Wii alongside a new gimmick: the console is a hybrid that can either be played as a handheld device or connected to a screen. After the disappointment of the Wii U, the Switch proved a success from day one, and eclipsed the Wii U’s total lifetime sales in a matter of months.

The Nintendo Switch is the newest major console, having been released in 2017.

So those were this generation’s consoles. Now let’s look at some games!

This list is in three parts. The first part consists of titles that I consider to be incredibly important to the overall gaming landscape of the generation, even if they weren’t “my thing” and/or I don’t have much personal experience with them. The second part of the list contains a handful of titles that failed hard, and whose failures had an impact on gaming in some way. And finally the third part of the list is what you’re all here for – my personal top ten games of the generation.

Without any further ado, let’s get started!

Honourable Mentions

As stated above, this section of the list consists of a few titles that, for whatever reason, weren’t necessarily something I enjoyed or bought into, yet were landmarks in gaming this generation. No “games of the generation” list would be complete without their inclusion.

Number 1: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (2017)

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – or “Pub-G” as some insist on calling it – was the first truly successful battle royale game. There’s debate over the origins of battle royale, and at one point PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds attempted to patent the format, but there can be no denying that this is the game that brought it to mainstream attention. By doing so it revolutionised online multiplayer gaming, and for a while was the most-played game in the world.

Considering how big battle royale titles still are, no end-of-the-generation list would be complete without PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Though the game is still being played, it has arguably been eclipsed by some other titles in the genre it spawned – most notably Fortnite. In that sense it’s one of the most influential games of the generation… even if it isn’t one that’s enjoyed as much ongoing success.

Number 2: Fortnite (2018)

If PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds kicked off the battle royale craze, Fortnite took it to the next level. This title became a powerhouse in the gaming world; a phenomenon the industry hadn’t seen since Minecraft. And it’s a free-to-play game. Many of Fortnite’s biggest fans have never paid a penny despite spending hours and hours playing it, yet it’s managed to become one of the biggest and most financially successful titles in gaming. Ever.

Fortnite isn’t innovative with its gameplay, nor is it innovative in being free; mobile games in particular have used a free-to-play model for years. But Fortnite has taken the world by storm by refining those things and putting them with a fun, cartoony aesthetic that has widespread appeal, especially to younger players. For many kids, Fortnite has been their ticket into a brand-new hobby, and the importance of expanding gaming beyond where it was even a few years ago is immeasurable.

As with any successful title, other games have tried to imitate Fortnite’s success, and in some ways we can assign some degree of blame to Fortnite for making lootboxes and microtransactions more acceptable. However, it isn’t only this game’s fault that companies continue to pursue in-game monetisation!

Number 3: The Witcher 3 (2015)

With so much focus on multiplayer this generation, The Witcher 3 really stands out as a comparative rarity. It demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that there is a market for well-made, expansive single-player games at a time when many companies seemed to be abandoning them. It’s widely considered one of the best games of all-time, not just of the generation, and the success of The Witcher 3 did much to demonstrate to the industry that single-player games could still be critically and financially successful.

As I mentioned when I took a look at a few great games that I haven’t played, The Witcher 3 is on my list and I hope to eventually get to it. Single-player fantasy role-playing games are exactly my kind of thing, but I haven’t got around to this one yet! As a standout title that really boosted the medium, though, I can appreciate The Witcher 3′s success from afar.

Number 4: Grand Theft Auto V – online mode (2013)

Grand Theft Auto V has been a juggernaut this generation, having initially been released on the previous generation’s Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For the last seven years it has seldom dropped out of the top ten bestselling games, which is an incredible achievement. The success is largely due to its online mode, which has made developers Rockstar an insane amount of money.

Competitive online gaming really isn’t my thing, but no list appreciating the generation’s finest should ignore Grand Theft Auto V’s multiplayer mode. Taking the beautifully-crafted world of Los Santos and opening it up to players for jobs and heists together has been a masterstroke on Rockstar’s part.

I was, however, a little disappointed to see that Rockstar simply plan on porting the game to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. I get that it’s been a phenomenally successful title this generation – but I had hoped for a new entry in the series (or a new title altogether) as the gaming world moves on. They see things differently, however, and given Grand Theft Auto V’s success and bustling online scene, maybe they’re right.

Number 5: Undertale (2015) and the whole indie scene

I chose Undertale as an example because it has been widely praised, but this entry also stands to represent titles like Dead Cells, Cuphead, Untitled Goose Game, Donut County, Shovel Knight, and many more indie titles that have wowed audiences this generation. Making a game as an independent developer is a difficult and often expensive undertaking, yet many of these titles – including Undertale – have been fantastic and received critical acclaim.

There’s a perception that all indie games are pixel-art 2D platformers, and while there certainly are titles which fit that description there’s also much more going on in the indie scene. Some of these games go on to inspire whole sub-genres, and as we go into the new generation its a great thing that there are so many independent, smaller developers out there. It keeps the games scene interesting!

Disappointments and Disasters

This section looks at a handful of controversial, disappointing, or outright bad games which nevertheless impacted the games industry this generation. Not every innovation or change to the way games are made comes from success, and some titles may be better-remembered for serving as bad examples than good games.

Number 1: Star Citizen (Unreleased)

How can a game that hasn’t even been released be one of the biggest disasters of the generation? Simple: it’s become the textbook example of how crowdfunding can go wrong in the gaming realm. Star Citizen’s troubled development began way back in 2012, before any of the current-gen systems launched. And it raked in millions of dollars in crowdfunding from eager gamers – only to miss release window after release window, while continuing to beg and scrounge money out of its remaining loyal fans.

At this point, in late 2020, the team behind Star Citizen have raised – and mostly spent – over $300 million. That’s an utterly insane amount of money for any video game, and if reports and rumours are to be believed, it’s still nowhere near complete. What happened with Star Citizen is basically this: a developer had a decent idea for a game, put together a small team, and began work. But as the crowdfunding campaign took off the developers began to promise more and more features, leading to more development time. More development time in turn meant they needed more money, which meant more crowdfunding, which meant more features were promised, and the whole thing has spiralled out of control to the point where the game is an overhyped undeliverable mess.

Star Citizen isn’t a “scam,” because I firmly believe there were good intentions behind it. But the developers needed someone competent to manage the project before it got unwieldy, and someone in charge to prevent it from ever getting so out of control. The idea of selling in-game content for an unreleased game is already pretty shady, but when some of that content can cost thousands of dollars I think someone has to step in and say that it isn’t acceptable. It’s still possible the game will see a release – one day – but even if it does it’s hard to imagine it will be anything less than underwhelming in the extreme for fans who’ve waited years and hyped it to oblivion.

Number 2: Star Wars Battlefront II (2017)

Battlefront II saw the bubbling lootbox controversy boil over. Though it’s been over three years since its 2017 launch, the ramifications of that are still being felt as jurisdictions across the world move to regulate or ban in-game gambling. Electronic Arts has, for years, pushed the envelope for what gamers will tolerate in terms of in-game monetisation. And with Battlefront II they finally pushed too hard and too far.

The game itself is perfectly playable today, but only because EA ripped out as much of the gambling as they could before it hit shelves. Battlefront II also had poor timing, causing controversy in the Star Wars fandom at a time when The Last Jedi was already proving hugely divisive. The combination of the poorly-received game and film meant that Star Wars was in a dark place going into 2018.

Number 3: Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) and Anthem (2019)

Oh, Bioware. How heroes fall! For a number of reasons that boil down to project mismanagement, both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem were rush jobs, put together in months instead of years. And it showed. Andromeda was memed to death, and even though the worst of its bugs and visual glitches were fixed within days of launch by patches, the damage was done and the game’s reputation never recovered.

Anthem overpromised based on a trailer at E3 that was entirely fake. Players who did buy into the game found a half-finished and underwhelming live service experience, and promises of updates and more content weren’t enough to convince more than a few to stick around. As of late 2020, Anthem’s “roadmap” for further updates has been cancelled, and the game is essentially dead.

For a studio like Bioware, these failures feel so much worse because we know that they’re capable of producing some incredible games. Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, and the first two parts of the Mass Effect trilogy are among my favourite role-playing games of all time, so to see the buggy overblown side-mission that was Andromeda and the live service failure that was Anthem is nothing less than a colossal disappointment. There may be light at the end of the tunnel for this once-great developer, however, with a Mass Effect trilogy remaster having been announced a couple of days ago.

Number 4: Fallout 76 (2018)

As above, a developer once revered for its amazing experiences churned out a buggy, underwhelming online multiplayer title. Fallout 76 came after years of declining quality of Bethesda’s own titles, which included port after port of Skyrim and little else. I could never get past the fact that this was a Fallout game with absolutely no non-player characters. The heart of any game like this is its story, and a story needs characters. Fallout 76 thus contained little more than a moderately pretty environment – one built on an ageing engine meaning even the game’s visuals were hardly spectacular.

After walking around, checking out the scenery, and battling a few monsters, there was literally nothing to do. The gunplay was also mediocre to poor, something the Fallout series’ VATS system had masked in previous titles built on the same engine. But with multiplayer there was no way to implement VATS properly, meaning the game’s shooting had to stand on its own… and it fell down.

The first of these points – the missing NPCs – was eventually addressed in an update. But Fallout 76 has been own goal after own goal from Bethesda, including crappy product tie-ins that got recalled, a $100 premium membership, and more besides. The game was a bug-riddled disappointment.

Number 5: Shenmue III (2019)

Shenmue III is one of the biggest disappointments to me personally. Other titles in this section have their problems, but when it comes to my most-anticipated games ever, Shenmue III had been at the top of the list since 2001. After a dedicated group of hardcore fans raised an incredible $7 million through a crowdfunding campaign, the only thing I expected from Shenmue III was that it would finally finish Ryo Hazuki’s story.

In 2001, Shenmue II ended on a cliffhanger, with Ryo’s quest for revenge incomplete – and having just taken an interesting turn. But the failure of the Dreamcast – and the game’s lacklustre sales – meant no sequel was forthcoming. Yu Suzuki, the game’s creator, had always said that the Shenmue saga was an ambitious project, and that’s to be commended, but while I can’t claim to speak for every Shenmue fan, really my only expectation going into Shenmue III was that it would bring the story to a conclusion. If there was too much story to tell in a project this size, then someone had to come in and make cuts to all of the unnecessary fluff to make it fit. For some inexplicable reason, that didn’t happen. Fans raised millions of dollars to end on another cliffhanger. Does Yu Suzuki seriously think he’ll raise millions more to make Shenmue IV and Shenmue V to keep telling this story?

And that’s why it’s such a disappointment. It had one objective as far as I was concerned: finish the story. Fans donated their own money to make that dream a reality, but the developers blew it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a dead, failed series to come back to life and finish its ambitious story. I can’t get over the truly awful decision-making that meant it didn’t happen.

Games of the Generation

Now we come to my personal top ten. I played and loved all of these games this generation, and while there are many more that could have made the list, when I whittled it down these are the titles which made the final cut. These titles are not in any particular order, so this isn’t a ranked list. All ten titles are very different, and thus they’re all my Games of the Generation!

Number 1: Mario Kart 8 (2014)

Originally released for the Wii U in 2014, Mario Kart 8 has since reappeared – in “deluxe” form – on the Nintendo Switch. It isn’t particularly ground-breaking, simply refining and polishing the Mario Kart experience for the high-definition screens that became commonplace over the last decade. But that’s absolutely fine, because Mario Kart doesn’t need a radical overhaul; what keeps players coming back for race after race is that it’s pick-up-and-play fun.

The Switch version bundles the original game with its two DLC packs and adds a few new characters to the roster too. And that’s the way most players have experienced Mario Kart 8, since so few people owned a Wii U! It’s a shame that Nintendo chose to paywall its originally-free online multiplayer, and that decision deserves criticism as it’s awful to implement paid online features to a game that once enjoyed those same features for free.

Regardless, Mario Kart 8 is a lot of fun. Some will argue that the fun is best shared with friends, and though you could certainly make that claim I still find myself picking up the game for a quick race or two against the AI.

Number 2: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019)

I played through Jedi: Fallen Order earlier this year, and I had a wonderful time. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the game the best Star Wars experience I’ve had in a long time, far surpassing some recent film and television attempts from that franchise! Cal’s journey from the shipbreaking yards of Bracca to, well, spoilers, was truly exciting.

This kind of linear, story-focused game has fallen out of favour with many of the bigger games publishers this generation. The rush to make every game an online experience (with recurring monetisation) has unfortunately seen less of a focus on titles like Jedi: Fallen Order; the Star Wars brand saw only the two Battlefront games in the years before its release. However, the success of this title both critically and commercially has already led to a sequel being developed – and hopefully demonstrated once again that there’s life in these kind of games!

Though I did encounter a few bugs and other issues during my playthrough nothing spoilt the experience. There were some great voice acting performances, interesting and varied planets to visit, a couple of neat cameos by characters from the films, and truly beautiful visuals that really brought the setting to life and truly immersed me in a galaxy far, far away.

Number 3: South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014)

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of South Park. Its social commentary can be biting and funny, but sometimes it goes over-the-top to say the least! However, while I haven’t been a regular viewer of the series since I lived in the United States in the mid-2000s, the game South Park: The Stick of Truth managed to catch my attention early in the generation. I gave it a shot, and I’m glad I did!

The game’s visual style is practically identical to the television series, and that alone makes it interesting. Animated shows have been adapted as games many times, but rarely is the appearance so remarkably similar. I think that’s what first captured my attention, but what I found when I played the game for myself was a surprisingly fun role-playing experience.

Not every joke landed, and a few moments in The Stick of Truth were just plain silly. But as an authentic South Park experience that really feels like playing through an extended episode of the television series it’s something unique – or it was until a sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, was released in 2017.

Number 4: Ori and the Blind Forest (2015)

Ori and the Blind Forest never pretends to be a AAA blockbuster. It’s relatively short, with an average playthough lasting around eight hours, but those hours are spent in a beautiful, artistic world. The levels are diverse, and are interesting and challenging in equal measure as protagonists Ori and Sein bid to save their forest home.

Words like “masterpiece” and “beautiful” are thrown around all too easily these days, but I genuinely feel that both apply to Ori and the Blind Forest. For a game about spirits and sprites it’s surprisingly emotional too.

In a generation where Microsoft and Xbox lagged well behind Sony in terms of the quality of their exclusive games, Ori and the Blind Forest was a rare win. It’s since been followed up by Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a sequel which builds on everything the first game got right. Both titles are available on Xbox Game Pass, and are well worth a play for anyone who likes 2D platformers.

Number 5: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)

As with Jedi: Fallen Order above, Uncharted 4 is a linear, story-focused game. This generation has been dominated by sequels, and Uncharted 4 brings to a close the tale of Nathan Drake which began on the PlayStation 3 in 2007. What I love about the series is that it feels like a combination of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, setting up a mythical-historical mystery for Drake and his comrades to uncover.

The first three games in the series were fantastic, but Uncharted 4 was a step up. Truly stunning visuals that pushed the PlayStation 4 to its limit really helped with immersion, and the swashbuckling story was perfectly-paced and well executed. Naughty Dog is a fine studio, and they refined this style of gameplay to perfection by the time of Uncharted 4‘s release.

The PlayStation 4 has had some amazing exclusive games this generation. Whether Uncharted 4 is the best of them will always be a matter of debate, but for me it has to be at or near the top of any such list.

Number 6: Minecraft (2011)

This one is a total cheat since Minecraft was released a full two years before any of the current-gen consoles. But it isn’t unfair to say that the game has enjoyed continued success this generation, which culminated in parent company Mojang being acquired by Microsoft in a deal reportedly worth $2.5 billion. That’s a lot of money for a game I initially dismissed as a scruffy-looking pixel graphics mud hut-builder!

Minecraft became the best-selling game of all-time, and a phenomenon that took the world by storm. It introduced the gaming hobby to millions of new players, including many children, and its ubiquity on practically every platform helped that immeasurably. Even nine years after its initial release the game is still being played and replayed over and over. The Minecraft brand has also been expanded upon, with titles like Minecraft: Story Mode and Minecraft Dungeons set in the same fictional world.

Where I had the most fun with Minecraft is in multiplayer with friends, starting from scratch and building whatever we wanted. I wouldn’t like to guess how many hours were lost digging tunnels, mining resources, and planning how to build a castle with a lava moat or a city in the sky.

Number 7: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014)

The world of Middle-Earth has been ripe for video game adaptations ever since The Lord of the Rings trilogy hit cinemas in the early 2000s, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor follows some truly outstanding games from years past. It took a step back from the books’ familiar characters, introducing players to Talion, an Aragorn-esque Ranger, as he takes the fight to Sauron.

What made Shadow of Mordor stand out mechanically as a video game was its revolutionary “nemesis” system. The game’s AI would track which Uruk commanders that Talion battled – and there were many! Those Uruk could not only become more powerful by killing the player, but defeating them was a key part of the gameplay experience. Orcs and Uruk could be promoted within Sauron’s army, and the aim of the game was to encounter and defeat them. Even now this gameplay mechanic is innovative, and it makes Shadow of Mordor a game with plenty of replay value.

Unfortunately the series was tainted somewhat by the in-game monetisation forced into its sequel, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. While most of that has since been removed, the reputation of both games suffered. It’s a shame, because Shadow of Mordor is one of the best and most immersive experiences set in Tolkien’s world, and is still worth playing today.

Number 8: Super Mario Odyssey (2017)

Super Mario Odyssey took everything that had been great about 3D Mario games and condensed it into one phenomenal title. It dropped gimmicks from Mario Sunshine and Mario Galaxy and returned the series to a style much closer to the beloved Super Mario 64, which remains to this day one of my favourite games of all-time.

The level design was brilliant and incredibly varied, with water levels, desert levels, and even a voyage to the moon all on Mario’s agenda as he races to – once again – save Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser. Hardly an innovative premise, you may say, but the fun of Super Mario Odyssey is in the gameplay rather than the story. There are very, very few titles about which I’d say something like that – so that should show you just how outstanding this game really is.

Despite being brand-new, Super Mario Odyssey gave me a hit of nostalgia and took me back to the mid-1990s when I played Super Mario 64 for the first time. It really does feel like an updated version of that classic game.

Number 9: Fall Guys (2020)

Fall Guys came out of nowhere this summer and surprised me! From the moment I heard the concept – jelly bean-like characters running obstacle courses in a video game homage to the likes of Total Wipeout – I knew I had to give it a try. And despite my general dislike of online multiplayer titles, what I found was a truly fun experience.

Fall Guys makes it easy to jump into game after game, and because each round is so short, even losing doesn’t feel that bad. The different ways in which people play makes every round unique, and while it certainly has its frustrating moments the core gameplay is plenty of fun. A cheating problem plagued the PC version for a while, but an update brought in anti-cheat software and that issue has now all but died out, restoring the fun!

If you’d asked me at the start of the year – or even in June – what my top ten games of the generation were likely to be, Fall Guys wouldn’t have even been on my radar. And when I was putting this list together I was wondering if including it would seem like recency bias; ignoring older games in favour of one I picked up just a few weeks ago. But looking at it on merit, I had a lot of fun with Fall Guys, and I’m happy to include this fun, casual title as one of my top games of this generation.

Number 10: Subnautica (2018)

In the wake of Minecraft’s success many games attempted to recreate its survival and building/crafting features. Many of these so-called “Minecraft clones” were crap, but one survival game that took the genre to wholly new places was Subnautica. The game has an interesting story as players find themselves crash-landing on a watery planet and must explore, collect resources, and build their way to freedom.

Subnautica is one of the few games even in modern times to really get its underwater world feeling right. Many games are notorious for bad underwater sections or levels, and when the whole game is based around swimming and moving underwater, this was something Subnautica couldn’t afford to screw up! The skill and attention to detail that went into this aspect of the game really is incredible.

The underwater setting also made the game feel like something genuinely different in a survival genre that was full of samey titles. Subnautica managed to be something unique as well as plenty of fun, and that combination is greatly appreciated.

So that’s it. A few of the best games of the generation – in my opinion, at least. There are many, many titles that could have made this list, including games I’ve played but forgotten all about, and games that I didn’t get around to yet.

This generation has offered up some truly amazing experiences, and even as we begin the transition to new consoles, there will be more to come. Cyberpunk 2077 and Halo Infinite are both due in the next few months, and there will be a number of other titles released before production fully shifts to the new machines over the next couple of years.

On a personal note, this has been a generation where, for a number of reasons, I found myself playing fewer games than I had in the past. A combination of health, ageing, work, and other factors are to blame – if indeed blame needs to be assigned. Despite that, I had fun with all four of this generation’s major home consoles, something I can say for the first time as a generation comes to a close!

I have no immediate plans to purchase an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, so there won’t be new console reviews coming on the website any time soon. But I can save you the trouble: both machines will be iterative improvements on their predecessors, offering things like faster load times, better controller battery life, and so on. It will be several years before we see any significant improvement in game design or graphics, simply because most upcoming titles are cross-generation and will continue to be limited by the requirements of this generation’s hardware.

Hopefully this has been a fun and interesting look back at some of the highs (and lows) of this generation on the day we mark the official beginning of the next one.

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

Is it the right time for new video game consoles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some next-gen ports are receiving a well-earned backlash

Whenever a new console generation kicks off, it’s inevitable that there will be some games that are released on both new and old systems. This is perfectly understandable in many cases, as games which are new and have had a lot of time and effort put into their development want to get the widest audience possible. Many titles in this category go unnoticed, or at most some reviewers will point out that the game may not be fully-optimised for new hardware. But some other titles are the subject of pretty heavy criticism, and I can fully understand why.

When it was announced that Grand Theft Auto V would be ported to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, many fans were upset. This was a game initially developed for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and it’s going to be ported again? Grand Theft Auto V has been a juggernaut this console generation after getting its start in 2013, but after more than seven years fans are itching for a new entry in the series.

Grand Theft Auto V was originally released in 2013 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

In 2014, when Grand Theft Auto V was re-released on current-gen consoles, it was barely a year old. No one at the time begrudged Rockstar the chance to port the title to new hardware because there was an understanding that the game had been a big undertaking. As the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era drew to a close, it made sense to bring some new titles to the new systems.

But that was six years ago, and in that time Rockstar has developed and published precisely one new game – Red Dead Redemption II. There are arguments to be heard that the pace of game development as a whole has slowed, and I don’t want to ignore the reality that developing an open-world game on the scale of Grand Theft Auto V is a colossal undertaking. But that doesn’t excuse what seems to many fans to be the company taking shortcuts.

Red Dead Redemption II is Rockstar’s only game in seven years.

What’s worse is that the time and effort spent on creating a next-gen port could arguably be better spent creating a new title. Even in a studio with the financial resources of Rockstar, porting existing games does take time, resources, and personnel away from other projects. So it’s not just a case of corner-cutting – fans feel that the company is wasting time.

Practically every current-gen title is going to be “forward-compatible” with new hardware anyway. What that means is that any Xbox One game should work on the Xbox Series X, and any PlayStation 4 game should work on PlayStation 5 by default – including titles like Grand Theft Auto V. So there’s no need to spend time and money reworking a seven-year-old game for new hardware; existing versions will work just fine.

Both next-gen consoles will be backwards-compatible with current games by default.

If the upgrades were going to be free, allowing players who own a current-gen copy of the game to experience the tweaks and changes on new hardware, I don’t think anyone would mind. In fact, players have praised companies like CD Projekt Red, whose 2015 title The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is receiving such a free upgrade. But Rockstar – and other companies too – plan to re-release their old games and get gamers to shell out more money for the next-gen version. It feels decidedly anti-consumer.

Even though I’m not a big online multiplayer person, I recognise the appeal that Grand Theft Auto V has as an online experience. But after seven years I feel that online experience has run its course, and most players will be ready for a new challenge. Those who want to stick with what they already have can either continue to play on Xbox One/PlayStation 4 or can even bring their existing copy of the game to the new consoles; there’s no need to buy it all over again.

Grand Theft Auto V is getting a next-gen re-release in 2021… eight years and two console generations later.

Another company that has been roundly criticised for its approach to next-gen is 505 Games, publisher of Control. This is a game I’ve been looking forward to playing, as it has great reviews, but it’s another example of next-gen upgrades being denied to existing fans. The only way to play Control will be to buy it again on the new consoles, and to many fans the small upgrade seems like a big expense.

The Last Of Us was similarly criticised at the beginning of the PlayStation 4 era for being re-released in a “remastered” state less than a year on from its PlayStation 3 debut. At the time I was genuinely shocked by the gall of developer Naughty Dog; how can a game less than a year old be remastered already? But The Last Of Us sold very well on PlayStation 4, cementing this business model in the minds of executives as one that works and will rake in cash for comparatively little effort.

The Last Of Us was re-released on PlayStation 4 mere months after its PlayStation 3 premiere.

At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about. Money. Re-releasing a game with a few minor upgrades and hardware-specific tweaks is relatively inexpensive and offers companies huge financial rewards. It should be no surprise to learn that a big company wants to make more money, and I get that we live in a society where profit and growth matter. It’s just that it feels so anti-consumer, and even big companies need to be aware of their reputations. It’s easy to dismiss criticism and backlash as coming from just a whiny minority of hardcore fans, but companies like Electronic Arts have found – to their great cost – just what can happen when they push players too far.

It’s only in the last console generation that the idea of cross-generation releases has been such a big deal anyway. In the days of the SNES and the Nintendo 64 the idea of a game from one system being ported wholesale to new hardware just didn’t exist. There were ports, but they tended to be things like Super Mario All-Stars, which was a compilation of several games instead of a single title, and offered players good value as a result.

There weren’t many ports in the SNES era, and those that did exist were bundles like Super Mario All-Stars.

But if you’d told me in 2005, when the Xbox 360 was launched, that the original Halo game was just going to be straight-up ported to the new system and that players would be expected to “just buy it again” I’d have been absolutely gobsmacked. What a nonsense idea that would have been even as recently as 2005! We’ve come to accept some of these things in the fifteen years since, but even by today’s standards, some of the proposals for next-gen re-releases are drawing well-earned backlash.

Though it wasn’t possible to predict the impact of the coronavirus pandemic even a few short months ago, the changing situation in the world should be something companies take note of. There’s a good chance that many folks are going to have less disposable income at least in the short-term, and being asked to re-purchase a seven-year-old game on a new console is definitely not something that should be considered under current circumstances. Even were it not for the pandemic, I think this practice would still be inappropriate and anti-consumer. But given where things currently sit, it’s even worse.

This is the kind of practice that can start big companies on a slippery slope to reputational damage and more widespread criticism, and I would advise them to tread carefully. Rockstar – or any other company engaged in a similar practice – could garner a lot of goodwill today by announcing that the next-gen version of whatever game they’re working on will be free to anyone who currently owns it. Or, on the flip side, they could continue to draw criticism and ire for their greed and lack of care.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional artwork 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.