The Xbox Series X gameplay reveal event was strangely lacking in gameplay.
On April 30th 2020 Microsoft announced a new entry in its Inside Xbox series, promising a first look at “next-gen gameplay from global developers”, sparking excitement in the gaming community that – finally – the first real glimpse of next generation gameplay would be revealed. This “gameplay reveal show” however, aired on May 7th, wasn’t quite the next-gen showcase that many had hoped for.
Although there were a large number of new games revealed in the showcase, every single one carried that age-old “in-engine footage representative of expected gameplay” caveat, and most showed nothing that could realistically be classified as actual gameplay. Hyping up a gameplay reveal event only to show in-engine cinematics is only ever going to lead to disappointment.
The show got off to a good start however, with an impressive showing from FYQD-Studio’s Bright Memory: Infinite which (despite that in-engine footage disclaimer present and correct) at least actually looked like somebody playing the game. With next-gen-favourite effects rain and wind in plentiful supply, and assumed ray-traced lighting in full effect, it did a good job of demonstrating a level of graphical fidelity that is just not possible on current hardware.
Next up was DiRT 5 from Codemasters, which again looked impressive enough sporting that ray-traced lighting to make its surfaces extra shiny, but unfortunately was the start of the barrage of ‘cinematic trailers’ that would make up the rest of the show and which didn’t showcase a satisfactory leap over the ‘in-engine’ footage seen countless times before.
Microsoft played fast and loose with the term ‘gameplay’ right from the start of the stream.
Following DiRT 5 was Scorn from Ebb Software, with a highly H.R. Giger inspired art style, this was another cinematic trailer which saw the first appearance of something else that this showcase was unexpectedly full of – some rather disturbing imagery. Indeed, although the show was preceded by an 18 rated trailer warning (as most are), many of the videos that followed were relentlessly disturbing and bleak. Sympathies go out to those who tuned in for the 4pm (UK) stream with children in the room.
After Scorn came Chorus, a space shooter from Fishlabs which looked impressively fast and action packed. And dark and grim. Then Madden 21, which NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes assures us he “can’t wait to get his hands on”. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 was next and duly brought back the disturbing, albeit this time whilst cut to Wayne Newton’s cheery 1963 song ‘Danke Schoen’. Call of the Sea from developer Out of the Blue was next, which lightened the mood a bit with a nice Sea of Thieves-esque art style, before a string of dark, grim, atmospheric or all-of-the-above trailers rounded out the show.
And then came the main event.
The only game that had been confirmed to feature before the show kicked off was the newly announced Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla from Ubisoft. Valhalla undoubtably looked impressive, with sweeping vistas and highly-detailed character models, but again was only presented as a scant 70 second in-engine cinematic – making it difficult to appreciate entirely. And herein lies the problem; in-engine cinematics, whilst technically impressive, are overly familiar to gamers. They have looked incredible for years and are just no longer the best way to show off improvements in graphics technology.
Of course Microsoft (and Sony too) have often played ”target footage’ in pre-release events to give a glimpse of what it’s new hardware is likely to achieve, but the repetition of the word gameplay in the lead up to this event was clear, and left a sour taste for those who were understandably hoping to see what they would actually be playing when this console launches.
There was some surprisingly dark and disturbing imagery on display throughout the presentation.
After a rocky start to the generation, Microsoft have done much over the last few years to get gamers back on-side. A clearly defined road map for Series X and a carefully fostered player-focused approach has improved their reputation dramatically since the initial Xbox One launch, but following this latest Inside Xbox event fans took to social media to vent their frustrations and to claim that the build-up had been misleading. Above all else, it was just disappointing. Microsoft built players up to expect something that they subsequently failed to deliver.
This event was only the first step on Microsoft’s long promotional road for its games, but let’s hope that their first-party showcase in July – and indeed whatever Sony has up its sleeve – does a better job of conveying just how impressive the next generation is going to be.
Disappointingly, this was a missed opportunity for Microsoft. When gamers have spent over a decade being fed stunning ‘cinematic trailers’ for each new title that comes along, it’s going to take more than that to sell what the next generation is really capable of.