Despite a strong opening, the latest Xbox Games Showcase suffered from the same problem as before.
This time was supposed to be different. It’s safe to say that the last Xbox conference back in May didn’t go down too well with much of its audience. Billed by Microsoft as a “next-gen gameplay reveal” it turned out to be anything but, prompting Xbox representatives themselves to quickly admit that they should have “managed expectations better” during the build up. However, as disappointing as the event was, it was always designed as a third-party showcase, with the main event to follow in the form of an upcoming first-party showcase. The rhetoric going in was that this event would show that Microsoft had learned a lesson, that they were listening, and that none other than Halo Infinite would lead the way forward.
And sure enough, things started really well. Diving straight in with Halo and a near seven-minute gameplay trailer, Microsoft wasted no time in revealing its trump card. Although perhaps not the pronounced graphical leap many had hoped for, the demo made a conscious effort to evoke the iconic opening of Combat Evolved, and was all the better for it. Master Chief, a crashed ship, a looming halo in the distance and sunlight shining proudly through the treetops. It was fan-service in its purest form, and a truly welcome return to the sense of scale and awe that many had felt was missing from the last two entries – although it seems rather telling that 343’s grand reveal of its new vision for Halo contained none of the elements that the studio itself has introduced to the series. Nonetheless, it was great to see plenty of that classic Halo sense of fun and chaos that the Bungie iterations featured in such abundance; hapless Grunts, smart Elites, vehicles, epic backdrops and plasma grenades. Plasma grenades everywhere.
Halo Infinite started the show off with a bang, featuring open vistas, chaotic enemy encounters and a sense of chaos and fun sorely missing from the last two titles.
Microsoft promised gameplay and Halo, and with this first reveal they duly delivered. But what followed was a succession of short, cinematic ‘in-engine’ trailers that gave little to no indication of either the power of Microsoft’s new super console, or indeed how most of the games themselves will actually play. There was one for State of Decay 3, and one for Dontnod’s Life is Strange successor Tell Me Why. There was one for Stalker 2, and one for Warhammer 40K: Darktide. Bloober Team’s The Medium had one too, but at least looked interesting with its dual-world premise and Silent Hill-esque atmosphere. The long awaited Psychonauts 2 showed some basic gameplay (but only after behind the scenes footage of Jack Black singing) followed by some footage of Remedy’s single-player portion of Crossfire X and The Gunk, from the makers of Steamworld Dig, which featured some very brief gameplay snippets interspersed with video.
There were certainly some genuinely exciting reveals sprinkled throughout. The utterly stunning Tetris Effect is finally coming to Xbox, complete with an intriguing new multiplayer mode. Phantasy Star Online 20th Anniversary is a sure-fire cult crowd-pleaser. As Dusk Falls from Interior/Night – a studio made up of many former Quantic Dream staff – looked very interesting, with a visual style reminiscent of a sort of interactive version of Grand Theft Auto’s loading screens, and Avowed from Obsidian will certainly be one to keep a close eye on. Rare’s Everwild looked absolutely glorious with its cel-shaded anime art style, but again, the short cinematic provided little insight into what the game actually is, and Turn 10 showed off a predictably incredible in-engine trailer for the new mainline Forza which made a point of showing off judicious use of ray tracing effects and hyper-real car models. Then there was the rather baffling decision to announce that a location documentary for Hellblade 2 had just been uploaded to YouTube, rather than showing any of the game itself.
But wait, there’s always time for “just one more thing”, and right on queue, just as the show looked set to end we are introduced to a final reveal designed to give us something to remember. Its Fable, a game long-rumoured (and now confirmed) to be under the stewardship of Playground Games, and a series which many gamers hold very close to their hearts. But yet again, after an introduction from Stephen Fry himself and a CG trailer lasting little over 45 seconds – showing nothing of note aside from the game’s title – it ends before it begins, and the show is over with a nagging sense of what could have been.
The show’s “one more thing” moment came with the announcement of the long-rumoured Fable reboot. Unfortunately, the reveal trailer wasn’t much longer than this screenshot.
There were undoubtedly some great titles announced throughout the show, and a good mix of styles and genres too – something Microsoft has sometimes struggled with – but the insistence on sticking to the same tired format of shows past, and showing a continuous reel of glorified TV ads despite repeated claims to the contrary – just leaves the impression that Microsoft can talk a good game but not truly show one off.
One thing never in doubt however, was that the star of the show yet again was Game Pass. Microsoft’s ever-expanding subscription service continues to offer a remarkable value-proposition to tempt gamers into the wider Xbox ecosystem, with every game on show at the event confirmed as launching on the service. Indeed, getting you signed up to the service – regardless of which platform it is on – currently seems of far more importance to Microsoft than getting you to buy the new console. This is a bold move that is commendably consumer-friendly, but one worries of the extent to which the initial uptake of the Series X will be affected if players simply don’t need one to play all of these games.
Ultimately, the overriding feeling after the show is of disappointment. Halo looks like the brilliant return to form fans have been hoping for since Bungie departed the series, and Forza looks as though it will be as spectacular as ever, but the almost complete lack of gameplay shown elsewhere proved again that before making lofty promises beforehand, Microsoft should perhaps take their own advice, and manage expectations a little better.