As the next generation of consoles grows ever nearer, it’s hard to ignore how drastically the next-gen conversation has changed in the weeks following the PlayStation 5 reveal. For as deafening as Sony’s silence was for the six months leading up to the event, and for as much as Xbox dominated headlines by revealing the console, in-depth specs, and consumer-friendly features like Smart Delivery, everything shifted in that hour and 15 minutes. From viral reaction videos to glowing reviews and endless excitement from fans online, it’s as if the gaming community at large has already decided that PlayStation has “won” the next generation before it’s started.
This is precisely why Xbox’s first-party showcase is quickly becoming one of the most important events in Xbox history. Despite the success of GamePass and ID@Xbox, and despite how promising xCloud and the Series X hardware are looking, none of it matters without strong first-party content to tie everything together. To this end, Microsoft needs to exhibit three main things during its event if it wants to compete: deep dives into titles we already know about, a strong launch lineup featuring more than Halo Infinite, and the debut of new IP to bolster Xbox’s list of core franchises. Here’s a look at how all of that can play out next month.
Gameplay Deep Dives
Xbox had been leading the next-gen conversation for the first half of 2020 and hadn’t made a misstep until its third-party “next-gen gameplay showcase” where they hardly showed any gameplay. The fallout from this was tremendous, and the PS5 reveal just rubbed it in further; though most titles didn’t show HUDs (and some were fully cinematic reveals like Horizon: Forbidden West), there was enough gameplay in the PS5 presentation for viewers to draw stark comparisons between the two.
Based on a recent Phil Spencer interview where he insists that the Xbox team has “taken feedback from [their] last event,” the July showcase is almost sure to have much more in the way of gameplay demonstrations than its May cousin. Not every title needs to be shown in action–especially ones several years away–but the vast majority should be, even if it’s for less than a minute. Here are just a few that we’re likely to get dedicated segments on.
If Microsoft can only impress with one thing during its July showcase it has to be Halo Infinite. The Halo name is still one of the most revered in gaming despite Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians being less than stellar, and the fact that Infinite will be there at launch puts all the more pressure on it to be the return to form the franchise has needed for years.
The relative silence from 343 Industries and some key studio departures have led to speculation that development on Infinite has been a bit troubled, but all of that needs to be put to rest with this showing. As Xbox’s banner next-gen title it should ideally get around 10 minutes of mind-blowing gameplay running on a Series X: half campaign, half multiplayer. What we shouldn’t see is a beta announcement; as much as Xbox has leaned into consumer-friendly cross-gen support, a beta on current hardware would only further the narrative that Series X has no true exclusives for the first year. Hold off, build up anticipation, and make Infinite worth the wait.
Much like BluePoint’s Demon Souls remake, a next-gen Fable reboot has become one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets. And just like Demon Souls, it’s the developer of the project that makes the rumor so enticing: Playground Games. If any developer in Microsoft’s arsenal knows how to create a lush open world it’s Playground, and judging by their public building of an “RPG team” over the past couple years, it’s a safe bet that we’ll see the fruits of their labor at the July event.
Though it likely won’t ship within the Xbox Series X’s launch window, it’s imperative that Microsoft take the time to show what makes this revival so special. Fable never realized its full potential under the direction of creator Peter Molyneux, and if Playground hones in on the worldbuilding, humor, and emphasis on player choice that made Fable 2 so beloved by fans, this could be the show-stopping open-world adventure title that Microsoft needs to compete with Horizon: Forbidden West and Breath of the Wild 2.
Forza Horizon 5
Speaking of Playground, there’s a fair chance that we’ll see their other project at this event as well: the unconfirmed Forza Horizon 5. The series has been on a consistent two-year development cycle since it began in 2012, suggesting that Forza Horizon 5 could be out as early as this winter. Playground has stated numerous times that it has two separate studios: a dedicated racing game studio and the aforementioned RPG studio. Just like Insomniac was able to premiere two new games at the PS5 reveal, the same might be the case for Playground at the Xbox event.
Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Horizon 4 were some of the most well-regarded racing games of the last decade and quickly became widely-appealing arcadey alternatives to more sim-like series like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo. The bar has been set high, and after taking place in Colorado, France/Italy, Australia, and England, the biggest question will no doubt be what the setting of the fifth entry is. A short presentation on the locale, multiplayer features, and upgrades that the Series X is bringing is all this new entry needs to get racing fans and general audiences alike excited.
Of course, there’s always the chance we’ll get Turn 10’s long-awaited Forza Motorsport 8 at launch instead. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a negative, and would line up with Sony’s debut of Gran Turismo 7, the niche nature of sim racers would inherently make its announcement less exciting to most people. Regardless, we’re guaranteed to see a new Forza title in one form or another.
Xbox Series X Launch Details
Despite presenting a rock-solid lineup of first- and third-party exclusives, Sony didn’t provide any release dates (and only a few release windows) at the PS5 reveal. Now that the glitz and glamor has worn off a bit, it’s no doubt left many wondering: aside from Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Godfall, and Bugsnax, what other reason is there to pick up a PS5 at launch?
It’s been about a year now since Phil Spencer announced that Xbox Series X would launch with Halo Infinite. While the impact of that will largely depend on Infinite’s showing next month, Xbox would have a leg up if they could detail what other exclusives players have to look forward to on day one.
The most likely candidates are a new Forza title, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Battletoads. However, ID@Xbox’s strong ties with the indie community could also pay off more than ever here. After backing high profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Cris Tales, Haven, and Forager, one can only imagine that they’d try to secure a few timed exclusives for themselves just like Sony did. This has been billed as a first-party event, but it’d be a nice surprise to see Microsoft bend that rule and bring in a few smaller titles to show off the launch lineup.
Tying into what players can expect at launch, this July event would be the perfect time to drive home what makes the Xbox Series X so special. The Rachet and Clank: Rift Apart announcement at the PS5 reveal stood out for one major reason: it showcased what the PS5 was capable of. Not only did the particle effects and lighting look spectacular, but the near-instant transitions between worlds were an impressive display of what Sony’s much-lauded custom SSD is capable of.
If Microsoft really wants to sell players on making the generational leap despite its cross-gen plans for the first year or so, it needs to emphasize the benefits of the new hardware. In presentation form, this can mean showing how super-fast load times allow something like Microsoft Flight Simulator to run better, how seamless it is to jump between five suspended games, or just the sheer graphical fidelity of the Series X. Everyone on the fence about upgrading needs to be pushed off by the end of this showcase.
If Xbox has one fatal flaw, it’s its lack of memorable IP. Though Nintendo has the most valuable first-party IP by far, the PS5 reveal proved that Sony isn’t a slouch either; Spider-Man, Rachet and Clank, Astrobot, Gran Turismo, Horizon, LittleBigPlanet, and deep ties to FromSoftware are all paying off, and that’s not even counting Uncharted, The Last of Us, and God of War.
By comparison, Xbox is largely known for Halo, Gears, and Forza (those in the know might throw in Sunset Overdrive or Killer Instinct, but those are far more niche). Xbox needs new premiere IP that can blossom into successful franchises with staying power. It needs a strong new lineup that can be drawn upon for years to come like Nintendo does with Mario and Sony does with God of War.
Who could be building these new franchises? All signs point to Rare, Obsidian, Ninja Theory, and The Initiative.
We only got a glimpse of Rare’s new IP at XO19 last fall, but what we saw looked perfectly in line with Rare’s classic cartoony charm and vibrant visuals. Not much has come out about Everwild since then, but the announcement trailer hints at an experience steeped in nature, magic, and the protection of wildlife. The trio of explorers in said trailer has also led to speculation that Everwild might be a primarily co-op title, though what exactly players will be doing still remains to be seen.
It’s unclear if Everwild has the scope and ambition of a major new IP, but it’s quite possible. After the rocky launch of Sea of Thieves (which was eventually turned around through a steady series of updates), this could very well be the title that truly puts Rare back on the map as a premier game studio.
Obsidian is in an interesting spot as a newly-acquired first-party studio. The Outer Worlds was met with praise from critics and players alike when it released last fall, and Grounded–a passion project being worked on by a small team within the studio–is going into Xbox Game Preview and Steam Early Access in late July. While The Outer Worlds team is busy working on story DLC expected to drop later this year, that still leaves the team behind 2018’s Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire working on an unannounced project.
The studio has teased that they’re working on multiple titles as recently as last fall. Could one of them be Pillars 3? Possibly, but there’s also a chance that this talented team was charged with creating a more big budget, modern RPG. Whatever it is, it’s likely still quite early in development especially considering that the team wouldn’t have gotten the necessary funds until their acquisition last year. Still, we get a short teaser (Project Athia-style) of what’s to come.
Though Hellblade isn’t a new IP, the scope of Ninja Theory’s sequel could very well make it feel like one. Just as 2018’s God of War completely reinvented the franchise to appeal to new and old fans alike, so too can Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 completely revamp one of 2017’s most beloved experiences.
Seeing as this was only the second next-gen title to be officially revealed, it’s very possible that Hellblade 2 could launch in the first year of the Xbox Series X. As such, it’ll likely get a portion of the presentation dedicated to showing off the immense graphical leap from the original, how the gameplay has evolved, and how Ninja Theory is incorporating its Project Mara research to make Hellblade 2 as visceral and horrifying as possible. If any title aside from Halo Infinite has the potential to get people talking, it’s this one.
The Initiative is the biggest question mark of Microsoft Game Studios and the most surefire shot they have of a new powerhouse IP. Rumors point towards a Perfect Dark revitalization, and if done well, that could work for the same reasons Hellblade 2 could. However, the prospect of a “quadruple-A” studio creating a new IP is so enticing that one can only hope the Perfect Dark rumors aren’t true.
While they’re still hiring for key roles like “Art Director,” “Senior AI Engineer,” and “Senior Producer” at the time of writing, The Initiative was established two years ago in an effort to give Xbox its own Naughty Dog-esque studio; it’s hard to believe they won’t have something to show here. For an event that could dictate the next several years of Xbox’s success, The Initiative’s first title has to live up to its astronomically-high expectations.
There’s no doubt that Microsoft has their work cut out for them; Sony’s market share is gargantuan, and they have the combination of sequels and nostalgia to carry that playerbase forward. That said, the Xbox platform has done nothing but improve over the generation. It’s the leader in backwards compatibility, power, services, and accessible hardware–it just needs a competitive lineup of stand-out IP.
While we might get the official reveal of Lockhart during this event, that won’t matter nearly as much as the game presentations. Even if it comes in at $100 less than the PS5 Digital Edition, no one will buy it if they don’t have great games to look forward to. If Xbox can keep its presentation tight, focus on gameplay, and announce new franchises to break up the current Halo/Gears/Forza structure, the Xbox Series X will be a force to be reckoned with this fall and beyond.