After years of rebuilding, Xbox is finally in the goods-delivering business

Forza Motorsport SGF 2022
(Image credit: Turn 10)

Starfield’s reveal at the Xbox and Bethesda Games Showcase opened with a quote from 1894, the year Bethesda’s intended RPG opus was first announced. “The wonder is, not that the field of stars is so vast,” wrote the poet and journalist Anatole France, “but that man has measured it”. 

At times, in recent years, reporting on Xbox’s acquisitions has felt a little like squinting at the night sky. As the company added new lights to its constellations, we looked for patterns and attempted to predict the paths of stars in motion. At worst, the process has felt less like astronomy and more like astrology, as we’ve guessed at the games likely to come out of these new business deals and partnerships.

Yesterday, finally, we started to see results. A new direction for Obsidian, a brave new Minecraft game from Mojang, and a Game Pass release slate dominated by Bethesda blockbusters. The biggest blockbuster of all may not be burning as brightly as hoped – I’ll come back to that – but Microsoft’s unfathomably large studio spend is now paying off for fans, delivering a broad, colorful, and most of all tangible array of experiences that will all be playable within 12 months. Not even Geoff Keighley, with an entire industry to cherry-pick from for his Summer Game Fest showcase, could compete. 

Grid image of all of the games coming Xbox Game Pass in the next 12 months

(Image credit: Future)

For better or worse, the Xbox and Bethesda show was bookended by echoes of a high-profile failure – Fallout 76. Arkane’s new co-op shooter, Redfall, shares a marketing problem with Bethesda Game Studios’ grand MMO folly: it has to prove that something people loved to play solo won’t be ruined by multiplayer.

The Xbox and Bethesda show was bookended by echoes of a high-profile failure.

Thankfully, Arkane makes a far better argument for co-op Deathloop than 76 ever did for online Fallout. While Redfall will be wholly playable in single-player, I don’t want to miss out on the banter between characters like inventor-cryptozoologist Devinder and teammate Layla, “the telekinetic threat in student debt”. The potential for coordinated shot syncs, meanwhile, recalls co-op all-timer Rainbow Six Vegas. It may not be dangerous to go alone, but it will be less diverting.

In the Myst

In fact, Redfall was one of a few reminders that first-person shooters need not reside in grey corridors, or even look like they belong to the same genre. Scorn set off the Giger-counters of Alien fans everywhere, and evoked both Myst and Planescape with its hazy yet imposing architecture. Overwatch 2 and Gunfire Reborn brought more color than a hard slap to the cheek. And then there’s High On Life’s irresistible talking gun premise – advancing on the living weapons of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath with quips from Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland.

High on Life

(Image credit: Squanch Games)

Thanks to the mergers – and a flurry of day one Game Pass deals with outside developers – it’s evident Xbox has had an embarrassment of riches to pull from. Though its wide net also caught games from scandal-singed companies like Blizzard and Riot, highlighting the reputational problems Microsoft will face as it scoops up huge segments of the industry.

Microsoft's wide net also caught games from scandal-singed companies

It’s strange to see a new sell for League of Legends in 2022 – a game that has dominated its genre for the whole span of my ten-year career – but as a tactical move, it makes sense. If Riot wants to expand still further, and embrace a young audience that may not have heard of MOBAs, it can do that on Game Pass. It also begs the question: will there be a new class of Game Pass user, paying a monthly sub for access to a single, beloved game? And if that’s so, are we doing the 90s all over again?

The existence of As Dusk Falls would suggest that we are. Its branching choices and storyboard-style animation both recall Jordan Mechner’s 1997 rotoscoped indulgence, The Last Express. Mojang, for its part, is heading back to the 00s. Of the studio’s various Minecraft spinoffs, Legends is the most appealing to date, an ‘action strategy’ game belonging to the lineage of Brutal Legend and Pikmin – messy genre hybrids about directing underlings from the frontlines. Then there’s another millennium throwback in Ereban, an uncompromised stealth game, like in ye olden days.

No game lays claim to history quite like Pentiment, though. Obsidian’s playable medieval woodcut prints game might come as a surprise to fans of Obsidian’s RPGs, but not to fans of the studio’s design director, Josh Sawyer, whose obsession with the past also flavored the lore of the Pillars of Eternity games. As Grounded graduates early access, it’s becoming clear that Obsidian was never a studio that only wanted to make RPGs – just one that couldn’t persuade publishers to let it make anything else.

Fall off

Of course, it wasn’t Obsidian that RPG fans were looking to for news yesterday, but Bethesda Game Studios. Finally, we can stop peering through the clouds and see Starfield for precisely what it is: a space sim grafted atop Fallout 4. It evidently suffers from the same faux-shooter syndrome that has plagued the Fallout games, its developer still lagging behind Bethesda stablemates id Software, Arkane, and MachineGames in dynamic movement and combat feedback. The cheap dopamine hit of a morsel of XP is no longer an adequate replacement for a truly punchy shotgun. Oh, but it’s not lockpicking this time: it’s digipicking.

It’s worth remembering that the inherent intrigue and dark humor of Fallout were, well, inherited. Todd Howard, who has had a huge influence over Starfield, has always been drawn to more vanilla fantasies: green hillocks, dragons, and now NASA. And so we get a bland universe of wood panels and grey rocks. That said, it’s good to see Bethesda continue to push into base building, reviving the ad hoc outpost construction that partially redeemed Fallout 76, and adding the potential for modular ship creation. Let’s just hope there’s something out there – Starfield’s scale must surely come at the cost of curation.

Don’t bet on Starfield too early, is my advice.

Fallout 76 itself made a brief appearance mid-show, blaring Downtown over footage of a decaying Pittsburgh. It brought to mind, unbidden, the game’s original association with Take Me Home, Country Roads, and Bethesda’s ability to whip up giddy excitement around an iffy product. Don’t bet on Starfield too early, is my advice.

Even if Howard’s space program disappoints, it’ll be but one rectangle in a crowd of tempting Game Pass additions to appear on the service in the next year. That’s what Microsoft has paid for, after all – not guaranteed bangers, but a steady flow of varied, unique, and mostly good games that together justify the price of admission. A field full of stars.

Jeremy Peel
TRG features editor

Jeremy is TRG's features editor. He has a decade’s experience across publications like GamesRadar, PC Gamer and Edge, and has been nominated for two games media awards. Jeremy was once told off by the director of Dishonored 2 for not having played Dishonored 2, an error he has since corrected.