Look, it’s hard to debut a new console without having a massive reveal event. It’s something Sony has constantly been struggling with and now Microsoft is too – its monumental first look event that promised Xbox Series X gameplay in spades was a disaster.
That sounds harsh and overly critical about a third-party launch event, but I say that with the utmost love for the system: until now, I felt like Microsoft was building up the Xbox Series X as the gamer’s dream console with ray tracing, solid state drives, 60 frame-per-second gameplay as a standard and lightning-fast loading times.
And its first look event was supposed to be a culmination of all that work, I had thought, with marquee games from its most trusted partners like CD Projekt Red, Activision and EA. That's what you'd expect from a third-party showcase, right?
Instead what we saw was vague new IP that feels scarily similar to vaporware we’ve seen at E3’s past and pre-canned cinematics from Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
I hate to say it, but I think Microsoft just made its first big mistake with the Xbox Series X.
Xbox Series X gameplay reveal: what happened?
The mistake in question revolves around the Xbox Series X gameplay reveal that Microsoft announced in early May and took place over a scant 30 minutes on May 7.
On every social channel Microsoft made it sound like this would be the moment gamers had been waiting for – our first deep dive into the games Microsoft had been curating for Xbox Series X. Exciting! I thought.
What transpired instead was a cavalcade of trailers from newer developers that, in many ways, didn’t look like they were pushing the hardware to its limit. Even the one headline game, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, missed the mark when it focused almost exclusively on story exposition in its 2-minute ‘gameplay’ trailer instead of... you know, cutting-edge gameplay.
There were some standouts among the new games shown like Bright Memory Infinite, an extremely fast-paced first-person shooter that takes the gameplay of Bulletstorm and matches it with the near-future setting of a Black Ops game, and Call of the Sea, an exploration game set on an idyllic island, but for every good trailer there were two disappointing or, worse, cringe-worthy trailers for a bland new thriller or twin-stick shooter.
There’s value in showing new IP, obviously, as it shows that you’re partnering with new and varied game studios to produce tons of games for niche audiences, something that Microsoft and the Xbox team have struggled with in the past. But because that wasn’t interspersed with flagship titles or familiar franchises, it reflected poorly on Microsoft’s fledgling console.
This is a golden opportunity for the PS5
When Sony made the faux pas of unveiling a logo at CES or calling the banners of its fanboys for Mark Cerny’s deep dive into the PS5’s architecture, we were quick to call Sony out for its mistakes. “Sony’s rumored PS5 announcement at CES 2020 was a dud” was a headline we actually wrote back in January.
Teasing gamers with a dripfeed of announcements may work for minute, but very quickly that excitement will turn to resentment.
On the other hand, until now, Microsoft was making all the right moves with the Xbox Series X by unveiling the hardware and controllers with unparalleled authority and confidence. It might be that those were flukes from Microsoft’s marketing team - but, until today, it seemed like Microsoft had really honed into what gamers wanted.
The problem with a misstep like this, at least if you’re on Microsoft’s marketing team, is that it presents an opportunity for Sony to win gamers back if it can move fast: we’ve heard rumors that Sony will have a showcase of its own either in late May or early June, and if it uses that showcase for games like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 or Horizon Zero Dawn 2, Microsoft will be in serious trouble.
And don’t forget that, as unimpressive as today’s showcase was, all of those games will likely be available on PS5, too. They’re all third-party after all.
The silver lining is that Microsoft says it will have another first-look event in July - this time with the first-party Xbox Studios titles like Halo Infinite – so there’s another chance to right the ship.
Here’s hoping the first-party games look a lot better than these third-party games.
- Speaking of, here are all the Xbox Series X games we know about
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Nick Pino is Managing Editor, TV and AV for TechRadar's sister site, Tom's Guide. Previously, he was the Senior Editor of Home Entertainment at TechRadar, covering TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He's also written for GamesRadar+, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade, and he has a degree in computer science he's not using if anyone wants it.