During last week’s business update, Microsoft leadership reaffirmed two differentiators for the Xbox ecosystem: Game Pass (every first party game coming day one) and platform accessibility (cross-play, cross-save, cloud streaming). Yet I don’t see either feature today as a compelling reason for net new gamers beyond the PC and console core – Xbox’s stated long term growth target – to jump in with Xbox. They are features with huge potential but are stuck today in alpha mode.
Game Pass unquestionably has a lot of great games, but most of the library encompasses small, under the radar indie titles or older catalog hits. Microsoft puts all its first party titles on the service, but none have the marquee prestige and popularity of franchises popularized on rival systems from Sony and Nintendo. Furthermore, I find the onboarding process on Game Pass intimidating for newcomers. There’s a bewildering number of choices, and the Game Pass app’s recommendation system is limited and simplistic; there’s no sense of individual game length or difficulty to guide new players.
Recent news suggests Microsoft will shift Xbox to a multiplatform release strategy; existing and future first party games, including Starfield, Indiana Jones, and Gears of War will be ported to PS5 and Nintendo Switch. While we won’t know the whole story until a “business update” next week, I expect the change to be extensive, with many if not most top tier titles available soon on PSN and the Nintendo Store. In the face of lagging sales and stalled Game Pass subscriptions, the corporation is making a big bet that will attempt to thread a needle: keep an Xbox ecosystem sustainable – digital purchases on the Microsoft Store, lively Xbox Live network, Game Pass subscribers – while going multiplatform with in house studio games to generate additional revenue.
It’s a risk; no gaming company has succeeded as such an extensive third party publisher and simultaneous platform holder. Executed poorly, the plan could push the Xbox ecosystem into an eventual death spiral: gamers shift away from Xbox with its lack of exclusives, the install base drops, so other publishers stop porting games to Xbox, which leads to fewer players, until eventually Microsoft pulls the plug. Xbox hardware and accessories are dead, the digital library goes kaput, and Microsoft becomes a pure third party publisher like Sega.
Many professional critics consider 2023 one of the best years in gaming we’ve had in a long time. OpenCritic underlines this opinion; more games than average this year landed a coveted score of 85 or higher. But I was left mildly underwhelmed by what I played.
“Keeping up” as a modern console gamer is a challenge, with time available as my main hurdle. Many of the most acclaimed games this year – Baldur’s Gate 3, Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty – are massive action adventure RPGs. They demand at least thirty-plus hours of my time to complete and are challenging to dip in and out of casually. Multiplayer experiences like Call of Duty or Halo Infinite still have a steep learning curve to play competitively. I never felt like I had the focus (or reflexes) to play matches without being repeatedly ripped apart.
The big budget games I did invest time into this year almost universally underperformed. Forza Motorsport is excellent when I’m racing on the track, but the overall single player experience lacks personality, and I’ve encountered many game breaking bugs and crashes. Starfield has gorgeous production and audio design, and I had a blast running through the game’s many faction quests. But eventually, character progression felt meaningless, with exploration that felt like a total afterthought. Diablo IV, as I’ve written about previously, had a great gameplay hook but suffered from a lack of variety and forgettable narrative. Call of Duty: Warzone’s DMZ mode was a mid-year multiplayer favorite, but Activision effectively killed it off.
Stumbles aside, my favorite game experiences this year, as in 2022, remained shorter. You can easily wrap up three of the five listed here in twelve hours or less. Another has daily puzzles that routinely take me under five minutes to complete. All have been a blast to play and are accessible enough to recommend to almost anyone.
Diablo IV provokes an existentialist question: can one fantastic gameplay hook make a game’s vapid elements forgivable? Over twenty hours in, the answer appears to be an emphatic “yes” with caveats.
The game’s core combat loop is one of the best I’ve ever played. System balance, especially with an action RPG of this scale, is deceptively tricky, but somehow Diablo IV keeps the operation humming along like a well oiled machine. Every wave of enemies has just enough resistance to be challenging but not too much to be frustrating.
The artistic and design elements that surround the combat package are stellar. The sound design has a rich soundstage with good speakers or headphones. Waypoints and level progression are easy to follow. The atmospheric lighting is impressive, taking advantage of HDR to give dungeons a murky, often foreboding look. As my sorcerer levels up and I try new spells, I’m also happy to see elemental variety and different combat approaches open up.
Microsoft wants Xbox Game Pass to be the HBO of gaming, with heavy hitters rolling out regularly to plenty of buzz and critical fanfare. But today, Microsoft falls far short of that standard. Game Pass AAA releases, both from Xbox Game Studios and third party partnerships, are uneven in quality and too infrequent.
2022 came and went without a single notable big budget Game Pass release. Grounded, As Dusk Falls, and Pentiment got decent critical attention but were small titles primarily ignored by the larger gaming public.
2023 looks much more promising. However, Minecraft Legends scored a passable but far from great 73 on OpenCritic. I suspect the buzz following Redfall – rushing out the door at 30 FPS alongside some lukewarm previews – will lead to a similar lukewarm critical consensus. Even what will likely be a critical hit – Xbox Game Studios’ mainstay Forza Motorsport – missed its original Spring 2023 release window and settled into a vague “2023” timeline. For what’s left on the horizon, I see sci-fi RPG Starfield, with Bethesda Game Studios’ pedigree, as the only remaining possible “must play” for the remainder of the year. (I passed over Hi-Fi Rush and MLB The Show, both splashy titles that played well critically but didn’t break out into a wider audience.)
Playing Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode this winter has been one the best first person shooter experiences I’ve had in years. It’s not because of the graphics, the level design, the battle pass, or the gunplay. All match but rarely exceed expectations for a free-to-play shooter in 2023. Instead, DMZ is awesome by mixing an open sandbox of activities with widely divergent human psychology. The results are unpredictable and often fascinating.
DMZ’s power derives from how much it differs from normal big budget multiplayer gameplay that funnels players down a narrow path of expected behavior. Racing games like Gran Turismo: Sport or Forza Horizon 5 push players through a track as fast as possible. Large scale battle royale shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends) drop combatants into a combat zone as players battle to remain the last standing. There are, of course, endless tweaks and variations to give each game its character and difficulty, but successful gameplay hinges on an easy to follow win condition.
After a quiet 2022, Xbox kicks off 2023 with a “Developer_Direct” livestream. With deep dives on hyped Xbox titles like Forza Motorsport and Redfall, the event should be a slam dunk. However, based on Microsoft’s hit and miss PR record, I’m worried.
On the one hand, their recent E3 shows are well produced, with solid trailers, minimal padding, and genuine surprises. However, Microsoft press events outside of E3 are almost always forgettable. Their ID@Xbox showcases run too long and leave hosting duties to unprepared Twitch “influencers.” Other one-offs like Inside Xbox and the Xbox Games Showcase Extended are so watered down and rigid in their presentation that even die hard fans skip them.
Xbox marketing also feels asleep at the wheel for large stretches of the year, packing almost all their big announcements in the E3 week presser and the occasional trailer or two during the December Game Awards show. And even though Game Pass is one of Xbox’s top selling points, new releases on the service rarely get the promotion they deserve. Most are sent out with a “fire and forget” approach. Each game is one small part of a bimonthly announcement of five or more unrelated releases crammed together in a single News Wire post.
My standout gaming experiences this year were exclusively made by small studios that took bold narrative and gameplay swings. Most had a core development team of under twenty. None fall neatly within mainstream game genres. I can attribute this unorthodox result partially to my evolving tastes and the lingering effects of the pandemic on big budget studios. The 2022 AAA gaming space was far lighter than average this year, with only Elden Ring, God of War: Ragnorok, and Horizon: Forbidden West standing out among critics.
While the five games below (unranked, in alphabetical order) won’t suit the tastes of everyone, I found them exciting experiences that should leave lasting influence beyond their small budgets.
Some of the most hyped console games aren’t friendly to newcomers. Games like God of War: Ragnorok, Elden Ring, and Apex Legends are sales and critical juggernauts, but they can be a steep climb for those with slower reflexes or less free time. Big studios would benefit from diversification – more genres, shorter playtimes, less twitchy action – yet remain as conservative as ever in their approach.
Big budget games tend to fall into two camps: open ended, multiplayer games as a service (Destiny 2, Apex Legends, FIFA 23) or long running action adventure narratives (God of War: Ragnorok, The Last of Us: Part II). The former demands practice and knowledge of the latest meta to stay competitive, and the latter often takes 25 or more hours to complete. Gamers with less time and attention have an either or proposition: we stick to AAA behemoths like Elden Ring for an extended period or take more comfortable, varied pacing with smaller indie games.
Rumors suggest PlayStation has a Horizon: Zero Dawn remaster on the way. It’s a frustrating development, confirming Sony’s talented first party studios are laser focused on sequels and remakes. Seeing Jim Ryan shut the doors on anything that isn’t a $100 million IP safe hit, with such creative talent at the helm, is a head-scratcher.
Less risk taking at Sony’s AAA level narrows the field for original experiences and IP and limits the greater potential of the industry. Audiences not into first person shooters and mature action adventures stay on the sidelines. Even for “core” gamers, variety helps; a side project this generation can evolve into the next big thing years from now.
I have well founded pessimism. PlayStation Studios PS5 releases follow a predictable formula: follow ups for Spiderman, Horizon, God of War, and The Last of Us. Three of the four get remasters or “director’s cuts” of their original entries, naturally sold at a $70 price point. Only Returnal and Destruction All Stars would be considered original IP releases, with Insomniac’s Wolverine on the distant horizon.