Xbox has been on a news tear lately. In early March, Xbox head Phil Spencer confirmed future Bethesda titles would only appear on platforms that offer Game Pass (read, not the PS5.) Days later, Square Enix revealed that the high profile action game Outriders would release on Game Pass in parallel with a full price retail rollout on other platforms. This one two punch crystalizes the biggest challenge to PlayStation’s market leader status. Sony has built a strong reputation on its platform exclusives, but the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls absent on PS5 will push many to Xbox this generation. Also, as Sony continues to press on with its $70 first party titles, Xbox Game Pass offering tentpole games at $15 a month looks increasingly tempting.
I hope this flood of recent Xbox news serves as a wake-up call to Sony. As Xbox differentiates itself from Game Pass, Nintendo on portability, and evergreen first party IP, Sony has some work to define its future direction.
In many ways that hook is a continuation of what Sony has done from the PS4 era: a curated collection of high caliber games that run exclusively, earlier, or best on PlayStation hardware. But that doesn’t mean a repeat of the same strategy from seven years ago. In 2013, well timed big budget exclusives could be the deciding factor, marketed through traditional channels on enthusiast websites, social media, and the occasional TV spot. Today we’re looking at an audience expecting more genre diversity, variety of price points, all while being fragmented across the internet.
Every console generation begins with a slow trickle of game releases as developers transition to new hardware. The launch of the PS5 and Xbox Series consoles in November last year won’t break the trend; through mid 2021 there may be fewer than ten titles exclusive to the Series X and PS5 combined. Nevertheless, the pandemic’s impact and unique hardware of this console generation — lightning fast SSDs and wide backward compatibility — will make this a gaming year like none we’ve ever had. Consider the experience “old game plus” where gamers spend a lot of time playing what came before but in revitalized ways.
Regarding the unfamiliar and new, it’s already a bleak sign to see how few firm release dates we have on the calendar three months into the year. I expect the news will only get more dire over time; many if not most titles with a vague 2021 release date will get bumped back to 2022.
The PS5’s solid state drive (SSD) has upended my expectations of what a console can deliver. It’s a greatly underrated technology, one that’s generated countless online comparisons around load time but remains elusive to quantify until you experience the tech yourself.
Almost from the first evening I turned on the PS5 the fast SSD made an immediate difference. Sans any PS5 specific optimizations from developers, the load times across much of my backwards compatible PS4 library improved significantly. MLB The Show 20 and Everybody’s Golf shifted from menu to game in roughly half the time. With the former I could simulate ball games far faster than before, and in the latter load times between holes were non existent. My handful of PS5 specific games — Astro’s Playroom, Bugsnax, and Demon’s Souls — had even more impressive stats, able to shift from launching the game to active gameplay in under twenty seconds. The console itself boots from a cold off state to the main menu faster than my TV could turn on. Navigating the UI across games and settings is smooth and ultra responsive.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) sets an unimpeachable technical standard and has some of the best stealth action I’ve ever played. It’s also a game with blunted thematic impact due to excessive length and an unsatisfying story for its back half. I’m glad I played the game, but TLOU2’s weaknesses make it a significant step down from Naughty Dog’s best, The Last of Us and Uncharted 4. Spoilers for TLOU2 ahead.
Luddonarrative dissonance is an unavoidable weakness in TLOU2 thanks to the game’s persistent stealth sandbox gameplay loop. Granted, Naughty Dog tries everything possible to avoid this phenomenon. The main characters have backstories to justify their acts of violence. Player-controlled action tries its best to match the somber tone of the cutscenes with grotesque and unsettling audiovisual cues. When you kill an enemy soldier, an ally will often cry out their name in anguish. Hit someone with a melee weapon, and you’ll listen to them gurgle on their blood. Stealth kills are a switchblade to the throat, replete with arterial blood spray.
The wide ranging discourse around The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) has been a welcome change of pace from usual gaming criticism. Instead of the expected debate over gameplay, fidelity, and genre expectations, there’s been far more focus on TLOU2’s depiction of violence, ludonarrative dissonance, non-linear narrative structure, treatment of LGBTQ characters, and other thematic elements. Vice ran a six hour podcast dissecting the game’s narrative, and I’ve seen similar extensive “spoilercast” treatment across other gaming sites. The breadth of TLOU2’s discussion beyond social media and enthusiast sites like IGN and Gamespot is also notable. I’ve read dissections of the game in indie film blogs (Indiewire), lifestyle magazines (GQ), and popular newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post).
But I’m unhappy this same level and breadth of discourse doesn’t occur across more games and more often. Nor has chatter about TLOU2 been universally deep or mature; there’s a tremendous amount of vile, toxic “debate” from bigots upset with the game’s plotting and LGBTQ representation.
I expect the gaming landscape for console games will be radically reshaped in a few years. The existing $60 AAA game market will mostly collapse. Indies, stifled by saturation across every market, will turn to subscription services as their only viable path forward. Everyone will still chase Fortnite (or its successor) to become the next free-to-play hit.
Gaming trends today portend significant changes on the horizon. For years we’ve seen the same $60 titles — mostly first person shooters (Call of Duty, Destiny) and big sports franchises (FIFA, Madden, NBA2K) — dominate NPD and digital sales charts. But more recently, these perennial best sellers have shifted into effectively “games as a service” platforms. Studios increasingly focus on new functionality at a core fan base that readily laps up micro-transactions. This ensures revenue stays flowing in well past the upfront sticker price. Look at FIFA and how so many improvements lead back to Ultimate Team. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot added a Fortnite-inspired battle pass and a prominent shop rotating in and out costly cosmetic gear. This is rampant speculation, but I could see the anticipated Halo Infinite moving in a similar DLC-heavy direction, reliant on a narrowing core base to push the game’s initial investment into the black.
Stadia looks like a flop out of the gate, and its meager, overpriced game selection is a significant factor why. Google overestimated the console market’s appetite for experimental moonshots. Most gamers aren’t making purchasing decisions based on streaming quality, teraflops, 4K, or fast SSDs. Instead, as I wrote about earlier this year, it’s the games themselves — both selection and quality — that matter most. It was a crucial differentiator in the battle between PS4 and Xbox One, essential to the Nintendo Switch’s breakout success, and it will continue to be important for next generation hardware.
Games matter more for reasons beyond their historically strong track record. It’s also because across other facets — hardware, marketing, third party integrations — Sony and Microsoft will be on similar footing next generation, at least to your average consumer. I don’t foresee the major stumbles that marked previous console generations. Price and power, two factors that solidified PS4 as the clear victor this generation, I expect to be a moot point in 2020. Microsoft learned its lesson launching a console $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s. Sony hopefully still remembers the $600 launch PS3 debacle and how undercutting on price helped secure their win for the PS4. Speculation from Digital Foundry and other sources posit the PS5 and Xbox Series X will rely on similar internal components. The result for consumers should be two boxes with similar specs and no more than a $50 gap in price differential.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (MW) has the look and mechanics of a modern AAA game from 2019. So why does its politics (or lack thereof) feel like a relic from decades earlier?
MW developer Infinity Ward invites this questioning given how hard they pushed realism as both a selling point and a differentiator from previous Call of Duty games. Its first press event earlier this year had presentations on the game’s authenticity and moral complexity. The official marketing boasts how the game “engulfs fans in an incredibly raw, gritty, provocative narrative.”
Infinity Ward also made the “Clean House” mission from the campaign a centerpiece demo of their preview event. Now having played the campaign, I understand why; the audio and visual design is uncomfortable and tense in a way that stands out from the rest of the campaign, not to mention other first-person shooters. The mission centers on a British SAS team that raids a building housing terrorists at night. You assume the role of one of the SAS agents, bursting through doors and making split-second decisions to “clear” threats with civilians thrown into the mix. Given your usage of night goggles, the mission has an eerie visual palette of stark greens and blacks.
Apple Arcade is a no-brainer investment for devoted iPhone gamers; for five dollars a month, you get a wealth of top tier, original mobile titles. But if you’re not already actively invested in mobile gaming today, Apple Arcade may not be the service that makes you a believer. As an already devoted console gamer, the service didn’t provide enough to keep me paying.
That caveat shouldn’t distract from the quality of games offered here. Given the usual knocks against mobile as a gaming platform — lack of genre variety, monetization in the form of annoying microtransactions — Apple had an uphill climb. But as a credit to the high bar Apple has set, I found many quality titles within a few hours of play.
With Sony MIA, Microsoft had an opportunity to go on the offensive this E3, which made their lack of detail on next-gen hardware, exclusives, and even streaming technology perplexing. But when you looked past console war talking points and read between the lines of their keynote, 2019 marks the most definite sign that Microsoft is splitting away from its competition, with Xbox Game Pass its centerpiece strategy. Other companies have dipped their toe into the subscription market, but given the maturity and boldness of Game Pass, I’m convinced Microsoft is all in.
The evidence of Microsoft’s subscriptions push was all over their E3 presser: onstage speakers and game trailers name-checked Game Pass frequently. The debut of Game Pass on PC and a special “Ultimate” bundle for combined PC and console access got a prominent showing. Two high budget upcoming Game Pass games — The Outer Worlds and Halo Infinite — bookended the show. And there’s no coincidence the first item Microsoft highlights under their E3 page is Game Pass.