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.
Most armchair analysts underestimate how instrumental small budget indie games are to Xbox Game Pass’s success. Most will fly by without a splashy marketing presence, buzz on social media, or even a high score on OpenCritic. But given a Game Pass title’s low barrier to entry (a download or through Cloud Gaming, a click), subscribers aren’t wedded to budget, popularity, and review scores. The right mix of under the radar titles isn’t just helpful to keep subscribers afloat between bigger drops, but I think they are increasingly critical to keeping subscribers happy.
I realize the argument runs counter to traditional gaming sales logic, where the same five to ten AAA games (e.g., Call of Duty, FIFA, GTA V) remain perpetual NPD best sellers. It also seems to contradict Microsoft’s first party consolidation. With the likes of AAA stalwarts like Bethesda Game Studios, Activision, and Blizzard under one roof, one could only assume Microsoft’s goals are to continue mega franchise hits like Fallout, Call of Duty, and Diablo as future staples of the Game Pass library.
Another year, another opportunity for gaming discourse on the proper approach to open worlds. The typical argument puts Elden Ring and Zelda: Breath of the Wild on one side, Horizon: Forbidden West and Ubisoft franchises like Assassin’s Creed on the other. Elden Ring and BOTW have more emergent gameplay, with little hand holding, clearly laid out objectives, and access only gated through character leveling and player skill. Horizon and Assassin’s Creed are more prescriptive. There are icons and waypoints all over the map, with the game’s mechanics, stats, and side quests all laid bare to the player.
Modern critical consensus points to emergent open worlds as generally more satisfying. Prescriptive games drown the player in unfulfilled objectives, busy UIs, and too many icons on a map to follow and check off. The net result can feel like a game on autopilot or lead to “open world fatigue.”
Having played and completed Horizon, I find this argument unfair to Sony’s latest blockbuster, misclassifying its genre and intent. While critical discourse pits Elden Ring and Horizon as open world action RPGs first and foremost, in reality, I view Horizon as more of a linear adventure similar to a game like Uncharted or The Last of Us. Its open world elements are a secondary “hook” to string narrative segments of the game together.
A PlayStation rival to Xbox Game Pass, code named Spartacus, appears all but assured to happen. Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier leaked details of the subscription service in December. Sony recently pulled PS Now retail cards from U.K. retailers, suggesting Sony could announce Spartacus details soon.
The Bloomberg piece lays out Spartacus’s offerings, a multi tiered subscription service that improves the popular PS Plus and PS Now services Sony already runs. For me, the more interesting question is less about the what and more about the why and how. Why would Sony take a gamble on a Game Pass competitor now, when their brand is the market leader? Also, how will Spartacus differentiate itself from Game Pass, especially in light of Microsoft’s mega acquisition of Activision Blizzard?
2021 has shaken up my gaming habits. The lingering threat of COVID ramped up stress levels, so I ended up investing more time with games that had relaxed pacing and forgiving difficulty. Becoming an Xbox Game Pass subscriber allowed me to dabble in new games across different genres and budgets I wouldn’t have otherwise given a chance. Life outside of gaming remained busier than ever, which forced me to ditch many lengthy titles if the game didn’t click for me out of the gate.
Even though my gaming tastes and routines have shifted, I still look back on 2021 with five games I enjoyed immensely and would recommend to almost anyone.