It’s November, and that can only mean one thing in the world of video game history: it’s time for a bunch of console anniversaries to pile up all at once. One of the youngest milestones this month is the second birthday of the current pair of Xbox consoles – and stepping back to consider the last couple of years doesn’t exactly paint the most flattering picture.
After two years, I step back and look at the Xbox Series X and S, and realize… Does this thing really have any must-play exclusive games? Is there any one game you can point at to make you feel brilliant about your purchase? I’m not even strictly talking about true exclusives here. Cross-generation games are a reality and a necessity right now for numerous reasons – so I’m cool with the hot Xbox Series games also being on Xbox One. But even counting those, there’s just… not much to shout about. At least there’s not much that isn’t also available on PlayStation.
A pretty good yardstick to measure this two years in is the list of the best-scoring Xbox Series X and PS5 games on metacritic so far. Some things are shared – both have Elden Ring in the top spot, with Hades and Persona 5 Royal securing the bag in multiplatform terms. A lot of the same games dominate both lists, in fact; proof that with Covid-19 and everything else, it’s been a difficult few years for first-party production.
But Sony’s list is also punctuated by God of War Ragnarok, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Horizon: Forbidden West, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Gran Turismo 7, and even Astro’s Playroom – a pretty strong sextuple of first-party hitters for PS5’s first 24 months. Then, of course, there’s Sony’s long laundry list of ‘are these really needed’ remasters of PS4 games. I don’t have a particular desire to replay The Last of Us or Spider-Man, to be honest, but when viewed through this lens, that of padding out the difficult early years of new hardware, these ports suddenly seem more necessary. They do add value to the hardware.
The Xbox list has Forza, and Flight Sim – both utterly excellent – but that’s sort of it? There’s Halo Infinite too, of course, but though I enjoyed that game’s campaign tremendously it’s absolutely fair to say that it has been severely damaged by a botched roll-out that still sees the game lacking cooperative play and with a glacial multiplayer update cadence.
I’ll be honest with you. Of the consoles, I vastly prefer the Xbox Series. I like the Xbox operating system more (though it’s certainly a lesser-of-two-evils situation), I enjoy the cross-ownership and cross-play with the Windows Store on PC. I’m no great fan of the Dualsense and its fast-depleting battery. And, of course, Xbox Game Pass is an irresistible proposition, hands-down the best deal in gaming right now. I use my Xbox far more as a result… but I’m primarily using it to play old games, to dabble in Game Pass indies, or to watch bloody Andor on Disney+.
The hot new games I want to play, both already out and upcoming, are mostly on PS5 - either by virtue of Sony’s seemingly more efficient first-party development pipeline, or through the signing of aggressive exclusivity deals with third parties, like that with Square Enix for Final Fantasy 16 and Forspoken. Regardless of how one feels about the methods used, Sony is undoubtedly winning that specific battle.
In a sense, I suppose that means little has changed over the last two years. In VG247’s hardware review, published five days before the machines launched to the public, I described living with the consoles as great. I talked about how Quick Resume is magical, and how the performance uptick on older games is great to see and experience. I said that playing older games with features like auto HDR, lightning-fast loading and quick resume “really does feel like the future, even if the games are a decade old.” It remains an impressive party trick – but after two years, it’s wearing a bit thin.
“Then there’s the Xbox Series X,” I wrote. “That’s touted by Microsoft as the “fastest, most powerful games console ever” – I take that as a mission statement. And you know what? It might be! On paper, the specs look killer; and like great value for money. But there’s nothing exclusive here at launch that helps to truly demonstrate that, and so that mission remains a question mark. It is TBC – it must be proved in the future, with software. Software is always what matters; without it, the hardware is useless, no matter how snazzy it is.”
That TBC still feels like a TBC, two years in. Which is astonishing. Where did the time go? More gray hairs have arrived, but I’m still waiting for games.
At the same time, the future looks bright. Right? Starfield is coming. Hopefully 2023 is the year where maybe we finally begin to learn more about Fable, Avowed, or Perfect Dark. I might not be entirely convinced Everwild exists, but Hellblade 2 feels corporeal and within reach. There’s a couple of relatively imminent games that, while smaller, look like absolute belters too – Pentiment, Minecraft Legends, and High on Life both surprised and wowed me back at Gamescom.
So it’s not all bad news. In fact, I do think Xbox is building a first-party portfolio that eventually will match up to Sony’s efforts, even if there are some enormous blind spots that are yet to be addressed, such as Japanese-made games and Japanese RPGs in particular. After such a disastrous time with the Xbox One, it’s only natural that it’ll take time to rebuild the infrastructure needed to deliver those games. But, crikey, that future still feels a while away, doesn’t it?
As a report card for the first two years, it makes for grim reading. I love my Xbox Series X. I love having a Series S in a different room, and the ease with which I can hop between the two. I just wish there were more games that really made me hunger to switch those specific consoles on.