Microsoft recently outed video footage for a dozen Xbox Series X titles currently under production. For those of us looking forward to a genuine generational leap in visuals and capabilities, though, the videos and gameplay footage was deeply disappointing. A case in point is The Medium, Bloober Team’s latest horror game, proudly touted as an Xbox Series X console exclusive, that just wasn’t possible on lesser hardware.
In the opening moments of the Medium’s reveal, we were amazed at the quality of the visuals on display: incredibly high quality materials, environmental meshes with polygon detail down to the tiniest pieces of debris on the ground, characters whose emotions were startlingly life-life. Then there was segue into “gameplay footage,” and our hopes came crashing down.
Most of the footage shown-as was the case with other next-gen titles like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla-was mostly pre-rendered CGI footage, with a tiny bit of gameplay spliced in. What we saw The Medium’s gameplay was far from impressiv.e. Resident Evil 7 and even recent AA titles like Someday You’ll Return deliver similar visual quality. The scale of interactions possible, the gameplay possibilities–nothing was truly “next gen.” Other “next-gen” titles on display, including Dirt 5, were similarly disappointing.
There’s a clear disparity between the eighth-gen visual quality of the titles showcased by Microsoft and the massive spec upgrade the Xbox Series X brings to the table. Keep in mind that the Series X delivers nearly 10 times the GPU power and over 4 times the processing power of the Xbox One S, not to mention storage and I/O that are orders of magnitude faster. What’s going on, here? Why aren’t next gen titles, or at least the ones we’ve seen so far, actually next-gen?
The move to 4K/60 FPS is part of the problem: we’re talking about an 8x increase in graphics horsepower just to run 1080p/30 FPS Xbox One titles at that tremendous resolution and frame rate (a side-note, here—the Xbox One doesn’t even most AAA titles at 1080p). But, considering Ubisoft’s recent statement that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is set to be a 4K/30 FPS title on the Series X, that’s just part of the problem. A bigger underlying issue is the fact that both Microsoft and Sony have, over the years, made a very strong commitment to backwards compatibility.
This was perfectly fine with the mid-gen refresh consoles: the whole point of the Xbox One X and the Playstation 4 Pro was to be able to run existing games at higher resolutions, and/or higher frame rates. But now, with the Xbox Series X and the Playstation 5, we’re looking at a very different situation. These consoles are a generation ahead of eighth-gen hardware and they have the capability to do things, in terms of visuals and gameplay that are objectively not possible on last gen. Leading with true next-gen experiences, games not possible on the PS4 or Xbox One, would’ve been a great way to convince prospective Xbox Series X buyers about the value of the upcoming console.
Instead, Microsoft’s focus on compatibility seems to have hamstrung developer efforts. Even though Microsoft themselves recently stated that maintaining compatibility across Xbox generations is up to developers, so much of their earlier messaging, and indeed the very idea of Xbox being a “family” is at odds with this. The result? Developers themselves appear to have built “eighth-gen ready” ready titles with token Series X features, like 4K resolution and ray tracing.
The issue at hand with the cross-gen paradigm isn’t that the next-gen consoles are powerful: there’s no doubt about that. It’s that the base platforms just don’t cut it in today’s world and actively hinder development efforts.
While cross-gen titles might look decent enough on next-gen platforms, thanks to GPU-intensive addons like ray-tracing, the biggest limitation we expect to see is in terms of gameplay innovation. The shift to eight-core Zen 2 CPUs clocked well above 3 GHz on both the PS5 and Xbox Series X means that both these platforms are capable of so much more in terms of in-game AI, worldbuilding, gameplay interactions, physics, and so much more. Advances in CPU power were what made entire genres of games possible: the massive number of NPCs onscreen in seventh-gen games like Dead Rising and Assassin’s Creed were possible only because of radically faster CPUs. The relative lack of improvement to CPU capabilities meant that gameplay in eighth-gen titles was fundamentally unchanged from the seventh gen.
With their faster CPUs, ninth-gen titles have the ability to innovate. In open world titles, advanced AI could generate conversations, for instance. In-game physics could move beyond basic rag doll effects to include environmental micro-destruction. Cities could be scaled up to include thousands of characters with schedules that go beyond “walk here at noon, sit here later.” There is so much that could be done but evidently hasn’t yet. But does it have to be this way? Does the cross-gen period have to be marked by stagnation?
A good model to look at would be the sixth-gen to seventh-gen cross-gen period, circa 2005-2007. Many of the earliest launch titles on Xbox 360 were indeed spruced-up last gen games. The original Just Cause and Call of Duty 2 are cases in point. However, games like Condemned: Criminal Origins and the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion went way past what was possible on PS2, GameCube or Xbox, with real-time lighting, complex models, and physics.
Developers were clearly working on extracting the most out of seventh gen hardware even before it hit the market and developing titles and technologies that were only possible on it. This is not to say that sixth-gen gamers were left in the cold. Major franchises, from Call of Duty to Dragon Ball Z to Madden continued to deliver solid sixth-gen outings. But instead of shoehorning seventh-gen titles onto sixth-gen hardware-and thereby holding back those games technically, development teams split efforts and delivered sixth-gen experiences tailored to sixth-gen hardware. This meant that titles on older consoles coexisted with titles on newer platforms without constraining the latter.
This doesn’t seem to be the approach that Microsoft and Sony are favouring with the PS5 and Xbox Series X. The consequence? We’ll likely have to wait another 2-3 years for “real” next-gen games to arrive.