Crackdown 3 will be the next test.
God of War‘s rave critical acclaim upon its embargo lifting this week – the game has scored 9s and 10s everywhere, and is currently rated 95 on Metacritic, which makes it the third highest rated game of the generation, behind only The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey – has brought with it another stark reminder that Sony’s first party is on fire right now, delivering one hit after another. In fact, Sony has been doing this for a while now- just a little over a year ago, they delivered the similarly well received, generation defining Horizon: Zero Dawn. Rivals Nintendo have similarly been firing on all cylinders, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey forming possibly the company’s best output in its entire history, and some of the greatest games ever made.
The release of all of these games has brought with it a sobering reminder of Xbox’s severe first party weakness, every single time. PlayStation and Nintendo fans have routinely been able to enjoy high quality releases through the generation- Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, Horizon, God of War, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Bayonetta 2, Xenoblade 2– but it’s hard to remember the last time Xbox had a similarly rapturously well received first party release. Forza Horizon 3 perhaps comes the closest, but by virtue of being a racing game, doesn’t quite dominate media buzz and mainstream chatter in quite the same way.
"The release of God of War has brought with it a sobering reminder of Xbox’s severe first party weakness."
On the contrary, Xbox’s major releases have all mostly been clunkers this generation- games like ReCore, Ryse: Son of Rome, and Quantum Break were outright disappointments, Sea of Thieves ended years of hype with a game that, while some appreciate, seems to have failed to connect with most, and even Microsoft’s tentpole releases, such as Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, failed to excite the masses- they did fine, but you didn’t see the media and mainstream audiences falling over themselves to hail those games. They weren’t considered new achievements for the medium like Breath of the Wild or God of War. They came out, did reasonably well by selling to their existing fans, and… nothing.
I’m not saying anything new here, but this is a problem for a company that wants to compete in the gaming industry with a gaming console. You cannot meaningfully do so without games. Microsoft has done remarkably, exceptionally well with building a fantastic console with the One X, and laying down the groundwork for some great services such as Play Anywhere, Backward Compatibility, and Xbox Game Pass- but all of that is absolutely meaningless without games, which are the core component of a video game console. Microsoft isn’t just lacking in quality here- I know many Xbox fans will argue that Xbox does deliver on games such as Halo and Gears, they’re just different from the single player fare on other systems- they also lack in meaningful volume. Nintendo releases a major first party release a month (at least), often more. Microsoft has 2-3 first party games released a year. Even if you like what they offer, they are not putting out enough of it- and if any one of their releases is a dud, then you have to wait 4-8 months for the next one. A new major exclusive for PS4 or Switch is just around the corner- for Xbox, you can’t even be sure that a game that was announced will ever actually be released.
"Xbox’s major releases have all mostly been clunkers this generation- games like ReCore, Ryse: Son of Rome, and Quantum Break were outright disappointments, Sea of Thieves ended years of hype with a game that, while some appreciate, seems to have failed to connect with most, and even Microsoft’s tentpole releases, such as Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, failed to excite the masses."
Speaking on Twitter yesterday in response to disenfranchised fans complaining about the paucity of quality and quantity in the Xbox first party lineup (thrown into stark relief by the rave acclaim God of War received, compared to something like Sea of Thieves), Xbox boss Phil Spencer noted that the company wants to build a great lineup of first party games, including singleplayer games, but that it takes time, and they will get there. To his credit, that part is actually true- it takes years to build a proper lineup of first party games.
What his argument ignores, however, is that Microsoft has had years. They are not newcomers to this industry, they have been in it for 17 years. 17 years after Nintendo had entered the industry, its lineup of active first party franchises included Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, Kid Icarus, Pokemon, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, Mario RPG, Earthbound, Yoshi, and Punch-Out, among others. 17 years after Sony had entered the industry, its lineup of active first party franchises included Uncharted, God of War, Killzone, Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Sly, inFamous, Resistance, Wipeout, Gran Turismo, Syphon Filter, and LittleBigPlanet. 17 years after Microsoft has entered the industry, it has… Halo? Gears? Forza? Forza Horizon? Sea of Thieves is out, and I guess it will be supported for a while, so let’s count that. I guess we will also count Crackdown, and State of Decay.
What else? It had Fable, but Fable is dead for now. So is Project Gotham Racing. Crimson Skies, Viva Pinata, Banjo Kazooie, Kameo, Mech Assault, Mech Warriors, Perfect Dark, all dead. It’s a pitiful selection of games to have, after almost two decades in the industry- Microsoft has very little to show for it, and what it does have isn’t all that good (or not as good as it used to be). So no, the time argument isn’t a compelling explanation for why Microsoft has consistently failed to build up its library of games for its game console while participating in the gaming industry. They have simply lacked the commitment to the actual medium – not the infrastructure or business aspects of it, where they have clearly been pioneers, as evidenced by Xbox Live, Game Pass, and so on – and now that is beginning to show.
"Microsoft are not newcomers to this industry, they have been in it for 17 years. 17 years after Nintendo had entered the industry, its lineup of active first party franchises included Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby, Kid Icarus, Pokemon, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, Mario RPG, Earthbound, Yoshi, and Punch-Out, among others."
The next major Microsoft first party release is Crackdown 3. Yes, they have State of Decay 2 coming out next month, but let’s be fair to that game- it’s a mid budget game that is the appropriated sequel to a cult hit indie title. We can’t expect it to match up with tentpole first party releases. So, of the ones that we know of right now, Crackdown 3 is the next major first party game. It’s due out some time later this year, and it’s the one likeliest to be able to go toe to toe with Horizon, God of War, Breath of the Wild, and Odyssey, given that it is an open world action adventure game. All eyes are now on it- Xbox fans, as well as detractors, will ultimately be looking at it to see whether or not it can deliver. In all fairness, I don’t know if expecting it to do as well as Breath of the Wild, Odyssey, or God of War is in and of itself fair- those are among the highest rated games of all time. But something like Horizon, a new IP with a Metascore of 89, or even something like Splatoon 2 and Ratchet and Clank, both mid-80s games, would be appreciated (and would make it the highest rated non-racing Xbox exclusive since, gosh, 2016?).
So, the onus is now on Crackdown 3 to deliver. I’m not expecting it to be a generation defining experience (even though by all standards of fairness, that is what Xbox fans should be demanding from Microsoft, given how long it has been since they had something like that). I just want it to be an actual good game that won’t disappoint people- it’s really not that much to ask a game console manufacturer to deliver a good game. I don’t know if Crackdown 3 will live up to the task- its showings so far have been very underwhelming. But I hope it does.
"All eyes are now on Crackdown 3- Xbox fans, as well as detractors, will ultimately be looking at it to see whether or not it can deliver."
Meanwhile, the larger onus is now on Microsoft to actually start investing in games, or they will forever be lagging behind Nintendo and PlayStation. The onus is on their fans to actually start demanding more from their vendor, instead of making excuses for mediocrity. The onus is for every fan of video games to demand that Microsoft and Xbox, who represent a quarter of the medium outside of mobile games, to deliver. All of us, as fans of video games, can only benefit with more good games. It’s time for Microsoft to step up.
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