This One is Not Like the Others
As Todd Howard takes the stage to begin the Xbox & Bethesda Games E3 2021 Showcase, it’s clear that this Xbox is different. Phil Spencer, the opening presenter at Xbox conferences for nearly a generation, is off screen while Todd speaks about Bethesda’s 20 year relationship with Xbox. Then Todd introduced the first in-game teaser for Starfield.
The words “A brand new universe” flashes across the screen and a narrator tells us and that we’ll “take our final journey to discover what’s out there”. While the teaser shows us a nice visual upgrade over previous Bethesda Softworks games and captured the imagination of many science fiction fans, little else is conveyed in terms of how it will play.
Two important factors are confirmed however. It will launch November 11, 2022 and it is exclusive to Series X|S consoles and PC. When Starfield launches late next year, it has the realistic potential to be the biggest new IP Microsoft would have published in nearly 15 years, dating back to when they were the initial publisher for Mass Effect.
Bethesda would bookend the show when Arkane Austin’s new game, Redfall, is the last title to be revealed. Two new IPs from their new partner occupying the two most important slots in Microsoft’s conference symbolized that this gaming division is different now. It was especially apparent as the long-time captain of the Microsoft gaming ship, Halo, took a breather with a spot in the middle of the showcase. Not since…ever…has a major Halo reveal not opened or closed one of Microsoft’s E3 conferences when it was available.
As Game Pass is reaching over 22+ million subscribers without many heavy hitting IPs or the support of Bethesda, one can begin to speculate that a potential boom is on the horizon if this new partnership is able to execute.
Game Pass is Building a Steady Flow
One of the most significant notes from the Xbox and Bethesda showcase from a consumer point of view is that if you were already subscribed to Game Pass, the number of quality games to look forward to appeared a lot more promising for the next 18 months than it did the day before the show. 27 of the 30 games Microsoft would put on display this E3 will launch directly into the service the first day they’re available on the platform.
This is due to a combination of early returns from the Bethesda acquisition as well increasing partnerships with third party developers. Notable additions included a deal with major publisher, WB, bringing in Back 4 Blood. Other significant additions were Super Giant’s award winning Hades and Focus Home’s A Plague Tale: Requiem. What these deals show is Microsoft is able influence a range of companies from AAA publishers to the most revered art house indie studios that Game Pass is a good place to bring their games.
Speaking of partnerships, one of the genuine delights of the show was a collaboration with Disney for Sea of Thieves. Whilst we’d long suspected the show would have a Disney presence, seeing Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirate of the Caribbean franchise in Rare’s piratical sandbox was a delight, and something that I think surprised many. The original Tall Tales that released with the Anniversary update was warmly received, so our hopes for another lengthy goonies-style adventure are high, and of course, the update arrives for free, to all players, and as part of your Game Pass Subscription.
There is no “waiting” until the next event. The quality of titles coming as soon as the next six months is as high as it’s ever been.
Halo Infinite’s Development Arc Continues
After last year’s much criticized gameplay reveal of Halo Infinite due to it’s under-developed graphics, Microsoft’s long standing crown jewel IP came into this E3 with an intense spotlight. Early returns seem to indicate a much improved reception. Joe Staten and Bonnie Ross would start the presentation revealing the significant size and scope increase of the campaign’s environments relative to anything else we’ve seen in previous Halos. The presentation would pivot to story beats which conveyed a serious and mature tone.
Finally, they’d give us a first look at Halo’s multiplayer which put the newest sandbox toy, the grappling hook on centre stage. With improved visuals and physics on display, the multiplayer appeared to show exciting potential for multiple new dynamic gameplay opportunities. Over the years, there’s been a split in the Halo multiplayer communities whether Halo should continue with recent modernization or go back to it’s classic roots. What was shown seemed to indicate something that is taking a little from both while also carving it’s own path. With that in mind, those of us from the You Had Me at Halo Podcast were unanimously excited about what we saw.
For the first few conferences since developers have been making games for the new hardware, Microsoft has been criticized for not showing enough gameplay that demonstrates what the next gen tech is actually capable of. The challenges for developers to learn how to leverage new hardware has been accentuated by the impacts of COVID worldwide and resulted in few examples. While those demonstrations weren’t in large numbers this E3, we did see a few eye melting breakthroughs. When Battlefield 2042 releases in October this year, it may be the go-to for next generation Xbox owners to flex their consoles as DICE displayed full scale destructibility, intense weather effects and 128 players in the most frantic multiplayer chaos we’ve seen to date. Forza Horizon 5 set a new bar for environments and textures. Last but not least, potentially the most impressive pound for pound showing was Independent game developer GSC Game World demonstrating extensive footage of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. This Indie dev was able to demo visuals and effects that punch above what we’ve seen from most AAA developers the past few years. All three games are currently scheduled to come out within the next 12 months and may provide the kick that some gamers need to transition to next generation hardware once there’s stock availability next year.
While the showcase was a strong overall, there were certainly some areas of missed opportunity. Microsoft revealed three AAA exclusive IPs for the first time in many years yet their reveal trailers did little to convey what types of games they were. While the Starfield information in it’s reveal was sparse, at a minimum, we know what genre and setting it’s in. Contraband, which is being developed by Avalanche Studios, did little to convey what type of gamer it may appeal to though we understand it be open-world and based around heists. RedFall, the new IP from Arkane that ended the show, gave impressions that it was part of a genre that we’ve since learned it’s not. There will likely always be a challenge to demonstrate what a game is for the first time when it’s early in development. Potentially as Microsoft’s content pipeline continues to build, they can pivot away from revealing games before they’re ready to show in the future.
From Doom and Gloom to Doom and….Boom?
Is a potential boom coming? It’s interesting to ask that question relative to where Xbox was only five E3’s ago. Using E3 2021 as another landmark, it appears that Xbox and it’s Game Pass service are both trending in the right direction as Microsoft’s messaging and content demonstrations have improved since last year.
It is suspected that Game Pass crossed over 22+ million subs in its four short years of existence and all this was accomplished without many heavy hitting games launching Day One into the service and without Bethesda. Halo and Starfield loom on the horizon and as shown at the Xbox & Bethesda Games E3 2021 Showcase, they aren’t carrying the weight of quality games alone. If these studios can execute on the potential that is currently being advertised, it may be the time that Game Pass takes it’s next major leap to the mainstream.