Rewind the clock to one year ago and we knew what the Xbox Series X looked like, but we didn’t know exactly when it’d be released, nor did we know how much it would cost. And it’s easy to forget now, but other than a sneaky tease in the backdrop of a Phil Spencer interview, Microsoft refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Series S until September! It’s been a heck of a year for Microsoft, with a strong next-gen console launch fueling record profits for its gaming division. While the wait for the big exclusive games continues at an agonizingly slow pace, Microsoft made an industry-shattering acquisition by bringing Bethesda into its fold. So while we look ahead to what Xbox’s many internal studios are working on, and the future of Xbox hardware and services, let’s look back at the wild year Microsoft has had.
A Strange Xbox Summer
2020 was a pretty strange year for everyone, including for Microsoft, as it took fans on an emotional rollercoaster starting in May. Its first proper next-gen games showcase, a third-party event, landed, unfortunately, with a thud. Very few games looked particularly “next-gen,” perhaps best, or worst, exemplified by a promised gameplay reveal of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla that didn’t actually reveal any gameplay.
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Surely, though, the first-party showcase scheduled for July – basically Xbox’s E3 press conference in a year without a proper E3 – would be better, right? Yes…mostly. Xbox solidified its first-party lineup by finally showing its cards for the first time since acquiring studio after studio after studio over the prior two years. Turn 10 is rebooting Forza Motorsport, Playground Games is rebooting Fable, Obsidian is going big with the first-person open-world RPG Avowed, and Rare is crafting a unique new fantasy world in Everwild. And then came the long-anticipated gameplay reveal of Halo Infinite. You know, the big day-one flagship launch title. It would be a spiritual reboot for Halo, and be the first time a new mainline Halo game launched alongside an Xbox console since Halo: Combat Evolved. It would also be the start of the next decade of Halo.
Fair or not, Infinite’s reveal can largely be summed up in one word: Craig. Put another way, it didn’t go well. Infinite hardly resembled the technical showcase fans expect from a console’s biggest game, and things quickly unraveled from there. Microsoft made the bold and painful but ultimately correct decision to delay Infinite, which later turned out to be a full year to Fall of 2021. Once again, Microsoft took two steps forward, only to immediately stumble back by the same two steps.
The Bethesda Megaton and the Xbox Series X and S Launch
The company found its confident forward stride later in 2020, though, changing the landscape of the entire gaming world in one fell swoop by pulling off arguably the single biggest industry-shaking event since Activision and Blizzard merged in 2007: Microsoft announced plans to buy Bethesda. Not just Todd Howard’s Bethesda Game Studios, but all of ZeniMax’s studios, including id Software, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, and more, for $7.5 billion. Which means Howard, Pete Hines, and a lot of veterans at Bethesda will no longer drive cars with doors that go like this, and Microsoft now has total control over The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Starfield, Doom, Wolfenstein, Quake, and many, many more.
The unprecedented momentum of such a merger took Microsoft to November 10, when it successfully launched the Xbox Series X for $500 and the Xbox Series S for $300 (though the latter leaked ahead of its planned announcement, causing Xbox to coolly roll with it and post the meme heard round the world). While the Halo-sized hole in the launch lineup was clearly felt thanks to a lack of any other truly next-gen games, the console itself was great – a fully featured device that not only supported a huge chunk of the Xbox back catalog all the way back to the original Xbox, but embraced it. (The Series S offers a pretty impressive bang for your buck too.) Microsoft added FPS Boost in early 2021 and then started doubling framerates like it was going out of style. And it already had external storage support, Variable Refresh Rate, and other quality-of-life features that Sony still has to add to the PS5.
Sadly, though, supply cannot keep up with demand for either new Xbox (nor the incredibly successful PS5, for that matter) thanks in large part to a global chip shortage that’s affecting everything from consoles to cars. Microsoft CFO Tim Stuart said in November that Xbox console supply will likely continue to lag for at least a bit longer.
Xbox Game Pass Levels Up
But console supply is about the only thing not going Microsoft’s way in 2021. To say that Xbox Game Pass has been on fire, NBA Jam-style, would be selling it short. The Netflix-For-Video-Games service topped 23 million subscribers by the end of the first quarter, thanks in part to the snowball-rolling-down-a-hill momentum that Microsoft has been building. In the span of a month, Game Pass landed Outriders as a day-one game, got the formerly Switch-exclusive retro-RPG Octopath Traveler for its Xbox debut, and perhaps most awesome of all, MLB The Show 21 – a Sony-developed game that spent its first 15 years as a PlayStation exclusive – could be played on day one on Xbox at no additional cost to Game Pass subscribers. That the Xbox release of MLB The Show also ended a generation-long void of simulation baseball gaming on Xbox was the cherry on top.
Microsoft even, as promised, found a way around Apple’s anti-xCloud policy and launched a limited game-streaming beta for iOS devices, meaning that soon virtually all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers will also be able to play a selection of their favorite games from anywhere.
What Will Year 2 Look Like for Xbox Series X?
As we look ahead to the rest of the Xbox’s year, the bad news is that there is still a painfully obvious lack of exclusive games. The good news is that the long drought is finally almost over, and once it ends later this year, it’s likely to end for good. Exclusive games should begin trickling out soon, such as 12 Minutes (which we’ve played and love so far), Scorn, The Ascent, the Series X release of the masterpiece Microsoft Flight Simulator, Remedy’s CrossfireX campaign, and, finally, Halo Infinite. If we’re being honest, could the Series X have launched this November with an absolutely killer lineup instead of last November and the dry spell we’ve weathered since? Probably, but at the very least, the end of Year One should look a lot better than the beginning, at least from a games perspective.
Meanwhile, Year Two is still vague for now, but we know what’s out there and at least somewhat likely for a 2022 release: the next-gen Forza Motorsport reboot, Hellblade 2, Everwild, State of Decay 3, and Starfield are just the first-party games we know about that could land next year. Plenty more are probably a bit further out on the horizon, like Fable, Perfect Dark, Avowed, The Elder Scrolls VI, and more.
And Now, the Real Game Begins…
Every console generation seems to be different from the last in some way or another, and the Xbox Series X generation has already proven unique. It launched in the middle of a pandemic – quite smoothly under such crazy circumstances, which is a testament to Microsoft – and we’ve already had plenty of surprises and delights. That should continue as the Series X’s first E3 looms before giving way to an exciting second half of 2021 and beyond.
For more on all things Xbox, stay tuned to IGN and our weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked.