While fun, the whole PS5 vs Xbox Series X debate is a bit silly. Both consoles share multiplatform games and have similar power, yet also have slightly different approaches: PS5 favors more exclusive games and the Xbox Series X is more the ultimate Xbox experience.
As such, I’m a champion of having both; I do appreciate at a time when the cost of living is spiraling upwards spending $1,000 on gaming kit might be hard to swallow, but the Xbox Series S offers a capable and affordable alternative to its bigger sibling.
So the whole ‘console war’ is moot in my eyes… or so I thought.
Sony’s push to stop Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard from going through and the Xbox boss Phil Spencer saying that Xbox can’t compete with PlayStation has muddied the waters a fair bit.
Now I’m aware Microsoft has basically positioned Xbox as more of a gaming service provider, what with Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Cloud Gaming, rather than a pusher of console and game sales. Yet to remain relevant and successful in the world of gaming, Xbox still needs to offer something special to stand out compared to PlayStation, which not only had a head start by one to one-and-a-half console generations, but also has a very dedicated following.
Xbox Game Pass, which we’ve dubbed the best deal in gaming, combined with Xbox’s excellent online services, seemed to be the feather in Xbox’s cap. An affordable monthly subscription that gets you access to more than 100 Xbox games, including new releases, as well as PC games and cloud-streamed games if you pay a little more, was and still is a great offer.
Add in the promise of more exclusive games, thanks to Microsoft gobbling up developers and behemoth publisher and studio Bethesda, and Xbox Game Pass started to look pretty unassailable as a gaming must-have.
However after Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 made their debut on Game Pass in 2021, I’d argue there haven’t been any heavy-hitting semi-exclusive games on the service for some 18 months. Sure Pentiment at the tail end of last year was rather special, and the surprise drop of Hi-Fi Rush at the start of this year won kudos for Team Xbox. But neither of these games was a big triple-A title.
Still, 2023 was hyped up as the year of Redfall and Starfield, two hotly anticipated Xbox/PC exclusive games from two major studios with fantastic track records. Xbox also has plenty more in the hopper, but I’d say these two titles are seen as the big ones for 2023.
Then Redfall was released on May 2… and oh dear.
Despite developer Arkane’s excellent reputation for making brilliant games, most recently with Deathloop, Redfall launched with a load of bugs and no promised 60 frames per second mode. But even worse, the core game beats at the heart of Redfall appear to be lackluster and a long way from the engagement of Dishonored 2.
Unfortunately, Tom’s Guide didn't get a review code ahead of Redfall’s release, but our colleagues over at PC Gamer and GamesRadar noted Redfall hasn't lived up to expectations and doesn't feel like the finished article for the ambitious game.
As a fan of Arkane games, this comes as a huge disappointment to me. I'm quietly hopeful that Redfall will be improved over time, but this messy launch is a bad look for Xbox, especially as Redfall was already delayed.
In fact, the fault from Redfall has been so heavy that Xbox boss Phil Spencer has put himself up for the blame, telling Kinda Funny that "there's nothing that's more difficult for me than disappointing the Xbox community. I've been a part of it for a long time, I obviously work on Xbox [as] head of the business, I have a lot of friends [and] get a lot of feedback. And, just to kind of watch the community lose confidence, be disappointed — I'm disappointed. I'm upset with myself."
As a result of this Redfall disappointment, a lot of people are (rightly so) getting concerned about the quality of Starfield, which got delayed until September 6. There's a feeling that even after delaying a game, Xbox can’t produce a high-quality product.
Starfield must reach for the stars
Now Bethesda Game Studios is different from Arkane, and is making a game that has a lot more in common with its previous big hitters like Skyrim; comparatively, Redfall was a bit of a different tack for Arkane. So we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison.
Yet Arkane and Bethesda Game Studios are both part of publisher Bethesda Softworks, which is run somewhat separately from Xbox Game Studios. So the overarching workflows that could have influenced the state of Redfall could potentially hang over Starfield.
But putting away speculation at the inner workings of Xbox and Bethesda, what's clear is Starfield really needs to be a well-polished great game. If not, the rest of 2023 could be grim for Xbox and that could see a real cooling off in positivity towards The Series X and S, as well as Xbox as a gaming brand.
Obviously, not everyone will like Starfield; open-world design and RPG elements can’t appeal to everyone after all.
Yet for people to have faith in Xbox, whether that’s realized in Game Pass subscriptions or continued adoption of the Series X and S, the brand needs a big hitter this year. Realistically, Starfield looks like the only game that’ll carry that torch, so it’s important Xbox and Bethesda get it right.
But Bethesda’s previous open-world games have a reputation for being buggy, despite receiving critical acclaim. That was the case when the game studio was independent of Microsoft. With the Redmond company’s tech and resources, one can be forgiven for currently expecting Starfield to be far more polished than similar Bethesda games of the past. So that’ll be another expectation for Starfield to meet; the pressure builds.
The 'console war' lives, it's just different
It’s worth bearing in mind that Spencer doesn't see Xbox competing with PlayStation or Nintendo for console market share. "We are not in the business of out-consoling Sony or out-consoling Nintendo,” he said, noting that even high-quality games won’t see Xbox surge ahead of the PS5. “There is no world where Starfield is an 11/10 and people start selling their PS5s. That's not going to happen."
Rather Xbox is about being a gaming platform that delivers great gaming experiences across multiple formats, from consoles and PC to phones and tablets. “We have to go off and do our own thing, with Game Pass, with the stuff we do with xCloud and the way we build our games,” explained Spencer.
That’s an admirable goal, but that still means Xbox as a platform and service needs a handful of compelling exclusive games that launch in a polished state. Something needs to encourage people to buy into Xbox as a brand and ecosystem, rather than simply invest more in their PS5 games library.
And with Redfall looking like a swing and a miss, faith in Xbox could dwindle if Starfield isn't a critical hit. Of course, I doubt that’ll cause Xbox to die, given Game Pass alone still has a mass of great games to play. It’s just without new high-profile and successful games, the Series X/S could whither this year, and the Xbox brand could wane a fair bit. If that happens then Xbox may no longer be held up as a rival standard bearer for PlayStation to be motivated by and measured against.
A microcosm of this could be seen in the form of the Halo franchise. Far from dead, Halo is no longer a name for people to put their gaming faith in. The move from Bungie to 343i as the developers arguably led to a low point in the Halo series, especially with Halo 5: Guardians. Halo Infinite won back some appeal, but its multiplayer audience rapidly waned in 2022 and cuts were made at 343i leaving the future of Halo as a huge Xbox game in doubt.
If Starfield doesn't hit a high watermark in gaming, then it could mark a downward trend for Xbox as a pair of current-gen consoles and an overall platform.
The more puckish PlayStation fans could rejoice in this. But such a decline would be bad for gaming overall, as rivalry — whether real or perceived — encourages innovation and can help prevent the creep of cookie-cutter games and iterative sequels from flooding the market.
In short, I think a heck of a lot is hanging on Starfield being a success. And as a fan of Bethesda’s open-world games, you better believe I have my fingers and toes crossed for Starfield.