Microsoft underwhelms with next-gen gameplay premier

Microsoft was poised to show off the first next-generation console gameplay during its “Inside Xbox” last Thursday.

Instead, it delivered an anemic 20 minutes of underwhelming “gameplay” in the form of low-quality trailers of low budget cross-generation games with disclaimers that the visuals being seen were merely targeted for the power of the Xbox Series X. The most hyped portion of the event, a supposed gameplay reveal of “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” turned out to be nothing more than a short “in-engine” teaser of what the game could look and play like when it arrives later this year. The entire “Inside Xbox” event was merely one of disclaimers, asterisks and hollow hype with the promise of more coming later.

So let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, there is a pandemic raging. Yes, almost every aspect of our daily lives have been upended in some form or another. No, video games aren’t the most important thing to be focused on at the moment. Those disclaimers out of the way, Microsoft knew exactly what the situation was before creating this event. It was still hyped by Phil Spencer, vice president of Gaming at Microsoft, and other executives from across the country at the first reveal of next-gen gameplay — something many have craved since the unveiling of the Xbox Series X in December.

The show was framed as a showcase for third-party games, while first-party titles, like “Halo Infinite,” “Hellblade 2” and others would be held for a virtual conference in July. With “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” leading the way, many took this event to be an in depth look at titles like “Cyberpunk 2077,” which has been confirmed to run on the Xbox Series X with enhancements as part of Microsoft’s “Smart Delivery” system. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on a series of lower budget titles that didn’t showcase anything that couldn’t be done on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

The showcase shines a light on Microsoft’s next-gen strategy, which is focused on blurring the lines between console generations. The “Smart Delivery” system will ensure that anyone who buys a supported game for the Xbox One will receive a free Xbox Series X upgrade, which will probably include better graphics, better performance and higher resolution to take advantage of the new hardware. The games are still being designed with the console limitations of the Xbox One in mind, but will still look and perform better on the new hardware. It’s a good idea for the more than 50 million Xbox One owners, but it also doesn’t offer as much incentive for some to jump into the new hardware if the games will only be marginally improved versions of last generation experiences.

That doesn’t necessarily mean some of the titles weren’t impressive. Among the two more exciting titles to be unveiled were “Chorvs” and “The Ascent.” The former — with its strange spelling — is an aerial combat game in space with some interesting story elements. The latter initially appeared to be an isometric twin-stick shooter, but developers promise there will be much more to the game than that. The short trailers for both games showed great potential, but little to no gameplay.

This special was billed as a gameplay showcase for these new games, and the vast majority were debuted with cinematic trailers, not gameplay. The whole event almost felt rushed, as if Microsoft wanted to get some information out to the public, but didn’t have the resources to really offer that first true look at next-generation gameplay. It was good to see independent developers get some time in the spotlight, but the marketing was all wrong in the lead up.

Microsoft would have been much better suited to frame the “Inside Xbox” as an independent game showcase with some games available on the Xbox Series X. Instead, it sucked much of the hype out of the launch of the next gen systems — at least for the time being — as there was very little presented to wow viewers. Still, there’s still many months to go before the console launch this holiday season. A first-party showcase is scheduled for July, and that should give Microsoft Game Studios a chance to highlight the work they’ve been doing for the last couple of years. “Inside Xbox” was a misstep, but hopefully one that will be quickly forgotten.

Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.

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