There’s a kind of vague density to Xbox’s year ahead: The Medium is out on January 28th, and then nothing else, out of the whopping 21 console or timed exclusives that I can count, has an actual solid release date. This, of course, is largely the result of the pandemic. Microsoft’s original plans for the Series X and S’s launch, like everyone’s, have been dramatically impacted, and so what we get is lots of games crammed into the broad window of “2021”, and lots of uncertainty about when exactly they’ll actually arrive, or whether they’ll even make it out this year at all.
None of those have been more publicly affected than Halo Infinite. There is a lingering sense that this is make-or-break for 343 Industries, which has done a decent job of imitating ‘real’ Halo without ever actually feeling real. The studio’s had a long time to focus on Infinite, announced at E3 2018 and in development since at least 2015, when Halo 5 launched, and so the wobbly reveal and subsequent departure of director Chris Lee has been troubling. The delay, on the other hand, is at least morally encouraging. Staff welfare was cited as a key reason as much as anything, and there’s plenty of recent evidence to remind us that short-termism and crunch doesn’t exactly pay. Reinforcements have also been called in the form of Bungie veteran Joe Staten and Pierre Hintz, credited by some as the savior of the Master Chief Collection after its own rocky launch. Staten’s since claimed to be “stunned” by the quality of the campaign. With little else in the way of blockbuster exclusive this year – and none since the consoles’ launch either – the pressure is on.
Away from Halo – and maybe Rare’s Everwild, which is apparently out this year but remains largely a mystery – there’s a distinctly double-A feel to Xbox’s lineup. Call it the Game Pass effect if you like, but Microsoft has clearly made a concerted effort to woo the middle-tier of publishing, snapping up Crossfire X, Remedy’s single-player addition to a series that’s become uber-popular in Asia, and colourful-looking The Gunk, from the developers of SteamWorld. There’s some enjoyably schlocky-looking horror on its way, via The Medium and euphemism simulator Scorn, while horror-adjacent immersive sim and all round cult favourite S.T.A.L.K.E.R. finally gets a sequel from the same studio as the original, GSC Game World, albeit with most of the original staff long gone (and a question mark over its 2021 release). A more promising cult-hit follow-up – at least personally speaking – is Warhammer 40,000: Darktide, a spiritual successor to the Vermintide games from developer Fatshark, this time set in the grimdark future of the 40k universe. With Vermintide already channelling plenty of Left 4 Dead vibes there’s a real whiff of Xbox 360-era nostalgia to this series, and what’s been teased of Darktide so far looks excellent.
Likewise, there’s some genuine excitement around The Ascent, from indie team Neon Giant, and a stream of other ID@Xbox games on their way too – 13 by my count, at least nine of which delayed from 2020. Several of those, like the star-studded 12 Minutes, are from reliable arthouse publisher Annapurna Interactive, with others like Sable and Rezzed darling Exo One coming as ‘true’ indies that have been on the radar of the small-game cognoscenti for a little while.
All of it adds up to what you might call a ‘promising’ year, then, if not exactly a spectacular one. But leaving it at that would be a mistake. The pressure is only on Halo Infinite, for instance, if Xbox is still judging success solely in the old ways: of selling copies of games and living-room boxes, of which we’ll naturally see more as the pandemic eases tensions on manufacture and supply. Increasingly that doesn’t seem to be the case. The elephant in the room is Game Pass, onto which every one of these console-exclusive games will be launching, straight off the bat, and alongside which (and bundled into the subscription) comes the streaming service xCloud. Microsoft’s grand strategy with this generation is breadth, reaching as many screens as possible, as opposed to just the most hardcore with the biggest. 2021 may still be something of a foundational year, as xCloud gradually ramps up its full release and 5G, something of a forgotten game-changer for the industry, gradually rolls out in the west.
Only then will we get a true idea of the Xbox ‘vision’ for gaming, and so 2021 is really the Xbox Series X|S’s launch year in earnest – not only because it features all the actual launch games (sorry Tetris Effect: Connected, I do still love you), but because it’s the year we get to see the really juicy stuff, the strategy. Speaking personally, I can say the Series X has been a pleasure to use so far, but more in the kind of illicit early access sense: playing around with the Series X gives off the same kind of feeling you get from waking up at the crack of dawn to run around an empty theme park before the crowds. It’s been nice. The hope for 2021 is it’ll evolve into the real deal.