As the allocated 90 minutes clocked up and we all began to think about the few short hours left until we drag ourselves up for the Monday commute, it was hard to make head or tail of what Microsoft’s Gamescom show had set out to achieve. In an hour and a half of reheated E3 trailers and recaps, there was perhaps one announcement of a genuine exclusive for Xbox; a vertical console stand for the day one edition of the Xbox One X, as unpackaged by Major Nelson in an abandoned office on the other side of the world.
Whether this was a conference or not was neither here nor there, for Microsoft had requested the attention of an audience hungry for anything after a lacklustre E3, and staring down the barrel of an unconvincing Q4 for Xbox. This was an opportunity to convince the world that the Xbox One X was going to be a worthwhile bet this year, perhaps the last before the console’s launch, but when the pre-orders went live at the top of the show it was difficult not to feel that the sales pitch had fallen a little flat.
The remasters announced to coincide with the Xbox One X were a curious bunch – there was ReCore, the loveable but slightly skewiff double-A adventure from last year, whose Definitive Edition’s big boast was that a campaign that was clearly rushed out for last September might finally be finished, with one of the stars of the box art who was curiously absent in the original restored. There were true 4K editions of Disneyland Adventures, Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure and Zoo Tycoon, all perfect for the discerning seven-year-old in your household who throws a hissy fit at the mere mention of checkerboarding.
It all brought up the same question that kept recurring again and again – who is this thing for, and what’s Microsoft setting out to achieve with the Xbox One X? Its mantra, repeated ad infinitum in official material, is that this is The World’s Most Powerful Console, and of that there’s little doubt. It’s the world’s most handsome, too, a beautifully designed and improbably minuscule slab of technology that’d sit proudly under any television set, but while Microsoft’s engineers have hit it out of the park there’s the nagging feeling that elsewhere in Redmond things aren’t running quite so smoothly.
You can sense that in the same mistakes being made again; Microsoft stepped up its commitment to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, backing a proven winner and this year’s true phenomenon in what amounts to quite a coup for the Xbox brand, but the messaging was all over the place. This, it seems, is an exclusive in that very loose definition of the word, with all sorts of obfuscation being peddled out when it comes to future versions on other platforms. Maybe if Phil Spencer hadn’t skipped this week’s show he might have advised that, mindful of a Gamescom from the not-too-distant past and the muddied reveal of another Xbox ‘exclusive’, you can’t pull the wool over people’s eyes for too long.
There were better signs elsewhere, and the 100 plus games that will be receiving updates to make the most of the Xbox One X hardware makes for impressive reading – the promise of an improved and definitive console version of The Witcher 3 is almost enough alone to justify the upgrade, and elsewhere there’s an appealing list of games that will benefit from a facelift. But at this point in the console lifecycle, Microsoft needs more than prettier versions of multiplatform games if it’s to make serious inroads into Sony’s considerable lead this generation.
It needs new and exciting games, and just one reason to make the Xbox One X essential – an Uncharted, or a Breath of the Wild, to make the console’s case for it. Forza Motorsport 7, as fine as it looks, doesn’t quite cut it – alongside Gears of War and Halo, it feels like yesterday’s news, and not the shot in the arm that’s needed right now. You could argue that the PlayStation 4 Pro didn’t have its own big showcase game, but given Sony’s momentum and success so far this generation it didn’t really need one.
Maybe the small victories will be enough, and there are a fair few that Microsoft can claim. Cuphead looks as astounding as ever, and the early months of 2018 look relatively packed with Ori, Crackdown, Sea of Thieves and State of Decay all flying the flag. There’s something appetising about Xbox being the underdog once more, and with Sony resurrecting its villain role from the PS3 days with such moves as its blocking of cross-platform play, it’s hard not to root for Microsoft as it stages its own revival. Given how the Xbox One X has already sold out its initial allocation on Amazon UK, maybe that’s enough.
Will it be enough to put Microsoft back on top? Of that I’m not so sure, but perhaps that was never the point – and maybe it never was. For all the bluster of the Xbox One X, and its proud claim to be the world’s most powerful console, it seems right now its intentions are surprisingly modest. A boon for the fans, with a little exclusive vertical stand thrown in to boot. Given the hits the brand has taken over the past few years, staying upright might be all that can be asked for right now.