It’s no secret that Microsoft’s Xbox One has kind of been kicked in the teeth this generation by Sony’s PS4. Between the mixed messaging regarding always online policies and DRM, the unwanted Kinect bundling, and the slight power differential with Sony’s console, it’s safe to say Xbox stumbled out of the gate this generation. They have had a handful of noteworthy AAA exclusives like Ryse, Dead Rising 3, Quantum Break and Sunset Overdrive (and of course predictable staples like Gears, Forza and Halo), but Sony have well and truly pulled ahead in this race too, with some absolutely stellar exclusives released this year which have been lauded the world over (and deservedly so).
I own both consoles, and will admit that the vast majority of my time is spent with my PS4. But far from being a brand loyalist, my tendency is to go where the games are. These mid-gen upgrades have given us another option though – to not only seek out the best games, but the best performance. Even prior to the release of the PS4 Pro, Xbox was suffering a major problem with consumer perception, largely in regards to power and its inability to hit the same performance benchmarks as its rival. With the Xbox brand flagging, many (including myself) chose to play multiplatform titles on PS4; the games often performed (slightly) better, and it’s also likely that this is where you found most of your friends playing – there was little reason to fire up your Xbox One outside of a handful of exclusives. If anyone had asked me which console to buy after the first two years of this generation, I would have recommended PS4 hands down.
But the landscape has changed significantly with the release of the PS4 Pro. It’s currently the most powerful console on the market, and has a fairly decent price point, but reception has been nonetheless slightly lukewarm. DYEGB’s own Josh Rizk described some of the graphical and performance boosts as noticeably better on a 4K HDR display, but wasn’t impressed by the murky messaging with the Pro. This included no clear indication as to exactly what benefits you could expect to see, not to mention that 1080p users were unlikely to see much improvement at all in terms of visuals (unless the game supports supersampling). Read any review and it’s almost unanimous that if you don’t own a 4K HDR TV then buying the Pro is not at all essential unless you want some slightly smoother framerates in a handful of games.
Microsoft were always going to release a rival mid-gen upgrade, and the idea and motivation behind Project Scorpio has been germinating for a while. At the beginning of the generation, Sony threw down the gauntlet with its more powerful machine that was easier to use and cheaper to boot, and now the Xbox One S and Project Scorpio are the response to that. MS knows they have to win back the hearts and minds of gamers after such a large set back, and one of the ways of doing that is introducing a much more powerful machine than Sony are offering. It’s a shameless technological pissing contest as always, but it is the consumer that reaps the benefits. The Scorpio is a crazy beast in terms of specs, and you’ve only got to watch Digital Foundry’s seasoned tech expert Richard Leadbetter dissect the hardware to see how impressive it is (video above). With that much power under the hood, it is doubtless that the place to go for maximum graphical fidelity and performance will be the Scorpio. 1080p users will reportedly also reap the benefits, with supersampling planned for most titles providing crisper visual output. It’s also reported that load times, texture filtering and framerate will all be improved on Scorpio for existing Xbox One games, apparently without a patch. Of course, you’ll get much better results with a 4K HDR TV (or one of the rarer 1080p HDR TVs), but it seems like a conscious effort on Microsoft’s behalf to make 1080p users believe that buying a Scorpio is still worth the expenditure.
A popular opinion reverberating around the echo chamber of the Internet is that the Scorpio will not succeed because of a lack of MS exclusives. This argument seems to neglect the fact that most of the biggest titles are multiplatform titles, and as mentioned, Scorpio’s significant power advantage will make it the best place to play these if graphics and general performance are your priorities. Franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Star Wars Battlefront, FIFA, Madden and Assassin’s Creed (pretty much anything published by EA, Activision or Ubisoft) all release across multiple platforms, and sell crazy numbers of games. This says nothing of their quality or integrity (half of those aren’t my cup of tea), but in terms of sales, those franchises are licenses to print money, and if Scorpio can cement itself as the best place to play them, then it will succeed.
Take for instance Horizon Zero Dawn, which as of last month had sold some 2.6 million copies, with that figure including both physical and digital. This is a new IP from a first-party studio exclusive to PS4, and a brilliant game in its own right, and that is a lot of units to sell in that context. Now compare that to the sales of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – one of the lowest rated games in the franchise – which has still moved 6.8 million copies, and this number does not include digital sales. Despite this huge figure, this is chump change for the series, and it’s likely that sales will pick up once the polarising space CoD setting is left behind. Larger publishers, who are better able to take risks on making uber expensive AAA games, will always aim at multiplatform releases to maximise their profits; cornering the multiplat market is no small thing.
This isn’t to say that exclusives aren’t important, but just like Microsoft are planning to win the war for technological specs, you can bet the house on the fact that they will also bolster their exclusives roster (they really have little choice in this regard). There is no chance that big Phil Spencer is sitting back looking at the stream of quality AAA titles pouring out of Sony’s studios (not to mention the juggernaut titles like TLOU2 and Death Stranding still to come) and not wanting to emulate that success. In saying this, the cancellation of Scalebound is a huge setback, and Crackdown 3, Sea of Thieves and Phantom Dust probably don’t have the pulling power necessary to contend with Sony’s library. I expect this year’s E3 to be electric, and MS will come out swinging with some big games and new IPs to make up for the deficit. Whatever the outcome of the never-ending console wars, competition breeds excellence, and the gamer stands to reap the rewards on all sides.