Microsoft’s Xbox Series X is primed to deliver this holiday season in a big way. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the strongest position Microsoft has been in since the glory days of the Xbox 360 generation – it’s as though all the pieces have finally fallen into place.
Not only will Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S owners get to enjoy two major exclusives in the run up to Christmas – Forza Horizon 5 and Halo Infinite – Sony’s PS5 is suddenly bereft of first-party releases now that Horizon: Forbidden West has slipped to February 25, 2022.
It’s a stark turnaround from how the new PlayStation and Xbox consoles began life back in November 2020, with Sony delivering a slew of top tier exclusive games such as Demon’s Souls, Marvel’s Spider-Man Miles Morales and Sackboy: A Big Adventure. Microsoft, meanwhile, felt the sting of Halo Infinite missing its intended launch date, and had to make do with Xbox Game Pass releases and spruced up versions of its existing library of titles.
Sony continued to turn the screw on Microsoft throughout the year with more exclusive games like Returnal and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, which both harnessed the strengths of the PS5 to great effect. But since then, the good ship Sony has encountered more tumultuous waters.
A lack of announcements about what’s coming to PS5 in future, as well as the decision to release titles that were previously championed as PlayStation 5 exclusives on PS4, like Gran Turismo 7, weren’t met with the warmest of reception. The delay of Horizon: Forbidden West almost seemed like a formality, too, after months of radio silence.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that PlayStation owners will be completely devoid of games to play in the run up to Christmas. Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut just landed – though some may take exception to the way it locks PS5 features behind a paywall – and the polarizing Death Stranding is also set to receive the Director’s Cut treatment on September 24, 2021. There’s also Deathloop, a timed-exclusive, from the Xbox-owned Arkane Studios.
The reality is, though, if you’ve already played either of these two Sony published titles before, there’s technically nothing “new” from Sony Interactive Entertainment’s worldwide studios until early next year. And that’s not something we expected to see during the PS5’s first year on sale.
Green with envy
Microsoft, in comparison, has been riding a wave of momentum since its sterling Xbox Bethesda Showcase event at E3 2021 in June. Not only does its subscription service, Xbox Game Pass, continue to dwarf Sony’s PS Now in terms of value and widespread appeal, but we’re now starting to see quality, not just quantity.
In July, players were treated to Microsoft Flight Simulator, a game that was previously confined to the realms of high-end PCs, but is now capable of running on an Xbox Series S, a console that costs $299 / £249.
August has seen the arrival of Psychonauts 2, an inventive platformer that’s received widespread critical acclaim; and in November, fans can put pedal to the metal in Forza Horizon 5, a game which I think few would argue has the potential to be a game of the year contender for many.
The announcement of Xbox Cloud Gaming coming to Xbox One is also significant. Soon owners of Microsoft’s last-gen console will be able to stream Xbox Series X titles at 1080p/60fps, and play Gen 9 titles that simply wouldn’t run on older hardware. It’s an unprecedented move, and something that’s in keeping with Microsoft’s consumer-friendly approach this generation.
Wake me, when you need me
And then there’s Halo Infinite. Delaying the game by over a year was undoubtedly a risk, a gamble even – but it’s a decision that I don’t think the old guard at Microsoft would have had the foresight, or stomach, to take.
The company could never have known that Sony would be without a big hitter this holiday, of course, but it continues to represent a shift in commitment from the Xbox team that has been present ever since the disastrous launch of the Xbox One.
And the delay of Halo Infinite has paid dividends, for now at least. Even though development has been akin to a rollercoaster ride, with regular peaks and troughs, the mood around the game has shifted dramatically.
An extremely well-received multiplayer technical preview certainly helped, and two gorgeous pieces of limited edition hardware help make Halo Infinite’s upcoming release feel like a marquee event – something that one of Microsoft’s most beloved franchises deserves.
But once again it’s Microsoft’s ace in the hole, Xbox Game Pass, that really ties everything together with a pretty little bow on top. All of the games mentioned above are available on Xbox Game Pass on day one, offering phenomenal value for those who subscribe.
The service continues to pick up delightful indies – with many more announced during Gamescom 2021’s Opening Night Live – exclusive content and various perks to keep those who subscribe feeling like there’s more content than they know what to do with. It’s the noisy neighbor that Sony’s desperate to keep quiet.
The Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S will certainly be attractive to consumers this holiday season, but much like the PS5, stock issues will continue to dictate just how many units both Microsoft and Sony can shift this Christmas. However, there’s no doubt where you’ll be able to play the biggest games this year.