So, this is it: after months of PR drama, ambiguous tactics and embarrassing leaks — all in the context of a pandemic that left no room for a traditional marketing approach — the PlayStation5 and the Xbox Series S/X are heading to retailers in less than 5 weeks. During those ten mid-November days, Sony and Microsoft will offer a new generation of home entertainment systems to millions of consumers, promising more of everything and throwing around the term “next-gen” with abandon.
Only… neither of them will be delivering that. Not really. People who’ve eagerly awaited a new PlayStation or Xbox to play next-generation games on won’t have their wish fulfilled in a few weeks after all. Put simply: the next-gen experience they’ve been looking for will not start in November.
Define “next-gen”, S13E01
In order to get why the release of PS5 and Xbox Series S/X alone does not necessarily usher in a new era for video games in a few weeks, one has to decide on what “next-gen” actually means. Platform holders tend to focus on the technical aspects of new systems in order to define “generations”: during the PS3/Xbox 360 launch period, for instance, there was much talk regarding the “HD era” as opposed to the “SD era” of the PS2/Xbox one — just like now there’s talk regarding the “true 4K era” as opposed to the “sometimes 4K, sometimes upscaled era” of PS4 Pro/Xbox One X.
In that sense — the purely technical one — well, yes, there’s a number of things helping Sony and Microsoft claim that their new systems belong to the next generation of home entertainment. Both sport fast SSD storage — which not only greatly reduces loading times but can radically change the nature of many game types — much more powerful main processors than what their predecessors were offering, more memory, more powerful and versatile graphics subsystems, as well as a host of new techniques and tools meant to help developers make the most of all that advanced hardware.
Sony has gone one step further by adding several new features to PS5’s controller, plus a fully 3D, object-based, interactive audio subsystem. We’ll have to see when and how these will be utilized, as well as whether they can make a difference in the overall entertainment experience of PS5 games compared to Xbox Series S/X ones or not. But the Japanese giant did make the necessary investment in order to be able to promote the new PlayStation as “next-gen” in a somewhat more effective manner.
Problem is, consumers do not buy PlayStations or Xboxes in order to just be the proud owners of such advanced technology products. They buy them to play games on them. Which is why there is another way of defining “next-gen”, one that’s not at all focused on hardware but on the games themselves. One question is more than enough to put “next-gen” in this game-centric context: “What do the games of the new systems do that the games of the current systems could not possibly do?” Or, even better, “Which games for the new systems could never be made for the current systems?”
This is where things went wrong this time around.
So where are the next-gen games, then?
Well, that is just the thing: where indeed. Taking a good look at the launch line-ups of PS5 and Xbox Series S/X one realizes that there is not a single title of either format that is actually “next-gen” if defined in the game-centric manner mentioned earlier (not the tech-centric platform holders would prefer). Every single of those launch games will either come out on current formats too or will come out on PC too or is a remake. If not any of those, then it’s not impressive enough to work as a “system seller”: the kind of game that’s so good, one just has to buy a new system to enjoy it.
Microsoft missed that boat early on. There was just one (1) ΑΑΑ exclusive game slated for 2020 that could give Xbox fans a taste of “next-gen” entertainment and that was Halo Infinite. Despite what Microsoft claimed — that it would be possible for a new Halo to also come out on Xbox One without making a lot of compromises on the Xbox Series X — there was still some “next-gen” hope for Master Chief’s new adventure. The badly received trailer of that title in July’s Microsoft showcase made clear that this approach won’t work (hence the game’s delay to 2021 a few days later).
As yours truly has already argued, games cannot scale between generations (especially between generations separated by a ten-year technological gap), so Halo Infinite is now off the table and back in the garage for fixing. It’s not known when it will be released, whether it’s still planned for the Xbox One or whether it will be upgraded in such a way that it does not feel compromised for the Xbox Series S/X, but an Xbox November launch title it is not. Microsoft, tellingly, is not banging its “all our games on all the Xboxes” drum anymore. It’s also no accident that they push backward compatibility and older Xbox games enhancement so hard: it’s practically the only software card the Redmond giant can play right now.
But what about Sony? Well, that situation proved to be even more complicated. Sony has been banging their own “we believe in generations” drum for as long as Microsoft has banged theirs on a different tune — but in September we learned that… no, many PS5 games will actually come to the PS4 as well. So, come November, Sony will release the PS5 along with Spider-man: Miles Morales (which is also out on PS4 on the same day), Demon’s Souls (a beautiful remake but a remake nonetheless), Destruction All-Stars and Sackboy: A Big Adventure (both very nice but not what a system seller looks like) as well as Astro’s Playroom (more of a high-quality demo for the DualSense controller than anything else). It’s better than what Microsoft is offering but it’s still very far from ideal, the “ideal” being at least one heavy-hitter exclusive with no PS4 version planned.
Third-party games follow the same pattern. Godfall on PS5 looks amazing but it will also come out on PC (as will The Ascent on the new Xbox models). DIRT 5, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Watch Dogs Legion, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the new Call of Duty, the new FIFA, the Special Edition of Devil May Cry 5, Cyberpunk 2077 and many others will all come to PS5 and Xbox Series S/X, but they’ll be out for the PC too, as well as the current PlayStation and Xbox models on the same day (or even earlier for that matter).
So where are those “next-gen” games worth buying a PlayStation5 or Xbox Series S/X for? Well, nowhere — and that is exactly the point: there’s a big difference between “nice to haves” and “system sellers” and, right now, there seems to be a number of the former and not a single one of the latter. The PS5/XSS/XSX versions of all the aforementioned games will be shinier and will load impressively fast, yes. There may even be a pleasant surprise or two hidden in PS5’s launch line-up. But as things stand Sony and Microsoft have not offered enough game-centric reasons to consumers thinking of purchasing their new systems other than pure novelty. For some that will be more than enough, for others… not so much.
The bright side: no next-gen FOMO for Christmas 2020
Long story short, then: the PlayStation5 and the new Xbox models are powerful systems and impressive tech products (especially for the money) but they will not kickstart the next generation of home entertainment in November. Not yet. Not with games that will appear on current platforms or on PC too, not with games that are nice but not universally exciting. There will be new fun to be had, yes. But the “new” is not “next” until the “new” offers what the “old” never could… and there is not enough “next” in the “new” that Sony and Microsoft will offer in a few weeks. It is that simple.
When will there be enough “next” for the “new” to be exciting? Well, it’s anyone’s guess. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, for instance, seems to be the kind of game that uses the PS5 SSD so extensively that there could not be a PS4 version of it — but there’s no release date attached to it yet other than a “launch window” reference (which could mean before Christmas all the way to the end of March). Hellblade II for the XSS/XSX could be another true next-gen title if it’s indeed not coming to the Xbox One S/X but there’s no release date for that either. Such is the case for a number of other titles. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on game development for the last seven months or so a hazy release schedule for PS5/XSS/XSX titles is only to be expected, after all.
Is there a silver lining in all of this? Yes, there is: consumers all over the world that for some reason — any reason at all — will not be able to get their hands on a PlayStation5 or Xbox Series S|X in November need not have any FOMO this time around. No fear of missing out on the next generation of video games when there’ll be so few glimpses of it in 2020. The new PlayStation and the new Xbox models will launch, they will probably be deemed successful and they will indeed offer a small taste of that delicious true next-gen entertainment we crave for. But for people after a proper meal, not just a taste, it is not dinner time. Yet.