Microsoft showed off its Xbox holiday line-up at a showcase in Manhattan last week. They spotlit several games and the new, more powerful Xbox One X version of the console. While the games were fun, a lack of flagship titles left me wondering how strong the new console's launch will be.
There's no denying the raw technical power of the Xbox One X. Games such as Forza Motorsport 7 and the enhanced versions of Killer Instinct and Gears of War 4 looked and played smoothly during my time with them. I'm not someone who concerns themselves greatly with hardware specs, but everything I played invariably had a clean and crisp feel to it. My larger concern is that some of the best games at the event were tucked into smaller demo stations. While Forza and Shadow of War took centre stage, games such as Super Lucky's Tale and Cuphead were in the wings, although the latter boasted a table of art and music sheets that helped catch my eye.
Cuphead proved to be the most entertaining game at the showcase. The distinctive art style and clanky piano tunes brought stages to life. It brought back memories of games such as Mickey Mania, the Sega Genesis and SNES classic featuring hand-drawn Disney art. I dashed and blasted my way through a forest of grumpy flowers and dangerous acorn-chucking foes before moving on to a Gradius-esque boss fight. It was Contra by way of Tex Avery, difficult but satisfying.
Another surprise was Super Lucky's Tale, a bright platformer that felt as easy to control as the recent Yooka-Laylee was clumsy. There were plenty of coins to collect and small puzzles to solve, and as I was guided along by an enthusiastic team member I found myself enraptured by the game world. While the gameplay was standard, it felt great. Jumping around, solving puzzles and collecting coins was fun. Smaller games such as Cuphead and Super Lucky's Tale were enjoyable, but what about bigger franchises?
Larger titles such as Shadow of War and Assassin's Creed: Origins held my attention, but if the goal was to show off games that set the Xbox lineup apart from a competitor like Sony, then stressing these multiplatform games didn't really help. Perhaps the goal was to dazzle and impress with 4K resolution, but as I embarked on a lengthy and ultimately futile quest to dispose of an orc rival in Shadow of War, my mind wasn't focused on graphics but instead scurrying to combine the game's various powers and abilities to pull off the best fantasy assassination possible. My target was too tough in the end and it was only later, when a team member hunted me down to gleefully tell me that they finally managed to kill him that I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a memorable bit of gaming camaraderie but 4K never factored into it.
Sea of Thieves was the most interesting console exclusive at the event. It has a nebulous release date of autumn 2018, which is far beyond the launch of the Xbox One X in November. I took time to go on a brisk treasure hunt. I swung a sword at skeletons, got shot out of cannons, steered a ship, and carried a cursed treasure chest that made me stumble around like a drunkard. It's a great experience that I look forward to, but the long wait doesn't particularly drive me toward picking up a new Xbox any time soon.
This would have been the holiday showcase for the long in development Crackdown 3, but it was recently delayed. Pressing for information, I was told that it wasn't up to Microsoft's quality standards. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which is console-exclusive to Xbox One this spring, was on the floor, but what they had was the PC version of the game running with an Xbox overlay. It handled well enough but without getting a chance to play it on actual hardware, it's difficult to judge how the popular battle royale game will perform on Xbox. Confused and eager to learn what the supposed killer app was, I asked a representative to name the one game that I needed to get if I had an Xbox One X. The answer? Forza Motorsport 7, a game that might be gorgeous to look at but appeals to a large but specific audience.
The games I played were fun — and all of them can be played on a regular Xbox One — but I walked away from this event a bit unsure about the overall lineup. The Xbox One X could lead to some more visually-striking gaming, but Microsoft still needs to build out their catalogue of games if they're going to draw players to their platform.