After a shaky start to 2023, Microsoft's Xbox and Starfield showcase double header was a confident and compelling menu for the next couple of years - and a welcome distraction from the smoke still wafting from the kitchen.
Expectations were, perhaps, a little low - while the bar set by Sony with its own showcase was even lower. For some starved fans, any glimpse of Fable would likely have been considered enough of a win. For everyone else, well, we knew we were getting an hour of Starfield - and that was likely going to be just fine.
As it was, Microsoft smashed out the best games reveal event we've seen in years - and finally brought life to a lacklustre not-E3 week overall. Nearly every announcement was an exclusive or brand-new title getting its reveal on Microsoft's virtual stage. More importantly, nearly every announcement was something that looked interesting enough to play. Even the rare moments where things dragged were a far cry from the sponsorships and unvarnished advertising we all sat through last week, during self-appointed E3 replacement Summer Game Fest's livestream. It was a thoroughly entertaining and rousing spectacle.
An eye-catching "in-game footage" look at the new Fable provided pitch-perfect humour from Richard Ayoade, followed by the stylish South of Midnight from Compulsion, the World Premiere of Ubisoft Massive's Star Wars adventure (seemingly inhabiting the Force Ghost of Amy Hennig's Ragtag), and then a reveal for 33 Immortals, the next project from Thunder Lotus, the studio behind the wonderful and moving Spiritfarer.
Up next was Persona, dulled a bit by the leaks, but then Avowed which looked intriguing enough, followed by the entertaining Flight Simulator 2024 - aka the one where Microsoft actually patches in a regular video game. Then there was a look at Hellblade 2, a new Like A Dragon, Towerborne and Clockwork Revolution... And of course, the vast majority of these will either be included in Game Pass at launch or be full console exclusives - and so in Game Pass as well.
It's just a shame that none of those are out this year.
Where Sony failed to provide a solid roadmap of PlayStation releases after Spider-Man 2 in October, Xbox ripped the cap off its content pipeline and showered us with promises - though almost all with a 2024 date attached. Even Hellblade 2, announced back in 2019, is set for next year. Fable, perhaps ominously, did not get a placeholder year at all.
2023, then, will remain the domain of Starfield and Forza Motorsport, alongside some notable game expansions. Of course, Starfield will be huge, and its showing was bewildering enough in detail that I now need to just sit down and play it and see if it can possibly be as good as Todd Howard would have me believe. I've never gelled with Bethesda role-players, but this seems to have borrowed from every sci-fi game I do like (hello, neon Mass Effect nightclub!) that it seems impossible not to give it a try.
Tonight's showing of the new Forza Motorsport, while one of Xbox's biggest brands, couldn't really shake the fact it looks less fun than Forza Horizon. All of which left 2023 to the joyous announcement of a proper Monkey Island and Sea of Thieves crossover - something which brought genuine cheers here at Eurogamer - as well as CD Projekt's multiplatform Cyberpunk 2077 expansion Phantom Liberty.
With Starfield looking like it can hold up to the weight of expectation around its release, this isn't a bad offering for the rest of 2023 when you include the third-party games Sony snaffled for its show and Microsoft subsequent crowed were also on Xbox. Still, it was a surprise to see Xbox suddenly celebrating the beginning of this year as a major turning point. "We had some gaps last year, but I think we've turned the corner coming into 2023," Xbox Game Studios boss Matt Booty said, at a post-livestream media event in Los Angeles attended by Eurogamer's Chris Tapsell. "[I] feel very good about launching Hi-Fi Rush, we have Minecraft Legends out there which is doing well, we have Age of Empires continuing to come to console... and then as we saw today, this fall we have Forza Motorsport and Starfield. Then when we get into 2024, it really kicks into gear."
It's an interesting way to describe what has in reality been a tumultuous six months for Microsoft so far, with production issues and blame thrown around the launch of Redfall, the soap opera of Xbox trying to buy Activision Blizzard, and the fact PlayStation 5 sales have skyrocketed, giving Xbox's archrival an unassailable lead. In the same discussion, Xbox boss Phil Spencer put a rosier spin on Xbox's fortunes by comparing Xbox Series X/S to Microsoft's own past console efforts, while admitting the Activision Blizzard takeover bid had taken up "focus".
The closest anyone got to mentioning the impact of Redfall during that discussion was in a telling moment where Matt Booty mentioned the upcoming Clockwork Revolution from InXile, which he proudly noted was one of a crop of new announcements from Xbox today that had been dreamt up entirely after Microsoft's acquisition - the suggestion being that these were titles Microsoft could take full credit for, without any other baggage attached. Redfall, of course, had been in the works beforehand - and Microsoft has suggested it should have been more hands-on to correct issues after onboarding developer Arkane (while still being hands-on enough to squash plans for a PlayStation release).
Still, whether it's accurate to apply that promise of a bright future for Xbox games from the start of 2023 or not, the Xbox Games Showcase and Bethesda Direct contained that feeling throughout: in trailer after trailer that promised great things were coming, in message after message that pledged said great things for the all-important Game Pass. Stick with Xbox, Microsoft was saying, and we have so much in store - but mostly in 2024, and beyond.