Microsoft announced ahead of its Sunday E3 show that one of its few upcoming first-party titles, Crackdown, would be delayed into 2019. This comes after the game’s fall 2017 release date was pushed back into 2018 at the last minute. A game delay is a good thing, because it means that we’re probably going to get a good game later instead of a bad game right now. It means that the people making the game know it’s not fully baked just yet. And yet, seeing Crackdown delayed feels like a brutal blow to Microsoft and Xbox.
The competition between Microsoft and Sony in this generation of consoles reminds us that it’s the games that matter, and in that respect, Microsoft is failing miserably.
This isn’t a new problem
It’s not that we don’t get good games from Microsoft, or that Xbox doesn’t have its share of great games. Some of my favorite games this generation, like Sunset Overdrive and Forza Horizon 3, are Microsoft exclusives. But when you try to line their list up with that of Sony or Nintendo, it becomes apparent how truly anemic Microsoft’s offerings have been in the last few years – and really even back on the Xbox 360.
Looking back, the list of memorable games that you could only play on Xbox is painfully short and overfull with sequels. When you knock out Gears of War, Halo, and Forza, you’re left with just a few big games like Alan Wake, Crackdown, and Fable II, and a lot of flawed-but-fun (for the right audience) titles like Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon. And tons of Xbox Live Arcade games.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation 3 had its standard stable of stuff like Gran Turismo but brought a wider variety of games to the show. It had its grimdark shooters like Resistance and Killzone, adventures like Uncharted, God of War III, Ratchet and Clank, Metal Gear Solid, and inFamous, and weird stuff like LittleBigPlanet. That doesn’t take into account its huge library of Japanese games such as Yakuza and Persona.
Microsoft started off the last generation the same way Sony did this one. It came from a place of disadvantage while its competitor came in from one of arrogance. Sony owned the world with the PlayStation 2, and the Xbox was a curiosity more than anything. Microsoft hit the ground running while Sony gave us a gigantic system that proved difficult to develop for and slapped a pricetag on it. But it also had a much better platform for online play along with the same stable of multiplatform games as Sony. The momentum combined with the online system was enough to make the console just-barely competitive with Sony’s after the huge PR ding they took for suggesting that people take a second job to get a PS3.
Sound familiar? Microsoft dominated the last generation in North America and the U.K., and took that as a victory despite being second place or neck-and-neck everywhere else. At the height of its hubris, Microsoft introduced a huge, awkward console with weird hardware (ESRAM, anyone?) and a tone-deaf executive pointing people back to the Xbox 360 even as he tried to hype the Xbox One.
“Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to stay connected; it’s called Xbox 360,” said former Microsoft exec Don Mattrick back at E3 2013.
Whoa, Deja Vu
But this time, Sony was prepared with an online service that matched that of Xbox in many ways and exceeded it in some others, while Microsoft’s new console lacked many features present on its last one. The two systems are identical in architecture and similar in configuration. We’re left with the games. While Microsoft has continued to pump out Forza games, its Halo and Gears games are getting consistently mixed reviews. We had promise some years ago when there were a bunch of exclusive games to look forward to. But then Microsoft canned Fable Legends and shuttered developer Lionhead studios. It cancelled Platinum’s Scalebound, too, giving fans of Japanese games absolutely no hope for the system.
This spring, Xbox fans received State of Decay 2 and Sea of Thieves. I actually love both of them despite some pretty glaring problems, but neither even begin to compare to the scale of God of War. And God of War is just the start. Detroit: Become Human sucked, but it was yet another high profile game. We know for a fact we’re getting Spider-Man this fall, and we can also look forward to Days Gone, Last of Us II, Dreams, Ghost of Tsushima, and Death Stranding as high-profile exclusives. Microsoft has Forza Horizon 4 (unconfirmed, but we’re pretty sure). There’s a Halo game eventually, and more Gears at some point. But Microsoft is continuing to depend on these stories franchises to keep the lights on when the demand for them is flagging. Both Gears and Halo are games left behind by their original creators and have become shadows of their former selves.
So that brings us to Crackdown 3.
The original Crackdown was a surprise hit for the Xbox 360, one that snuck in when Microsoft made the genius move of putting the Halo 3 beta in the game box. It so happened that people were getting a stellar game along with their $60 game demo. After that, the game received a truly terrible sequel and then went into hibernation. It revived in a new form. Crackdown saw life as a tech demo for the power of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing.
Here’s how it works: Internet connections are fast enough these days that you can, in a correctly-engineered game, offload some of the computational needs off to the cloud. And Microsoft, one of the world’s biggest tech companies, has a very big cloud. Crackdown 3 is meant to make use of that by letting players destroy the many buildings in the game from the ground up with grenades, rockets, and anything else they can get their hands on. The cloud handles geometry that’s way too complex for even the Xbox One X or a powerful gaming PC to handle consistently, enabling new levels of destruction.
Sounds cool, right? That’s about all it does – sound cool.
Since these early demos, we’ve heard almost nothing about this. Last year at E3, we played the game. The destruction was nowhere to be found, because it’s a multiplayer only thing. Microsoft and developer Sumo Digital would have us believe that the single and multiplayer game modes were always going to be separate and that the destruction was only going to be in multiplayer. I’m not completely sure I believe that, but it hardly matters. The game we saw was definitely an electronic video game, but very little about it was remarkable. It seemed fun enough at the time, but time away from it has left me feeling a little colder about it.
After that demo, Microsoft pushed the game back out of 2017 and into 2018. Here in 2018, we’ve heard little-to-nothing about it until this week, which is when word of the delay got out.
Without Crackdown 3, Microsoft has nothing fresh for fans to expect form this year. Again, Forza Horizon 4 is the whole list. There’s nothing else that anyone who isn’t trying to sell Xboxes would consider significant. Everything else you can play on Xbox, you can play on PlayStation. And not only can you play all those multiplatform games on PlayStation, you can jump to those incredible exclusives, too.
I’m not sure if Crackdown 3 is going to be a great game or not. The delay tells us that, right now, it isn’t. But it could be, if the next eight months running up to the game’s new February 2019 release date are kind.
It begs the question, why should anyone buy an Xbox?
I love my Xbox. I prefer my Xbox over my PlayStation. I love Forza. I like Xbox Live and the Xbox controller far better than PlayStation’s offerings in either case. But Microsoft is in trouble. Xbox boss Phil Spencer has acknowledged this in interviews. Microsoft knows it needs to give its players a reason to play Xbox instead of PlayStation. Backwards compatibility and 4K aren’t enough. Forza isn’t enough. And right now, not even Gears and Halo are enough, because we’re used to those. We know to expect them.
What can Microsoft do?
There are a few things Microsoft needs to do right now for the future of the Xbox ecosystem, all orbiting around the idea of more games.
Microsoft needs big, fresh and engaging games. It needs games you can’t play anywhere else. It needs them right now. That last part is the hardest one, and exactly why the Crackdown 3 delay is such a big problem. Microsoft has been feeding us small-to-medium titles on a slow drip while waiting for something to happen. And for the last year and a half, that something has been Crackdown 3. Phil needs to stop waiting on this game and turn his attention toward something else. The rumored Fable revival is one potential step in this direction, but it’s not enough on its own. Microsoft needs the next Horizon Zero Dawn, the next Spider-Man. Horizon looks so fresh at first glance that people couldn’t help but get excited about it. Spider-Man is something people have been craving for years (that Sony just happens to own the license for). Microsoft needs to show those things off at E3 this year. That’s an unrealistic request, but it’s what Microsoft needs to do.
For most of us, there’s still a ton to play on Xbox. So many of my favorite games are multiplatform that I’m not left wanting for more games to play on the system. But there’s little reason for players to invest specifically in an Xbox unless they’re really big on racing games or have a bunch of Xbox 360 games in the closet that they want to replay. That has to change.