The Xbox Series X comes out in November, probably around the same time as the PS5 if Sony ever gets around to announcing its release date. But they don’t need to come out then. In fact, maybe it would be for the best if they were just delayed until some time next year.
Lately I’ve been waking up every day in a weird mental vortex where time has no meaning. Memories of the past, aspirations for the future, and anxieties about the present violently collide with one another, all while I pour boiling water over coffee grounds and slice up strawberries for my always famished one-year-old in what feels like a never-ending loop. Nowhere in this psychological miasma are the words “PS5” or “Xbox Series X.” My default programming during these times tells me to “keep calm and carry on” but every time I remember that two of the biggest video game companies are in a months-long marketing duel to be the place where the most people play Call of Duty for the 16th year in a row, the programming crashes. 2020 feels like a whole lot of things, but the start of a new cycle of more powerful gaming hardware is not one of them.
For starters, less than three months out, neither Microsoft nor Sony has really demonstrated why we should all be getting excited about shelling out something like two week’s worth of minimum wages for a new plastic brick to sit beside our TVs. Better load times? More detailed graphics? I have no doubt developers will use the new technology to create another round of really cool games, but what Microsoft and Sony have actually shown so far across their multiple press conferences and blog posts feels much more reminiscent of what we got with the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro. I see incremental improvements in the dozens of trailers both companies have shared, but nothing that feels striking or completely new. The Switch launch didn’t do that either, but it also had Breath of the Wild, and I still don’t see a Breath of the Wild.
Almost every week a new game understandably gets delayed: sometimes because of conventional development woes, other times because of the unique challenges of working from home, and often because of both. There was always a question around just how “next-gen” Halo Infinite would be since it was launching on both Xbox One and Series X. Now it’s not coming to either, at least not until next year.
Bloober Team’s psychological horror game The Medium is still set to release “holiday 2020,” complete with a dual-reality feature that involves exploring two separate places simultaneously. It sounds and looks sufficiently next-gen, though it’s also releasing simultaneously on PC. Other than that, Series X’s lineup looks meager, especially after Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 dropped out. What’s left? Dirt 5 in 120 fps and a handful of other next-gen optimizations for current-gen games? I still don’t even have a 4K TV. I’m not sure seeing Gears 5 run at 60fps in 4K will be the reason I buy one. And there’s still no clear timetable for when Cyberpunk 2077’s next-gen optimization update will be ready.
The PS5 isn’t looking much better. Its third-party, timed-next-gen exclusive, Deathloop, was also delayed this month. Godfall, the “looter slasher” from the makers of Duelyst, seems fine, but is also coming to PC. Bugsnax, the neat-looking indie from the makers of Octodad, will also be on PS4. The sequel to the underrated PSVR game Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Astro’s Playroom, will be pre-loaded onto every PS5, but it sounds like more of a demo for the DualSense controller than a full game. That leaves Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a followup to the game Sony originally used to demonstrate what PS5 load times will be capable of. It looks awesome and I am ready to have more Spider-Man in my life, especially when it’s not just another Peter Parker’s “Greatest Hits” redux. I’m also fine to wait a little longer for it. There’s no shortage of stuff to play in the meantime.
For me, video games have been a comforting distraction and the basis for a number of socially distanced hangouts these last few months. I never bought a Rocket League battle pass before this summer, but currently I’m about to hit rank 130. The 30 minutes I get to spend every few nights catching up with friends while driving a giant ball across a futuristic stadium have become an important part of my self-care routine. I’m sure next-gen consoles and their hype-evoking, if historically mediocre, launch lineups might give that routine a welcome shot in the arm ahead of the long, cold winter, but there are plenty of current-gen games now and in the time ahead to fill that role.
Nintendo, perhaps harder hit than most gaming companies by complications from the pandemic, has been plugging great indie games between sparser releases like Paper Mario: The Origami King and the upcoming remaster of Pikmin 3. Spiritfarer and Raji: An Ancient Epic just came out, are both wonderful, and I barely have time for them. This is on top of other excellent summer releases and ports like Panzer Paladin, Ooblets, and CrossCode, as well new infinitely replayable games like Fall Guys. I have huge gripes with Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us Part II but I still want to properly go back and finish both. Remember when Final Fantasy VII Remake and Animal Crossing: New Horizons both came out five years ago back in March? Massive CRPGs Wasteland 3 and Baldur’s Gate III (early access) are right around the corner, to be followed by another round of heavy-hitters in the fall like Watch Dogs Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and Cyberpunk 2077. Yes, I’m just listing games at this point, and yes, I could go on, but that is exactly the point. Nothing about the next-gen launch feels particularly urgent or indispensable within the current hellscape.
More importantly, we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic that has completely upended daily life, the economy, and the companies currently racing to create console gaming’s future. Over 177,000 people are dead in the US, tens of thousands more are diagnosed each day, and potential long-term symptoms associated with infection are still barely understood. Meanwhile there continues to be Great Recession levels of unemployment, even as financial relief programs are already being phased out. Pre-ordering an expensive new console comes with added amounts of risk and self-loathing knowing that the stock market will probably crash again at any moment and that millions are facing an unprecedented wave of home evictions.
Maybe in a covid-free world these launch lineups would look very different. Maybe we would already know how much the consoles will cost and have some sense of what new software features they’ll bring to the table. Maybe Sony would let people demo the DualSense in stores, and Microsoft would spend a little more time talking about the “most powerful gaming console” and a little less reminding everyone that many of its games will be playable on their smartphones through xCloud. And maybe I would have more time and energy to get excited about it all if there wasn’t a facsist in the White House busily drumming up his hordes during an election year when the main vehicle for voting more safely during a pandemic is being actively sabotaged.
Most console generations don’t start to get good until a year or two in. That’s when the Xbox One and PS4 gave us Sunset Overdrive, Bloodborne, and The Witcher 3. With the ongoing delays, it could take even longer this time around. Launch consoles have always been forward-looking investments. Maybe that will feel like an easier bet to place when there are more games to back it up and fewer national crises.