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Microsoft's 2017: momentum at last, and a golden opportunity

Zodiac killer.

Is this the year we can finally begin an editorial on Xbox's fortunes without referring to the catastrophic consequences of Xbox One's botched launch in 2013? I guess I've answered my own question there, but at least I feel a little bad about it. Phil Spencer and the rest of the Xbox management team deserve better than having past mistakes raked over yet again, because they have achieved what at one time seemed impossible. They start the new year no longer on the back foot, with some notable successes under their belt, and with, for the first time in years, a strategic advantage over their rivals at Sony. (They even bloodied their nose on Twitter.)

It is, of course, all about Project Scorpio, the high-powered new Xbox console due at the end of this year. It's bound to be a controversial box, but have no doubt that Microsoft's games division will be attacking its launch like its life depends on it - and not for nothing, either. It represents a very real opportunity to regain ground in its hard-fought sales war with Sony.

So what went right in 2016? First and foremost, you have to look to Xbox One S. The repackaged console is well thought-out, future-proof, good-looking and attractively priced - quite simply, a desirable bit of kit in its own right. It also brought the Xbox hardware in step with the changed priorities and philosophy of the Xbox enterprise as a whole, which were no longer reflected in the bloated original design with its vestigial Kinect focus and set-top box pretensions. Here instead was a neat games console with bonus features, reminiscent, if anything, of the original PlayStation 2. It rewarded Microsoft with a much-needed and well-deserved sales boost, outselling PS4 (in some markets, some of the time).

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I've got no need for one of these, but still: want.

This is doubly impressive since Microsoft's own strategy threatened to cannibalise the console's chances of success. Alongside two new varieties of PS4, Xbox One S had to compete with the long shadow of Scorpio, which was announced alongside it at E3 in a move that fans had every right to be irritated by (even if it was a strategic necessity to outflank the imminent PlayStation 4 Pro). And it had to compete with PCs, too, which now had access to Xbox-exclusive games like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3. PC owners are yet to be convinced by the dreadful Windows Store, the high digital pricing, and the varying optimisation of the games. But even they had to feel the raw feelgood factor of Horizon 3, the best Microsoft Game Studios release in years.

Xbox's PC initiative is still technically flawed, still strategically fascinating, and still something of a double-edged sword when it comes to the Xbox cause. You can't argue with the mission, though, which is to bring Microsoft's games to as many players as possible, regardless of where those players might be found. That's a complete one-eighty from the message we were hearing four years ago, which could be summed up as 'platform first, games a distant second'. It has been easy to doubt Microsoft's commitment to PC gaming in the past, but personally I believe that Spencer's team means business this time, and they will keep chipping away at the PC experience in 2017 until they get it right. (Short of just putting the games on Steam, sadly.)

As for Scorpio, the timing of its announcement may have been off by over a year, but the timing of the box itself appears perfect. The jury is still out on how much players really want these 4K-capable mid-generation (or post-generation) consoles; PS4 Pro's launch sales have not been encouraging. It didn't help that Pro was thrust into almost direct competition with PlayStation VR, presumably due to the usual internecine squabbles within Sony; but it is also clear that Sony played its hand too early. 4K TVs are still too exotic, with prices only now entering the realm of sanity, and 4K video content is still scarce. More importantly, the processing grunt capable of achieving true 4K games is still too dear for a mass-market box, and Sony's halfway house, while capable of truly impressive results, can't achieve them consistently.

'Yeah, but these pixels go up to 11.'

All this will look more favourable for Microsoft in a year's time. There will be an order of magnitude more 4K screens out there, and Microsoft - for all that we have mocked the techno-hubris of teraflops and pixel quality in its Scorpio trailer - will be able to say that it offers true 4K gaming without needing to host an impenetrable tech seminar to back its claims up. There is nothing hard to understand in the phrase "the most powerful console ever built"; Xbox marketing has spent four years on the sharp end of that particular stick, so it will know just what to do with it once it has been wrested from Sony's grasp.

Do we need Scorpio any more than we need PS4 Pro? I'm not sure, but I am convinced that Microsoft will be much better positioned to make that case in 2017 than Sony was last year. And I also suspect that PS4 owners who see no need to upgrade to Pro might be more tempted to switch sides for a bigger bump in power and access to the games they can't currently play.

As for those exclusive games: Microsoft Game Studios' 2017 line-up looks a little slender right now, or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as 'hard to pin down'. Its two most exciting titles are also its two most ill-defined and open to accusations of vapourware. Rare's pirate MMO Sea of Thieves has an immediately appealing premise and the promise inherent in a great studio being let loose on an original and ambitious idea, but it has retreated from the limelight recently. (Perhaps Rare is fearful, in a post-No Man's Sky world, of making promises it can't keep.) Crackdown 3, meanwhile, publicly amounts to little more than a tech demo and a broken promise that some form of multiplayer would be playable in 2016, though I draw great comfort from the knowledge that the safe hands at Sumo Digital are helping David Jones' Reagent Games with its development.

I don't know what this is, but I know that I like it.

Elsewhere, we find slightly niche propositions like Platinum Games' gaudy action romp Scalebound, and Halo Wars 2 insisting for a second time that consoles need real-time strategy games. Neither is a slam dunk. State of Decay 2 will be a well-deserved step up for a game that is one of the few truly grassroots, community-driven success stories on console, while this year's (and last year's, and the year before's) prize indie catch Below looks like it will be the Fez of 2017 (i.e. actually released in 2019).

Does that all sound a bit sketchy? In fact, it delights me. Microsoft Game Studios' problem over the last couple of years is that it has been too conservative, too focused on servicing the stalwarts of its stable with products of great polish but little spark: games like Gears of War 4 and Halo 5, whose ostentatious production values couldn't disguise that they were cover versions of bygone hits. Besides, the really big blockbusters tend to come from third-parties these days, so it's encouraging to see MGS take a leaf from Sony's book and instead seek to use its cheque book to colour in around the edges, try new things, and fulfil the desires of hardcore fans.

Xbox can't yet claim the sheer breadth of exclusive software that PlayStation can for the year ahead, it's true. Sony also has a commanding lead in the marketplace, but its focus is split; it might just have too many irons in the fire. Microsoft's eyes are on the prize and it is publicly spoiling for a fight. Battle is rejoined, and I wouldn't rush to bet against the redoubtable competitor from Redmond.

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