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Xbox/Bethesda at E3 2021: a game-changer for Microsoft

Genuine next-gen experiences, a wealth of exclusives - and it's all included with Game Pass.

The stars were aligned for Microsoft to deliver a phenomenal E3 2021 showcase and it's fair to say that Xbox and Bethesda delivered. The firm had already firmly established Game Pass as a service offering unbeatable value, but remarkably, the show did an impressive job of making the subscription seem almost indispensable. And in the process, Xbox went one stage further in comprehensively taking down the argument that its first-party line-up is lacking, while at the same time addressing the cross-gen controversy that made it feel like Microsoft wasn't fully committed to the concept of delivering games tailored to the strengths of the new wave of console and PC hardware. This one had it all - and perhaps it actually delivered too much, to the detriment of some of the games shown.

That's what we're discussing in the latest Digital Foundry Direct, where myself, John Linneman and Alex Battaglia pick out our highlights from the Xbox team's 90-minute showing and share some thoughts on how Microsoft chose to cram 30 games into what is a relatively short presentation and the extent to which it was successful. We kick off our show by sharing our thoughts on Forza Horizon 5 from Playground Games - a game that's cross-gen in nature but still manages to fully exercise the latest in console and PC hardware.

There's a huge amount to digest in the content we were shown, but the headlines are clear enough - an unprecedented level of detail in Playground's latest open world, right down to the individual needles of each cactus, Crysis-level jungle density (complete with freshly minted volumetric lighting) and a sense of scale both at close and long range - there are some truly extraordinary vista shots here with phenomenal draw distance. Car rendering is of the quality you'd expect, plus hardware-accelerated ray tracing is in - albeit just for the non-gameplay Forza Vista sections. We're impressed enough with this one to dissect it a little more closely and we'll be returning to that in future coverage.

DF Direct goes full 4K to discuss the Xbox/Bethesda E3 2021 showcase, with Rich Leadbetter, John Linneman and Alex Battaglia perpetrating this #content.

For those interested in specific segments, here are some time codes for you:

  • 00:00 Introduction
  • 00:45 Forza Horizon 5
  • 06:26 Halo Infinite
  • 16:06 STALKER 2
  • 22:44 Microsoft Flight Simulator
  • 27:34 Starfield
  • 35:34 Replaced
  • 39:36 E3 Trailerfication/The 'Conveyor Belt of Games'
  • 42:30 Psychonauts 2
  • 43:43 Redfall/A Plague Tale Requiem
  • 47:09 Doom Eternal Next-Gen Upgrade with RT
  • 49:00 Summary + Conclusion

We also got to see more of Halo Infinite... or did we? As is the E3 tradition, much of what we saw was 'in-engine' - which is to say that we have no idea if this is running in real-time or whether it's pre-rendered and if it was real-time, what kind of hardware was running it. This is fine (if not exactly ideal) for a game early in development, but for a tentpole title mere months away from release this is more than slightly concerning. As we discuss above though, there is the sense from the media that many of the issues people raised about last year's gameplay reveal have been addressed. However, from a personal perspective, this was the event to deliver on the promise - to seal the deal - and Microsoft did not do that. [UPDATE: The Halo Infinite video below, uploaded some time after the showcase, looks to show real-time footage.]

What they did do - to varying levels of success - was to hammer home how shrewd of an acquisition Bethesda is. It started with the first 'in-game' reveal of Starfield, due for release at the end of next year, and it was a feast for the eyes, certainly from a technological perspective. What we saw looked like a proper generational leap for Bethesda Game Studios titles with Creation Engine 2 looking nothing like its predecessors. This looked to be a clean break as opposed to the iterative upgrades we've seen to the engine since it transitioned from Gamebryo to Creation Engine. Asset quality, shading quality, promising indications of ray tracing, more realistic 'people rendering', plus a tantalising tease for the game worlds we'll be visiting... we can't wait to see more of this one.

As an 'in-game' trailer, little is shown in the Starfield reveal but the tech looks like a massive leap beyond last-gen's iteration of the Creation Engine.

A generously proportioned reveal of Stalker 2 also suggested we're in for a cutting-edge experience - bolstered by the subsequent reveal of sky-high PC specs that recommend an eight-core CPU and a GTX 1080 Ti for a 1080p60 experience, with consoles (even Series X) apparently targeting 30fps instead. Announced as an Unreal Engine 4 title, this still managed to look seriously bespoke - fantastic artwork, beautiful world rendering, advanced character (and hair) rendering plus what looked like ray traced shadows and reflections. To what extent what we saw will translate into an actual real-world gameplay experience remains to be seen, but this is a game we can't wait to go hands-on with.

There was plenty in the presentation that we suspect was running on high-end PCs, or was indeed flagged as running 'in-engine' which essentially allows the developers far more leeway in showing whatever they want to show, but in specifically flagging Xbox Series X as powering the Microsoft Flight Simulator trailer footage, we got a very promising look at one of the most demanding games ever made seemingly running rather nicely on the Xbox console.

We've put a lot of time into this game on PC and can envisage how the graphics side of things could be scaled - its temporal anti-aliasing system does an incredible job of making upscaling a sub-native framebuffer to full 4K, for starters. However, the current DX11 version of Flight Sim has some highly intrusive CPU stutter, seemingly linked to streaming world detail. We only had select glimpses of how Series X runs this game, but if this problem is solved - or mitigated - on console, the optimisations should roll back to PC too, making this a win-win. Put simply, the takeaway on this one is that it's a true next-gen experience we can't wait to look at on Microsoft's home machines - and we shouldn't have to wait too long to get a look at it.

This is Microsoft Flight Simulator running on Xbox Series X - and it looks beautiful.

Another highlight for us that was only touched on in the conference was the forthcoming Xbox Series/PS5 upgrade for Doom Eternal - which offers the chance to experience ray traced reflections at 4K, or else to go for a non-RT lower resolution presentation at 120Hz instead. We know that id Software has spent considerable time and resources in investigating ray tracing - and the capabilities of the new wave of consoles in general - so we're expecting big things here (a more extended PC RTX trailer looks similarly impressive). Also interesting are the published specs for the 120Hz mode, showing Series X delivering 1800p up against PS5 at 1584p. This one will be interesting to fully test, as we would expect to see dynamic resolution scaling heavily in play on both systems.

If there was one complaint to level at the event it was the sense that in an effort to make the point that so much was coming to Game Pass, we were often presented with a 'conveyor belt' of trailers, one after the other, often coming across as random imagery that sometimes looked intriguing but often came across as disjointed and confusing. On the one hand, Game Pass' value was hammered home, but on the other hand, lack of even basic explanation tend to consign what may be some great game into a bit of a blur.

Microsoft is following up on this event with more, but I can't help but feel that voiceover (per the Nintendo Direct) might have helped to keep up engagement and to give these titles a little more context. As it is, it took some really arresting visuals for some of these games to really break through. The Ascent is already looking stunning, Psychonauts 2 is a slam dunk, but what really caught our eye was Replaced - a game that seems to combine a 2D sprite aesthetic with 3D backgrounds, perhaps using voxels to reckon the two.

We got to see Halo Infinite's impressive-looking multiplayer - but an in-engine trailer was shown. This footage does look to be real-time, however.

All told then, a very exciting showing from Microsoft with plenty of tech highlights and the sense that the firm still has plenty more in its back pocket - Forza Motorsport, The Elder Scrolls 6, Perfect Dark, Avowed, Hellblade 2, Fable and Everwild are just a clutch of titles we know are coming but weren't showcased in this line-up. The show ended with the reveal of a new game from Arkane Austin - Redfall. Makers of the brilliant Prey, this is a studio with track record in delivering unique experiences, but a context-free CG trailer did little to inform us what was actually special about what looked like a co-op shooter. In essence, what is Redfall and what makes it specifically an Arkane game? That's what we wanted to know, but we were left none the wiser - all of which made the bizarre, wonderful Outer Worlds 2 trailer all the more hilarious. There's nothing to show of the game whatsoever right now, so what we got was a CG trailer that showed precisely nothing and told us that in unambiguous terms. It was a genuine moment of self-awareness at the shortcomings of these events.

And as for the Xbox Mini Fridge? Cunningly reworking the original Series X form-factor reveal trailer to showcase this most unlikely of hardware launches was another nice touch. Do I need a console-shaped mini fridge in my life? Absolutely not. Am I now interested in what it's all about? Absolutely.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry  |  digitalfoundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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