Microsoft had one very important job this fall. By releasing its new supercharged Xbox One X, it had to change the conversation: it had to make the Microsoft name synonymous with graphical power in the console space, and it had to make sure that everyone who cared about this sort of thing knew that there was only one, unambiguous answer as to which living room machine could deliver the most-impressive technical specs on the market. By all accounts, Redmond has been successful. Say what you want about the Xbox One X and whether or not a graphical upgrade is worth the price, but that’s a philosophical question more than anything. For now, we chalk up an important win for Microsoft: it now sells the most powerful console on the market, something it hasn’t done for a long time.
It puts Sony’s competition, the PS4 Pro, in an awkward spot. It’s a premium console with a premium price, but it’s not the most powerful machine on the market. I’ve long been skeptical of the marginal utility you get with the relatively minor graphical upgrade between PS4 and PS4 Pro, and the presence of the Xbox One X just hammers home that skepticism. It’s a marketing problem before anything else: if you’re selling power, after all, you’ve got to sell power. If you’re selling a premium console, you’ve got to sell to people that might be totally comfortable dropping an extra $100 to get something better. And on that level, the presence of the Xbox One X calls the PS4 Pro’s entire reason for being into question. It means that Sony has to argue that it’s worth paying $400 to get a premium console capable of delivering 4K graphics but that it’s maybe not worth paying $500 to get something better. It’s a tough balancing act.
And yet the PS4 Pro still feels like an important console in the face of the Xbox One X for the same reason that PS4 has become such an attractive buy over the Xbox One S. It’s not complicated: PlayStation has the games, and Microsoft just can’t keep up. Next year we’ll be getting God of War, Spiderman, The Last of Us Part 2, Death Stranding, Days Gone, Detroit: Become Human, and remakes of both Shadow the Colossus and Final Fantasy VII: it’s an embarrassment of riches. With that, it’s PS4’s turn to call the whole argument for the Xbox One X into question: can Microsoft’s console, with all of its horsepower, produce something as good looking as what Naughty Dog will likely give us with The Last of Us Part 2? Judging by Uncharted 4, it’s a big question.
Microsoft’s exclusive struggles are old news at this point. Yes, it’s about to get Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the most popular games in the world and a surefire attention getter. But it appears to be a timed exclusive, and PlayStation already has the near-identical Fortnite Battle Royale, with many more clones sure to be dropping throughout 2018. And it’s not like PUBG is a graphics powerhouse, anyways. When people imagine showcase pieces that sell the power of a beefy new piece of hardware, they look a whole lot more like The Last of Us Part 2 and a lot less like PUBG.
It means that while PS4 Pro has lost a very important part of its upsell, the PlayStation ecosystem is still so strong that it remains relevant, even on a visual level, without being the best place to play third-party games. And that’s important not just for people that like to talk about the sort of narrative-driven single player games that Sony is known for, but for people that like to talk about graphics as well. Making technically impressive games is a marriage of hardware and software: you need the power to make the magic happen, of course, but you also need developers geared to deliver the sorts of showcase experiences that make those chips sing. And in that department, Sony has historically done very well.
Right now the Xbox One X can point to a game like Star Wars Battlefront 2, which is certainly a stunning experience on the Xbox One X. But a game like that just doesn’t feel like a technical showcase in the same way that Sony’s first-party titles regularly manage, mostly because it’s set up as a multiplayer title first. Red Dead Redemption 2, due out in Q1, is a better bet because we already know that Rockstar has the development muscle, the budget and the inclination to make a game built for beauty. That, more than anything, is likely to be an Xbox One X showcase in a way that I’m not sure we’ve really seen yet. Still, it’s one game, and open-world titles have a harder time piling on the detail in the way a Naughty Dog game can.
There’s little question about where third-party games will look better: it’s the Xbox One X. But the power of having a few drop-dead gorgeous titles for showing off your powerful hardware is still very potent, and in that department, marquee titles lack The Last of Us Part 2 and God of War can still make the PS4 Pro look great even without hardware as powerful as Xbox One X.
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