By Harold Goldberg
You probably weren’t there. It was a long time ago. But if you were around for the press conferences that led up to the release of the first Xbox, you could feel some skepticism in the room. There was Bill Gates at the Game Developers Conference in early 2000, a hugely influential event. And then, Seamus Blackley or Ed Fries were on the road here in NYC and talked proudly about this new game machine from Microsoft and its industrial design. Yet it was a weighty machine stamped with a big X on top. Some called it impressive, and many called it a brick. At the time Sony had a lock on the market with its impressive PlayStation 2. Sega’s DreamCast looked impressive and had a loyal following. And few could match the good-hearted hype of then-Sega executive Peter Moore and the ardent PRmeister, Chase.
There was something about it, though. For the first Xbox, it wasn’t the console’s appearance or the many games that were as important as something else altogether. The two golden keys were online play and the scifi franchise that would change the gaming world, “Halo.” I’d never heard of the military rank Master Chief before, but it was soon etched upon my memory. (The full name of the Spartan-II Navy uber soldier is Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, which perhaps only super fans can remember.) Yes, there were hundreds of games released for that first Xbox, including a fart-filled game of “Shrek,” based on one of the most popular movies of the time. That’s all I can remember of it, and I wish I could forget: that gas-passing green ogre.
It wasn’t “Shrek” that changed things. But it was “Halo: Combat Evolved” that was an outstanding wonder, receiving glowing reviews from the press. In fact, Edge gave it a perfect score, and Game Informer, a 9.5. Through the years, “Halo” changed things. But it was that first entry into the series that was stunning in its uniqueness.
The next console release, the tall, concave Xbox 360, distinguished the Xbox for me, and one Microsoft service made it my favorite console of its time. The Xbox 360 helped to usher in the indie game revolution. The time was just so thrilling. The brilliance of “Bastion,” Supergiant’s first release and one of my two favorite games of 2011, made me seek out voiceover genius Logan Cunningham. He was in Brooklyn! Would he host our first New York Game Awards? He said “Yes,” and he was terrific. Would Darren Korb and Ashley Bennett be our first Awards musical guests? They said, “Yes.” And their songs were so heart-rending, some had tears in that intimate theater at the Cantor Film Center on 8th Street. That’s the reason the Xbox 360 became my go-to console for checking out smaller game makers.
The last two Xboxes were worthy entries, but my favorite games were the “Ori” offerings (so beautiful, but so difficult) and “Forza Horizon.” Halo? Having worked on “EverQuest” at Sony Online Entertainment, I appreciate the genius coding paired with generally seamless online play achieved through back end brilliance that rarely lets players down.
But honestly, I’ve not been a fan of online military shooters through the years. I’m in the minority now. I’ve always enjoyed playing alone, thinking as I play, always hyper-aware. I do the same with novels. I just hang in the world and take it all in before finishing – because I don’t want these pieces of art to end. We call it playing with purpose when we mentor in underserved communities. So while I occasionally enjoy a deep dive past midnight with friends, playing online with others never was my prime goal with games.
The Xbox Series X’s design continues an industrial-powerhouse style that has been a signature of all the Xboxes (with the possible exception of the inwardly curved 360 which let you be a designer with its themed face plates. My favorites were those from the SoulCalibur series). The Series X is long and square with a grate/grid that has green-highlighted round holes drilled on top. It made me think of two things, the top of one of the powerful air conditioning units on the roofs of Manhattan buildings, or tree grates that surround saplings on the Lower East Side. To me, it feels like a very New York City game machine.
The key word here is “power.” Before you even turn it on, the Series X looks like it would be a contender in outperforming many PCs on the market. And if you want another metaphor, it looks like a fighter with a low center of gravity. It won’t be easy to knock it over or topple it from its place on my entertainment center.
I set it up with a completely new gamertag, just to get the experience of a new user. There were was a small issue or two with finding WiFi and adding an email address. But soon enough I was playing the new version of Assassin’s Creed. “Valhalla” stunned me in its art direction and beauty, and I’ll have a separate piece about the first hour of play soon. One thing is certain: the strength of the Series X is on display here, not only in close-ups of warrior faces, but in groups as dozens fight or party, and those impressive horizons seen in high-above perches in which you can check out the icy distance. That’s so important to me because, as a traveler, I can’t physically leave the country this year. This trip helps.
The controller sits well in the hands, but it’s a bit heavier than the PS5’s DualSense, making it the heaviest controller on the market today. Yet it fits, cradled in my paws. It comes with two Duracell batteries, not rechargeable. But it’s the most ergonomic controller Microsoft has ever released in tandem with a new console.
The Series X reminds me of those halcyon days of the 360, too. That’s because of what you get when subscribing to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. It’s one of the great deals in a year as prices have risen to over $75 (when you include the taxes here in Manhattan). I’d say it makes sense to subscribe to the $14.99 monthly price ($9 this Cyber Monday) to get what’s included – a cornucopia of well-known franchises and inventive indie games. (PlayStation Now is similar for PlayStation 5 fans, and adds some VR experiences, too.) If I were buying games now, I’d subscribe to both services. After all, I’d be purchasing over $300 in games each year, so it would make financial sense.
When I look at the Xbox Series X’s potential and Microsoft’s Xbox division, helmed by mastermind Phil Spencer and a legion of ideators, I see a world in which the top games from massive studios like Bethesda Softworks (now Microsoft-owned) will stand happily in tandem with the varied styles of indie games I so enjoyed on the Xbox 360. Even though it’s always been the right time to be a games fan, this time of 2020 into 2021, this time for hope and dreams during the pandemic when we need games more than ever, is clearly the best.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards. January 26, 2021 will mark the 10th year of the Awards.