Scorpio emerges from the shadows
Microsoft’s new console is breaking cover, but still has much to prove
In recent years, Microsoft has made two attempts at revealing a console. The first came in May of 2013, where president of interactive entertainment business Don Mattrick revealed an Xbox One console that everybody could see was forward looking, but very few wanted. And then, in June of 2015, Xbox division head Phil Spencer revealed a revised, high-end Xbox One console that everybody wanted, but nobody could actually see.
And that, in essence, means that as exciting a prospect as it may be, Project Scorpio is still more of a concept than a reality. The announcement came at a time when Sony was preparing to unveil the upgraded PlayStation 4 Pro and push its affordable (not to mention technically impressive) proprietary virtual reality platform onto the masses. Microsoft had to do something that could turn the tide; Xbox One sales are estimated to be around the 30 million mark worldwide – tracking on a similar trajectory to the Xbox 360 – though the PlayStation 4 continues to break records and expectations as it pulls away to a figure closer to the 60 million mark.
Project Scorpio is supposed to be the answer, boasting upgraded hardware that is powerful enough to run games in native 4K, support ‘high end’ virtual reality experiences and provide an ‘obvious’ performance advantage over Sony’s equivalent console technology. A cynic would look at this as the beginnings of a new generation cycle without the necessary marketing spend, then; but still it’s difficult to muster the excitement or anticipation that Microsoft so desperately wants us to conjure. As we said before, Project Scorpio is still far more conceptual than it is tangible, believable.
Because the company was so vague with its announcement of the machine, reeling off a list of impressive (albeit nonsensical) sounding technical specifications designed – primarily, we imagine – to bewilder and impress the average gamer, there are still so many reasons to replace anticipation with caution. That is scary in and of itself, considering Microsoft wants Scorpio to be on shelves before the end of 2017, combating an ever-rising tide of PlayStation sales and a Nintendo Switch platform that by late 2017 will boast a line-up including The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2 – not to mention the oft-rumoured ports of Super Smash Bros., and Pokémon Sun & Moon.
The Microsoft line-up for 2017 is looking, it’s fair to say, pretty weak following the cancellation of Scalebound and that’s piling on pressure for Microsoft to announce enough games alongside Project Scorpio to justify its purchase. Forza 7 from Turn 10 is a given, but with Gears Of War returning last year and 343 Industries likely to be a little too far out to reveal the inevitable Halo sequel, there are few returning franchises that could make a legitimate splash on stage at E3 2017. But that’s the struggle Microsoft faces with this machine. It needs to find a way to deliver on its Project Scorpio specification promises, it needs to announce a suite of impressive first-party support, clarify its VR intentions and still Microsoft will need to anticipate and prepare for any curve ball surprises coming from its closest competitors.
To its credit, Microsoft has done its best to keep quiet since E3 2016 on the subject of Scorpio, allowing excitement to build without accidentally making further promises in interviews or statements. The only developer to break their silence thus far is Ori And The Blind Forest director Thomas Mahler, who took to Reddit to go on the offensive, calling out the PS4 Pro as a “half-assed upgrade” whilst talking Scorpio up as a “full-blown next-gen machine” that also happens to be backward-compatible with your current library.
It’s these sorts of comments that build excitement, that make us believe that Microsoft may actually be able to pull off an incredible turn of fortune. The leak of the Microsoft internal whitepaper entitled ‘Reaching 4K and GPU Scaling Across Multiple Xbox Devices’, has shed more light on Project Scorpio’s planned capabilities. The paper, dated just after the June 2016 reveal and designed to clue developers in on how it should step into 4K-enabled gaming, confirms that there will be no ESRAM support, a quadrupled L2 cache, a six-teraflop GPU with a compute power rated 4.5 times the base-capabilities of the Xbox One and support for impressive memory compression technology.
These are details that, on paper, make Scorpio sound like a legitimate step up – a huge overhaul in a generation that’s only just finding its potential. Phil Spencer too has begun taking to Twitter, teasing that he has, “played my first games on early Scorpio unit. Games played great, console looked right, proud of the team.” But until we see games running on it, until we see the console and until Microsoft clarifies its intentions with VR, it is merely a great, impressive sounding idea on paper with little to show for it in reality. 2017 is going to be one of the biggest years in the industry’s history, and Microsoft has the power to shape or break it.