It has been five years since Sony launched the PS4 in the UK, and five years and one week since the Xbox One first rocked up on these shores, and so today - November 29 - marks the fifth birthday of current-gen gaming in Europe. With that being the case, we thought we'd take a look back through the pages of history and reflect on the last five years and the changes we've seen in the console space during that time. It turns out that a lot has happened in the last half-decade, so get comfy and join us on this little trip down memory lane.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 might have been born in November, but as with most births we knew they were coming a few months before. During the summer both platform holders unveiled their vision for the next generation, and the response from the wider community couldn't have been more contrasting. For Sony it was an easy PR win and the company was able to make a series of crowd pleasing announcements, but Don Mattrick's relationship with Xbox was starting to look like a shotgun marriage and it wasn't long before the executive was forced out. The Microsoft team had a bold vision for the future of console gaming, and while some of the ideas were great (albeit ahead of their time), the Xbox community voiced their collective displeasure and it quickly became clear that mistakes had been made.
Their respective launches characterised the perceptions of players, and so began a tale of two consoles where one was always in the ascendancy, a reversal from the previous generation where Microsoft's Xbox 360 had arguably wrestled top spot from the PlayStation 3. From the outside it looked like Sony had got complacent with the PS3, but clearly they weren't going to make the same mistake a second time. Ironically, it looked like MS had made the same mistake and taken their position for granted, but fans weren't convinced and many a marginal player returned to Sony's wide open arms over the next year or so.
One thing that has gone on to define Sony's dominance during this generation is the slew of quality first-party exclusives that the company has been able to bring to bear, but it's important to remember that it wasn't always like this and, at first at least, the Xbox One was very competitive. You might even say that of the two, Microsoft's console had the stronger lineup at launch. That didn't matter in the end, however, and it didn't take long for Sony to build on the gift handed to them by the Xbox team and their disastrous unveiling. Sony pulled out into the lead, and nobody has been able to catch them since.
The year following announcement and launch Microsoft carried on pushing the first-party ticket and introduced the world to Titanfall, Forza Horizon 2, and Sunset Overdrive, meanwhile Sony's focus was more on filling out the PS4's library with indies, and this once core part of Microsoft's business on 360 became Sony's bread and butter for this next-generation. Sony had a couple of big hitters such as Infamous: Second Son, but for the most part 2014 can be considered a year for the cross-platform titles, with Destiny, Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Darks Souls II impressing, and we remember how Alien: Isolation and Dragon Age: Inquisition wowed audiences to the extent that they were the only two genuinely standout titles of the year.
2014 was also notable for a few industry moves. Irrational closed its doors much to everyone's surprise, EA tentatively launched it's Access subscription service, and it was also the year that Facebook bought Oculus and consumer VR edged ever closer into view. Elsewhere, Amazon picked up streaming service Twitch, and the other major investment of year came later when Microsoft snapped up Minecraft studio Mojang.
Meanwhile, on the Wii U, Nintendo was pushing out some stellar games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (catchy title that one), but due to the console's small playerbase they didn't get the audience they deserved. That problem has been solved to extent, as 2014 saw the start of a trend that has gone on to feature prominently on all platforms ever since, and that's remastered versions of older titles. The masses wouldn't get hold of Mario Kart 8 until 2017 when it hit the Switch, but 2014 saw the first wave of big games getting dusted off after their old-gen releases as studios began to realise just how much potential income was locked up in their olde titles. In 2014 we got revitilased versions of The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, and really they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Given how the start of the generation played out, Microsoft and Sony came into 2015 and 2016 with very different agendas. Microsoft have shifted things around in a bit of last minute panic and were still shuffling their studios a bit (Twisted Pixel was cut loose, Press Play and Lionhead were shut down), while Sony were keen to consolidate and build on the start they'd enjoyed with PlayStation 4 even if they mirrored Microsoft as they closed down Evolution Studios (Motorstorm, Driveclub).
In July 2015 Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata passed away. The leader who had brought Nintendo back to the top of their game with Wii sadly passed just prior to the massive comeback that is the Switch, and the charismatic Nintendo boss was mourned across the entire industry. It's difficult to express what Iwata meant, but his name belongs up there with Shigeru Miyamoto and Hiroshi Yamauchi in terms of Nintendo legends.
Mid-generation typically means that hardware revisions are being launched, and in 2016 there were no less than three new pieces of hardware launched between Microsoft and Sony. Both companies brought out smaller models of their consoles, the PS4 Slim and Xbox One S, the latter significantly reducing the size of the original Xbox One. Sony also brought out a more powerful model, with the PS4 Pro appearing towards the end of the year, while Microsoft announced the "most powerful gaming console ever made" in the form of Project Scorpio (later Xbox One X) at the same E3 as PS4 Pro and the smaller models were shown.
VR had been in production for some time but it wasn't until 2016 that we got full working consumer models of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, later in the year Sony's initiative (once known as Project Morpheus) launched as PSVR. It's fair to say that none of the major VR headsets were a storming success, but PSVR definitely sold the most and for Sony it offered a bit of mid-generational innovation and something to distinguish them from their main rivals, Microsoft.
As the generation got into its stride we were getting better iterations of the big annual franchises, and this was also the period when Sony really started to get into the grove as far as first-party software goes. Bloodborne, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Until Dawn, Ratchet & Clank, and The Last Guardian (at long last). Microsoft on the other hand released Halo 5: Guardians (2015) and Gears of War 4 (2016) along with their annual Forzas and a couple of third-party exlusives (timed or otherwise) in the shape of Rise of the Tomb Raider and Dead Rising 4. But the most memorable games were more than likely third-party titles as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt came out in 2015 and Overwatch amazed us in 2016. Add to that other releases like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Inside, Life is Strange, Dishonored 2, Battlefield 1, Dark Souls III. And we were still getting plenty of remasters for good measure.
So with 2016 out of the way Sony had a lot of fans eager to get their hands on the games that had been announced. We had already seen the likes of Spider-Man and God of War, and with PlayStation Experience also unveiling The Last of Us: Part II, there was plenty to be looking forward to in the future.
Meanwhile Xbox had been busy with the hardware side of things, finally revealing that Project Scorpio would be the Xbox One X at E3 2017, while Sony was busy updating fans on all their existing projects. The year after that Sony did almost the exact same thing, providing more trailers for already-known projects like Spider-Man, Ghost of Tsushima, and Death Stranding, and Xbox shifted gears to do likewise, splurging on trailers for games like Devil May Cry 5. The difference is that Sony's were exclusives; Microsoft's were not.
That doesn't mean that Microsoft has lacked exclusives in the last few years though. Sea of Thieves is just one example of a game that resonated with a lot of people, as Rare's pirating adventure has been well-received and updated with content like Cursed Sails ever since setting sail earlier this year, and Forza Horizon 4 has also struck a chord as the wheels hit the roads of Britain.
Both of these games benefitted hugely from the launch of subscription service Game Pass, giving subscribers a chance to try them out at no added cost, boosting player numbers and growing their communities as a result. That's not all though, as the subscription service breathed new life into older titles like Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, and became incredibly popular as a model. While Phil Spencer has recently said that consoles won't move towards streaming-only, it does seem as if Game Pass has been a hit for Microsoft, as has their Play Anywhere initiative that sees first-party titles release on both Xbox and PC.
Even with Game Pass it's hard to deny that the PS4 has won the fight for exclusives, as God of War and Spider-Man have shown this year, and Horizon: Zero Dawn did the year before. All critically-acclaimed titles and GOTY contenders, they renewed faith that future games like Days Gone and The Last of Us: Part II would be just as good. That said though, Microsoft had been busy buying studios like Ninja Theory and Playground Games while building their own called The Initiative, and they too have big plans for the future, even if they may not be in 2019.
Microsoft renewed their commitment to console gaming when Xbox One X came out last year, providing superior performance than we'd seen before on any home console. Teraflops were whacked out, and 4K and HDR were the selling points, producing great visuals for those who had the TV at home to back it up. Considering the PS4 Pro - Sony's own superior model - didn't have the power and lacked a 4K Blu-Ray player, this was a big slip in the hardware race for Sony that dented their credentials somewhat.
That said, visuals aren't everything, and the Nintendo Switch proved that when it released last year, drawing the crowd away from both consoles to an extent, not only providing their own first-party games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but also hosting third-party games like FIFA 18 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Sure it wasn't as powerful, but you could take it on the go with you, and Sony and Microsoft had their old sparring partner back once again.
Looking ahead into 2019 whispers have been floating around regarding new consoles from both, with Sony rumoured to have a PS5 reveal planned for next year since they're skipping E3, while Xbox is allegedly developing a streaming-focused console. How true these rumours are remain to be seen, but with existing consoles half a decade old now, an upgrade isn't the worst thing in the world to consider.
The future looks bright for both companies whichever way you spin it, and with Sony missing E3 altogether and the console culture changed in a major way via both iterative improvements in the form of PS4 Pro and Xbox One X as well as the way we consume games via subscriptions and free-to-play, the next year is important not only for both camps but also for our understanding of console gaming as a whole. We don't know exactly what'll happen, but we do know we'll see big games and equally big reveals, and that's something we're definitely intrerested in.
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