Microsoft has finally broken its own rules to allow the superb Baldur’s Gate 3 an Xbox release this year — but there’s a catch. The Series S version will be missing a feature present in the Series X edition.
While the game has long been scheduled to arrive on PS5 on September 6, no Xbox date was forthcoming due to a problem of Microsoft’s own making.
Since this console generation began, the company has insisted that all developers offer feature parity between the top-end £449 Xbox Series X and the budget £249 Series S. Indeed, it’s a requirement still listed on Microsoft’s Learn site.
But that was proving a problem for one specific feature in Baldur’s Gate 3: split-screen co-op.
For an intensive game such as this, duplicating worlds for two players to play simultaneously was a huge strain on the weaker Series S hardware, as Larian Studios’ Director of Publishing Michael Douse explained on Twitter back in July.
“We cannot remove the split-screen feature because we are obliged to launch with feature parity, and so continue to try and make it work,” he explained calling it a “huge technical hurdle”.
Far from being exclusive, we have no exclusivity deal that prevents us from launching on Xbox. The issue is a technical hurdle. We cannot remove the split-screen feature because we are obliged to launch with feature parity, and so continue to try and make it work.
— Very AFK (@Cromwelp) July 31, 2023
Likely spooked by Sony getting one of the biggest games of 2023 as an accidental console exclusive, Microsoft seems to have relaxed its own rules.
“Super happy to confirm that after meeting @XboxP3 [Xbox head Phil Spencer] yesterday, we’ve found a solution that allows us to bring Baldur’s Gate 3 to Xbox players this year still, something we’ve been working towards for quite some time,” wrote Larian’s Swen Vincke on Twitter.
“All improvements will be there, with split-screen coop on Series X,” he continued. “Series S will not feature split-screen coop, but will also include cross-save progression between Steam and Xbox Series.”
The truth is that this is a pragmatic solution to a problem that was blown out of proportion.
Microsoft’s dogmatism was voluntarily giving the PlayStation 5 a huge console exclusive — the kind of thing that companies would usually pay big money to secure — for a niche feature that would probably only have been used by a small percentage of players. Baldur’s Gate 3 takes between 42 and 116 hours to complete — really, how many people have the time to play that with a friend on their sofa?
But at the same time, this should make both Xbox Series X and Series S players feel uneasy.
For Series S players, the reason is obvious. While they may not care about split-screen co-op in Baldur’s Gate 3 — or even the whole game itself — they bought a console with the promise that they would get the same features as those with more money to spend. Without that understanding, they may have decided to spend an extra £100 on the PS5 Digital Edition instead.
That rule will be harder for Microsoft to enforce now, both with game makers pushing the limits of the consoles and with developers quite reasonably able to point at the fact that Xbox has made an exception for Baldur’s Gate 3, so why not their game?
But it’s not a time for Xbox Series X owners to feel smug about their choice either. Not only was one of the year’s hottest releases almost indefinitely delayed because of a console they don’t even own, but there’s the nagging feeling that the Series S is holding back its bigger brother too.
What if Microsoft had stood firm and Larian Studios eventually concluded that split-screen co-op was impossible to implement on Series S? Then the company would have had to strip the feature from Series X too, making it demonstrably worse than the PS5 version which has no such parity requirements.
The Xbox Series S offers superb value, and the majority of owners seem very happy indeed. But by Microsoft’s own court-revealed estimates, this console generation is set to run for at least another five years — how dated will the Series S look by 2028? And how much will the Series X have had to pull its computational punches to compensate?