In sports they call it a rebuilding year. Xbox One has had a few of those recently, but it’s an especially appropriate description of the console’s 2018. This wasn’t a year for new hardware nor a major blockbuster exclusive game. The most exciting announcement to come out of Microsoft was the news that it is acquiring game studios and setting itself up for many more exclusive games in the years to come.
“We had a pretty good year. We could do better—but we had a pretty good year,” Xbox boss Phil Spencer said last week at The Game Awards, before acknowledging some of the platform’s success. It’s a humble time for Xbox, which did manage to have a year marked by cool improvements, interesting experiments, and a steady stream of good multiplayer games.
When we last left the Xbox One hardware in late 2017, it was in a confused state. Instead of one console, we had three: the original Xbox One, the slightly more powerful Xbox One S and the all-new, all-powerful Xbox One X. New units of that original Xbox One has become scarce (though there are still plenty pre-owned), leaving only the S and X to think about.
The Xbox One S plays all the Xbox One games competently for a relatively modest price. The Xbox One X plays all of the Xbox One games as best as they can be played, often with better support for 4K visuals and a visual advantage over how any multiplatform game looks on any PS4. As it was when the Xbox One X launched, it’s the difference between basic and premium. The prices have shifted slightly since late 2017, from $299 for the Xbox One S and $499 for the Xbox One X to $249 and $449 respectively (often with bundled games).
The only notable addition to the Xbox hardware lineup this year is the Xbox Adaptive controller, a special customizable gamepad for disabled gamers. The devices consists of a white gamepad with two large buttons and a d-pad, with inputs for a wide variety of optional accessories, including one-handed controllers, foot pedals and large standalone buttons to be placed in convenient locations. The main unit sells for $99, while prices for add-on accessories range from $20 to $85.
Now that each of the big three has a paid online gaming service, Xbox Live is less obnoxious than ever before. Regular stable online play and a revolving stable of downloadable games at no additional cost? Feels like that’s the way it’s always been.
What’s bigger, better and bolder with this year’s Xbox One services is the continued evolution of the Xbox Game Pass. Microsoft continued to add new and old games to the $10 monthly subscription service. The Xbox Game pass features more than 200 games that any subscriber can download and play for the length of their subscription, with the option to purchase games permanently at a 20 percent discount.
The Xbox Game Pass got its biggest boost back in January, when Microsoft announced that every first-party game released for the Xbox One would be available day one to subscribers to the service. Games like Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2 and Forza Horizon 4 were free to subscribers the day they launched. Upcoming games like Crackdown 3 and Halo Infinite should follow suit. Not too shabby.
Microsoft still remains the champion of cross-play between game platforms, one of the benefits of putting out both a major game console and the dominant PC gaming operating system. The Xbox Play Anywhere program is alive and well, with major first-party releases playable on both PC and Xbox One. With Sony finally getting on the cross-play bandwagon, we’ll soon all be one big happy family.
On the user interface front, Xbox One’s dashboard didn’t undergo as many big evolutions this year as it did in 2017. In July, Microsoft added the ability to group up to 12 games together so they appear under a single tab. These collections can make it easy for organizing ever-growing libraries of digital games by things like genre or even personal labels like “need to play” or “in-progress.” Microsoft finally added the ability to gift games on the Xbox One store, something that’s still not possible on either PS4 or Switch.
Toward the end of the year, Xbox One added mouse and keyboard support for some games. It’s especially convenient for games that got ported to Xbox One from PC, but still control better on the latter, like Fortnite and Warframe. Due to built in cross-play restrictions, players using controllers don’t have to worry about competing with those on mouse and keyboard either. It’s also a nice way to pretend Halo 5 actually got released on PC.
This was also the year Microsoft brought back animated 3D avatars. They’re more detailed and more diverse this time around, keeping with one of Microsoft’s themes this year about promoting inclusivity in games. Given the dwindling prominence of Nintendo’s Miis, it’s been a welcome sight to see Xbox embracing something more whimsical and playful.
The Xbox Insider program evolved slightly this year as well. Players in the program have always been able to preview upcoming changes to the platform and try some new games for free before they’re released, but this year Microsoft added a new tier called Skip Ahead that lets Insider players preview games and features much farther out in development, which the company used to test the return of profile avatars among other things early in the year, months before their official rollout to the general public.
In 2018, Xbox owners finally got to see what Rare, the studio behind Banjo-Kazooie and Viva Pinata, had been up to since since its last original game: 2014’s extremely mixed Kinect Sports Rivals. The answer was Sea of Thieves, an online multiplayer treasure-hunting pirate game where the water’s beautiful and the brig is nearly always full. After a lackluster launch, Sea of Thieves’ continued free updates improved and expanded the game with new stuff like private pirate crews and more dangerous and exotic enemies. That said, , it still hasn’t turned into an unmissable game the likes of which you’d find on PS4 or Switch. Launching simultaneously on Game Pass was a nice bonus.
State of Decay 2 was a similar story. The fun survival zombie sandbox wasn’t quite ready for primetime when it launched in May, in large part because of all of the bugs, but its updates have improved it, too. It’ still no Game of the Year contender like God of War or Spider-Man, which is the unfortunate position Xbox finds itself in so late in this console cycle.
The Xbox One grabbed its share of some former PS4 console exclusives this year, including Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Nier: Automata and No Man’s Sky. The last of those used its Xbox One debut as an occasion to finally add true, interactive multiplayer. There was also the addition of a few console exclusive indie games like Pit People and this month’s Below. It’s too early to tell though whether the latter be the Xbox One’s Cuphead for 2018.
One of the only major bright spots in the console’s library was Forza Horizon 4. Sure, Microsoft releases a Forza of some sort every year, but Horizon 4 stands out as more than an annual iteration. It is one of the best driving games in recent memory, marrying gorgeous scenery and changing seasons with sumptuous cars and an excellent balance of arcade fun and light realism. It also took advantage of the Xbox One X’s much-hyped billing as “the most powerful console ever made,” being playable at 60fps or 30fps while displaying in 4k. At max resolution, and using the console’s HDR, it’s one of the most beautiful looking games playable anywhere
Other Xbox One mainstays have continued to get updates, most notably the previously beleaguered Halo: Master Chief Collection, which had its multiplayer finally fixed in August, and which got Xbox One X enhanced the same month. The list of backwards compatible games has also continued to grow, with many of them getting Xbox One X enhanced as well.
The Xbox One platform heads into 2019 in solid shape, at least in terms of how the box itself runs and the services around it. Game Pass, backwards compatibility, and incremental updates and enhancements to specific games make the Xbox One, S, and X ecosystem feel healthy. The big question mark, however, remains whether it is ready to offer more system-justifying exclusive games worth.
Crackdown 3, which was delayed again in 2018, is set to come out in February at long last. Beyond that Gears 5 also has a release window of 2019, and Halo Infinite is also on the horizon, though no release date was given when it was teased at this year’s E3.
Those new sequels are nice, but the lack of meaningful exclusives for the platform has been conspicuous the last few years. And that is what Microsoft finally seems committed to fix. At E3 in June, Xbox boss Phil Spencer announced the company had acquired State of Decay’s Undead Labs, Forza Horizon’s Playground Games, Hellblade’s Ninja Theory, and We Happy Few’s Compulsion. In addition, it has formed a new game studio called The Initiative to be led by former Crystal Dynamics head, Darrell Gallagher. Then at the console’s Fanfest in November, Spencer announced Microsoft had acquired role-playing game makers Obsidian and Inxile. While Spencer didn’t have any new sales to announce at this year’s Game Awards, the event did premiere a trailer for Obsidian’s next game, The Outer Worlds, which basically looks like Fallout: New Vegas in space. That game won’t be Xbox-exclusive but it hints at what’s to come for Xbox exclusives next console cycle.
It’s unclear when the rebuilding will end and whether the new studios will have great works to release exclusively for Xbox fans this console cycle. This year we saw more of Microsoft’s blueprints for what it’s constructing. Xbox fans need more excellent games. Whether they’ll get them in sufficient abundance in 2019 to complement a platform full of interesting services and exciting strategic risks, is the big question.