Microsoft continues to lose arguments revolving around its games library, that not only lacks quality "AAA" exclusives when compared to the competition, but it's generally missing developer support vs. PC and PlayStation. Despite not having exclusivity deals in place, certain games like Nier Automata and Final Fantasy XIV haven't arrived on Xbox due to the console's abysmal performance in Japan, and issues arising from its platform policies. Xbox gamers have needlesslly missed out on heavy-hitting, headline-dominating titles, save for some bright spots like Cuphead and the runaway success story PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
When it comes to visuals, the Xbox One X is dominating the console scene, defying expectations across the board. The Xbox One X delivers the best visuals available outside of expensive high-end PCs, and it's the smallest Xbox yet. The Xbox platform also received a pretty hefty dashboard revamp, bringing in some Microsoft Fluent Design elements and adding in many hotly requested features.
As we move into 2018, Xbox is becoming more and more critical to Microsoft's operations, with Xbox head Phil Spencer ascending to Microsoft's senior leadership team, answering directly to CEO Satya Nadella. 2018 could be an exciting year for Xbox, but as Microsoft's consumer ecosystem falls apart in other areas, Spencer and his team could have their work cut out.
After the painful culling of Scalebound, Fable Legends, and other prematurely announced titles, Microsoft has shifted to not announcing upcoming Xbox games until they're closer to completion. While that policy will lead to less disappointment in the long run, it has created an air of anxiety among core Xbox fans.
We're in a bit of a lull period when it comes to future Xbox exclusives. Microsoft leveraged third-parties to do the heavy lifting in 2017, enlisting titles like Assassin's Creed Origins to showcase the Xbox One X's beastly 4K power, and making deals with Bluehole Inc for temporary console exclusivity on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. Many of the other games we know about were originally slated for pre-2018 launch, but simply got delayed into next year, including Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3, and State of Decay 2.
Open world crime shooter Crackdown 3 has been the subject of multiple delays, with a multiplayer beta failing to materialize, and a shift out of the 2017 holiday season to layer on additional polish and features.
Sea of Thieves has long been the most promising upcoming Xbox exclusive.
Crackdown 3 was met with some mixed reactions following its demonstrations at E3 2017 and other events during last summer, possibly contributing to the decision to delay the game. Hopefully, when it does finally emerge, it delivers an experience fans of the franchise deserve.
State of Decay 2 broke cover at E3 2017, showing off what largely seems to be a remaster of the original game, now with the addition of co-operative play. A large question mark hangs over State of Decay 2, at least for me, considering that it appears to do very little to evolve its format beyond the addition of co-op. Hopefully we'll get more information on this sooner, rather than later.
Sea of Thieves has long been the most promising upcoming Xbox exclusive, although it was shrouded in a fog of "how do you play it?" mystery until the recent unveiling of its robust progression system. Crews of up to four players vote on quests of various types, complexity, and difficulty. All rewards will be entirely cosmetic, from pirate customization, ship designs, and much more. We've also been teased about various other intriguing features planned for a reveal early in 2018, and trust me, this is one game you will want to watch.
I suppose the oddest thing about the three above planned titles is that they're all open world, co-operative shooters, to varying degrees. There's at least a modicum of possibility that, if launched in a similar time frame, these titles could end up accidentally competing with each other. Hopefully, Microsoft opts to space them out a little otherwise Sea of Thieves could end up cannibalizing sales of the other two titles.
As for unannounced games, it feels like an eternity since we received word about a new Halo title, save for the RTS spin-off Halo Wars 2. 2018 could be the year Halo 6 breaks cover, likely to be announced at E3 2018. While Halo 5 has been a successful title, Halo as a franchise doesn't seem to command the same power as it used to.
Other new exclusive titles will likely come from third-party deals, including the enigmatic Ashen.
Halo 5's story was almost universally panned, saved only by its addictive multiplayer modes. It'll be interesting to see how 343i plans to evolve the franchise, which, at least in my opinion, is starting to show its age.
It seems entirely likely that we'll get a new Forza title next year, despite the fact the team behind Horizon 3 is working on a new RPG title on the side. It also seems a little too early for a new Gears of War announcement. I also have it on good authority that Age of Empires IV will remain shrouded in mystery for the foreseeable, and isn't planned for an Xbox release anyway. Any other new exclusive titles will likely come from third-party deals, including the enigmatic Ashen, and what ever Studio Gobo is working on. Don't expect to see sequels to Alan Wake, Ryse, Quantum Break, or Sunset Overdrive this year... or maybe ever.
Microsoft really needs to have a few victories under its belt in terms of gaming, considering exclusives like Halo Wars 2, ReCore, and others fell firmly in the "average" range at best in terms of positive reception. With Spencer now able to leverage cash and resources directly from Microsoft's head honchos, hopefully, there will be better times ahead.
As far as hardware is concerned, we just had the Xbox One X, so there's no real reason to expect any new consoles next year. There's always the possibility of a price cut for the previous Xbox One S, though, and perhaps more special edition designs, like the sexy Minecraft console.
What is a little more likely, however, is new accessories. With Kinect dead, there's currently no decent microphone array for new Xbox owners who might want to suffer through Cortana's voice commands. Perhaps Xbox isn't interested in pursuing Cortana or voice commands any more, and it's a relic of forced collaboration under Spencer's previous line manager, Windows chief Terry Myerson, but the lack of support represents a huge missed opportunity that allowed Amazon's Alexa to totally dominate home smart assistants now, and maybe forever.
Our own executive editor Daniel Rubino has argued that Microsoft should simply include a microphone in a revised media remote, and it makes perfect sense. Will we ever get it though? Probably not.
We may however, get a revised Xbox One Elite Controller, the sales of which apparently defied Microsoft's own expectations. The original Elite Controller doesn't support Bluetooth, unlike it's more up-to-date cousins, and it comes with a bit of a design flaw. Over time, the rubber grips tend to fall off. 2018 would be the perfect time to release an updated version, perhaps with support for the Xbox Design Lab.
2018 should be the year we finally see mouse and keyboard support hit Xbox too, although Microsoft appears to be wrestling with the policies over how this works, rather than its implementation. Minecraft already supports mouse and keyboard on Xbox One, so the systems are in place. The delay is logistical. Will Microsoft force developers to restrict mouse and keyboard to co-operative games only to prevent anti-competitive play for controller users? Will they implement a system for a game to restrict inputs dynamically to include mouse and keyboard-only servers for example? Time will tell, but one thing is for certain: Microsoft doesn't want controller players to be forced to play against mouse and keyboard players in competitive games.
Another frustratingly absent Xbox accessory is virtual reality. The Xbox One X was announced with VR and Windows Mixed Reality at the forefront, but the promise slipped off radar as we approached launch.
The Xbox One X is powerful enough to deliver high-fidelity "Ultra" Windows Mixed Reality, but Spencer has previously noted that Microsoft wants the general experience to be improved before they bring it to console, notably with the addition of wireless technology. As such, 2018 still might be too early for VR on Xbox.
We know the new version of Avatars is slated for a launch in 2018, and by the sounds of it, Avatars will play a more prominent role in Xbox society than they have done in recent years. Leveraging their awesome and expressive designs in Microsoft's new AltspaceVR social experience is one obvious implementation we could see appear in the future, too.
We'll see refinements and improvements to the Xbox dashboard and its implementation of Fluent Design, but I doubt we'll see any more large overhauls as we have seen in previous years.
I mentioned earlier about how Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana continues to be a maligned, stagnant feature on Xbox One, particularly if you're using her outside of the US. However, I have heard that development is on-going behind the scenes, and that new feature additions have slowed down because development depends on technology being built, in part, to make her less, well, terrible. It's probably too little, too late, though, as Amazon's Alexa and Google Home have already usurped any hope of Xbox becoming a smart home hub, but hey, I'll welcome any improvement to Cortana for Xbox at this point.
Finally, I've also heard talk about the possibility of an Xbox version of Microsoft's new Timeline feature, which allows users on Windows and mobile devices to track their activity across supported apps, such as Photos, Office, and Microsoft Edge, and quickly jump backwards and forwards straight into an existing activity, web page, or file.
While details are scant, it's easily to imagine how Timeline could translate to Xbox, tracking achievements, game clips, game installations, and more, perhaps both on your console and via a Microsoft Account-connected PC or mobile device.
Speaking of achievements, Xbox Platform lead Mike Ybarra told us how Microsoft is working towards making Xbox achievements and accomplishments more meaningful. Timeline could have a part to play here, tracking your stats in various games, allowing you to backtrack through your history as a gamer to quickly and easily share your accomplishments, whether they're achievement-bound or not.
In any case, it's fair to expect new features across the board for Xbox in 2018, although it might still be too early for things like the proposed cloud game streaming service. Don't expect the Windows Store to stop sucking, though.
An interesting year ahead
2018 will be an interesting year for Xbox. With the power argument won, people will be looking at Microsoft so shore up other weaknesses in its gaming ecosystem, namely the depth and breadth of its exclusive home-grown catalog, VR, and neglected features like Cortana.
Microsoft and Xbox have a long-term game plan in mind, and while local hardware isn't going anywhere, cloud streaming will naturally form a large part of this. The logical conclusion of Xbox is for Microsoft to allow AAA game developers to reach more screens by streaming titles through the cloud to devices that wouldn't be powerful enough to run them locally — though this is still years away from reality.
In the interim, Microsoft should be doing everything it can to lock as many people as it can into its digital ecosystem, ready for a future where the devices matter less than the quality of the services you subscribe to. For now, that means building a high-quality library of stellar and diverse exclusive titles.
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