When we talk about the Xbox One in 2017, which Xbox One are we talking about? The original big black box? Last year's streamlined One S? The ultra-powerful One X?
It's probably best to focus on this year's model, the Xbox One X. Introduced in 2016 as Project Scorpio, the "world's most powerful console" is where most of the Xbox One's forward momentum came from in 2017, which is sad considering the new hardware didn't launch until November. Microsoft spent much of the year hyping up the One X's 4K, HDR capabilities, which didn't leave a lot of room for talking about other things, like exciting new original games. Who needs those when you've got a console that can run the same games other platforms can run, only better?
With the release of the One X in November, there are now three different models of Xbox One to choose from. The original 2013 console is still available new through many online retailers, and shops that sell pre-owned hardware often have the massive black boxes in stock. More readily available is last year's Xbox One S, the smaller, slightly more powerful model that added support for HDR (high dynamic range) and a 4K Blu-ray player.
Finally there's the Xbox One X. Announced in 2016 as Project Scorpio, "the most powerful console ever," Microsoft's third iteration of the Xbox One hardware is an impressive piece of hardware. Games developed for or updated to take advantage of the One X's speedy CPU, powerful Radeon graphics chip and enhanced memory bandwidth can run at native (or near-native) 4K resolution, deliver sharper textures, more stable framerates and enhanced lighting effects. While the One X was built to take advantage of the latest 4K, HDR television technology, owners of older sets can still benefit from enhanced performance and supersampling -- rendering games at 4K and then downscaling them to 1920 x 1080 resolution, resulting in sharper visuals. It's the best way to play Xbox One games.
While the Xbox One X is an obvious choice for tech-savvy gamers who thrive on owning the latest and greatest hardware, it might not be as obvious for the average consumer shopping for a new game console. The iPhone-style naming convention of adding a letter to the end of the console name isn't the easiest for the layperson to follow, especially given how similar Xbox One S and Xbox One XS sound. And while the One X is the most powerful Xbox One console, all three play the same games. The difference is how the different versions play those games, a distinction that might not be as profound as the price jump from a $US300 ($391) Xbox One S to a $US500 ($652) Xbox One X.
Aside from the new console, the most significant Xbox One hardware news of 2017 was the official death of the Kinect sensor. Launched in 2010 for the Xbox 360, the second iteration of Microsoft's motion-sensing, voice command-enabling camera debuted in 2013 with the Xbox One. Between complaints about the $US500 ($652) cost of the bundled console and privacy concerns over an always-on camera in the livingroom, Microsoft stopped offering the camera as a bundled item. A dedicated Kinect port is absent from the Xbox One S and One X, both requiring a special adaptor should users opt to purchase one separately. Kinect production has now ceased, with no more available once existing stock is depleted, should that ever happen.
The Xbox One dashboard software underwent two major revisions in 2017. The first big overhaul came in March, completely revamping the console's home screen with a vertical column design, integrating the Beam streaming service (which has since been renamed Mixer), adding external keyboard support and, most significantly, changing the way to Xbox One's home button works. Rather than bringing users to the console home screen, tapping the X jewel in the center of their controllers now opened up the guide menu, giving instant access to friends, message, games, apps, the store and enhanced capture tools.
Seven months later, Microsoft revamped the use interface all over again. The October update swapped the vertical columns introduced in the spring with a new horizontal design based around user-configurable "content cubes." Utilising these content cubes, users can now customise their homepage, selecting which games, friends, clubs and other items they want to appear. The update sped up the software significantly and introduced a light theme, giving the dark and moody dashboard a lighter side.
The Xbox One dashboard continues to be the most full-featured console front-end software, giving owners easy quick and easy access to apps, games and community features. Where the Switch's front end is just a list of games and the the PlayStation 4 buries its social features in drop-downs, everything is front-and-center on the Xbox One. With the Xbox Marketplace integrated into the system software rather than requiring a separate application be launched a'la the PlayStation 4 and Switch, it's the easiest console to buy content on as well.
Network And Services
The Xbox Live online gaming service soldiered on in 2017, continuing to offer solid online multiplayer and adding value to its $US60 ($78)-a-year price tag with a rotating monthly selection of Games with Gold for both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.
The Xbox One remains the only console with EA Access, the $US30 ($39)-a-year service that grants subscribers access to a library of older EA games for free while offering early access to select new game releases. This year's early access titles included Star Wars Battlefront II, which helped fuel pre-release controversy over the game's microtransactions and loot box system. That's a value-added service if ever there was one.
This year Microsoft launched the Xbox Game Pass, a $US9.99 ($13)-a-month subscription service that gives Xbox One owners access to a library of more than 100 Xbox One and 360 games. Unlike Sony's streaming PlayStation Now service, Xbox Game Pass subscribers download games from the service's evolving library directly to their consoles, with unlimited play as long as their subscription is up to date. Subscribers can purchase games from the library at a 20 per cent discount, with a 10 per cent discount on downloadable content.
Microsoft's late-2016 purchase of Seattle-based streaming platform Beam led to the service being integrated into the Xbox One (and Windows 10) in 2017. Renamed Mixer in May, the streaming platform includes advanced features like user interaction and co-streaming, in which multiple broadcasters can combine their streams into one. The streaming community poked at it, nodded, and went back to broadcasting on Twitch.
Mixer tries real hard.
Microsoft continues to champion cross-platform play on consoles. Launched in 2016, the Xbox Anywhere program continued to see games like Forza and Halo Wars 2 launch on both the console and PC, with cross-saves and cross-play. Rocket League players can compete against players on PC as well as in the recently-released Nintendo Switch version. In October the Xbox version of Roblox, a popular social sandbox game among early teens, added cross-play with users on PC and mobile platforms.
With much of Microsoft's attention focused on new hardware, 2017 was one of the company's weakest game publishing years yet. The company kicked things off in January by cancelling Platinum's Scalebound, one of the most exciting upcoming games for the console. There were two significant retail games released by Microsoft Game Studios this year, Halo Wars 2 and Forza Motorsport 7, both sequels to established franchises. Last year's ill-received ReCore from Armature and Comcept got a "Definitive Edition" in October, while the Xbox One X's November launch was accompanied by a pair of kid-friendly Disney games, an updated version of Xbox One launch title Zoo Tycoon and Super Lucky's Tail, a non-virtual reality follow-up to Playful's Oculus Rift launch title.
Microsoft's biggest publishing get of the year is PC mega-hit PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. The Xbox One timed console exclusive launched on December 12 as part of the Xbox Game Preview Program, the console's version of Steam's Early Access.
Many popular first-party Xbox One games received significant updates in 2017. May saw the release of an amazing Hot Wheels-themed expansion pack for Forza Horizon 3. Last year's Gears of War 4 received a massive Horde Mode update in June, with additional multiplayer maps released later in the year. With the November release of the Xbox One X, several first-party games received updates to take advantage of the new console's power, including 2015's Halo 5: Guardians, the update of which also brought back the fan-favourite Oddball game mode.
2017 was not a great year for Xbox One exclusives. Aside from Microsoft's first-party titles, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and the long-awaited animated adventure Cuphead (both available on Steam for PC), most of the console's exclusive games were smaller indie titles. Very few 2017 releases were playable only on Xbox One, and those that were aren't especially notable (unless you're a big air guitar fan).
Hooray for Cuphead!
With few first-party games and exclusives, Microsoft let big-name multiplatform games pull much of the Xbox One's gaming weight this year. From single-player experiences like Resident Evil 7 and Assassin's Creed Origins to multiplayer-centric fre like Call of Duty: World War II and Destiny 2, many of this year's major game releases made it to the Xbox One. A large number of 2017's big game releases received updates in November and December to enable higher resolutions, enhanced graphics and better performance on the Xbox One X.
One of the Xbox One's greatest strengths continues to be backward compatibility. With the Nintendo Switch Virtual Console nowhere to be seen and the PlayStation 4 mainly selling or renting (via the PlayStation Now service) its back catalogue, Microsoft continued to add new games to its ever-growing list of backward compatible Xbox titles. The Xbox One BC list added 143 Xbox 360 games in 2017, including the heavily-requested Call of Duty: Black Ops II. In October, Microsoft added 13 original Xbox games to the list. That brings the grand total of BC games on Xbox One to a whopping 452, all of which can either be purchased from the Xbox Marketplace or played from their original discs. This is the best thing Microsoft's done this console generation, a boon for gamers who've followed the Xbox through three hardware generations.
If the Xbox One is ever going to catch up with the much more popular PS4 this console generation, 2018 would be the time, though let's face it, it probably won't be. Microsoft enters the new year with the most powerful console on the market, capable of making games look and run better than the competition. The Xbox One arrives pretty late in the game, but its mid to high-end PC level performance is turning heads.
But powerful hardware is only one piece of the puzzle, and if the huge success Nintendo has seen with its modestly-powered Switch is anything to go by, it's not a very big piece. Microsoft has spent the past two years focusing on things other than games. In 2016 it was building Xbox into a gaming platform spanning console and PC. 2017 was all about "the world's most powerful console," but with no current plans to introduce games that will only run on the One X, it's still just a more powerful Xbox One. 2018 needs to be about games.
Hopefully we'll not have to re-use this Crackdown 3 image next year.
So far, that's not looking good. While the Xbox One will continue to play host to the biggest third-party multiplatform games, most of which should be optimised for the Xbox One X, there aren't a lot of first-party titles in the console's 2018 lineup thus far. The oft-delayed and retooled Crackdown 3 should make an appearance in 2018 as should the sequel to delightful 2D platformer Ori and the Blind Forest. Rare's multiplayer pirate adventure Sea of Thieves has a March 20 release date. Survival sequel State of Decay 2 is due in the spring. That's four games, three of which were listed at the end of our 2016 State of the Xbox One article as hopefully arriving in 2017. All four games will be playable on Windows PCs as well, due to Xbox Play Anywhere.
Despite "high-fidelity VR" being mentioned in the original announcement of Project Scorpio, there's no word on virtual reality support on the Xbox One X. It seems more likely the console will get some sort of support for mixed-reality. Microsoft's Hololens is exciting technology, a visor that allows computer-generated graphics to be laid over the real world. We've seen some very cool game demos using the technology over the past couple of years, but not much official movement when it comes to games. Mixed-reality on the Xbox One is closer to wishful thinking at this point, but the new technology would certainly give Microsoft's console something unique to offer.
Despite the Xbox One X's impressive horsepower, the console didn't manage to make much of an impression in late 2017. Going into the new year, people seem excited about the new and shiny Switch, while chattering about impressive-looking upcoming PS4 exclusives like Spider-Man and The Last of Us Part II. That's not really happening for the Xbox One X (or any Xbox One for that matter), and that's not a great sign for Microsoft. If MS wants to regain their footing they need more exciting games, and they need to stop cancelling exclusives and start getting people psyched.