June 11, 2018
Microsoft revealed a deluge of new games, including Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 4. But its hints about the next-gen of Xbox show the most promise
Microsofts E3 2018 conference shows that Xbox is (sort of) back
Microsoft set out to make a statement at this year's E3: the games are back.
More specifically, Phil Spencer – Microsoft's head of Xbox – used the media briefing to push a bigger message: that the company has been listening to fan feedback in recent years, and is willing to spend big to restore industry and player confidence in the brand.
The Xbox conference at E3 2018 (previously held at the Galen Centre, now fittingly at the all-new venue of the Microsoft Theatre at LA Live) was in many ways a two-hour mea culpa for what is arguably the single biggest criticism levelled at Microsoft this whole console generation; that the platform lacks sufficient exclusive content to warrant interest. While Xbox One has enjoyed a relatively strong selection of first party titles during its life, whether stalwarts such as Halo and Forza or experimental fresh blood like Sunset Overdrive or Ori, there's no denying Microsoft has struggled to keep pace with chief rival Sony.
Tackling that head-on, Microsoft opened with a teaser trailer for the beautiful-looking Halo Infinite – the latest from developer 343 Industries, and curiously spending most of its trailer focusing on beautifully rendered fauna in an idyllic natural habitat – before Spencer took to the stage to announce a staggering 50 games, including 18 Xbox exclusives and 15 world premieres.
The parade included both first party announcements and big trailer reveals from partners including Bethesda, Square Enix, Ubisoft, and EA. Bigger announcements included Playground Games' Forza Horizon 4, which allows players to race around the UK countryside in a massive shared-world racing tournament, with dynamic seasons affecting conditions; the reveal of Techland's Dying Light 2, evolving the parkour-inspired survival horror with a new, wildly branching consequences system; and Capcom's slick-looking Devil May Cry 5. Even a new Battletoads was teased to the crowd's delight, and the conference ended with the reveal of a slate of new Gears of War titles (followed by a cheeky 'cyberattack' by CDProjekt Red to reveal the new Cyberpunk 2077 trailer).

Throw in focus on Shadow of the Tomb Raider, intricate skateboarding game Session (seemingly a spiritual successor to Skate), details on Sea of Thieves' next major content drops Cursed Sails and Forbidden Shore, a DLC expansion for the beautifully animated Cuphead, and a host of titles under the ID@Xbox banner – Microsoft's indie-friendly label – and it was impossible not to feel the ship's course was being corrected.
In some ways, Microsoft was playing to an easy crowd, with Xbox Fanfest winners in attendance to provide requisity whoops and hollering – and some even twirling shirts in the air at the bigger announcements – but not all games enjoyed a good response. Yet another trailer for Crackdown 3 – originally announced in 2014, and recently confirmed delayed again until 2019 – and a lengthy showcase for Battlefield V showcase met muted responses.
While the main impression Microsoft was trying to impart with its conference was that this was a platform holder finally ready to counter accusations of a dearth of content, it also had a second, more specific objective: addressing the lack of titles from Japanese developers on Xbox.
It's no secret that the American console family has always struggled to make a mark in Japan, with native developers seemingly treating the brand with a mix of confusion and indifference. The knock-on effect from that though is that not only is there a lack of interest in Xbox in Japan, but western players who enjoy Japanese games have no reason to pick up an Xbox One.
To counter that, Microsoft surprised with a huge number of Japanese games coming to Xbox. Some, such as Kingdom Hearts III, mark their first appearance on an Xbox console, while others, like NieR: Automata – Become As Gods Edition promise to be the definitive versions, set to be enhanced for the powerful Xbox One X. One long-awaited delight was the announcement of Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, a ten-year anniversary remastering of the Xbox 360 original, bringing new characters that were added to the Japan-only PS3 version to the west for the first time.

New games from Japanese developers were shown too – another surprise, that they were using Xbox's conference to make the reveal at all. From Software, the studio behind Dark Souls, debuted Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, seemingly set in feudal Japan and seeing you battle giant yokai and demon warriors as a revenant ronin with a cursed arm, while Bandai Namco revealed Jump Force, a hyper-realistic looking crossover of Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto, and – it's teased – other anime icons in a massive real-world fighter.
Although none of the Japanese developed games appear to be Xbox exclusive – the developers, it seems, not yet quite that confident – it's a hugely promising sign that Microsoft has been able to win them back. It bodes well not just for the sheer volume of content available to Xbox players, but to the diversity of that content.
While the total amount of new games announced by Xbox was itself impressive though, you could argue that anyone can have a good year. The real 'wow' factor, and proof that Microsoft is serious about tackling its software drought, was the announcement of five new developers becoming first party studios, developing exclusively for Microsoft from here on out.
Four existing studios are now under the Microsoft umbrella – State of Decay's Undead Labs, Forza Horizon's Playground Games (who will be working on a new, unrevealed open-world game), We Happy Few's Compulsion Games, and Ninja Theory, developers of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Spencer also announced the formation of The Initiative, a new Santa Monica-based studio headed up by Darrell Gallagher, former head of Crystal Dynamics. These five join a base that already included 343 Industries (Halo), The Coalition (Gears of War), Turn 10 (Forza Horizon), and Rare (Sea of Thieves), creating something of a war council for Microsoft going forward.
With the new studio reveals, and a focus on improving the technology behind Xbox Game Pass – Microsoft's Netflix-style subscription service, now set to load games twice as fast and improve on that exponentially thanks to machine learning – there was a large sense that this year's conference was Microsoft laying the groundwork for what comes after Xbox One.
Spencer was not shy in confirming the development of Microsoft's next console, and it's not hard to think that the expansion of first-party developers, renewed partnerships with Japanese developers, and improved background technology aren't meant to pay dividends at all this generation. Instead, with the wealth of content shown at E3 2018, Microsoft is playing the long game here. Perhaps even slightly humbled by the lessons it's had to learn this gen, it's stacking the deck for the next battle for gamers' hearts – and it's a battle it just might win.
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