State of Decay 2’s recent launch marks the Xbox One’s second major exclusive of 2018 as we approach the halfway point of the year. Following the rather lackluster Sea of Thieves, whose swash-buckling sandbox and whimsical charm wasn’t enough to distract from the rather scarce amount of content available at launch, many Xbox One owners were hoping State of Decay 2 would help steady the ship. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.
Let’s get one thing clear right away. I didn’t dislike State of Decay 2 by any sense of the word. In fact, I quite enjoyed the zombie-killing, community-managing excursion to destroy gruesome Plague Hearts quite a bit, giving it a 3.5/5. Managing my community was in-depth and enjoyable, the melee combat was simple but satisfying as I cleaved through countless heads of the undead and having my survivor make it out by the skin of their teeth, and co-op play makes scavenging for resources that little bit less tedious.
That said, the experience wasn’t without its limitations, and the overall scope of the game didn’t really push it beyond feeling like a mere iteration on what had come before. More of the same, entertaining enough, but hardly pushing the boundaries. Ultimately, I soon reached a point where I didn’t really need to grow my community anymore; I didn’t need to find a bigger base or move location, and heck, I didn’t even need to level up my Command Center (your main HQ for the base management part of the game) fully to comfortably clear the Plague Hearts out of my territory. And then there were the performance issues. Zombies falling from the sky, icons disappearing, a finicky co-op that didn’t always work, and graphical textures that took an age to load in.
It was the buggy follow-up to the content-sparse Sea of Thieves that Microsoft could have done without going into E3. Out of the two major releases this year, one of them lacked the staying power while the other lacked the polish. And as a result, both of Microsoft’s currently released tentpole titles for 2018 sitting around a less-than-inspiring 69 Metascore. Compare that to God of War’s 94, Ni no Kuni II’s 84, Yakuza 6’s 83, and MLB The Show 18’s 82, all of which released on PS4 in the past three months, and you see the stark contrast between Microsoft and Sony’s exclusive offerings. Not just in terms of quality, but quantity, too.
This puts Microsoft in a bit of a tight spot. With Sea of Thieves fast being pushed out of the conversational spotlight thanks to a lack of endgame content (which Rare has already outlined its solution to), and State of Decay 2 a fun but technically flawed title, its two exclusives for the first half of 2018 have fallen flat. And right when the company needed some big software wins to help push its ‘most powerful console in the world.’ However, it seems that Microsoft’s exclusive offering just isn’t firing on all cylinders if it’s not another entry in the worlds of Halo, Gears, or Forza.
Sure, there are always outliers to the trend. Cuphead wasn’t just one of the best Xbox One titles last year, it was one of the most beautiful, challenging and enjoyable games of 2017 as a whole. But, looking at the bigger picture, there’s certainly some cause for concern in terms of the quality and development process when it comes to Microsoft exclusives. Scalebound was sadly canceled despite having a lot of hype surrounding it, Crackdown 3 has literally been pushed back 2 years from its initial release date at this point, We Happy Few was delayed once again at the start of this year, and while The Last Night sure looks unique and interesting, it looks more of an Ori-esque cult-classic than a Halo or Gears of War-style system seller.
The trend of delays or troubled launches within Microsoft’s exclusives outside of its pedigree three is concerning. Sure, a delayed game is better than a bad game, and we’re all for waiting for a final product, but there’s a gap to be filled when Halo, Gears of War, and Forza aren’t around that these other exclusives need to fill, and at their current quality, they’re not doing the best job of it.
Microsoft needs to come out swinging at E3, showcasing some big, badass new exclusives. Compelling, replayable multiplayer titles, story-driven single-player experiences, the rebirth of beloved series (yes, Fable, we’re talking about you). Hell, they don’t all need 2018 release dates, just ones that can realistically be met. It’s something that Microsoft Studio Publishing’s Shannon Loftis admitted the team has acknowledged, following its missteps with Crackdown 3, but it needs to put those promises into action. The Xbox One has played second fiddle to the PS4 at E3 for a few consecutive years now, and that must change this year.
Exactly what Microsoft has up its sleeves for E3 remains to be seen. It may very well have a slew of compelling multiplayer games, story-driven single-player experiences, and beloved series that the Xbox One desperately needs right now. Yet its biggest challenge will be convincing us the end-products will actually deliver after what has been a less than spectacular showing from its recent catalog.
Indeed, had Rare and Undead Labs’ titles been received more positively, Microsoft would be riding a high heading into E3. Instead, it essentially arrives almost treading water, still needing to prove that outside of its stable of pedigree exclusives, there are still blockbuster, quality, exclusive titles coming to Xbox One. It could have been so different – Microsoft could be celebrating two noteworthy exclusives already on the system while simultaneously looking forward to the future. But it’s back to the drawing board, and after the lukewarm reception to Sea of Thieves and State of Decay 2, things got just that little bit harder for Microsoft to sell fans on upcoming exclusives.
That is, however, certainly what it must do. Sure, the company has a saving grace in that before the Xbox One makes way for its successor, we’re likely to see new entries in Halo, Gears of War, Forza Motorsport (and Horizon), and there’s always that rumored Fable revival, too. But just how much longer it can lean on this holy trinity in the face of the ever-growing army of PS4 exclusives, I’m not entirely sure.