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Xbox 2019 Year in Review: Microsoft pushes through a difficult year as it gears up for Xbox Series X

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The year was always going to be a tough one for Microsoft. Not only had 2018 been stellar for Xbox games, the general feeling for 2019 was that we’re now in that 'end of a generation' phase of the Xbox One’s life cycle. What's more, with Microsoft having already acknowledged the recently named Xbox Series X, would the games industry be concerned more with developing for the long-term future, rather than the immediate present? 

At least the year started with a bang, thanks to Capcom's awesome remake of its 1998 survival horror classic Resident Evil 2 Remake. Looking incredible, particularly on the Xbox One X, it’s hard to argue that Game of the Year had already been won in its first month.

Xbox head Phil Spencer also took to AMD's stage at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas in January to confirm Microsoft's partnership with the tech giants, who make Xbox's APUs (Accelerated Processing Units), revealing that AMD tech would be powering the next generation Xbox. It was another small but vital morsel of info regarding the new hardware, even as the rumours persisted that Microsoft was developing a 'family' of consoles, with two different machines codenamed Lockhart and Anaconda.

(Image credit: Microsoft)

The year's first Xbox exclusive was a long-awaited sequel. Crackdown 3, despite the presence of Brooklyn 99's Terry Crews, was hardly breaking new ground; silly and thrilling, but repetitive. Its Wrecking Zone multiplayer mode was, however, a neat showcase for Microsoft's Azure tech, using its established cloud infrastructure to create a seamlessly riotous sandbox.

Microsoft Game Studios, while still tight lipped about what their 13 studio acquisitions would actually be working on, changed its name to Xbox Game Studios – hinting at the more unified nature of the company’s future plans. The new head of Xbox Game Studios, Matt Booty, also gave us clues as to the bigger ambitions of Microsoft to get everyone playing. "The Xbox brand has really come to mean more than just 'console'," he said. "I think Xbox really means playing games with the people you want to play with, on the device you want to play on."

Flops and phenomena

(Image credit: Respawn Entertainment)

After all the hype, we were sure that BioWare would satisfy our need for a sprawling sci-fi epic in February with Anthem. Oh dear. The multiplayer RPG was a bit of a mess. While OXM praised its basic gameplay mechanics, particularly the act of flying via the game’s characterful Javelin suits, a lack of story from devs lauded for their storytelling made the EA-published game the year’s biggest flop. EA bounced back immediately with the surprise drop of a new free-to-play Battle Royale game from Titanfall 2 devs Respawn. Apex Legends had us gripped for at least a while, though it's never quite topped the phenomenon that is Fortnite, with Epic's shooter still managing to be one of the year's biggest games, again.

"I think Xbox really means playing games with the people you want to play with, on the device you want to play on."

Matt Booty

Rare's multiplayer pirate sim Sea Of Thieves might have been stuck in the poop deck when it put to sea last year, but Rare's Anniversary Update gave us a reason to set sail once more, and the April update put the game back on our maps. Then, in May, Microsoft released a digital-only version of its Xbox One S. Affordable and neat, the discless console is a nice bit of kit, and a key addition to the Xbox family.

If we were hoping for Microsoft to blow Sony out of the water by being first with the big next-gen news at E3 2019, we were a little disappointed. Sony's non-attendance at E3 ensured that Xbox had everyone’s attention in LA, but Phil Spencer played it coy as he merely hinted at the power of the next-gen console. Four times more power, in fact, with a killer new solid-state drive to lessen load times and 8K resolution support up to a blistering 120fp, alongside a release date of ‘Holiday 2020’ and Halo Infinite as the first confirmed launch title.

We were treated to a brand new trailer for Master Chief's return, too, but the main takeaway was Xbox’s focus on the gamer’s physical experience playing the new console – reducing load-times would be key. Any talk of a family of consoles was absent, leading us to wonder if either Lockhart or Anaconda wasn’t going to happen, but rumours began to circulate of a discless version of Scarlett that would mainly utilise the new xCloud streaming service being developed by Microsoft.

(Image credit: AP Images)

Games-wise, very little came out of E3 beyond a new Gears 5 story trailer, and the announcement of Bleeding Edge, a multiplayer melee brawler from Xbox Game Studio Ninja Theory. From third-party devs there was, of course, plenty to be excited about, such as Cyberpunk 2077, which stole the show thanks to a breathtaking cameo from Keanu Reeves. We also got our first look at the Xbox Elite Series 2 controller – which finally arrived in November later that year. We didn’t think Xbox’s Elite controller could be bettered, but Series 2 is a truly excellent (if pricey) piece of tech. 

Another big Microsoft commitment this year was toward backwards compatibility, as the company promised four generations of Xbox games would be available to play on its fourth console, tying in neatly to the continued allure of Game Pass, and reiterating Xbox’s future intent in offering all of the games.

Xbox was at the centre of it all at Gamescom in Cologne this year, too. Speaking to OXM at the August event, Xbox games marketing manager Aaron Greenberg revealed a little more about the power of the next-gen console, specifically on how it will impact our gaming experience. Greenberg suggested we'll see greater CPU gains, as opposed to GPU boosts of the last generation of consoles. Higher frame-rates and faster loading times will be the order of the day for next-gen Xbox gamers.

Gearing up

(Image credit: Xbox Game Studios)

September saw Gears 5, the biggest and best exclusive game released for Xbox in 2019, land to rave reviews, with OXM lauding its gorgeously rendered core-shooter action and exceptionally paced single player campaign.

Around the same time, Microsoft opened up registration for the beta of its Project xCloud service, which aims to let you play any Xbox game at any time on any device over a Wi-Fi or mobile network. Going hands-on with xCloud playing Gears 5, Halo 5 and Sea Of Thieves, OXM found that the streaming allowed for fantastic picture quality using home Wi-Fi, with only a very slight input lag, suggesting that whether you’re playing Xbox over your phone or on the mooted xCloud-only next-gen console, this latest innovation could be truly remarkable.

The Golden Joysticks (almost) rounded out the year for Xbox, with Gears 5 awarded the Xbox Game of the Year at the public-voted awards, but all Xbox-shaped eyes were on Microsoft’s big XO19 bash in London that same weekend. That convention gave us plenty to get excited about from Xbox Game Studios, with Rare teasing an intriguing new open-world adventure, Everwild, and Obsidian debuting Grounded – a Honey I Shrunk The Kids-style co-op survival game. We’re also getting weirdly super-excited for the immense looking Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is on its way to Xbox next year. 

A new generation

(Image credit: Ninja Theory)

In an unexpected, late twist, Microsoft chose the Game Awards in Las Vegas to formerly unveil the next generation of Xbox. Xbox Series X landed like a UFO mothership, or at least that black obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey – its design is breathtaking in its simplicity, and shape. Looking more like a small desktop PC than a traditional console, its size and shape only heighten our excitement and our expectation that under that sizeable hood must be a machine of extraordinary power. 

We also got a look at a new, probable launch title from Xbox Game Studio, Ninja Theory: Senua's Saga: Hellblade 2 – and it looks stunning. So, as we end 2019 it's goodbye Scarlett, hello Xbox Series X. Even if we’re ever so slightly confused by the naming convention, we’ve now seen the future of Xbox, and 2020 is looking beautiful.

GamesRadar is celebrating the end of the decade! Why not come and see how many of your favourite Xbox One and Xbox 360 games made the cut, as we run down the best of the decade