For the most part, the Xbox One looks like a series of missteps, instead of being a worthwhile successor to the Xbox 36, Microsoft’s most popular console ever. It is handicapped with only a few exclusive games, doesn't have the best support from third-party developers thanks to its initial specifications knee-capped in favour of Kinect, and a heavy dependency on patches and updates that span gigabytes galore. Despite all of these issues, I still use my Xbox One regularly due to one main reason - backwards compatibility.
Announced at E3 2015, the Xbox One backwards compatibility program lets you play select Xbox 360 and original Xbox games on the Xbox One, Xbox One S, and Xbox One X. How it works is you can buy the games digitally, or use the original discs that act as a proof of ownership, allowing you to download a version of the game playable on the Xbox One family of consoles. Chances are that a decent chunk of your games on either console would be playable on the Xbox One.
Sure, the Xbox One doesn’t have anything that compares to Yakuza 6, God of War, or Horizon Zero Dawn, but it does have something even better. What it lacks in new exclusives, it makes up with a host of classics with a fresh coat of paint.
Consider Star Wars: Republic Commando. This underrated mid-2000s squad shooter is perhaps one of the best uses of the Star Wars license in a post-Knights of the Old Republic world. Getting it to run in widescreen on a PC with all the modern trimmings is an arduous task when compared to just firing it up on the Xbox One where it runs smoothly, filling up every corner of the TV screen.
Or what about Panzer Dragon Orta? The on-rails shooter from Sega is next to impossible to find and is in a class of its own thanks to visuals that still hold up along with gameplay that would make most modern game designers perplexed. It was quite the looker back in the day and is even better now thanks to being enhanced for the Xbox One X to support 4K and 60fps.
Similar treatment is meted out to classics like the first Crackdown, The Witcher 2, and Red Dead Redemption, all of which look better than what they did at launch. Sony doesn’t see the point of backwards compatibility so it hasn’t invested in it, preferring to charge you for remasters or its PS Now streaming service, which is still subject to the whims of Internet connectivity that’s far from uniform, and Nintendo’s announcement that the Virtual Console is dead on the Switch pretty much ensures that the Kyoto-based firm will focus on new experiences outside a handful of Wii U ports.
When you look at the current gaming landscape, backwards compatibility fills a need that most game companies choose to ignore. With every major publisher looking to make an open-world game tied into live services, online dependencies, and micro-transactions, game design seems to have been homogenised with familiar elements popping up in every title. You have checkpoints, markers, factions, allies, hub worlds, side-quests, large swathes of open spaces to raise havoc in, online multiplayer, expansion passes and a general disregard for narrative in favour of emergent experiences — leaving you to fill in the gaps of story as we’ve seen in the likes of Sea of Thieves and Destiny, among others.
All of this makes the ability to kick back and blast rebel scum in a Star Wars shooter without pay-to-win micro-transactions a breath of fresh air. There’s just enough of a visual upgrade to keep things fresh and gameplay is timeless enough to hold up despite the obvious lack of a vast empty world as a playpen.
And while we have no doubt that E3 2018 should bring some new Xbox One exclusives to bolster this year’s lean line-up of Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and Crackdown 3, backwards compatibility on the Xbox One remains Microsoft’s greatest exclusive to date. It’s a celebration of what games could be rather than a harsh reminder of what they’ve become.
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