Microsoft’s E3 press conference sweetens the pill for hesitant 360 owners.
The hour before the E3 2015 Xbox Media Briefing begins feels like being at a polite company disco. Seated, doused by green spotlights, with music chosen by a management consultancy’s marketing department, it certainly doesn’t feel like an event on the front line of entertainment.
While Sia’s Elastic Heart echoes around the auditorium most attendees spend their time frantically trying to connect to Wi-Fi or figure out the best way to write, tweet or Periscope (I kid you not) from the event.
But, as the Galen Center fills with punters, a definite sense of anticipation builds. From those around me there’s a “go on… impress me” attitude towards Microsoft. Considering how the Xbox One has so far played second fiddle to PlayStation 4, it’s an understandable point of view.
The consensus is that it’s time for Microsoft’s console to show some mettle and stake its place as a genuine alternative, or companion, to Sony’s console.
And… all in all, they did very well.
The event started with a bang. Halo 5: Guardians gave people exactly what they wanted. The game showed off four-player co-operative play, some obligatory moments of environmental destruction and a rather hokey looking boss.
The game looks shiny as hell and continues to channel the kaleidoscopic vibe of the Metroid Prime series to great effect. The loudest roar of approval went to the AI complimented WarZone mode, and quite right too, it was the demo’s highlight.
Recore received less of a roar and more of an ooooh. Coming from Comcept and Armature the game’s introduction didn’t give much away but the esteem with which its creators are held was evident.
A few games in and Phil Spencer finally hit the stage. Ever the pro he led with the usual rhetoric about gameplay breadth and spouted lots of player-centric fan service. He loves us, it seems.
And then he revealed that the Xbox One is now backwards compatible with the Xbox 360 games library. He does love us.
You could tell it mattered to the audience. And if it can provide a clear upgrade path to hesitant 360 owners it will mean a lot to Microsoft too.
Spencer was followed by Bethesda’s Todd Howard. And you have to feel a little sorry for him. His Fallout 4 presentation would have stolen the show any other year. The audience response was a touch muted but this was probably less a comment on the game and more because they had seen most of this footage yesterday.
The announcement that PC mods will be available to play on Xbox One did go down well however, and was just one example of the cross-pollination between Xbox One and PC found at this conference.
It was Peter Moore who really drew the short straw, carted on to present a pitch for EA Access. His spot came across as a terrible ‘As Seen on TV’ commercial. Luckily the wonderful trailer for Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 saved his segment from being a complete disaster.
Then there was Forza Motorsport 6. Which is, well, more Forza. A Ford Capri descending to the stage was certainly the most Microsofty moment of the show.
Elsewhere, the reveal trailer for Dark Souls 3 was an undoubted highlight. The closing moments, featuring a giant knight rising from the ground, alive with ember and fury, sucked the breath from the auditorium.
Just as it was all getting a bit gloomy Gigantic received its first public showing. Bright, bold and beautiful with echoes of Looney Tunes and Wind Waker, it proved that there was more to the Xbox roster than post-apocalyptic stop and pop shooting.
Indies are now part of every main E3 press conference and this was no exception. The Solus Project, SuperHot and Below were among those on this year’s parade. We also got a brief look at Tacoma by Fullbright and Ashen from New Zealand-based studio, Aurora44. Both were intriguing and deserving of their place on the stage.
It was Cuphead that garnered the biggest applause, and with good reason. It was the most stylistic, energetic and beautiful game we saw all morning. In the words of the developers, Cuphead is a combination of 16-bit precision with 1930’s cartoons. If the gameplay can match the chaotic charm of the trailer we are in for a treat when it is released.
Much was made of the Xbox One’s exclusives and the highlight for me was Rare’s Sea of Thieves. Picking up from where Assassin’s Creed Black Flag left off the game appears to have a jolly sense of daring-do that riffs on Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The closest we came to an ‘I was there’ moment was during the live demo of Minecraft for Microsoft’s HoloLens. It was truly remarkable. The fidelity and latency of the image was mind-blowing, provoking squeals of approval from all corners. I might not be a convert just yet, but it did justify HoloLen’s place at the gaming branch of SpecSavers.
The conference concluded with another Xbox big-hitter – a short gameplay demo for Gears of War 4 – arriving at the end of 2016. In truth, this early demo looked a little rough but the game received a rapturous reception nonetheless. It should silence those who think the franchise has had its day.
And then it was over.
“Now is the time,” concluded Phil Spencer triumphantly as the music kicked in and we filed out.
Phil was happy. And the audience seemed happy too.
It was a safe conference, but the games looked good, the new Xbox One features were all warmly received and Kinect didn’t receive a single mention.
Mid-term diagnosis: Progressing nicely.