I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft entered E3 2014 as the clear underdog. From the moment the Xbox One was unveiled, it was immediately surrounded with controversy. It’s great that Microsoft quickly dropped all that DRM garbage prior to launch, which, arguably, was enough to at least get the Xbox One off the ground. However, overall, many long-time fans still appeared to be unhappy with the brand. The integrity of the company was shot as they could clearly go back on things they said the couldn’t, and the departure of president, Don Matrick, didn’t help. In truth, many saw his departure as an opportunity, but in turn, it also left Xbox in a very vulnerable position.
Since that time, a lot of things have changed for them in the lead up to E3. Titanfall was reasonably successful for Microsoft, and certainly helped to keep the Xbox One relevant in early 2014. However, it was the appointment of Phil Spencer, the previous head of Microsoft Game Studios, as the new head of Xbox that was the company’s first action in a long time that had the online community singing with praise. In fact, his first action as head of Xbox was to unbundle the Kinect sensor and establish a lower entry price-point for Xbox One. It was arguably another backtrack, but with a game-focused executive at the helm, I think many understood the decision, and welcomed Phil’s promises leading up to the show. 90 minutes of games, and little mention of other entertainment mediums.
Personally, I really appreciate when an executive is bold enough to walk out on stage and show some humility. I appreciated it when Sony did it several years back after that very painful PSN outage, and I appreciate it here, with Xbox One, especially. Phil Spencer didn’t walk out on stage wearing a flash suit, and he didn’t try to spout some keywords while pointing to some typical sales charts. No, he didn’t even get up on the big stage, either, but instead opted to talk from a smaller stage placed on the ground with the audience. Basically, he walked straight out to talk to the fans, to acknowledge Xbox’s mistakes, and promise a better future. This show was about games.
While it wasn’t a surprise to see Microsoft start out with a showcase of the latest Call of Duty game, I think it’s important to point out that there was no major emphasis on the exclusive content that Xbox usually enjoys. It was still stated, of course, but not for a round of applause. This was a theme that was consistent with the rest of the show, with a banner on the trailers often stating if there was something exclusive, instead of each representative spouting the words “exclusive content” like a broken sales record. As for the game itself, however, Advanced Warfare looked phenomenal, visually. It wasn’t stated as running on Xbox One, though, which was a bit of a worry.
The show quickly moved on, though, without wasting a single moment. It was time to talk about Forza, and while I wasn’t particular interested to hear about DLC content at a press event, my attitude completely changed when it was announced as both free, and available to players today. It’s hard to argue that’s not a cool thing. Moving on, the Forza rep went on to showcase the recently announced, Forza Horizon 2. Being Xbox first-party, it wasn’t surprising that the game looked visually fantastic, appeared robust with features, and was being supported by dedicated servers. Horizon 2 was also confirmed for release in September; helping to alleviate the 2014 drought.
Microsoft proceeded by showing a new trailer for the upcoming game, EVOLVE. It was to the point, had a mention of some exclusive DLC and a BETA coming to Xbox One, but that was it. It was the right way to do it, and now it was time to shift to a premiere demonstration. It was the first time the world got to see Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and while it looked outstanding, I went in feeling fatigued by the brand. However, there was something different about this game, as three other people walked out to various stages on the show floor. Co-op was coming to Assassin’s Creed, and it immediately won me over. I liked how Xbox presented it, and I also liked how it played out.
One thing I really liked about the conference was that inbetween showcasing, they would often play a series of clips with Xbox team members, developers, publishers, and other prominent figures in gaming talking about their favourite games. In my opinion, it worked very well, and it was great to see they had no reservations showing praise for games on other platforms. But of course, it was still about new games, and just as quickly, we were treated to a new trailer for Dragon Age: Inquisition, with a small note to exclusive DLC with the Xbox version. Personally, I think this could be one of the best games of 2014, and I was very happy to see it show off with Xbox.
What good is a console if there isn’t any exclusive content, right? It was time for some exclusive games, and first up was the bizarrely creative title from Insomniac called Sunset Overdrive. I’ll say straight up, this was one of the best trailers of E3. It playfully made fun of gritty cover-based shooters, while breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge what it was and address players directly. It was colourful, fun, and it was great to see the lead developer on the big stage demonstrating the game for the first time. It was also announced that the game would support up to 8-players in co-op (a recurring trend), and that the game would be available in October this year.
Continuing the trend of colourful fun experiences, Capcom announced new DLC for Dead Rising 3 which would be released on the same day. I’m a sucker for same-day releases when it comes to announcements, so I thought this was pretty cool. Ridiculously titled, “Dead Rising 3: Super Ultra Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX + α,” I would best describe it’s attitude as similar to that of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. It just looked fun. Moving on, however, we got a very minimal showing for Kinect, which was a brief showcasing of Fantasia and a new digital-only, Dance Central game. With the recent unbundle of Kinect, it was clear that Microsoft wanted to show the right kind of support for the peripheral, but not harbour on it for too long. It was the right call, in my opinion; at least for now.
It’s been a long while since we’ve had a good Fable game, and it’s arguable if any of them have lived up to what was promised; at least, in my opinion. Fable Legends appears to break that trend, however, delivering exactly what I was expecting from it last year. Once again, we had several people walk out on stage to demonstrate the co-operative gameplay; which played out very well, I thought. The visuals were great, and it was brimming with the Fable personality that we’ve come to love. It’s not clear if there is some sort of campaign to the game, though, so it’s actually a pretty big departure from the other games in the series, but it’s still good to see new things. It was also interesting to see how the role of the villain was played. Fable wasn’t a show stealer, but it was very intriguing.
Project Spark is what I would call Xbox’s answer to LittleBigPlanet, at least in terms of creativity. It was another solid showing, which no doubt appealed to the creative side of gamers across the globe. Sadly, however, they teased Conker at the end, but in a way that had people mistaking it as something more than an add-on for Spark. This was probably one of the biggest missteps of the show, but fortunately, we didn’t have time to dwell as things quickly moved forward with a trailer for a brand new indie title called Ori and the Blind Forest. Phil Spencer stated before the show to look out for the trailer that ended with orange, and we can see why. It looked remarkable!
It wouldn’t be Xbox without a bit of Halo, though, and this is where Microsoft really delivered for the core fanbase. Basically, the Master Chief Collection is a single disc which will contain all 4 Halo games, as well as a TV series produced by Ridley Scott called “Halo: Nightfall”, and an invitation to the Halo 5 Beta which will be running in December. Microsoft went on to confirm that Halo 2 had been remastered, and proceeded to demonstrate a multiplayer match on the classic Halo 2 map, Asscention. This was pure fan service, and it was well received in my opinion. It was also confirmed that all the games would run at 1080p/60FPS and that it would retail for $60 USD. Finally, it was confirmed that the collection would release on November 11, and ended with a CGI teaser for the Halo 5 multi-player mode. Whether you like Halo or not, there is no denying the fanservice in this announcement.
It’s clear that Xbox has a renewed vision for the indie development community; whether in response to Sony’s showing last year, or as personally implied by Phil Spencer’s wardrobe changes throughout the show. In support, Phil personally announced the latest title from the studio who developed Limbo, called “Inside.” It looked fantastic, and the Xbox team proceeded to talk about “ID@Xbox,” and showcase a lot of other indie games which would be coming to Xbox One in the near future. It was a positive showing, overall, and arguably, on par with Sony. However, with so much already announced to fill the 2014 game drought, it was now time to look to 2015.
When it came to all the 2015 announcements, it was very much a “CG-fest.” I don’t necessarily hold it against Microsoft, but it’s still worth noting as we can only speculate about these games. The first announcement was Rise of the Tomb Raider, which is something we all expected, and in turn, the trailer was completely in-line with those expectations; in a good way! Just as quickly as it had played, though, did the team from CD Projekt RED walk out on stage and immediately show us real-time gameplay for The Witcher 3. I know it’s not an exclusive, but I respect these guys a lot, and they wouldn’t have shown up at the Xbox conference if they didn’t believe in the platform. It was simply breathtaking to watch, and I simply can’t wait to get my hands on it in February, next year.
Of all the announcements for Xbox in 2015, there were three exclusive games which stood out in particular, despite being CG rendered trailers. The first was “Phantom Dust”, a surprising reboot of an original Xbox classic, which I think was a surprise to everyone. The second was “Scalebound”, an exclusive action adventure game from Platinum Games, which has the potential to be something incredible if they can deliver what they implied in the teaser. The final announcement was for Crackdown, which looked pretty great overall, and appeared to be well received by fans. Overall, it was a solid preview, and enough to get us excited; despite there being no gameplay.
The final demo for Microsoft conference was for The Division, which also came as a bit of a surprise as for the past several years, Ubisoft seemed to be leaning more towards Sony when it came their showcases. I think it goes without saying that this game looks phenomenal, and it was great, once again, to see several players come out on stage to show multiple people playing together. My only major problem with the showing of any Ubisoft game is whether the presentation can be trusted. I didn’t see any mention that the game was running on Xbox hardware, and I think with future conferences, this should be mandatory, if possible. We don’t want another graphics fiasco.
Returning to the spotlight, once again, Phil Spencer walked out on stage to deliver a genuinely fantastic closing speech, in my opinion, and to end the show off with a “sizzle reel” recapping all their announcements this morning. It was a little disappointing not to go out with a megaton, or to see any Halo 5 gameplay, but it made sense to avoid overloading their conference with Halo. It was really positive to see the 2014 calendar fill up, and with such a large variety of colourful experiences. There was pretty much something for everyone this year, and that was really important if they were going to gain momentum. I thought, overall, there was a healthy balance between first and third party, as well as a lot of intriguing promises for next year. The potential is definitely there!
Regardless of what was shown, though, it is absolutely vital that we recognise the complete turn around in attitude from 12 months ago. This was 90 minutes that Xbox said they were dedicating to games, and they did just that. “Kinect,” “TV,” “Sports,” and all those other buzzwords made famous by internet memes last year were scarce at best, and the variety in genre for all the games on offer was commendable, in my opinion. This time, there weren’t slimy executives on stage talking PR bullshit, and there was nobody trying to pass off exclusive DLC as something that deserved a round of applause; two things Microsoft had become infamous for. Whether you liked the announcements or not, it’s hard not to recognise where Xbox is headed under Phil Spencer’s leadership. In my opinion, despite a few minor shortcomings, this was, undeniably, an excellent press conference. Grade: A-