Last year, Microsoft’s philosophy toward E3 was simple: games, games and more games. And boy, was it was a big turnaround from the unrelenting nightmare that the Xbox One had been suffocating in after its train-wreck of a debut. It was really solid showing too, I thought; even if there were a few too many CGI placeholders used to win over fans. Never mind Rise of the Tomb Raider; 2014 was the Rise of Phil Spencer – champion and saviour for the Xbox brand.
Going into E3 2015, I was a lot less anxious about Microsoft’s position. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still trailing Sony by a large margin, but I still recognise that they had been living up to last years promises with games such as Sunset Overdrive and Ori and the Blind Forest. Not only that, they’ve been delivering fantastic support to the Xbox Preview community; with regular updates being passed on to improve the OS. And let’s not forget the acquisition of Mojang, cross-platform compatibility coming in Windows 10, and, most recently, that official partnership deal with Oculus Rift.
It wasn’t a long shot to assume the show would kick-off with some campaign footage from Halo 5: Guardians. It was the best time to show it, and it was clear that the audience was keen. If anything, I would say the campaign gave off a strong ODST vibe as it was being demonstrated by four live players. It was also confirmed we would get to play as both the Chief and Agent Locke. Halo 5 was colourful, spectacular and filled with plenty of epic set-piece moments to get fans excited. Furthermore, we saw the debut of Warzone, a new 24-player multiplayer mode with maps 4x larger than any before. Naturally, it all looked like a tonne of fun. But, Halo is still Halo, and it was time for something original.
There were several times that Phil got on stage to talk about their strong focus on first-party and exclusives at Xbox, and I have to admit that I was shocked to see an original game was coming from Keiji Inafune and the team behind Metroid Prime. ReCore, sadly, was yet another CGI trailer; in line with the announcement trend set last year. Although, I still enjoyed the premise of a desolate world inhabited by robots and a lone surviving woman. It was almost Pixar-like in its presentation, and given the history of the creators, I would assume it’s likely going to be an action-platformer. The show was all first-party games so far, and I liked that a lot; even if I wasn’t feeling that hyped about it. Not yet, at least.
While I was hoping for a megaton reveal by the way of a major franchise comeback, what followed was arguably the biggest game changer for the company at E3 2015. If you can see the image above: yes, that’s right. And, yes, this is still real life. The Xbox One, originally the least consumer friendly console of all time, will officially be adding backward compatibility to the platform. While it’s just 100 games to begin with, the feature will support both digital purchases and retail discs. This is something none of us saw coming, and the one thing which Sony simply will not be able to match because of the difference in hardware between the PS3 and PS4. It’s still to be proven, but damn. Good going!
Although I’m not sure how necessary it is, I thought it was nice to see cross-play being made possible between Xbox One and Xbox 360. In fact, it’s clear from this E3 that Microsoft really wants to create a thriving ecosystem which is all interconnected. Phil Spencer also went on to announce a new elite controller for Xbox One, which is fully customisable and totally badass in my opinion. Rumours about the price are circulating, and it’s not looking cheap, but it’s still great this option exists. This trend of customisation continued further with Bethesda’s Todd Howard coming out to give us another look at Fallout 4 and to announce that mods for the game on PC would be cross-compatible with Xbox One.
At this point, the buzz was kind of broken for me when Peter Moore from EA came out on stage to blab or about old games coming to EA access. Although, I admit the announce for Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 was definitely welcome. I’m not personally a fan, but I’ve only heard positive things about the franchise from those who play it – so, that’s cool. Following this, Microsoft came out to lay down some of their own fluff: one big car advertisement for Forza 6. They showed a fancy car on the stage and some shiny in-engine rendering – nothing major. I’m sure it’ll be the best racing sim yet, but I immediately put it out of mind when the all but confirmed Dark Souls III was announced for 2016.
Ubisoft also came out to do their part by showing off more of The Division. No offence, guys, but this is my third E3 with this game, so I’m starting to feel a bit worn out on this one. At least there is a beta coming to Xbox One in December, though. In turn, we also got to see more of Rainbow Six Siege, which was cool; especially as it’s releasing this year and with a free copy of both Rainbow Six Vegas 1 & 2 (a nice plug for Xbox One’s backwards compatibility!). After Ubisoft shifted off, we then got to see a colourful trailer for the upcoming MOBA, Gigantic. Personally, this isn’t my jam, but it is the type of game I’m keen to see as free-to-play and cross-play between Xbox One and Windows 10.
One thing I like about the recent Xbox events is how they set up a smaller stage so Phil can walk right into the middle floor to address the audience. It’s a small touch, but a massive step away from the corporate vibe Don Mattrick used to bring. Of all the conferences during E3, I think Xbox had one of the best indie showings. Mostly because it wasn’t just a slot for the sake of showing off indies. These games were all very unique, polished, and not just the gimmicky sort that’s common in this space. On show was Tacoma, Ashen, Beyond Eyes and Cuphead. I enjoyed how all four developers came out at once, had their own smaller stages, and how seamlessly the coverage shifted between each.
Xbox also announced they were introducing a new preview service like Early Access, but with a trial period to people can try buy they commit. I’m not a fan of this usually, but I believe it has a place, and the idea of a trial put my major concerns at ease for. This also lead onto the announce of ION, a new MMO from the creator of DayZ, which will come first to Xbox One as a part of the new preview service. It was time to jump back to the big exclusives, however, with the official gameplay reveal for Rise of the Tomb Raider. The demo saw Lara traversing a harsh, icy landscape with a companion, and it was just as much a spectacle as ever. If Fallout 4 isn’t your thing, this is also coming November 10.
Microsoft has a history of disappointing fans whenever Rare is mentioned, but it might be time to change that perception too. While a new Battletoads wasn’t announced, we will be getting a special Rare Collection (30 games for 30 dollars) to celebrate their upcoming anniversary. Also, Rare went on to announce an entirely new game called Sea of Thieves. I was a big fan of this announcement, showing off a lush, colourful world focused on Pirates and 4-player co-op adventures. It looked neat and is coming to XB1 and Win 10. In turn, we got another glimpse of Fable Legends, which is free-to-play and will also be coming to XB1 and Win 10. Co-op is a major focus for Xbox right now, it seems!
Of course, we couldn’t go through this press conference without discussing the deal with Oculus, but, surprisingly, that topic quickly took a backseat in favour of Microsoft Hololens. This is what I was personally most excited for. I feel oddly strange about the isolation that comes with VR, and find the idea of augmented reality to be much more suitable to my comfort zone. Using special cameras, Xbox gave us the first official debut of how Minecraft works on Hololens; with a player on-stage interacting with a holographic version of the game, which appeared to come to life on top of an empty table. I’m not a Minecraft player, but if this demonstration was indicative of how it will actually work, I’m hyped.
To close out the show, we got a massive showcase for Gears of War. First up was Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a remastered version of the original game, which was announced for Xbox One and PC. Xbox confirmed a beta was launching that day, and it would be launching on August 25th. It looked neat but quickly stepped aside to make room for the star of the show, Gears 4. The truth is, while I’ve enjoyed the series so far, I’m not mad about it. And, for this reason, the demo really surprised me as it gave off an almost Resident Evil 4 vibe. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very much Gears, but the pacing was slower, and this allowed for a lot more suspense and atmosphere. It looked fantastic!
By the end of the show, I felt warmly satisfied as well as a little disappointed that there wasn’t some sort of megaton announcement to close with. If anything, it was a very safe conference with all the usual big names; further diversified with a selection of unique indie exclusives to expand the lineup. To my surprise, I walked away feeling that Microsoft came across quite genuine with their plans and intentions, and I appreciated that Phil took the time to clarify that Crackdown, Scalebound and Quantum Break were being saved for gamescom. Backwards compatibility is a big deal and there is nothing else quite like the Hololens. The cross-platform ecosystem also looks like it could work really well if it’s handled right. It’s still time to step it up, but, overall, I think Xbox has a good thing going on for 2015. Grade: B+