Going into this year’s E3, Microsoft had carefully procured the coal which they were hoping would be turned into diamond in Los Angeles. After a press conference that was left spinning its wheels a little too often, it feels like what we’ve they’ve come away with is simply a slightly shinier lump of coal. While the Xbox arsenal continues to look strong for the coming year, you would not be alone in thinking the industry giant lacked that real heavyweight blow that would keep the conference at the forefront of gaming minds when all is said and done for this week’s expo. Here’s what went down.
- Microsoft was certainly not pushing any boundaries in the opening stages of their conference, with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Forza Horizon 2 kicking things off. Even Microsoft’s timed exclusivity for Call of Duty‘s DLC has stopped being an announcement, in the same way that you don’t “announce” that bread is edible. It’s just par for the course. And, as it turns out, it’s a perfect metaphor for a conference where Microsoft are given a rolling start and just…roll on through. On the plus side, both opening games look beautiful, and fans of either series are going to have a lot to shout about when the two titles launch, especially with Call of Duty packing its usual high dosage of “holy shit” intensity right from the word go. An infra-red sight that highlights hiding enemies makes it seem like you’re fighting holograms at first, and a swarm of drones that surround you like the titular flock in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, with mechs in the mix making Advanced Warface exactly what it says on the tin. With Battlefield moving in a new direction, Activision have targeted Titanfall as their prime competition and upped their game accordingly. It makes for an intriguing start to the conference, but perhaps not the most shell-shocking opener you could have asked for.
- 2K are certainly optimistic about the fortunes of their upcoming title Evolve, which they are already calling “the evolution of gaming”. It’s more of an amalgamation than anything, with Left 4 Dead and Battlefield coming together with explosive results in the first of multiple new IPs that Microsoft would be showing off during their conference. There’s still not too much known about the game itself, but if looks could kill then our recap would end right here. Instead, we dive straight into the new Assassin’s Creed title, bossing a new co-operative multiplayer and characteristically impressive-looking representation of Paris right as the French Revolution is reaching boiling point. Atmosphere and gameplay look to be as strong in Unity as ever, and what looks to be a drop-in, drop-out multiplayer is bound to add a new aspect to both gameplay and level design. If the conference’s opening stages had left anyone with trepidation, then things were certainly picking up now, and it wouldn’t end there by any means. Most importantly, this showed a renewed partnership between Microsoft and Ubisoft: the latter has typically been close to Sony, and it’s interesting to see that change.
- Dragon Age: Inquisition invades Microsoft’s stage following the first of multiple rather pointless cutaways; another series enjoying a leap in graphical quality as it enters the new console generation. Looking exactly as an open world fantasy RPG should do, Inquisition is granted an October 7th release date. We’ll see more from Bioware later, but from there it’s into Sunset Overdrive. By far the most interesting title from last year’s expo, Insomniac sucker you in with Generic Shooter Trailer #2043 before storming the set and blowing the walls to smithereens. Forget everything you know about the fluidity of combat in games like AC, because Sunset Overdrive puts all of that to shame. It’s the return fire to Infamous that Microsoft have been scrambling after for years, but at the same time it’s so much more. It’s clear that the game is a real labour of love over at the Insomniac studios; brilliantly light-hearted, magically colourful and showing off a perfect balance of over-the-top violence and fun. You’re looking here at what could be a jewel in the Xbox One’s crown for years to come, and it’s looking pretty damn good right now.
- Sunset Overdrive sees us into the conference’s halfway mark, the cue for a slew of quickfire announcements before the next big feature. Dead Rising 3 gets a new arcade flavour, though whether Super Ultra Dead Rising 3 Arcade Remix Hyper Edition EX Plus Alpha can do for that title what Blood Dragon did for the most recent Far Cry remains to be seen. Harmonix reveal the arrival of Dance Central on Xbox One, and then Fable Legends takes the stage. It all feels a little paint-by-numbers for Microsoft, and while they’re certainly making headlines with this conference they’re doing so in largely the same fashion that they’ve been doing it for years. This year’s showing is a Class of 2008 reunion at its core, though Sunset Overdrive is certainly a sign that things may be set to move in a new direction from here on out.
- Microsoft have, however, caught lightning in a bottle when it comes to Project Spark. In what is shaping up to be more of a “build your own adventure” engine than a simple game as many had expected, Spark pushes the creation aspect above all else in its brief timeslot here. At first glance it seems like RPGmaker has been ported to consoles and dialed up to the nth degree, but you can bet there’s a whole lot more lying under the surface for what is another big heap of potential tucked under Microsoft’s wing. Oh, and Conker showed up. So there’s that.
- We said going ahead of this year’s E3 that Microsoft had some serious ground to make up when it came to support of indie gaming. We weren’t alone in thinking it, and the same thoughts have hit Microsoft hard, with them responding in kind by smashing out a strong list of titles to launch their ID@Xbox drive. Games like White Night jump out in the brief showreel of names already down for Xbox One exposure, but it’s the addition of Threes which gets the crowd buzzing. The free-to-play phenomenon is unlikely to move any units alone, but it’s the kind of score that Micrsoft needed to bring attention to the new indie-friendly movement.
- Halo was talked about, naturally, but then the speaker spoiled the ending to Halo 4 so I tuned out briefly due to anger. When I tuned back in, the much-rumoured Master Chief Collection was taking centre stage, with all four Halo titles coming to Xbox One this holiday season in a single $60 collection. It gives us a chance to relive each the entire story so far, but the real big news here is in the multiplayer. Every map from Halos 1 through 4 is included, and Halo 2 will see its full multiplayer experience included in its anniversary year, exactly as it was on the game’s original launch ten years ago. November 11 is launch day, and there’s no better time than Remembrance Day for series veterans to remember exactly why the genre-defining shooter has hooked the masses from day one.
- A Limbo shirt on stage. Could Limbo be making a comeback? Could we be seeing another Limbo game in what would be the biggest announcement of the expo so far? Well, no, not as it turns out, but there is a new title from Playdead that looks even more intriguing than the atmospheric side-scroller that brought the studio roaring into life. Inside is the name of the game, and its bound to turn just as many heads as its predecessor when the launch arrives. Rise of the Tomb Raider and The Witcher 3 get showed off, and the rather dull mosaic that was forming in the conference’s early stages has by now been well and truly transformed into a much brighter work. It doesn’t seem like a conference tailored to pulling in new players, however; rather one directed at the Xbox’s prodigal gamers, fans perhaps disenfranchised by the X1’s admittedly difficult birth. In that vein you could say the keynote was weighted perfectly, but as the final minutes loomed you still sat waiting for that one major jaw-dropper to wrap everything up.
- In a sense, Microsoft satisfies that need. Not with one singular announcement to blow all other headlines out of the water, but quantity prevails as new Phantom Dust and Crackdown titles are announced. The reveal trailers for each game look pretty damn impressive, but after Crackdown 2‘s faltering the latter certainly becomes a “wait and see” case. Tucked in between are the incredibly enticing combination of new Tom Clancy IP The Division and rainforest-based dragonfest Scalebound, both of which are looking incredible in their early stages, as seems to be the fashion right now, especially during Microsoft’s showcase. If sending the conference out on a high was the intention – and you can bet it was – then Microsoft succeed emphatically. Or so you would think.
As Microsoft wrap up, it becomes easy to praise a conference that certainly did well, but it becomes far more important to weigh up the ninety-minute showing in comparison with what’s to come. This has been, for all intents and purposes, a good year for Microsoft at E3. What you need to ask, however is whether “good” is good enough? The Xbox One is certainly looking healthier than ever right now, but with Sony still gearing up ahead of a conference that is perfectly positioned to steal E3, you’ll need to check back in 24 hours time to see whether Microsoft have reclaimed their crown, and won E3 2014.