Prices, dates, games, and the infinite power of the cloud.
Microsoft was true to their word – three weeks ago, they stirred up a hornets nest by unveiling the Xbox One by mostly talking about its television and social media features. Wait for E3, they promised. They’d have games then, they promised. And they certainly did – with a jam-packed hour that showcased 17 games, the majority of which were for the Xbox One.
Unfortunately, despite the volume of games, one couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we’ve seen all of this before – sure, some games showed better than others, but a considerable amount of what was shown this morning was relatively indistinguishable from current-generation software, and Microsoft left plenty of big questions relatively unanswered. If there was one big uncertainty, it was Microsoft’s reliance on “the infinite power of the cloud”. Cloud computing is still a pretty cutting-edge topic, and is typically only reserved for networked systems that are within a near vicinity with one another. Microsoft has really been pushing the Xbox One’s ability to process data “in the cloud”, which is a mechanism that transfers calculations, much like the CPU in a computer, but through the (considerably slower) conventional internet. How practical that is going to be is currently a mystery – an article by Eurogamer suggests the Xbox One’s cloud computing could be nearly 100,000 times slower than conventional local processing, making it seemingly worthless for real-time calculations. As it stands, most developers seem to be using “the cloud” as a lazy buzz-word, never really explaining how or what they were using “the cloud” for in their games, making it a strong contender for next-generation’s successor to “blast processing”.
The show kicked off with a trailer for Metal Gear Solid V, revealing the title to be an open-world game that provides players to a new degree of freedom in tactical stealth action. Footage showed Snake hiding in the backs of flatbed trucks, using stealth horse-riding techniques, improved CQC disarming maneuvers, and more. From there, the show moved on to give the Xbox 360 some much needed attention. Microsoft’s Yusef Mehdi unveiled a third generation Xbox 360, with a slimmer, sleeker, more quiet design “inspired by the Xbox One” that is shipping to stores as you read this. According to Yusef, there are more than 100 titles still in development for the Xbox 360, and there are no plans to abandon the console just yet. Unfortunately, to demonstrate this, they showed footage of just three games – one of which (Dark Souls II) had already been announced months prior. The other two included a free-to-play war game (World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition), and a kid-friendly 2.5D platformer with a drawing mechanic (Max and the Curse of Brotherood). None of the games looked especially awful, but they were definitely not being celebrated with the same kind of aplomb demonstrated from titles later on in the show. Before being swept under the rug entirely, Yusef revealed that starting July 1st, Xbox Live Gold subscribers will be getting two free games every month until the Xbox One launches, mimicking a move started by Sony with their “Playstation+” subscription service. The first two free games will be Assassin’s Creed 2 and Halo 3.
The rest of the show was dedicated exclusively to the Xbox One, kicking off with a look at Crytek’s “Ryse: Son of Rome“, a game in which you take control of a Roman Centurian named Marios Titus. Unfortunately for Ryse, it looked to be an extremely standard affair. Romans pouring out of ships, storming up a beach toward a castle called to mind direct parallels to dozens of World War 2 shooters and their obsession with the beaches of Normandy, and the game’s QTE-heavy sword combat system looked rote and uninteresting. The only unique feature was Marios’ ability to command his fellow Centurian troops, with context-sensitive orders that allowed them to take formations around him or siege specific buildings. After Ryse was a brief glimpse at the rebirth of Killer Instinct, with a teaser openly riffing on the arcade original’s declaration of being an “Ultra 64 exclusive” – except now, it’s for the Xbox One. Fighting looked fast and frenetic, with heavy use of particle effects, but whether or not it will be a serious contender in a market that is already flooded with fighting games remains to be seen. After Killer Instinct we were treated to new game from Insomniac called Sunset Overdrive. Not much was shown – simply a CG trailer and a vague description of an open world game with weapons that evolve based on community feedback where you and your friends can tackle hordes of monsters together using fast-paced parkour moves. What any of that meant was never really made clear. Though it was pre-rendered, the footage suggested a degree of speed and mobility that would make Sonic the Hedgehog furrow a unibrow, though the art style definitely leaves something to be desired.
The Forza 5 demo that followed was our first experience with a developer touting Xbox One’s “infinite power of the cloud”, and the only game at the show to actually provide a practical application. Continuing from previous Forza games, Forza 5 builds a special artificial intelligence profile (called a “Drivatar”) by monitoring your playstyle. This “Drivatar” is then uploaded to the cloud, where it populates the games of other players in the real world, allowing you to earn credits and complete races even when you aren’t personally playing the game. From the way they made it sound, there will be no stock artificial intelligence in Forza 5 – all racers you face off against will be Drivatar personalities created from real people. Phil Harrison then took the stage in an attempt to assuage fears that Microsoft would be abandoning independent games. He did this by touting some sales figures (200 indie developers, 400 games, $1 billion in revenue) and revealing a version of Minecraft for the Xbox One. Presumably one would expect this to be followed up by an extended look at what other independent developers were doing, but no. It was literally just an announcement that Minecraft would be coming to the Xbox One with bigger maps, and I’m pretty sure at least some of the footage they showed was simply recycled from the original Minecraft Xbox 360 announcement. While Harrison’s heart was in the right place, the message came off as hollow. Microsoft’s going to have to do a lot more to reverse the stigma that they are closing off the Xbox One to independent developers.
After that, Sam Lake from Remedy Entertainment took the stage to show more of Quantum Break. Fans of Max Payne and Alan Wake will know that Remedy has a long standing love affair with the television format, and Quantum Break promises to be a greater melding of that sensibility than ever before. Launching along side a tie-in television show, Quantum Break will allow you to play through personalized episodes, and what you do in the game will apparently effect the TV show in some way, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, there didn’t actually seem to be any gameplay involved in this demonstration, just a cutscene featuring some particularly detailed (and maybe unintentionally spooky) facial animation. In perhaps one of the bigger twists of the morning, Quantum Break was followed up by the next game from SWERY65, titled “D4“. It promises to be an “episodic murder mystery” and looks to be just as stiff and awkward as would expect from the developer of Deadly Premonition, sporting a cel-shaded aesthetic that makes it look sub-par compared to even most Xbox 360 games. Given that SWERY is building up cred as something of a B-list Hideo Kojima, it’s both perplexing and amazing that Microsoft would even consider giving him promotional time along side the other heavy hitters.
Next up was Project Spark, which came off as Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. Using a combination of Kinect, Xbox Smartglass, and more traditional control methods, players can create 3D action games quickly and easily by sculpting landscapes, dropping in characters, and creating new behaviors for existing objects. A quick montage of possible games was run near the end of its presentation, showing 2D platformers, twin stick shooters, and music sequencing software. In fact, particular focus was paid to showing clones of existing Xbox 360 games – with Limbo and Geometry Wars clones being the most notable. This dovetailed in to other social features being supported by the Xbox One – players can now setup multiplayer matchmaking for one game while playing another, view extended statistics and gameplay information via Xbox Smartglass, and even capture and stream live video of what they’re playing via a Twitch.tv partnership. A new “Upload Studio” feature also allows users to apply basic editing presets to video clips they’ve made, giving them a professional-quality look and feel. Other dashboard features were rapidly cycled through, including extended friends lists and the abandonment of Microsoft Points as a currency.
Crimson Dragon resurfaced as an Xbox One title – originally announced with the Xbox 360’s Kinect over two years ago, Crimson Dragon is essentially the spiritual successor to the Sega Saturn classic Panzer Dragoon. The game looks essentially identical to its Xbox 360 predecessor, and judging by the logo (featuring a man with his arms outspread), still requires that you use a Kinect in order to play it. Following that was an absolutely tone-deaf demonstration from Capcom Vancouver wherein they revealed Dead Rising 3. Normally a franchise known for its satire and dark sense of humor, Dead Rising 3 eschews that for more stereotypical “badass” overtones, a monochromatic brown color palette, smarter zombies, and plenty of gunplay – something Dead Rising in particular has never been known to rely on. The game also visibly displayed framerate problems, something that definitely seemed out of place among the rest of the titles shown at the conference.
Both the Witcher 3 and Battlefield 4 were shown for the Xbox One, although Electronic Arts and DICE ran in to some audio problems when trying to show Battlefield 4 – eliciting a restless crowd to begin booing the presentation and heckling the on-stage representative. You probably don’t need me to tell you what Battlefield 4 looks like – it’s yet another military shooter, with plenty of huge set Hollywood pieces, real-world guns, and very, very pretty graphics. They were followed by a game that might’ve been better served back during Phil Harrison’s speech about Indie games – called “BELOW“, a brief glimpse was shown of a 2D roguelike with very tiny characters exploring a very big (and likely procedurally generated) island. As the show wound down, Phil Spencer used this opportunity to discuss the five new studios Microsoft has founded, with a pre-rendered teaser of an unnamed stealth-action game from the newly-created Black Tusk Studios. Another game, also apparently from one of the new five studios was shown, which turned out to be a new (and unnumbered) Halo game, developed by 343 Studios. There wasn’t any in-game footage to be seen, but they assured that it is a first-person shooter and will run at 60fps – a first for the series.
The show closed out with one final piece of information: The Xbox One will launch this November, which elicited a brief moment of applause until the audience heard it is being priced at $499, causing an immediate hush to fall over the crowd followed by bewildered murmurs. Microsoft left us with one final game reveal: Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall, a game created by the duo that brought us Call of Duty. Titanfall is a sci-fi first-person shooter where players do battle in giant “Titan” mechs. It looked about like you would expect for a game from the Call of Duty guys, though the extended mobility players have using jet packs and wall-running techniques did seem pretty interesting – just not something that would be overtly impossible on current-generation hardware.
Which seemed to be a common theme among the games shown. It’s not unlike what happened around the launch of the Xbox 360; the jump from the original Xbox to Xbox 360 seemed to be paltry at best, with games that featured only marginal increases in visual fidelity and complexity. The jump from Xbox 360 to Xbox One is even more miniscule – outside of some cleaner textures, very little on offer this morning seemed to be beyond the capability of current Xbox 360 hardware. More than any previous generation, the games we were shown today were evolutionary instead revolutionary. While you can’t say anything bad about Microsoft’s showing, the Xbox One is missing that one defining system-selling “killer-app”, which could be a considerable problem in light of all the other ill-will the console has garnered with its overbearing DRM schemes.
What do you guys think? Did you feel especially excited or attached to the games shown this morning? Or has Microsoft fumbled this presentation, too? Let us known in the comments.