E3 2019: Xbox Press Briefing Recap

E3 2019: Xbox Press Briefing Recap

by June 10, 2019

The color of the day is “Scarlett.”

I’ve definitely said it before, but this was Microsoft’s show to lose. Sony has been progressively checking further and further out of E3 over the last few years, choosing increasingly avant-garde ways to promote their games (or simply throwing some trailers on Youtube at random). And while rumors of Shigeru Miyamoto coming on stage at Microsoft’s presser did not come to pass, there was still a lot riding on this comeback story for the Xbox.

And yet, there was a sense that Microsoft was holding back. Perhaps it’s the calm before the storm — Microsoft announced the launch of their next-generation Xbox hardware for 2020 — but the bombast just wasn’t there. Microsoft’s show this year was entirely made up of trailers, and mostly CG animation, with little gameplay to be seen. And there especially wasn’t any live gameplay; despite having a row of TVs set up at the edge of the stage, they never saw any usage. Nobody actually played anything, they just screened the next video in a playlist.

The bombast definitely wasn’t there for streaming. During the opening, the audience roared with excitement as Microsoft’s Phil Spencer teased the coming news of new hardware and games produced for it, but the moment he said the word “streaming” the crowd immediately fell so silent you could practically hear a pin drop. I think it’s a known secret that the people you hear cheering during these things are superfans paid to stand in the front row and yell about this kind of stuff, so to hear even their enthusiasm disappear at the mention of game streaming says a lot.

You think they regret committing to a Battletoads game yet?

Microsoft, for their part, has probably invested way too much time and money to back out now. Much like everyone else, I assume. Everything over the last three years has been getting the Xbox brand in position for the streaming future, pushing the idea that you don’t just have to play Xbox on an Xbox. Instead, the Xbox will be an app that you can download to anything and stream from anywhere. Play Xbox games on your PC. Play Xbox games on your phone. Maybe you’ll even play Xbox games on the Nintendo Switch, if rumors are to be believed. Microsoft is fighting hard to put its best foot forward in this space, to define “Xbox” as more than just a piece of hardware, in preparation for the death of the video game console. It won’t happen this year, it probably won’t happen next year, but the funeral march is beginning.

At the very least, Microsoft is trying to be a little more friendly about things than Google Stadia. “xCloud” will launch this October, and will allow you to turn your Xbox One console in to a “free xCloud server” that allows you to stream your game library to a number of non-Xbox devices (presumably your PC and phone). How it all works is still a bit of a mystery — streaming from your console over the internet sounds like it would introduce way more input lag, for example. It could just be that the console verifies with Microsoft’s servers that you’re streaming and then picks things up from there, but if that’s the case, why require a console at all? I personally own a number of digital Xbox One games, even though I lack the requisite hardware to play them on. Couldn’t I stream those from the theoretical Microsoft servers to my desktop PC? Or is it only free if you own an Xbox? No answers were provided. More details will likely come in to focus as October approaches.

Details for Microsoft’s next console, Codename “Scarlett,” were also vague, but there was no shortage of numbers and buzz words. According to Microsoft, Scarlett is four-times more powerful than the Xbox One X (once called “the most powerful game console ever made” just a couple years ago). Much like Sony and the Playstation 5, Microsoft’s focus seems to be on reducing load times via a special kind of SSD (Solid State Drive, where game data is stored). Special mention was made that the SSD apparently doubles as RAM for the console, allowing resolutions you’ve actually “never seen before.” They seem to be aiming for the impossible dream of 8K video output at 120fps, when most games today still struggle to hit 60fps and 1080p. Perhaps most important was the mention of playing “four generations” of games on Scarlett, meaning the system will be backwards compatible with Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One games. Price and specific details beyond that were left as a question mark, beyond the fact it will apparently release somewhere in Holiday 2020 with Halo Infinite, a game that seems to bring Master Chief back to the original Halo ring from the first game in his quest to revive his A.I. companion, Cortana.

And then, of course, the games. Brand new premiers included Ninja Theory’s new 4v4 multiplayer melee fighting game, Bleeding Edge. Microsoft bought Ninja Theory last year, and though they claim to have multiple new games in the works, Bleeding Edge apparently predates the Microsoft buyout. It seems to be cut from a similar mold as games like Overwatch and Paladins — the so-called “hero shooter.” Except here, everyone has scrapyard swords, or giant robot fists, or what-have-you. Art design is a little more realistic, too, like a less-ugly version of Cliff Blezinski’s failed Lawbreakers.

Bleeding Edge looks very chaotic.

On the subject of acquisitions, Microsoft took this opportunity to announce their purchase of Double Fine, the developers of games like Psychonauts. Double Fine has a long history with Microsoft, dating all the way back to the original Xbox, when the first Psychonauts was pitched as an Xbox exclusive. Development troubles made that eventually not come to pass, as Psychonauts appeared on the PC and eventually even received an absolutely abysmal Playstation 2 port. Now Double Fine is back with Microsoft, bringing with them a Psychonauts 2 trailer. No word on whether or not Microsoft will enforce these games to miss out on platforms like the Playstation 4, but given their “everything on everything” mantra as of late, I would not count on it.

Also shown was the Diablo-esque Minecraft Dungeons. There’s not really a whole lot to say about this one, besides the fact that it definitely looks like one of those games mashed up with the Minecraft aesthetic. It’s got the isometric perspective you probably know, with loot, gear slots, experience points, magic spells, and, of course, the dungeons themselves. It will also support four-player co-op, both online and off. What it makes me wonder, though, is what happened to the “Super Duper Graphics Pack” for the original Minecraft? Announced at E3 in 2017, it was intended to bring in advanced graphical effects like volumetric lighting, reflective water, and more to Minecraft, and nothing has been said about its status since that announcement.

Minecraft Dungeons is unabashedly this type of game.

Star Wars: Jedi: The Fallen Order, the only thing people seem to be talking about from EA’s press conference the other day, was also briefly shown. Mostly, it was snippets of a lot of the same footage from EA, but with some new scenes slotted in here and there. Speaking as someone who has tried going back to games like Jedi Outcast and gotten frustrated by how dated they are, Fallen Order piques my interest, but EA’s track record of late definitely leaves me skeptical. They’ve had a long string of drastic missteps that’s lasted a good four or even five years at this point, from Anthem to Mass Effect Andromeda to even as far back as Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, so maybe this will be the game to shake them out of their slump.

Cyberpunk 2077 has been a known quantity, and most of what CD Projekt Red had to show at Microsoft’s show was pre-rendered CG. What wasn’t known is a cameo role by Keanu Reeves as “Johnny Silverhand,” a character from the original board game version of Cyberpunk. The likeness to Keanu is rather striking, and he was on stage to talk about his involvement in the game. In a trend shared by Bethesda’s Ikumi Nakamura, Keanu seemed absolutely delighted to be on stage, beaming with happiness and even talking directly to people in the audience. I’ve been fairly out of the loop about Cyberpunk 2077 given CD Projekt’s trouble with their social media presence around that time, but if nothing else, Keanu Reeves’ positivity might be the point where I finally stand up and take notice.

From the developers of Layers of Fear comes an unexpected game based on The Blair Witch. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that only that landmark original Blair Witch movie resonated with people, and most attempts to expand upon it have been mediocre at best. Still, I’ve heard that some of the old Blair Witch video games might have been okay, and this one certainly doesn’t look terrible, but maybe a little rote — shades of Alan Wake, Outlast, and Silent Hill abound much stronger than anything that feels specifically Blair Witch. I’m sure it’ll be serviceable.

Indie games were of course represented, from our first look at the Battletoads reboot (it looks exactly like a retro beat’em’up with fresh hand-drawn 2D artwork, but I don’t know if it animates well), to Spiritfarer, a low-impact game about building a houseboat, making friends in a fantastical world, and learning to say goodbye when they inevitably have to leave. Then there was RPG Time: Legend of Wright, which hits on an aesthetic we’ve seen before. The whole game is done up like a teenager’s notebook sketches, but unlike other games, this seems to take a more contextual approach to everything. Though the overarching game seems to be something of an RPG, a lot what looked to be minigames were shown, including solving mazes, and exploring dungeons from multiple perspectives. Could be pretty cool.

Also shown was game called 12 Minutes, wherein you seem to be stuck in some sort of time loop, with the goal of getting to the bottom of a mystery involving your wife. Every time you fail, you get reset (presumably by 12 minutes) to try again as you figure out the correct sequence of events and peel back the layers of what’s really going on. Then there’s Way to the Woods, where you seem to play as a magical buck guiding their fawn through a post-apocalyptic Japan as they encounter many wondrous creatures (like giant house cats in the subway, as you sometimes find). Finally, Wasteland 3 offered up a trailer, as an old gold miner rambles on about the bizarre version of Colorado they game is set in — clowns with meat grinders, war machines stomping around in the snow, that sort of thing.

Microsoft outlined their PC Game Pass details during this conference, saying that nearly 100 games would come online between now and August for Game Pass subscribers. Numerous names were thrown out, including Sega’s Football Manager, Metro Exodus, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and the forthcoming PC port of The Master Chief Collection. Game Pass for PC will only cost $5, versus the Xbox’s $10, which does indeed make it sound like a separate service entirely. This is further bolstered by Microsoft introducing a “Game Pass Ultimate” subscription, which bundles Xbox Game Pass, PC Game Pass, and Xbox Live Gold together for a monthly fee of $15. New subscribers can sign up for “Game Pass Ultimate” right now for just $1, with existing Game Pass or Xbox Live Gold subscriptions being rolled together and possibly even extended (you’ll have to look up the conversion math for yourself).

A new entry in the Microsoft Flight Simulator line of games was announced, marking the first game since Microsoft Flight back in 2012. This time around, the game is using modern satellite imagery and data from Microsoft’s GPS mapping services, leading to an incredibly detailed and robust representation of the earth. I’ve never touched any of these games myself, but my understanding is that Microsoft Flight Sim was and is one of the gold-standards in the flight simulation genre, and this looks to uphold that legacy.

Age of Empires II is getting another refresh, soon, updating the HD remaster with ultra-sharp visuals, brand new animations, and support for 4K. It’s also getting a new singleplayer campaign, and apparently, there has been talk of giving Age of Empires III a similar overhaul soon, which hasn’t had any major updates in over a decade. Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga wraps all 9 films in to one game, though it doesn’t say if it’ll be three games worth of content, or just a “best of” greatest hits of the previous two Lego Star Wars games plus content centered around the newest films. If it’s the former, it’ll be a contender for the longest Lego game ever made.

Dragon Ball: Project Z got its official name at this press conference, becoming Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. This is yet another retelling of the Dragon Ball Z manga and anime, but this time wrapped around a modern action RPG where you play as Goku through the Saiyan, Namek and Frieza arcs of the story. We haven’t gotten a retelling of this story in quite a while, and the format will allow it to be told in considerably more detail than your average fighting game, so it could end up being pretty interesting, though the last time anything like this was attempted, we got the abysmal Dragon Ball Z: Sagas for the Playstation 2, Xbox and Gamecube.

DBZ: Kakarot’s animation still looks kind of stiff, to be honest.

Also along the anime front was the latest Tales game, Tales of Arise, from Namco. I’ve personally lost track of these Tales games, so I’m not entirely sure, but to my eyes, this appears to be one of the first games to ditch turn-based battles and go full-on action RPG. The world looks very pretty, and seemingly more than a little inspired by Nintendo’s Xenoblade Chronicles. There wasn’t really much to go on plot-wise, outside of an anime dude pulling a sword out of a magical hole in a girl’s chest, but at least it was showing something that actually looked like gameplay, instead of just running a montage of cutscenes and CGI.

Gears of War 5 made its appearance, though not with any kind of gameplay footage. Which is kind of odd, if you consider the game apparently releases in September — barely even three months from now. Multiple different betas are planned, the first of which kicks off in July for general multiplayer. In August, a second beta will be conducted, for the new and improved Horde Mode. All of it leads up to the launch of the singleplayer campaign in September. I didn’t play Gears of War 3 or 4, so any hints the CG trailer provided about what’s going to take place are completely lost on me. Also shown was a CG trailer for a new multiplayer mode called Escape, where a team of “hivebusters” fights their way out of a Locust stronghold. They didn’t stop to really show anything or even explain very much, but it sounds like you’ll be able to build and share hives with friends online and challenge them to break out. Might be cool, I dunno. Would’ve been nice if they demoed it on stage.

Yeah, that’s pretty awesome.

Forza Horizon 4 is getting what may be its final piece of DLC, following in the footsteps of Forza Horizon 3’s Hot Wheels DLC. This time, it brings the world of Lego to Forza in “Lego Speed Champions.” Lego cars can race with real cars, smash through bricks, and other assorted fun. Gears of War POP! also finally made an appearance, being a multiplayer mobile game where you do… something. Again, some of these things went by so quickly and with so little explanation that I honestly have no idea what this game is about, outside of the fact it could be some kind of tower defense game where you build waist-high cover for your plastic figures to hide behind. A beta was apparently released overseas months ago, so I’m sure there are answers out there somewhere if you really want to learn about a Funko Pop mobile game.

But perhaps one of the biggest reveals was Elden Ring, the long-rumored collaboration between FromSoftware’s Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R. R. Martin. The game… well, it looks exactly like what you’d expect, I guess. Again, not much in the way of gameplay, but if you’re bummed out that FromSoftware has stated they have no plans for future Dark Souls games, this definitely still carries that “spooky, medieval fantasy” vibe.

But, really, we all know the real star of this E3: Sega’s Phantasy Star Online 2 is finally, finally, after SEVEN YEARS, coming to the United States in English. It will debut on the Xbox One and PC. Bummer if you live in Europe, but it’s been long thought that some kind of licensing agreement was preventing this game’s release anyway, so that’s undoubtedly part of it.

And that’s a wrap from Microsoft for this E3. Did you see anything that wowed you?