E3 2015 – Microsoft press conference critical analysis

Microsoft’s annual press conference, seeped in the emerald green tones that have become a unique staple of its entertainment branding for years.

MS elected to start its show off with a bang, by showcasing Halo 5: Guardians, and its featured conflict between two of its headlining franchise characters, the ubiquitous Master Chief, and the newer Spartan Locke. This was probably a smart move, as the venerable Halo franchise has amassed an almost cult following. Conceptually, the decision to highlight the building conflict between these two very different characters is perfect for enticing long time fans of the series, while possibly enthralling fans who my not have tins if experience with the earlier games, and may have only jumped on the bandwagon on one of the more recent titles in the franchise.

Gameplay footage focused on the four character campaign mode, which apparently means the enviable ability to drop in and drop out of gameplay in a co op context. A second trailer showcased Warzone, which boasted twenty four player matches, AI controlled enemies, and maps that were described as four times larger than any previous Halo game maps.

After the Halo presentation, a new IP known as Recore was showcased. An Xbox One exclusive, developed by Keiji Infune-san (of Mega Man and Dead Rising fame). The trailer showed a female protagonist and her robotic companion, who seemingly battle against destructive robots.

What makes Recore interesting is the fact that the player apparently has the ability to remove digital orbs, symbolizing souls, from one robotic companion to another, in an effort to solve puzzles and make use of different abilities. This unique mechanic has tremendous potential in the realm of puzzle solving and the overall impact that it can have, not only in a gameplay context but also from a narrative perspective.

This also sets up fascinating existential questions, dealing with the nature of a soul, do robots have a soul, and are they static, transferable entities, used for the sole purpose of survival, or is the measure of a soul the sum of their experiences? In many ways, Recore may have been the most thought provoking game showcased on the stage.

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Fallout 4 was given a small presentation next on the Xbox One stage, however, compared to Bethesda’s press event, it was admittedly a small taste of a larger ice cream cone that we were already treated to. Some of the interesting tidbits highlighted in the Xbox One version of Fallout 4 included the fact that the game would ship for the console with an included version of Fallout 3, and the mention that mods from the PC version of the game would be able to be used with the Xbox One version.

What was also interesting about the Fallout 4 display, especially in comparison to Bethesda’s own presser, was how animated Todd Howard was the previous night. On the Microsoft stage, he was more subdued and barely animated or excited. Mr. Howard must have had an interesting night or perhaps his number one game coming to Microsoft’s console, isn’t as awe inspiring and exciting as we would like to believe. But I digress.

EA was up next and first on the list was Plants vs Zombies:  Garden Warfare 2. The franchise, in case you’ve never heard of it, takes pretty much everything awesome about plants and zombies and throws them both in a goal oriented combative environment. Think of Night of the Living Dead meets Farming Simulator meets Counter Strike. Yes, really. The trailer was surprisingly short and not terribly forthcoming with details.

The long awaited Forza Motorsport 6 was hailed by the entrance of a impossibly shiny and even more unaffordable Ford GT40. Forza fans who no doubt were salivating at the sight of some lovely racing footage got a bone in the form of the release date of September 16th.

As if sensing that cars and racing and shiny hubcaps don’t turn everyone on, Microsoft’s stage went dark all of a sudden then, and a new trailer flickered on the large projection screen. It was atmospheric. It was gorgeous. It was a first look at a teaser that excited all of our inner sado-masochists. It was Dark Souls 3. While it was but a fleeting glimpse of a much larger world, the tone itself seemed to follow the legacy of the Dark Souls franchise and more details on the return of the series can only be a hardcore player’s dream come true.

Ubisoft was up next and they brought some details on their long awaited title, Tom Clancy’s: The Division. At this point one must wonder about the proliferation of games promoted by a once famous author whose name continues to rack up sales, despite the notable handicap of being dead. A poignant trailer about the spread of the virus affecting the world in The Division was shown, including its establishment in New York. It was announced that The Division’s Beta would be available first on Xbox One in December.

Rainbow Six: Siege was also shown next and Rainbow Six has to be the most unsuitable name for a game since Sand Castle Simulator, (which turned out to be a Axis vs Allies in depth WW2 simulator, naturally), considering the overall lack of rainbows that seem to permeate the tactical shooting series. Much to the approval of the audience, it was also announced that players of Rainbow Six:  Siege, will receive free copies of Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2 for the Xbox One. Sadly, Rainbow Six:  Friendship is Magic was still nowhere to be seen.

An exclusive title coming to Windows 10 and Xbox One called Gigantic was shown next and it showcased some very nice stylized graphics, if the details were rather sparse.

The world premiere trailer of Rise of the Tomb Raider was shown next, featuring a slightly older Lara Croft scaling a treacherous mountain, with ice and snow making the climb especially difficult. A few missteps lead to several dramatic moments of increasing tension, before a huge avalanche complicates things further.  It seems to up the ante from the first rebooted Tomb Raider game, released recently, and seems to shift focus from Lara’s evolution into a full fledged adventurer, to a more exploratory context, as it was detailed that raiding tombs and ruins would serve an increased purpose in both a gameplay and narrative, context.

If you like your steak and your games rare, then British developer Rare has a treat for you, minus the barbecue sauce. They showed off a compilation of 30 of their retro titles, in one package. Some notable highlights included Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Rare also showed off some rather interesting gameplay from their upcoming Sea of Thieves, which looks to have a potentially fascinating blend of MMO-esque community blended with a swashbuckling flair.

Also from the UK, Lionhead showed up on stage and displayed Fable Legends, a free-to-play game for Windows 10 and Xbox One. The big draw here is cross platform support, so no matter which platform you’re playing on, the depressing fact that you’re playing a Fable game will undoubtedly sink in, sooner or later.

Next up was some Gears of War related news, including the fact that the Gears of War Ultimate Edition Beta starts this week, after which was a small sneak peek at Gears 4. There was also a montage dealing with a variety of indie games, a number of which will debut on Xbox One within the coming year.

Gaming wasn’t the only thing on Microsoft’s mind, however. They also showcased the previously leaked Xbox One (though it supports Windows 10) controller dubbed the “Elite.” Features included swappable components, new rear controller paddles, customizable mappings, and hair trigger locks.

Also announced was Microsoft’s Xbox Game Preview Program, which ideally would function similar to Steam’s Early Access, which basically allows developers to sell access to their games before completion, letting gamers get their hands on games much sooner, and allows developers to benefit from much needed feedback, in regards to improving their games.

There was also a brief demo of HoloLens, their augmented reality technology, using Minecraft; however, actual details were conspicuously absent from the presentation, such as pricing and a release window.

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Possibly the biggest announcement of Microsoft’s presentation was the addition of backwards compatibility for the Xbox 360 for their Xbox One. It will be freely available and will support 100 games when it launches this holiday season. Many more games are being planned, however, as one of the selling points is that a developer needs only to approve the title before it will work with the Xbox One. Digital copies will show up automatically in your library or you can elect to insert your disc, and verify your game that way.

In summary, Microsoft’s show seemed to lean a bit to the safer side, with well known staples to existing franchises, such as Halo, Gears, Forza, and a retro package of best sellers. While sequels like Rise of the Tomb Raider are great as a timed exclusive, there wasn’t too much that was risky in terms of the presentation. Backwards compatibility is a much clamored for feature from Xbox One fans from all walks of life, and to see Microsoft focus on fans’ desires is always nice to see.

While it would have been nice to see a bigger risk taken with new IPs or a new direction or focus for some of its long existing franchises, perhaps in the end, a safety net isn’t a bad thing.  It can be a comfort at times, much like a warm blanket on a chilly winter’s night. For Microsoft, the phrase, “the more things change, the more things stay the same,” seems on point.

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