They weren’t joking about focusing on the games. I honestly couldn’t believe how many titles they were throwing at us, or the amount of in-game footage we saw. Until of course I remembered how horribly disappointing the Xbox One reveal was, and that Microsoft needed to show us ‘how much they care’. And we got what we wanted right? All these game reveals; they do listen to us after all! Well, I was a little concerned that the quantity (though certainly a good thing) might simply be a series of smoke and mirrors to try and distract us from a potential lack of quality, a genuine concern of mine (having dealt with heartless, blood-sucking corporations before). So, with the help of some hurriedly scrawled notes, I’ve separated the surprising highlights and the inevitable lows.
I’ll start with the best bits, in particular those that didn’t revolve around the games. Actually, I use the phrase ‘best bits’ with a little trepidation; you can have unlimited friends now, they are changing from gamer points to local currency and they are going to continue releasing games on the 360. Stop the presses! I exaggerate obviously (they are welcome changes), but hardly revolutionary, if we are being super critical. Sony have been using real money since day one, and isn’t the continued release of current generation titles just their way of saying ‘We’ll happily keep taking your money, regardless of whether or not you buy a new console?’ But I guess it shows that they are paying attention to the little things, those that make the gaming experience run more smoothly and don’t alienate half the audience, so it gets a slight nod of approval from me. Even better are the changes, or rather lack of, to the Xbox Live membership. You can simply keep your current subscription, which will also allow you access to two free game downloads a month. The presser didn’t go into too much detail about the restrictions on this system, but they did mention that both Assassin’s Creed 2 and Halo 3 would be available from the outset. Two franchise highlights in my opinion; nice work Microsoft.
As for the new games, there was plenty to get excited about. The conference opened with a spectacular reveal of Metal Gear Solid 5 or ‘The Phantom Pain’ and it did EXACTLY what I wanted; showed off the improved visuals, and introduced the new gameplay mechanics alongside the in-game footage. It’s gone open-world, which I’m sure will provoke a mixed response, but personally I was impressed. The more open-ended levels will emulate Dishonored I imagine, a format that has fans in spades, but I trust in Konami to nail the stealth elements; darkness, movement and sound all appear more sophisticated from what little we were teased with. For me, a conference like this should make me sit up and take notice, show me just enough of something new and exciting to leave me wanting more; MGS got that spot on. Other highlights included Ryse: Son of Rome, a graphic fighter that saw the player take on the role of a Roman warrior. With flavours of God of War and Spartan: Total Warrior, I was left drooling over an initial set-piece as the player attack a fort, the catapults and destructive environment really showing off the technical capabilities of the new hardware. The combat looked both fluid and gripping, and the demo slipped seamlessly in and out of unit command features, which looked to vary the player experience.
Sunset Overdrive, a multiplayer shooter, announced Insomniac’s arrival on Xbox; it would appear that the formula of ‘make the weapons crazy and see what happens’ has made the switch as well (if it ain’t broke…) but the environments looked colourful and fresh too. It’s nice to see something other than a murky grey, realistic shooter get some serious attention on the big stage; it shows a little innovation, which is certainly welcome. I imagine it will probably flop, belittled by the shadow of Battlefield and CoD, but I respect the intention. The list of games I’m excited for could go on, what with Dark Souls 2, The Witcher 3 and a murder mystery adventure called Heavy R… sorry, D4 all making an appearance, but the graphics, across the board, stole the show for me. They were truly jaw-dropping and a real testament to the power of the next generation. Honestly, go and find a recording now because I can’t do justice to them with words alone. Forza 5 took the plaudits; I want to pay particular attention to the light effects, which were like nothing I’d ever seen. It was like watching real reflections, blinking in real glare and I honestly couldn’t believe I wasn’t watching a Blu-ray.
Right, praise over. Time for what I’m used to; slating Microsoft. Shockingly though, I only really want to attack one game and that’s Quantum Break. I made a note of a direct quote used during the conference in order to frame my disgust; “Blurring the line between television and gaming”. Why?! I have a TV, and I have a games console. Yes, they are in the same corner of my bedroom, but that’s as close as I want them to get. No disrespect to the snippet of game we saw (which certainly left me wanting more), but television and gaming are two radically different forms of entertainment. What I expect from a game, immersion and interaction namely, is not what I expect from a TV show; the simplest way to think about it is to focus on the differences in one particular aspect. For example, I would be prepared to forgive a game for lacking in quality of story, but that is certainly not the case for a TV series. Story makes the latter, but the intricacies of gaming mean it is just one of many elements. Stop trying to mix up all my entertainment Microsoft, I’m easily confused. Have it your way, and soon we’ll all be off to the theatre in order to play FIFA.
Apparently I’m not allowed to be selfish any longer either. Why are you forcing me to share everything? Yeah, I understand that it’s nice to be able to compete with your friends, see who’s better or compare different paths through games and so on. But as for watching someone else play? I’ve honestly never been less impressed with a gaming ‘innovation’. I’ve got two main reasons to find this latest offering utterly hateful, the first of which is the opportunity for spoilers to reach me in a whole new mode. ‘Your friend Ben just rescued character X’ pops up on the screen and suddenly I’m left unconcerned with character X’s well-being, an issue that previously had me gripped. But worse than that is the sheer departure from what makes a game fun. It’s even more laughable that a press conference actually outlines the flaws with watching a friend’s live stream; watch somebody playing a game, and (assuming it looks enjoyable) the only reaction I ever have is ‘Wow! I wish I was playing that’. I certainly never think ‘If only I could watch more without ever interacting in my own way’. I suppose it’s just another way for Microsoft to show me how much gaming can be like watching TV. Sigh.
Just when you thought Microsoft were listening, and cared about the games huh? Well, more bad news came when I realised the issue with pre-owned games got glossed over yet again. Surely someone must know what the situation is? If not, I’ll break it down for anyone from Microsoft reading this; you can charge activation fees and irritate gamers, or you can continue to let them go free and alienate developers. Either way, a decision needs to be made that will upset someone, so just bite the bullet and stop leaving us in the dark. Speaking of irritating gamers, I nearly choked when I heard the pricing policy. $499 in the States, but £429 in the UK? I think the muted applause was probably all that Microsoft needed to confirm that they had dropped a clanger. I’m British, so I’ll be paying well over $650 for the privilege of watching my friends play TV shows.
I’ll leave you to mull that final thought over. Time to step up Sony. Microsoft have certainly lowered the pressure.