A false sense of predictability

Press conferences are amongst my most anticipated gaming events. This is admittedly a little backwards since the conferences are supposed to evoke anticipation for upcoming games. Ever since Sony threw out the rule book at E3 in 2013, things have gotten a whole lot more interesting. So is Microsoft learning as they go? I’d say so.

We all know what we’re going to see today, right? A little Call of Duty, some Assassin’s Creed (a beautiful AC: Unity trailer kicked thins off), throw in a little FIFA 15 and Forza for the European crowd. Right off the get-go, Phil Spencer invites us into a sort-of false sense of predictability. He tells us we’re in for a terrific line up of games for the Xbox One and lists off a few known titles.

FIFA 15

As if addressing the elephant in the room – PS4 is consistently outselling Xbox One consoles – Phil Spencer shows he knows his audience and announces a FIFA 15 Xbox One bundle. And in fact, this would be the first of many enticing bundles Microsoft would announce at Gamescom. This is wonderful timing and text-book product cycle marketing. The early adopters who don’t care about anything but having the latest hardware have been satisfied. Now it is time to appeal to the value-seekers. These bundle announcements (more to come) aren’t particularly ground-breaking or shocking but it shows Microsoft is in touch with the market’s demand.

The crowd didn’t seem to respond to this next announcement as much as I’d expect but FIFA 15 on Xbox One will feature a significant exclusive feature: Ultimate Team Legends allowing you to compose an Ultimate Team with some of football’s most iconic players including Roberto Carlos, Alan Shearer, and Peter Schmeichel (who presented on stage).

The FIFA segment didn’t seem to evoke any audible emotion from the crowd but I would venture a guess that these announcements will have a tangible impact on Microsoft’s bottom line.

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ID@XBOX

My eyes roll back as the obligatory indie montage rolls on. The sad thing is, when you actually pay attention, Microsoft was showing off some pretty great titles.

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And Chris Charla is adorable. He must be unimaginably busy as Microsoft applies laser focus to indie games and the people who make them. I was happily surprised to see Charla dive into greater detail on games like Space Engineers (coming first to Xbox One), Super Hot (I think that’s what it’s called), and The Escapists. Those were three titles I spotted from the earlier collage as looking particularly intriguing so this segment seemed tailor-made for my liking. In short, Space Engineers looks different and not in a hipster “I’m too cool to be conformist” kind of way. Super Hot takes a simple mechanic of freezing time upon null motion and tosses a ton of style at it. The Escapists looks like a 16-bit version of The Great Escape!

The indie reveals at these press conferences are getting better each time. Microsoft is learning how to highlight these titles as if they’re Triple A and this will quickly result in paid dividends.

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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

Haters gonna hate. But Call of Duty looks and, even more impressively, sounds utterly immersive. We can all remember that moment in the original Modern Warfare – that Holy Crap moment – where the freighter ship is sinking and taking water fast.

The live demo of Collapse – a level set on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – aims to recreate that feeling and mostly hits the mark. We jump in to a totally chaotic car chase scene and if it were any game other than Call of Duty, our pants would be soiled. But we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Activision so the crowd reacts accordingly.

Improving the player’s range of motion is something the Call of Duty series has desperately needed for a while. For more than a few years, we’ve seen sacrifices in texture fidelity in order to achieve 60 frames per second and maintain high-octane action. But if the character movement is stiff and slow, what’s the point? Advanced Warfare seems to address both these issues by leaning on current-gen hardware and adding a little parkour to modern war.

I haven’t been excited for a Call of Duty game for a while but this looks like some love, care, and attention have been given to Advanced Warfare (aside from the name, perhaps). Exclusive to Xbox One will be a Limited Edition 1TB Call of Duty Gold, Black, and GunMetal console/controller/digital download bundle available for pre-order now (I hope you all bought your Activision stocks yesterday).

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Evolve

I never thought I’d write this about Evolve but this was the low point of the conference. And you can’t even, nor should you, blame the game. This live demo was utterly ruined thanks to a duo of play-by-play commentators. I said it at New York Comic Con during the StarCraft 2 tournament and I’ll say it again: eSports doesn’t stand a chance in the mainstream unless they find a couple bona fide champions in commentary. Sadly for Evolve, the search continues.

And yes, that’s all I can say about Evolve. It was that distracting.

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Phil Harrison – Exclusives

So far, things have gone to plan. No real peaks and only one valley to speak of (I’m looking at you, play-by-play guys). Phil Harrison, Corporate VP at Microsoft, saunters onto the stage and specifically mentions he’s here to talk about exclusives.

But then he brings out Darrell Gallagher, Head of Product Development and Studios from Crystal Dynamics –  not exactly one of Microsoft’s studios.

I was on my tweet’s 70th character – getting ready to point out this erroneous juxtaposition when Gallagher casually mentions the next Tomb Raider will be exclusive to Xbox One. Wait a minute…what? PS4 gamers will not get Rise of the Tomb Raider when it releases Holiday 2015.

These moments are rare so take a moment to process that information because I’m fairly certain this announcement broke the internet. Twitter has erupted in complaints. Me? I couldn’t be happier.

This is a bold move by Microsoft and we shouldn’t make companies apologize for making decisive (and divisive) deals. And this is familiar territory for the Square half of the Tomb Raider publisher since Final Fantasy once made the move from Nintendo to Sony. Hindsight would lend to the argument this was the best possible move for the storied series.

Unfortunately, the internet offered an ADD reaction to a long-term partnership. I’m hopeful that focusing on one console will ultimately lead to the absolute best Tomb Raider experience we’ve ever seen. And while Microsoft doesn’t quite have the ownership over Lara as Sony does Drake, it seems we now have the 2014 version of Mario vs Sonic/Crash Bandicoot.

Update: Since writing this review, Microsoft has revealed Rise of the Tomb Raider will be a timed exclusive. While no dates were provided, Microsoft only went as far as to say it could appear on PC.

Quantum Break

Sam Lake from Remedy introduces us to our first look at Quantum Break’s gameplay. The game’s primary mechanic is a sort of bullet-time manipulation. And while this has certainly been done before, it’s never been tied in to the story of the game. In Quantum Break, time is collapsing and Jack can use this to his advantage. He can move seamlessly as time stands still, appearing only as a blur to his enemies. The cover mechanics look smooth and natural; it never appears like Jack is sucked in to cover but gracefully ducks from enemy fire.

This is a visually stunning, both in smoothness and fidelity, now-gen title. The action looks addicting and versatile. Now, the only thing left to see is how compelling a protagonist we’ll have to play. We need more than another Adrian Pierce. We need Joel. Please let Jack be like Joel.

Scream Ride

Imagine the Mirror’s Edge colour palette on The Incredibles art style combined with Inception’s moody soundtrack and spontaneous creativity. Got it? That’s Scream Ride, where the objective is to build rides that conjure the greatest number of screams (I guess there’s a hint of Monsters Inc. in there too). I caught myself giggling at this trailer and hope you do too.

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Forza 5 and Forza Horizon 2

This might just be me looking from the outside in but did the Forza stuff feel a little too forced or obligatory given Gamescom’s European locale? Even if it didn’t seem like there was too much to talk about here, I have to give Microsoft credit for continuing to maintain Forza’s relevancy. Nintendo could take some notes here to ensure Mario Kart 8 doesn’t fade into limbo.

Debuting not only to Forza but racing games, period, are the Formula E and Rolls Royce ASDF.

Forza Horizon 2 looks much more versatile and inviting as Microsoft revealed an incredibly social racing experience. Think GTA V Online with masterfully-crafted driving mechanics. I was even questioning my own rationale when I realized how intriguing a virtual road trip seemed. You can take a nice drive along Europe’s most picturesque highways, chat with friends, or race along the way. The freedom is a moonroof-inspired breath of fresh air in the racing genre.

Ori and the Blind Forest

PlayStation has its fair share of interactive artwork with the likes of Journey and Flower. Ori and the Blind Forest has, so far, appeared to have been sewn from the same seeds. But today’s demo revealed a perfectly paced sequence as water relentlessly chases us upward until an escape is made, allowing for the player to soak up everything that just happened and absorb the game’s environment. Just before this zen moment ventures into zzz’s territory, a predatory bird awakens and we’ll just have to play the game to find out what happens next.

This was a perfect display of differentiation from Microsoft. These beautiful games can too easily be lumped in to the same melting pot. Now, we can be assured that Ori and the Blind Forest will offer a diverse range of experiences – that can only be played on Xbox One.

Sunset Overdrive

By this point, it’s become clear that nothing will top the Tomb Raider announcement. And since we’ve seen quite a bit of Sunset Overdrive in other press conferences, I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bits of this segment.

But then Floyd makes his debut and I am instantly drawn back in. Here, I thought I’d come to comprehend the entirety of Sunset Overdrive. Who the main character was, how the game would play out, what the story is. Floyd is an embodiment of everything that makes breaking the fourth wall great. He’s hilarious! And he says everything you wish you’d thought of first.

This reveal had me wondering, what else is Insomniac keeping from us – in the best way possible.

Halo

Once again, Microsoft lulls me into a false sense of predictability. Can there possibly be anything about Halo we haven’t heard before? Each Xbox press conference dedicates a substantial number of minutes to this franchise, we’ve heard it all. Haven’t we?

Starting December 29th, a three-week preview of Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer will launch and instantly give anyone lucky enough to receive an Xbox One for Christmas the absolute most popular experience on the platform. Once again, not the most ground-breaking announcement but you have to hand it to them, Microsoft is truly in touch with their product offering.

Bonnie Ross, from 343, can hardly contain herself when she reveals the Halo Channel. And when you see it, it just makes sense. The Halo Channel instantly justifies the Xbox One’s operating system. This platform for endless content optimally leverages the Windows 8-inspired tiled layout as if the two were created in the same light, on the same desk, by the same person. This is a beautiful blend of functionality and design – almost as if Apple designed it – and offers some compelling content.

If the only thing here was Halo Nightfall, I’d hardly be as thrilled. But this glimpse at the Halo Channel teases at a whole new world in which to lose ourselves. Behind the scenes footage, multiplayer matchmaking, detailed statistics tracking, and more!

Near the end of the last-generation run, we saw franchises like Gears of War on Xbox 360 and God of War on PS3 (likely falling under the GoW curse) fade from relevancy. A lack of innovation kept the most recent entries in these series from becoming masterpieces – or even good games by most measurements. One could argue that Halo was destined to perpetuate this trend but it is clear, Microsoft loves Halo. And whether it’s the Master Chief Collection or Halo 5, we have only great things to anticipate from Xbox One.

Verdict

Microsoft has taken on a whole new tone at these press conferences since Phil Spencer has taken over. He stays on message and now has control of that message. He knows our hot buttons and is clearly listening to feedback. This is an easy way to encourage gamers to remember Xbox as a premiere place to play. Before thanking gamers for playing on Xbox, Spencer announced pre-loading will be coming to Xbox One allowing gamers to download games before they’re released so they’re ready to play at launch.

Microsoft showed they respect Gamescom as a serious gaming event and delivered with a Triple A press conference.

Pros:

  • The Rise of the Tomb Raider is a crushing blow and the story of the conference
  • Quantum Break works and looks wonderful
  • Much love given to the independents
  • The Halo Channel threatens my lifestyle in the best way imaginable

Cons:

  • Somehow, Evolve didn’t impress
  • Crowd-tailored content (FIFA and Forza) didn’t seem to impress the Germany crowd (perhaps too many American journalists)

What did you think of Microsoft’s presentation? Let us know in the comments below.

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