If last year was all about the games, 2016’s focus was the platform. Bookended by a couple of hardware announcements, which we’ll get into later, and with a focus on new features and functionality for the Xbox One and Windows 10 platform, Microsoft showed off a range of games both announced and new. First though, Rod Fergusson appeared on-stage, ostensibly to demo his studio’s Gears of War 4, and began by announcing Xbox Play Anywhere. Effectively a long-overdue cross-buy initiative from Microsoft, Xbox Play Anywhere allows your digital purchases and save progress to follow you between Xbox One and Windows 10, likely as a result of the recent merging of their respective digital stores. It was a positive start to the show, and many of the following games bore the Play Anywhere logo. It’s obviously a big focus for the company from here on in.
Sticking with the platform theme, Mike Ybarra was in attendance to announce some new features for the console and Xbox Live. Later this summer we’ll see new additions like background music and Cortana, and new social features called Clubs and Looking for Group. Clubs seem to be Microsoft’s analogue to the PlayStation 4’s Communities, while Looking for Group is pretty self-explanatory; Ybarra himself called it “a wanted ad for multiplayer.” It should be a very helpful feature for team-based games in particular, such as the recently-released Overwatch. Also announced was Arena on Xbox Live, a new tournament platform that allows you to sign up for tournaments for both first- and third-party games. One publisher already on-board is EA, who will be bringing Arena tournaments to FIFA.
So let’s talk about the games. It was certainly a solid showing for Microsoft, with plenty of great games on the horizon, and we had the chance to get closer looks at some of the upcoming games for Xbox One and Windows 10 – admittedly, games that were announced last year like Halo Wars 2 and Sea of Thieves, or in the case of Scalebound, even longer ago. Still, the games looked great, with Hideki Kamiya once again taking the stage to show off an enormous co-op boss battle in Platinum’s upcoming exclusive. If you’ll pardon the pun, the scale was suitably impressive as a group of players and their dragons took on a truly gigantic enemy crab, hitting its weak points for massive damage.
Halo Wars 2, now landing in February, had a rather short showing, with a CGI trailer that rekindled memories of Halo 3‘s sublime ‘Believe’ diorama, before Dan Ayoub from 343 studios came out on stage to announce a multiplayer beta, available right there and then for Xbox One. It runs until June 20th, so make sure to jump in now if you want to check it out. Perhaps the most intriguing exclusive title on Microsoft’s upcoming slate was Recore, which we’ve previously only seen a CGI trailer for. Here we got a decent look at how the Comcept/Armature collaboration will play, with a stylish trailer that aimed to introduce us to heroine Joule and her various robot pals that we’ll be using to fight, explore and traverse the game’s sandy world. Fans had been wondering what kind of game Recore would be since its reveal, and we now know it’ll be a mix of third-person combat, exploration, platforming and mild puzzling. It may not be the most visually striking game you’ll see at this E3, but it certainly looks both fun, and something a little different.
Gears of War 4 continues to look great, and this time we got an extended co-op demo as studio head at The Coalition Rod Fergusson brought Laura Bailey, the voice of Kait, out on stage to help demo the game, with our three heroes braving new enemy the Swarm and some seriously inclement weather as they search for Kait’s mother, abducted earlier in the story. It’s good to finally get a look at how the windflares will affect the playspace, with Kait using the new Dropshot weapon to dislodge a wrecked car, the wind sending it barrelling across the battlefield to take out a group of enemies. Later, we see lightning strikes hit the ground, creating new threats for friend and foe alike. It looked excellent, but still very recognisably Gears, a point underlined by the appearance of an older, gruffer Marcus Fenix at the demo’s end, who appears to have been sitting in the dark, waiting for his son to come home.
A real highlight of the previously announced games was Rare’s Sea of Thieves. The Twycross developer recently invited a group of competition winners to their studios to demo the game, and we got to see the results on the big screen. Split into three groups and given no tutorials, the players were sent out into the world to work together, form three crews and take to the high seas. It was an excellent way to demo the game, showing the players getting to grips with things like raising the anchor, dropping the sails and even drinkin’ grog. Later, we saw the crews come together and battle ship-to-ship, frantically manning the cannons and futilely attempting to effect repairs on their splintered hulls, before one crew ended up sunk and sent to the bottom of the briny sea. It looked absolutely brilliant, and I can’t wait to gather a group of mateys and set out to parts unknown.
There was also some Minecraft news, with the game now becoming cross-play across Windows 10, iOS and Android, as two members of the Minecraft team came out on-stage to demo it, with one on a Surface and the other on an iPad. Oculus’ John Carmack appeared at one point to wheel about with a box on his head, representing the Android pillar of the announcement as he played via Gear VR. Remember when John Carmack used to make games? I do!
But what of new announcements? Well, there were a few, of course, though sadly they were either expected (Forza Horizon 3, State of Decay 2) or leaked hours prior to the conference (Dead Rising 4). Still, they all looked good, or better in the case of Forza. Playground Games’ Ralph Fulton (sadly not of recovery system fame) took the stage to demo his team’s gorgeous new game, coming to both Xbox One and Windows 10 this September, as a group of developers bombed around Australia to show off the new 4-player co-op feature – some playing on PC, others on console. Fulton described it as “the largest, most diverse, most beautiful and most fun open world we’ve ever built,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Dead Rising 4, meanwhile, sees the return of Frank West and is set during Christmas, a detail emphasised in the auditorium itself, as fake snow began to fall. The game will be out “Holiday 2016”, and looked a fair bit like Dead Rising 3, so if you liked that, you’ll probably like this one too. Then there was State of Decay 2, Undead Labs zombie survival sequel which now features 4-player co-op in a persistent shared world, surely pleasing fans of the first game back on Xbox 360 who have been calling for co-op ever since.
There was also, of course, a large third-party presence at Microsoft’s conference, and it was something of a surprise to see Square Enix’s Hajime Tabata and Mat Kishimoto take to the stage to demo Final Fantasy XV on Xbox One for the first time, showcasing the Trial of Titan, where you presumably have to win the enormous summon’s respect before you can call down Gaia’s Wrath in battle. We already know the summons are going to be absolutely crazy in this game, and the demo reminded us of the sheer scale we’ll be seeing when the game hits in just three (!) months. Following on from that was a trailer for The Division‘s Underground Expansion, which will be available first on Xbox One later this month, before Patrick Bach from DICE arrived to announce that Battlefield 1 will be available to trial for EA Access members eight days early, on October 13th. Later, Heihachi and Akuma appeared on the big screen to duke it out and show off Tekken 7 for the Xbox One, before Kaz Harada stepped out to announce that Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is currently free for Live Gold members, playable on Xbox One via the console’s backward compatibility program.
Of course, you can’t have an E3 conference without a lengthy indie montage, and after a short look at Inside, the new game from the makers of Limbo that will finally hit Xbox One in two weeks, Chris Charla, ID@Xbox Director, hit the stage to show off glimpses of highly anticipated games like Yooka-Laylee, Cuphead and Below, along with new titles like the intriguing Deliver us the Moon and the beautiful Figment. The absolute highlight however was a stage demo of We Happy Few, the new project from Compulsion Games, the team that brought us Contrast. Coming across like BioShock shot through with Huxley’s Brave New World, it’s coming to Xbox Game Preview on July 29th, and it looks utterly brilliant. Rounding out the segment was CD Projekt Red’s Damien Monnier, taking the stage to announce Gwent, a standalone version of The Witcher 3‘s card-battling game that will be entering closed beta in September.
So it was a pretty solid games lineup that Microsoft unveiled on Monday night, but it’s the two big hardware announcements that bookended the briefing that have been grabbing all the headlines post-E3. Let’s start with the first one, the one that Microsoft chose to open the show: the Xbox One S. A slimmer, 40% smaller iteration of the current hardware, The ‘robot white’ Xbox One S nevertheless comes with a few nice extras over the box launched back in 2013. First up is support for High Dynamic Range output for games and video content that support the feature, allowing greater levels of contrast and luminosity, provided you have a compatible screen. Secondly, there’s support for 4K video for apps and video streaming services, as well as a new bluray drive for UHD discs. Games can now also be upscaled to 4K, and the power brick has been done away with in favour of an internal power supply.
Despite these upgrades, The Xbox One S does not offer any additional power to developers; it will play the same games in the same way as the current system, support for HDR excepted, and all games and accessories will of course work with the new machine. If you want a beefier Xbox though, Microsoft’s got you covered. Well, sort of. At the end of their conference, Phil Spencer returned to the stage to confirm the existence of Project Scorpio, a 6 teraflop monster of a console that will be hitting the market late next year.
“The next step-change for gamers and developers must deliver true 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR,” said Spencer. Scorpio is being targeted as “the we-heard-you console,” the console that developers asked Microsoft to build, and it’s already being billed as “the most powerful console ever” despite being a year and a half away. Still, it’s a claim that seems to hold water, given the expected 4.3TFs of the PS4 Neo, and thankfully Phil Spencer went to great pains to declare that no one gets left behind. “We believe in hardware innovation without sacrificing compatibility,” he said, describing Scorpio as the next addition to the Xbox One family, and “ultimately the next step in delivering our vision for the future of gaming beyond generations.” I’ve talked briefly before about a future without hard resets between generations of hardware, where instead of a new machine starting from zero you get to bring forward all your games, accessories, saves and everything else, and it’s something I’m quite excited to see. So while it seems incredibly early to announce Scorpio, it did excite me.
So why did Microsoft announce their new machine a year and a half out? And why announce the S, when there’s the promise of the new shiny to get excited about? Last week, Sony’s Andrew House confirmed the existence of the PS4 Neo in an interview with the Financial Times, but cautioned fans not to expect it at E3. Prior to this, I thought Microsoft might announce the Scorpio early to keep themselves in the conversation, but with Neo a no-show, it feels like there was a window of opportunity that Microsoft couldn’t afford to miss, a chance to grab the ‘beyond generations’ headlines all for themselves. We of course know that Neo is coming, but we also now know that Scorpio is likely to be a fair bit more powerful – Spencer will surely be hoping the promise of more computing power will give consumers pause for thought once Neo is announced. It almost feels like a reflection of the wait for PS2 when Dreamcast hit the market.
This year, with Microsoft focussing mostly on already-announced games and new platform features, it feels like they’re almost in something of a holding pattern, which perhaps explains the existence of the Xbox One S – here’s this years’ stuff, and here’s a smaller console with a few bells and whistles to tide you over while we work on the next big thing. With Scorpio on the horizon, expect next year to be something of a grand re-launch for the Xbox brand. For now, with games appearing on both Xbox One and Windows 10, with cross-buy linking the two together and a beast of a new console on the way, it feels like they’re in a pretty good place to reach that target.