The Playstation 4 in a special glass box. (Photo via)
Something important has happened. Something that takes us back to pathetic playground spats over whether a bouncy plumber is better than a cranked-out hedgehog and, if you had the time and inclination to study that kind of thing, which graphics card outperformed another. Yes, the Console Wars are back.
This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (AKA, E3) returned to Los Angeles last week. While a bunch of people were shunning the California sun to spend three days wandering innocently around inside the city's cavernous Convention Centre, getting hands-on with forthcoming video games, that fierce and primitive rivalry from decades past was stirred back into existence. And it's a rivalry that binds the incoming eighth generation of hardware to the fourth – the era of Mega Drive and SNES – and, before that, the third generation's Master System and NES.
This time round, the battle is between Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One.
Pre-E3, the Big Reveals from Sony and Microsoft had gone very differently. Sony had shown its gamer-baiting hand, presenting their new toy as something that fans of blockbuster franchises and cunningly crafted indie titles alike could take home and set, as pride of place, beneath their HD screen of choice. But the company didn’t actually present the console itself. Its design, controller aside (much the same as the last controller, but with a screen on it), remained under wraps.
The Xbox One in its own special glass box. (Photo via)
Microsoft went the other way: here’s the Xbone, they said, introducing to the world a sleek but certainly right-angled contraption that, almost immediately, was explained as something entirely other than a games console. It did telly – and telly would soon be beaming a Spielberg-helmed Halo series into living rooms. It did music and photos – all that stuff – and was pitched as an all-in-one entertainment thing. So a bit like a computer that you connect to a TV. But did it play games? Sure, said Microsoft, and here’s some motion-captured dogs to prove it.
But while the PS4’s initial emergence retained a mystery that had the E3 stage set as its real moment to shine, the X1 attracted only questions. Questions that neither of Microsoft’s public-facing Phils, (Microsoft Games Studios VP) Spencer and (Corporate VP) Harrison, could truly answer.
Could users trade their games, second-hand style? Seemingly not. What did the console’s necessary "always online" status actually mean? And, especially in the wake of the NSA scandal, would that feature infringe on consumer privacy? Nobody really knew. Something was said about The Cloud – in fact, a lot was said about The Cloud. What the hell is Quantum Break, and will someone please just tell us, properly? A lot of 360-owners began feeling a little glum about the successor to their machine of choice.
So to E3. And what do Sony do as the Microsoft uncertainty continues? They deliver the best trailer of any seen at the three-day do. Forget Titanfall, Watch Dogs, The Division, Mirror’s Edge 2 and that new Assassin’s Creed with the pirates. Forget which exclusives on which console really resonated, because none of those fancy not-gameplay-footage promos could challenge the below video in terms of one company handing the other its arse on a platter of fizzing circuit boards.
The official PlayStation used-game instructional video.
Twenty-two seconds and the game belongs to Sony. So what if the PS4 looks just like the whatever-we’re-calling-the-Microsoft-one, albeit at a jaunty angle? Its makers have made clear that one person can lend another a game, on a disc, and that’s that.
Their console won’t lock up because it’s not connected to a mothership hovering somewhere over Washington state. It will let you play a second-hand game you picked up for a few quid less because, like most of the games-playing world right now, your wallet is a little lighter these days. Oh, and another thing: the PS4 costs a whole heap of cash less than the other one. That was game, set and match from where any sane E3 observer was sitting.
Microsoft’s critics have ranged from the blunt-to-the-point-of-bludgeoning to the rather more reserved, but no less damning. Gaming-comedian-Scottish-man Robert Florence posted a succession of anti-Xbox messages on Twitter. “If you’re ‘teamxbox’ – loyal to a corporation that treats you like a criminal and won’t let you own games, you’re the definition of ‘idiot’,” reads one of his tweets. On the same day, during the same rant: “If you buy an Xbox One, you essentially sign a contract that reads: ‘I AM STUPID’.”
Peter Molyneux, the OBE-branded designer behind the Fable series and overlord of the forthcoming Godus (a very belated follow-up to Populus, also one of his), is an ex-executive of Microsoft. But that’s not prevented him from criticising the company’s E3 showing. He told Games Industry International that the Xbox One presentation was “unprofessionally done… There was one message from (one) Phil, and then another message from (the other) Phil. And they seemed to be kind of shooting from the hip". He continued: “We need, as an industry, to be super clear to consumers.”
The lasting impression from Microsoft’s E3 is that the company decided to take up residence in the new Console Wars’ last-chance saloon before it even got on its horse for more than a gentle canter. And there was us thinking all of the stools had already been saved for anyone associated with the Wii-U.
Of course, Microsoft has now announced a U-turn on its DRM policy (scrapping the "always online" feature and allowing gamers to trade games), in response to – as the company’s interactive entertainment business president Don Mattrick called it – “candid feedback”. Which is definitely one term for it. A translation of that could be, “Oh shit, Sony has stolen such a march that we’re less in its dust, more back in the Devonian.” Ironic, I know, given its original "future-thinking" model.
The E3 Expo in 2012. (Photo via)
Xbox One users will be able to lend their favourite titles to their favourite people. They will be able to play second-hand releases. They won’t need to be continually online – so long as their console is initially activated via a net connection. From then, it’s all good to run the One in the same offline vein as a 360. But significant damage has been dealt to the company. Their reputation can’t not be tarnished. Those tweets won’t just disappear.
And on to Nintendo, who weren't really at E3 at all. Nevertheless, Mario is back, in both Mario Kart 8 and Super Mario 3D World. Both will probably be completely brilliant. The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker is getting an HD makeover, and looks delightful. Super Smash Bros is coming out in 2014. And Bayonetta 2 seems set to be every bit as deliciously mental as its predecessor. The Wii-U might actually make it, then. Hooray! Nintendo!
(This despite some less-optimistic coverage elsewhere. Edge wrote that Nintendo is “failing to be responsive to its audiences”; but don’t its fans want the above, as well as the option to explore third-party games also available on rival hardware? A hunch says that the Wii-U isn’t out of the running here, despite its less-impressive tech specs.)
And yeah, OK, some of the Xbox One exclusives shown at E3 look pretty special – even if most of them play up to well-established industry stereotypes. One of Microsoft’s biggest hopes, Titanfall, is basically Halo, what with all the guns and the jetpacks and the robots and the guns and the guns. And the Halo title properly revealed, Spartan Assault, isn’t really Halo at all, being a top-down shooter for Windows Phones rather than a next-gen first person shooter. Alright, yes, again: Halo 5 was teased. But aren’t we all a little beyond the, “Whoa, it’s Master Chief after all” thing now? And Quantum Break… I dunno. Something about telly. Because that worked a treat with Defiance.
Sony. Sony has Killzone: Shadowfall (guns), Driveclub (cars) and Infamous: Second Son (third-person hackery). All familiar of feel, but with the price consideration and the fact that PS4 owners can pick these titles up from CeX rather than download them from some magical land where all video games are made of air and hope, it’s pretty clear that Sony has taken great strides ahead of its main competitor in generation eight’s battle for supremacy.
And a last word from Nintendo? It has Sonic now, exclusively. Sonic and Mario, same machine. Kids today don’t know they’re born.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @MikeDiver
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