Ironically, Microsoft hasn't exactly had the rub of the green at recent E3s. In 2013, the announcement of the Xbox One was woefully mishandled, an emphasis placed on its multimedia functionality over its role as a machine for the very latest, most exciting video games. And that was before the console's price was revealed: a whopping $100 more than the PlayStation 4. Which might have been okay if the system was being pitched at a hardcore fanbase who'd put years into the 360's catalogue, and who were now willing to follow the Xbox brand into the next generation of gaming, but it wasn't – this was an entertainment unit for everyone, apparently. 2014 saw Microsoft attempt to claw back some of the ground lost to Sony, but it was a meek showing, lacking spark and stripped of confidence. And nobody mention Phantom Dust, okay?
With the Xbox One's sales still well behind that of its major competitor, the PS4 – Sony's current-gen console has now shifted over 22 million units, versus between 12 and 14 million for Microsoft's black box, and around ten million for Nintendo's Wii U (according to figures from March 2015) – 2015's E3 needed to see Phil Spencer (no, no, not that one, this one) and company deliver the goods like they've not in some time.
And, earlier on today, they did, with Kotaku UK editor Keza MacDonald calling the company's conference of 2015 "the best I've seen", with Xbox "finally showing some vision", and VideoGamer deputy editor Steve Burns writing that "it was clear the firm's offering had improved immensely". I can only agree, but nevertheless I've come away from watching 90 minutes of sizzling exclusives and updates on progressing hits in the making wondering whether it's enough. By which I mean: if I couldn't already switch on an Xbox One almost whenever I like, would this E3 showing make me rush out to buy one?
Probably not, is my gut reaction, even though a lot of good was said during Microsoft's allotted time to shine. The Xbox One is the place to play a number of intriguing-looking indie titles first, and in some cases it's the only platform to play them on. The company's ID@Xbox division is certainly doing what it can to diversify the options available to Xbox owners, with the next game from Gone Home studio The Fullbright Company, the quite-probably-suspense-filled sci-fi wander-about of Tacoma, Capybara's (Superbrothers, Super Time Force) fantasy adventure Below and Hinterland's survival sim The Long Dark all at least debuting on Xbox One, console-wise. And then there's the utterly gorgeous Cuphead, which briefly took centre stage, its makers at Studio MDHR promising 16bit-era platform toughness matched to an aesthetic straight out of 1930s animation.
ID@Xbox, E3 2015 montage
Writing at Offworld, Leigh Alexander points out that while Cuphead is a "fun, classic-looking action game," it's also coming to PC, and while the definitely-an-exclusive-no-seriously-they-told-us-as-much (and by they I mean Big Phil himself, and Big Phil would never lie) Recore "looks unique" (it sure does), what we saw of it this E3 gives nothing away about how it'll actually play. Featuring creative talent that previously cut teeth on games like Mega Man and Metroid Prime, Recore is absolutely unlikely to suck, but until we know what we're going to be doing in it, it's tough to get overly excited. Ashen, too, is too vague a proposition right now to really commit to.
One of the bombshells was that the Xbox One will soon be backwards compatible with a bunch of 360 titles, which leaves me wondering: so what? Surely introducing that functionality at this stage of the console's lifespan is, while a nice gesture, utterly too late in the game for it to matter a great deal to anyone who already owns an Xbox One. Those old 360 discs, assuming you flogged your 360 (and if not, you still own the appropriate system, so), will be scattered throughout the nation's CEX stores by now, traded in for an afternoon with that one with the Romans that everyone played once before crying, deeply, into their empty wallets. And the conference's lengthy highlighting of the previous-gen compatibility factor doesn't quite tally with its immediate functionality, given the current list of games that will actually work. Which isn't many, at all.
The big guns were, expectedly, rolled out – Halo 5 opened the show and looked every inch the eagerly anticipated first-person shooter it is, five minutes of solo campaign footage making me wish that Destiny had a plot worthy of its expertly engineered gunplay. Call me old fashioned, but I like a decent yarn to run the course of my shooty-bang-bangs, and that's precisely what the Halo series has delivered in the past. As has Gears of War, which got two bites of the E3 cherry: firstly, with an update on the Xbox One remaster of the original – said "ultimate edition" is out on the 25th of August, with a beta running right now – and then with a gameplay reveal for Christmas 2016's Gears 4, which I've got to say had me purring. Smaller muscles and bigger atmosphere appears to be what it has in store, and the horror-hued slice of action we got to see has me hopeful of something with more substance than 2013's lightweight Judgment.
But with the best part of a year and a half to go until the release of Gears 4, there's little else from the triple-A sector to truly shake up what's rattling around the Xbox One's software catalogue marked as "exclusive". The announcement that you can carry over PC mods to your Xbox One Fallout 4 campaign does nothing for me, at least, and neither does anything to do with the Forza series – Forza 6 looks incredibly handsome, but so did Horizon 2, and that was approximately half as much fun as the graphically inferior Mario Kart 8. Getting another two Rainbow Six games with an Xbox One version of Siege is a big "so what", too, given you can buy those games for pennies at most second-hand stockists.
Check out more tech and science and things that light up real prettily at Motherboard
Okay, so there are perks to being an Xbox One owner over representing the PS4 club. New to Microsoft's platform is the Xbox Preview programme, effectively Early Access but on a console, which is where you'll soon be able to play Elite: Dangerous and DayZ without splashing your cash upfront. Kotaku speculates that this could mean a closer relationship between Xbox and PC games going forward.
The HoloLens demo, using Minecraft, was legitimately magical, like the future we all imagined in 1989 arriving several years too late but still completely beguiling, and you'll be able to play Dark Souls 3 on Xbox One, too. Not exclusively, granted – but that's something you definitely can't do with Demon's Souls and Bloodborne. And then there was some stuff from Rare – a new title called Sea of Thieves (also for Windows) that looked like Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag filtered through Epic's Fortnite, and a budget collection of 30 older games bunched on a single disc. Pretty good, isn't it? Assuming you're aged 30 or over.
'Sea of Thieves', announcement trailer
For me, though, there's not enough here to totally turn my head from my PS4 (Sony's own conference takes place at 2am UK time, just over an hour from the time of me publishing this). A new controller? (Which you want $150 for.) What's wrong with my old one? Am I not elite enough for you, Microsoft? Now you're making me feel bad. A partnership between Windows 10 and Valve VR? Fair enough, that is big – but it ultimately means nothing until the Vive headset is in the wild and there are compatible games enough for most people to begin dreaming about investing in the kit. I still don't see VR happening in the home, although down the pub is a different matter entirely.
Better than last year, then. And an infinitely superior showing compared to 2013. But Xbox at E3 2015 can only claim a hollow victory – they didn't suck, and while that's certainly progress, it's more a relatively safe scurry to second base than an extravagant home run. But then, perhaps Sony will strikeout in 2015? There's not all that much longer to wait.
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