Microsoft’s press conferences have birthed a thousand memes. Typically they are a little stiff and predictable, over-corporate, with occasional moments of stomach-twisting embarrassment. Today’s was different. By cutting down dramatically on the waffle and concentrating on games, Microsoft has come out with the strongest Xbox showing in years.
It was certainly dramatically different from last year’s, where the most human moment of the entire thing was when the Battlefield demo went wrong and the EA demoer’s corporate mask slipped for a couple of seconds, telling the audience “I’m OK”. Someone, somewhere, has clearly told Microsoft to shut up and show some games, and though there were occasional moments of buzzword bingo – everyone was “delivering unique and innovative experiences”, there was plenty of “content” to be “consumed” – for the most part there was very little talking at all.
What little talk there was hinted at a Microsoft free from the destructive hubris that defined the late Mattrick era of Xbox. Phil Spencer began by respectfully namechecking Sony and Nintendo, stating that “we’re all here for one purpose – to show off the creativity and potential of the fastest growing entertainment medium in the world: gaming”. It was smart positioning: now, if Sony does what it did last year and goes on the attack this evening, it won’t look classy.
The rest of Spencer’s short introduction sounded about as much like an apology as it could have without losing face, as he quietly drew attention to how much the Xbox One has changed since this time last year. Microsoft’s unpopular challenges to the concept of game ownership and bullish insistence on always-online left me seriously questioning its respect for its customers during last year’s E3, but that’s fading into memory now. “You are shaping the future of Xbox and we are better for it,” said Spencer.
The scale of last year’s backlash has evidently been transformative for the Xbox business; it’s spent a year recovering, but this was the first time that I heard Microsoft presenting a clear idea of the Xbox’s future, rather than feeding us some focus-group-determined approximation of what Microsoft thinks we want to hear.
The smartest thing that Microsoft did this morning was show all of the games that are coming out in 2014 first, rather than opening with teasers for a bunch of games we won’t get to play for a year or more. It started off conservatively with Call of Duty and Forza: guns and cars, better-looking than ever before but otherwise not enormously different. (It was at this point, incidentally, that all the attendees’ light-up wristbands started pulsing with green light, turning us all into sitting Xbox advertisements. Mine is still glowing green now, hours later. I feel like if I try to remove it, it will shoot out talons and embed itself in my wrist.)
When Sunset Overdrive turned up a few minutes later, the comparison was as damning as it was amusing; a colourful punk in tattered jeans kicking down the door to bring some excitement to the drab, fatigue-clad soldier-world that has dominated shooters for what feels like an age. Sunset Overdrive looked like Jet Set Radio with ridiculous weaponry, comic-book attitude and aesthetic fused with arcade destruction.
That insane-looking DLC for Dead Rising 3 followed hot on Sunset’s flaming heels, veering the conference away from driving and shooting for a good long while. Dance Central, Fable and Project Spark followed, demonstrating a breadth that has been severely lacking from the Xbox One’s messaging so far (the launch was very much sports and violence).
Halo: The Master Chief Collection was a return to Xbox home turf, and a fantastic bit of fan service. I love the earlier Halos, and the prospect of cross-game playlists and old-school multiplayer is more than enough to make me want to buy it. I’m guessing the same will be true of pretty much everyone who’s ever loved a Halo game, which is a shit-tonne of people. It’s actually more of a draw for me personally than new Halo.
I was, at this point in the conference, wondering when we were going to see something we hadn’t seen before. But then came Playdead’s INSIDE, a game that’s been in development for more than four years, and the revelation that like LIMBO, it would debut on Xbox; not something I would ever have expected, given the horror stories told my some of the indie developers who’ve worked with Microsoft in the last five years of the Xbox 360’s life.
The heartbreaking-looking Ori and the Blind Forest was another surprise, and another comforting indication that although Microsoft has always positioned the Xbox as the number one place for driving and shooting, there are other things to be looking forward to in the next year or so, too.
The 2015 games – The Witcher 3, the next Tomb Raider, Scalebound, The Division – felt like bonus announcements, rather than the focus of the conference. Microsoft was there to prove that Xbox One is worth buying right now, this year, with a clear focus on what we’ll be able to buy before the end of 2014. This is exactly what was needed, as next-gen early adopters’ consoles lie dormant under televisions across the world.
I almost missed the old jargon-obsessed, self-important Microsoft, the one that usually gives us something to laugh about and roll our eyes at during press conferences as well as some new games to look at. But there really wasn't any of that today. It was professional and focused, glossy as ever but just that bit more real.
The Xbox One that was shown at today’s conference was the console that most of us wanted to be shown last year at its announcement: a games machine with no gimmicks and strong, exclusive titles. Most importantly it showed a Microsoft that seems to have some idea of where it’s actually going with Xbox, rather than bouncing around between TV, sports, Kinect and games and frantically backpedalling on unpopular decisions.
It’s a bit of a redemption, in short, and an excellent start to the show. Whatever Sony does later on, Microsoft didn’t present an easy target this time.