By Kim Snaith, Rich Stanton and CJ Wheeler
E3 2019 kicked off tonight with Xbox taking the lead. We got studio acquisitions, new game trailers, release dates for stuff we already knew about, a new Elite controller, a cheeky look at Project Scarlett… and even a cameo from John Wick himself, Keanu Reeves. But what of Microsoft’s briefing actually stood out to us?
Rich: The briefing began really well I thought, it seemed to have a nice pace of delivering game after game before big Phil Spencer arrived on stage and boasted Xbox would be showing 60 games, including 30 coming for Xbox Game Pass. Those are seriously impressive numbers for a show that clocked in at just over 90 minutes.
The reality, of course, is that a bunch of these were games we all knew were coming, a few ‘old’ games coming to Xbox Game Pass, and a smattering of rather underwhelming filler (whomever greenlit the Gears of War Funko Pop mobile game should be forced to play it). With that said: there were some real highlights here, a few big surprises, and of course a tease for Project Scarlett that was sure to have any hardware nerds (and fans of masterfully ambiguous corporate-speak) furiously rubbing their crotch. What stood out for you, folks?
Kim: One of my highlights is that damn Blair Witch Project game. Who knew that we needed a game of a 22-year old film so badly? It’s being made by Bloober Team; a developer who has done some excellent stuff like Observer and Layers of Fear… although its recent sequel to Layers of Fear was a bit of a letdown. I remain optimistic though. That trailer looks like brown-pants time.
CJ: Tell me where you are, dog! I genuinely thought we were being treated to a proper Silent Hill remake for a second there. Let’s hope that pooch makes it out alive. Can we have some more intriguing first-person survival horror like Resident Evil 7 please, devs? It’s a sorely underrepresented genre these days.
Rich: Hahaha my first thought was that you just know that good boy is coming to a bad end… or maybe he turns up at the death to save you. It’ll be one of the two but I bet they’re going the John Wick route. I actually wrote in my notes while watching that it was a Blair Witch-inspired game because it paid such tribute to the designs and closing scene of the movie, but I was still amazed at the logo reveal and agree with you both - it looked fantastic, and I love The Blair Witch Project. People can be a bit down on it now because of some terrible sequels, but the first time I ever saw that it really was brown trousers time.
CJ: I really enjoyed that Blair Witch: Rustin Parr game by Terminal Reality that came out in 2000, embarrassingly. It can be a really atmospheric setting for games so pretty pleased someone is going back to it even after all this time.
Kim: Speaking of John Wick… did not expect to see Keanu himself pop up in Cyberpunk 2077. My interest in that game has just piqued through the roof.
CJ: I did a little squee. The nicest man in Hollywood dropping by to pretend to kick some arse, what a surprise. The rest of what we saw was, er, a bit better acted than Mr. Reeves performances though.
Rich: Keanu had that kind of easy stage presence that a megastar brings though, it was fun to see. There was a brilliant moment while he was giving his spiel about how amazing Cyberpunk 2077 was going to be, and he said: “Lemme tell ya, the feeling of being there, walking the streets of the future, is gonna be breath-taking…”
There’s a lull and some dude in the crowd shouts really loudly “YOU’RE BREATH-TAKING!”
And Keanu laughs and doesn’t miss a beat: “YOU’RE breath-taking, you’re ALL breath-taking!” And of course the crowd goes wild, then he just says “you guys wanna know the release date?” Yes Mr Keanu, yes we do. Everyone was putty in his hands.
Kim: Obviously going to go down as an E3 Moment Of All Time.
Rich: It will, but even The One will never be more powerful than Giant Enemy Crabs.
Kim: Also props to Microsoft for spending most of its E3 budget on unnecessary pyrotechnics during the Gears 5 showcase. It was all a bit Britain’s Got Talent.
Rich: Hahaha yes, I bet there are a few folk flying back to Redmond with singed eyebrows. I just wanted to pick up on Gears 5 because it’s one of those where I feel Xbox made the wrong decision in not really showing the game. We got two CG trailers, one story-led and one showing how a new mode ‘works’. The first I can take, but why do a ‘trailer’ for a game mode for a game that’s out in four months and which you’re desperately trying to get people to pre-order?
CJ: Like with Halo Infinite, I think everyone is at the point where, after five or six main entries in a series, you know what that game should look like. You’re not going to be wowed so much by updated graphics. Microsoft kind of has to sell it on the narrative, for existing fans with the buy-in already there looking to see the next part of the story, or the game modes for that ridicu-mungous Fortnite and Apex Legends player-base looking for a new thing to be the best at and to stream.
Rich: I think the combination with how hard Xbox was pushing the pre-orders is why I found that not ideal. The release date is September 10th [link here]... but if you pre-order you can play four days early. I don’t have a problem with pre-orders per se, I know the industry relies on them in a big way, but I really don’t like this trend (even if Gears 5 is not the first to pull this trick by a long shot). Especially when the showcase of a new mode shortly before release is a pre-rendered trailer. Newsflash: we don’t watch these things, we play them.
Kim: I don’t have much of a problem with the play-early-if-you-preorder nonsense, it’s annoying, but old hat by now. What’s interesting with Gears 5, though, is they also announced members of Game Pass Ultimate can play four days early, too. If that’s a trend going forward, it’s a clever little way to get more people to sign up for the service.
On the game itself though: I have to admit I’m the worst Xbox gamer in the world, as I’ve never played any of the Gears of War games. (Please don’t hurt me!) But that trailer was rather splendid; I have until September to catch up with the other four games, it would seem.
CJ: Lego got a bit of a showing tonight though, what with Star Wars and Forza Horizon 4. Maybe they’ll sweep in after the show and rebuild it in time for Bethesda? Lego Skyrim time. It’s been on everything else.
Kim: I am a shameless Lego fanatic so I’m excited for both of these. The Forza Horizon 4 DLC looks fantastic. I really enjoyed Forza Horizon 3’s Hot Wheels DLC, and Lego is way more my bag. Just pure fun – and it’s out at the end of the week. That’s my weekend sorted.
Rich: Yeah I love those kind of drops: “here it is, and you can play it today/next week!” In these days it feels important for E3 to be highlighting not just the stuff we’re looking forward to next year, but giving us great-looking (and surprising!) new stuff that we can actually get our hands on soon.
Kim: I’m not a flight sim kinda gal but OK, that Flight Simulator trailer was orgasmic. Those graphics! That scenery! 100 per cent will crash my plane in the first thirty seconds of attempting to play, however. Different kettle of fish, but I tried Airport Simulator once and couldn’t even drive the damn bus to get me to the plane, nevermind fly the plane.
CJ: That was probably the most relaxing part of the presentation.
Rich: I am so glad that someone else is as bad at Flight Simulator than me. I used to have a mate who was obsessed with it and I’d watch him playing while we chatted, sometimes for hours, then every time he handed over the controls to me… something would eventually go wrong. He tried to teach me so patiently, bless him.
But to return to the point: YES. I’m sure this will be as complex as ever but given the looks of it I wouldn’t be surprised to see this coming with some heavy assists for pilot disaster zones like ourselves, and I would love that. Looks like it could be an ultimate chill-out experience, as long as you can get the damn thing off the ground.
Kim: The Scarlett reveal may have been little more than a whole lot of boardroom buzzwords, but what can I say: I’m still excited. I love my Xbox One X. I expect to love Scarlett four times as much. Or at least I should, according to Microsoft. Still, next gen is going to be a powerful motherfunker, and I can’t wait. Just a shame it’s not coming until next Christmas. Part of me was expecting a late 2019 launch.
Rich: I’m actually kinda glad? It feels like the Xbox One X still has a tonne of legs in it, and I agree it’s a beautiful machine. Still, no denying that everyone can’t wait to move on to the next shiny thing.
CJ: Maybe Microsoft is waiting to see how things play out with Stadia, Apple Arcade and the like? Things could develop quite a bit with streaming in the next year and a half, and if anyone remembers Don Mattrick’s disastrous Xbox One reveal from 2013 then the box we unwrap on Christmas morning 2020 might be a bit different from what’s been touted tonight.
Kim: Gotta say, too, I admire what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Game Pass. It’s a good time to be a member. So many great indie titles launching straight onto the service too which is fantastic. Night Call is one that stood out to me in that little showreel – I played a demo of that last week, a noir murder mystery meets taxi driver sim with a lot of potential.
Rich: I absolutely loved the look of 12 Minutes, that could be a clever game: I’m a sucker for those kind of setups where you repeat a scenario and try to puzzle a way through it. And completely agree with your thoughts on Xbox Game Pass, Kim. I wasn’t too sure about it when it launched, because I already paid for Xbox Live Gold and it just felt a bit measly initially, but Xbox has done a magnificent job of building up not only the catalogue but the upcoming catalogue so it really feels great value-for-money now.
CJ: This was a big deal for me, as someone who’s steadily been getting back into PC gaming over the past few years. I’ve already put down a quid to convert my Xbox Live Gold to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. Oh, and now I can play The Outer Wilds on my console for effectively nowt and without having to download the Epic Games Store client on my laptop. Yay!
Kim: And Double Fine makes for another fine acquisition to Microsoft’s bursting portfolio of studios. I hope to see some of its back catalogue finally make its way onto Xbox now.
Rich: It’s a great addition. I think Microsoft understands, and has understood for a good few years now, just how high-quality Sony’s first-party quality has become. And in the console space, the direct competitor of Microsoft and Sony is always going to be the other – Nintendo just stays over there, doing something amazing and different, and printing money.
So it’s great to see Xbox Game Studios rebuilding itself after what I have to say was a bit of a horrible time following the Xbox One’s launch. Then it felt like Xbox was on a real downwards trajectory and we saw a lot of big studios go and a lot of big projects either get cancelled or delayed and delayed and turn up in different forms years later (this year’s Crackdown 3 is a case in point).
Anyway I’m banging on. Phil Spencer did specify that 14 of the 60 games shown were from Microsoft Game Studios, and I think that’s a healthy ratio that bodes very well for the future of Xbox after what, let’s be honest, hasn’t been the easiest five years for it.
CJ: I mostly play on Xbox One, but I was underwhelmed by the software offering tonight. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but I think they’re saving it up for next-gen now. We’re also seeing greater parity with PC as an ‘Xbox platform’ and that’s surely got to kill enthusiasm for dedicated hardware, regardless of the illusion of choice for the consumer. There wasn’t much meat on the bones of most of the game trailers – although I love Age of Empires II almost as much as my immediate family, it surely can’t be a system seller for the world’s most powerful console after two decades – but the sense of fun and of Xbox as a brand was certainly there.
Rich: Any thoughts on Elden Ring? This is the long-rumoured George R. R. Martin/Hidetaka Miyazaki crossover. I was amazingly excited for this, but actually I thought the CG trailer was quite cheesy. And I'm still really excited for it, because I love Martin’s books and Miyazaki’s games, but there's not much more to say because... it's just another CG trailer.
CJ: Are we all burnt out on Sekiro? I’ll be all over Elden Ring, because it’s two masters of subtle world-building teaming up at one of the most challenging developers working right now. It's like Bowie and Jagger singing 'Dancing In The Street'... wait. hang on.
Rich: Overall I felt this briefing showed a company that’s not quite where it wants to be, but thinking big. I just wish a little bit more of that thinking had been made clearer but, I suppose, if Scarlett isn’t out till late 2020 and it really has got something special, you can understand why.
I would have said this was a great show, because it hit my number one criteria for any E3 conference which is: show me the games, and plenty of them. The reason I’ll call it good rather than great is because with the big-ticket items, notably Halo Infinite and Gears 5, Xbox fell back on CG trailers.
I know, I know, old man yells at cloud. But when I say “show me the games” I don’t mean “show me a 6-minute CG trailer outsourced to an animation company that is about the game, but not the game.” I just felt Xbox opened the show really well, going ‘games games games!’, lots of punchy one- or two-minute showcases of games, then towards the end it petered-out a little and the CG trailers and the Scarlett waffle kind of slowed the momentum.
Overall good job, much much better than some previous years. But as Xbox surely knows itself: must do better.
CJ: The games we can only see about. I’m excited for the hardware but that’s just because I’m an Eighties kid and I like shiny new hardware. I think it might be one of the last dedicated consoles we get to see. I’m not sure I will be as bothered at the end of next year. I didn’t expect to feel that way tonight but it’s 2020 soon, it’s the future.
Kim: I agree. It was a good showing, but it was the smaller announcements – the 12 Minutes and the Blair Witches – that got me really whooping rather than the major AAAs like Halo and Gears. They’re staples at any Xbox E3 briefing. It’s the other stuff that gets me excited. And while there was nothing truly mindblowing, there was a whole lot of great looking games on offer. I’m happy to be an Xbox gamer.
Rich: Did you really whoop? :D
Rich: Well lemme tell ya, when Rod Whatsisface Gears Man announced the play early pre-order bonus for Gears 5, someone in the crowd did whoop. They went “yeeeaaaaah!” in fact. And, for one moment, I did think to myself: what is wrong with the world?