Microsoft Studios is looking to address a number of gaps in the public’s perception of their market, as well as present ideas to stem the tide of the competition’s encroaching products. Despite insisting that the Xbox 360 moved from being the best selling console in North America to the best selling console worldwide in the last year, it’s clear that such momentum cannot be sustained forever, and as such Microsoft Studios need to wage war on all fronts.
The first of these fronts to be addressed was the existing Xbox 360 audience. The press conference begins with the suspected gameplay showcase of the highly anticipated Halo 4, however rather than simply rolling straight into the videogame a live action precursor was shown. This live action trailer bled into pre-rendered animated sequences of Master Chief, which then bled directly into the videogame. The transition was, quite frankly, astounding: unlike anything any publisher had yet attempted, given the assurance that the videogame at the end of this sequence was being played live on stage.
The live action trailer demonstrated a more mature Halo in the hands of 343 Industries, and the videogame showcased a studio not afraid to leave its mark on the franchise it has inherited. Halo 4 looks fantastic, with some of the most impressive jungle environments ever seen in a first-person shooter videogame and some stunning mesh textures on our returning hero, Master Chief. Beyond the visual quality however, 343 Industries are also keen on bringing new rules to the universe, with new enemies and weaponry seen for the first time. Explosive enemies lead to a confrontation with the fabled forerunners, armoured warriors with amazing technology; such as that of a rifle capable of disintegrating enemies, and a cannon that explodes all enemies within its blast radius, despite its projectile not causing an explosion.
First to the stage after this impressive opening is Don Mattrick, President of the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft, celebrating his seventeenth year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). “Today, it’s all about Xbox 360.” Heralded the proclamation, and though this wasn’t strictly true, there was plenty for the face of Microsoft Studios’ branding to be smiling about. Beginning with the reveal of a brand new title from Ubisoft: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
A mightily impressive demonstration of just how far gameplay mechanics have developed on this generation of videogame hardware, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist was presented as a live play through of a specific area of the videogame. Following the opening cutscene the on-stage player showcased returning functionality such as the Mark & Execute mechanic from Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction, bullet time and much more besides, before showcasing that which will almost definitely be exclusive to the Xbox 360 version of the videogame: voice commands. Distracting a guard? “Hey, you!” Yells the player while hanging off a ledge, encouraging the enemy towards the edge before tugging them to their death.
After showcasing some platform gameplay which obviously borrows from the Assassin’s Creed tech, the player called in air support through the use of Kinect. Impressive to say the least, but surely for those without the device it would just be a quick menu option. Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist will launch in spring 2013, featuring a single-player campaign, co-operative gameplay and Spec Ops vs. Marines competitive modes.
Next up was Head of EA SPORTS, Andrew Wilson, introducing Madden NFL 13 and FIFA 13. Two huge franchises, the former of which promises a detailed a career mode and the latter extensive use of Kinect. A new Fable: The Journey trailer follows, along with the world premiere of the latest addition to the Gears of War saga, Gears of War: Judgment and a new peek at the forthcoming Forza Horizon. All of the above are certain to be in high demand, just as the next segment of Microsoft Studios’ showcase, albeit for very different reasons.
Yusuf Medhi takes to the stage to introduce more efficient Kinect search on the Xbox 360 dashboard, and an expansion to new languages. The Spanish version is demonstrates live prior to the promise to double the entertainment ‘experiences’ offered via the Xbox 360 and Kinect. Four of the new thirty five promised are revealed – Nickelodeon, Paramount Movies, Machinima, Univision – only one of which is likely to make its way to the UK. As is potentially the case with the sports offering: following UFC and Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL will join the collection in addition to twenty four hour live broadcasts on ESPN.
Next was Xbox Music, subtlety leaving the last of Microsoft Studios’ many knives in Zune’s back. Xbox Music is coming to Xbox 360, Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 PCs and Tablets, and according to Microsoft Studios it will deliver the ‘music service we always wanted.’ This, coupled with ‘the future of fitness’ presented by Nike + Kinect Training, presented two very crossed-purpose services. Offering personalised workout programs, Xbox LIVE functionality that offers stats and updates via mobile and the promise of a new step forward in Kinect gameplay, Nike + Kinect Training could be a revolution as a new service; however, as a retail product it’s just another ‘me-too’ fitness product.
Mark Whitten, Head of Xbox LIVE, took to the stage next to reveal Xbox SmartGlass. Set to transform the way gamers use devices, communication between TV and handheld system, in an utterly unnecessary manner. Showcased with the technology was a connection between tablet and the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones. On the television we see the series playing, while on the tablet we have all sorts of distractions that simply aid to break the suspension of disbelief, reminding the observer that they are, after all, merely that fourth wall completely absent from any connection to the action. For the bastion of interactivity that is the videogames console, Xbox SmartGlass really does seem to want to knock down the wrong barriers.
More successful was the suggestion that Xbox SmartGlass would also be compatible with certain videogames on two possible fronts. Firstly, the utility was shown to offer a Metroid Prime style scan function for Halo 4, offering a significant amount of additional details on items in the environment, and for executing tactical plays in Madden NFL 13. Secondly, it was shown to perform system functions, such as exiting a single-player videogame and joining a multiplayer match. An interesting proposition for sure, but where was the promised cross-platform play for Xbox LIVE devices? Given that Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – Episode II was revealed as being the first title set to launch on Windows Phone 7 with the asset this summer, it would’ve been reasonable to think that Microsoft Studios may have wanted to incorporate this into the Xbox SmartGlass stable.
Next on the agenda was a series of trailers for brand new titles, all of which deliver brand new IPs. The latest project from Signal Studios, developers of the popular Toy Soldiers Xbox LIVE Arcade series was revealed first; Ascend: New Gods is set for release next year, offering a synchronous multiplayer through Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 7. There was no word whether the Windows Phone 7 piece of the puzzle was just an app or an entirely separate Xbox LIVE enabled videogame, though certainly many will be hoping for the later. Loco Cycle is the latest title from Twisted Pixel, with only a teaser and a 2013 date revealed, as also applies to Matter, a new title for Xbox 360 Kinect from Gore Verbinski, director of the Pirates of the Caribbean motion-picture series. The latter seems to occupy same space as Child of Eden in terms of delivery and Portal in terms of character, neither of which is a bad thing.
Another new IP came in the form of Wrecketeer. Presented by Xbox LIVE’s Alex Ruiz, Wrecketeer, is an Xbox LIVE Arcade Kinect videogame set for release this summer, and is very reminiscent of the popular 1980’s board game without a board, Crossbows and Catapults.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone take the stage, to introduce South Park: The Stick of Truth, which is confirmed to receive downloadable content (DLC) on Xbox 360 first. The input of the franchise’s creators suggests that they have been active participants in the creation of the videogame, and the trailer suggests that you will create your own South Park stylised character for it. Of all the celebrities bringing their names to E3 thus far, Parker and Stone show the greatest understanding of what it means to be a part of this industry, unlike the pintsized popstar that followed.
Harmonix are at it again with none other than Dance Central 3, and here we have Usher claiming to have worked on his own tracks. Introduced in video form and then taking to the stage to sing latest single, Usher claims that the dance routine for the track is so easy that everyone can do it, and will be able to do it when Dance Central 3 launches later this year. Sadly, the dance routine looks like it was made for Kinect then put on stage, not made for stage and adapted for Kinect.
Don Mattrick comes back onto the stage ready and loaded with a bad ‘ushering in’ pun, introducing Call of Duty: Black Ops II. As might have been guessed, Call of Duty: Black Ops II will launch its DLC first on Xbox 360. The videogame is suggested as being played live, and the gameplay shown is presented as if it’s the opening sequence. Call of Duty: Black Ops II looks amazing, of that there is no doubt, and it keen to show it’s wares with the Perfect Dark Farsight alike being the weapon of choice. Fast forward to a downtown scene, and we see some stunningly cinematic gameplay and the same gunplay we’ve seen for the last five years: a building collapses, dust particles look fantastic. Hope into a nearby jet into a jet and take on a protect mission, before attacking down enemy aircraft. This is Call of Duty one year on, and for the fans that will surely be enough. Whether or not the rest of the conference offers you the same promise surely depends on your own perspective of videogames as both a hobby and an industry, but for Electronic Theatre there was some fantastic potential buried far too deep under a sea of set-top box services.