Microsoft E3 Conference Impressions

Games.  Games games games games games.  Lots of games.  All of the games.  That was the message of Microsoft’s press conference yesterday.  Microsoft has been calling this the best games lineup in Xbox history, and while I haven’t gone through year-by-year and compared them, yesterday’s conference certainly made a strong argument.

The show of course featured all of Microsoft’s heavy hitters: Halo, Tomb Raider, Gears of War, Fable, and Forza.  The show opened with a montage of characters (and cars) from these franchises, and each franchise popped up at some point during the conference.  But in addition to these big, predictable titles, Microsoft dropped a number of surprises.  Let’s take a look at the blow-by-blow.

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The show kicked off with a trailer for Halo 5: Guardians.  I’ve never been much of a Halo fan – I’ve only played Halo 3 – but the game looks impressive.  With a couple of people onstage holding controllers, we were treated to a (presumably) live demo – the first of many throughout the night – of co-op Halo 5 gameplay, which we’re told is “seamless drop-ion, drop-out co-op.”  Microsoft also showed off the multiplayer, announcing a new Warzone mode with huge arenas and 24-player battles.  Without really knowing what I’m talking about, I would say that Halo 5 looks like a pretty good bit of fan service.

Then, with no fanfare, a trailer for a new Xbox One exclusive game started up.  The game is called Recore (or ReCore or recore) and might be my favorite moment from the conference.  This is a new IP, and while there isn’t really any information in the trailer, it does look pretty cool.  The trailer begins with a woman walking through a vaguely post-apocalyptic desert landscape with her robot dog.  The dog’s design is centered on a glowing orb – a “core,” if you will – and our heroes soon encounter a bunch of four-legged, spider-like robots with cores of their own, albeit a villainous red as opposed to the dog’s heroic blue.  The heroine collects cores from the slain robots, and when her dog is dies, she takes its core and slots it into a giant, inert robot, bringing it to life.  So obviously the game is going to center on these cores and your ability to move them from host to host.  I’m hoping for more details later in the conference, but so far I’m excited for this game.  I love to see new IP, I love robot companions and blowing up robot enemies, I love seeing female protagonists, and I love the visual style of this game.  I can’t wait to learn more about Recore.

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After a word about new franchises being critical to Xbox’s success, Phil Spencer dropped perhaps The Bomb of the presentation: Backward Compatibility.  Beginning immediately (for Xbox Preview members), Xbox 360 games will be playable “natively” on your Xbox One.  More than a hundred games are already available, with more on the way. The feature will be available to all this holiday seaon.  Obviously, this isn’t just a matter of popping a 360 disc into your Xbox One and playing the game, the way backward compatibility works on, say, a Wii U.  Microsoft has to do work to make each title backward compatible, on a game-by-game basis, and it sounds like you won’t be playing the games off of the disc but instead downloading them to your system, perhaps using the disc as a key to enable the download.

Microsoft does all the work here; third-party developers simply have to give them permission to make a game backward compatible and Microsoft will do the rest.  It will be interesting to see how developers handle this feature for titles they plan on remastering and rereleasing.  Will Dishonored be backward compatible, for example?  Gears of War?  I hope publishers don’t withhold backward compatibility in order coerce you into buying a remaster of a game you own.  Microsoft made a point of saying that they won’t charge you to play games you already own, and I hope they make good on that promise even as remastering games becomes a more and more common – and lucrative – practice.  Ideally, this will push developers to step up their game when it comes to remasters.  Graphical upgrades and additional content will have to be pretty significant to convince you to drop $40 or $60 on a game you already own for 360, or could buy used for much less.

When playing a 360 game on your Xbox One, you’ll also be able to take advantage of the Xbox One’s features.  I don’t know if this will enable any improved performance for games running on the more powerful hardware, but it will allow for taking screenshots, streaming live gameplay, and recording game clips.  And another cool feature is that your digitally-purchased 360 games will just start popping up in your game library on Xbox One.  And while it wasn’t mentioned, this means that 360 Games with Gold games are now also free Xbox One games; I wonder if you’ll have to still get these games on your 360 before you can play them on Xbox One.

Another thing I’m curious about is cloud saving.  I have my 360 hooked up to one TV and my Xbox One hooked up to another, so I don’t plan on disconnecting the 360 any time soon.  Will I be able to use the cloud to switch back and forth between consoles while working on the same save file?  This would be a nice touch.  Also, will I have to put the 360 disc into my Xbox One every time I play the game? Or just when I download it?  I expect more details to surface soon, if they haven’t already.

This bombshell was followed by another big surprise: Todd Howard, still dripping with Fallout fans’ tears of joy from the previous night’s Bethesda presentation, walked out onstage to make us even more excited for Fallout 4.  He showed a new trailer for the post-apocalyptic pre-masterpiece, and then dropped another bombshell: Fallout 4 mods created on PC can be downloaded and played on Xbox One for free.  This is huge.  I already wrote about it a bit in my Bethesda conference recap, but this is going to add hundreds – no, millions – of hours of gameplay to an already huge game.  This feature isn’t meant to appeal to the modding community, but to console gamers who envy all the free content available to PC gamers.  This feature could make the Xbox One version the ideal console version of Fallout 4.

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As the Fallout 4 trailer was playing, we got another mini-bombshell, in the form of a text box, that nobody actually mentioned: Fallout 3 will be included free with Fallout 4 on Xbox One.  This is another feature of backward compatibility that could give Xbox versions of console games an edge over their PlayStation counterparts: the bundling of earlier franchise entries.  In addition to the Fallout bonus, Microsoft also later announced that Rainbow Six: Vegas and Vegas 2 will be included for free with Rainbow Six Siege.  (Not included: a colon.)  This is an awesome feature, great news for people looking to jump into a franchise midstream.  As a whole, the industry is facing this challenge, all those intimidating 3s and 4s at the end of games’ titles, which might be scaring people away from trying some of these games.  If new consoles succeed in bringing new gamers into the fold, this feature can help convince those gamers to try long-running franchises.  I expect more of these bundles to be announced soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these older games become available early (or maybe exclusively) for people who preorder.

Peter Moore then walked onstage to talk about EA Access.  In addition to announcing the immediate addition of Titanfall to the EA Access Vault, and the upcoming addition of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Moore also announced that EA Access will be free for a week.  This isn’t huge news, but it is a nice gesture, and a shrewd move.  I’ve never given much thought to EA Access, but I’ve already downloaded the app and Installed Madden; I plan on taking advantage of this opportunity to try the service, and I’m already leaning toward subscribing.  The thirty bucks I’d spend on a year’s membership is less than I’d spend to buy Dragon Age, which I haven’t yet played. Personally, though, my favorite part of this announcement is that Titanfall is now free.  I’ve had the game (and season pass) on 360 since launch, and picked up the Xbox One version recently when Best Buy was selling it for eight bucks, but this move should give the player base a bit of a boost.

And, as a side note, the use of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” in the Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare 2 trailer was one of my favorite moments of E3.

Forza showed next, with an actual Ford GT dropping from the ceiling, David Copperfield style.  I don’t play non-Mario Kart racing games, so I don’t care about this, but it looks cool.  Ditto the Dark Souls 3 trailer that followed.

From there, we went into a new trailer for The Division.  I’m really excited for this game – it looks like it might be the game I wanted Destiny to be – but the trailer didn’t do a ton for me.  At this point, I’ve seen a bunch of trailers for The Division; what I’m really looking forward to are in-depth looks and long gameplay demos.  There will be an Xbox-exclusive beta in December, and this might be one of the rare betas I actually try to get in.

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From The Division came a quick pivot to Rainbow Six Siege, another cool-looking game I’m personally not that into, and the aforementioned free Vegas offer.

Then we got a look at Gigantic, the colorful, cartoony free-to-play MOBA with a beta coming in August.  This is another game I’ll probably never play, but I do like the style, and it at least looks better than Battlecry.

Next came a segment about ID@Xbox, and a parade of trailers for indie games. I won’t go into detail on these, but the gist is that there are a lot of cool-looking games on the way for Xbox One.  Microsoft means business.  From AAA blockbusters to quirky indie games, the 2015 and early 2016 lineups are packed with games.  It’s going to be a great year for Xbox owners.

The immediate standout of the bunch, for me, was Cuphead, a 2D platformer starring a pair of anthropomorphic coffee cups and with the art style of a 1920s Disney cartoon. One of my favorite things about today’s powerful consoles is the way they enable people to take a genre like 2D platforming, which doesn’t really need all that horsepower, and make games with really inventive, diverse art styles.

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And as all these games are released, Xbox owners will have a new way to try them out.  Microsoft is starting – right now! – a new program called Xbox Game Preview, a buy-before-its-done program similar to Steam’s Early Access.  These games will also have free demos, so you can try before you buy before it’s done.

And then the interminable parade of games continued.  Ion, some kind of space-based MMO from Dean Hall, creator of Day Z.  A new trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider.  A compilation of old Rare games, and a new Rare game called Sea of Thieves.  A Gears of War remaster, and a gameplay demo from Gears 4.  The free-to-play Fable Legends.  There were a lot of games in this conference, and a lot of them looked cool, or at least intriguing.

In the midst of all that, there was a live demo of the HoloLens version of Minecraft.  Two people were playing the game live onstage – one on a tablet, one on a HoloLens – and Microsoft used some kind of special camera setup to give us the you-see-what-he-sees experience they’ve used in all their HoloLens trailers.  This was happening live, and looked pretty impressive, but Minecraft isn’t really my thing, and we already knew about the potential for HoloLens and Minecraft.  I’m waiting to see what else Microsoft has planned for gaming on HoloLens.

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The big takeaway from this conference was, as I said, that Microsoft has a huge slate of games coming.  I’m really excited to check a lot of these things out in-depth.  I’m definitely excited to find out more about Recore, and I’m curious to learn more about Sea of Thieves.  There were just so many games.  So.  Many.  Games.  Phil Spencer even made a point of saying that there are even more games waiting to be shown at Gamescom in August, including Scalebound and Crackdown.

Bethesda threw down the gauntlet Sunday night with their excellent presentation, and Microsoft picked it up.  Both of these conferences are in the running for Winning E3.  I didn’t watch it, but from what I heard, Sony also had a great conference.  As for Nintendo, I’ll have my thoughts up soon.  (Spoiler alert: Nintendo did not win E3.)  But the bottom line is that if you’re an Xbox One owner, now is a great time to get excited – and to roll all the coins you’ve been collecting in that jar all these years.  There are going to be a lot of games to buy.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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