If I was going to cover every announcement and every scrap of news this would take thousands upon thousands of words and dozens of paragraphs instead I’m going to focus on the press conferences of the big three (Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony) and the eventual takeaway for all three. The “Big three” have settled in to a pattern with Microsoft doing a Monday morning event, Sony doing a Monday night event and Nintendo doing a Tuesday event. This pattern has served them well with the various players being able to either “get the drop” or counter-act the announcements of the others. The addition of a PC Show by AMD was interesting but with its very AMD focused content and sprawling multi-hour presentation until it’s a more concise and focused event it’s not really something that can be compared to the other shows.
This year Microsoft’s E3 set a very strong tone out of the gate, the constant refrain was “Greatest game lineup in Xbox History” and they did their best to show this with a host of announcements and reveals and a strong focus on core gaming. We saw footage from Halo 5 Guardians including both squads (and yes my inner Browncoat squealed with delight when I got to watch Buck aka Nathan Fillion misbehave). We also got some multi-player co-op gameplay footage which is nice for the Halo fans but nothing is as awesome as seeing Mal… I mean Buck in action.
We also saw Forza 6 in action with some truly stunning visuals. Racing games are traditionally the sandbox where players show off their graphical capabilities and it really looks like the Xbox has some tricks up its sleeve when it comes to the graphics it can pull off. I don’t know if Forza was utilizing DirectX 12 technology but the images were truly astounding.
There was even new Gears of War footage seeing a brief tease of gameplay from Gears of War 4 and the announcement and reveal of gameplay from an updated “remaster” of the original Gears of War for the Xbox One and PC. This is where we first saw the largess of Microsoft announcing that the beta of the remaster’s multi-player would be live that night for select players rolling out over the course of the next few days. I received my beta invitation on Friday night and have to admit, pretty sweet.
There was also the obligatory footage of Fable: Legends which was still as interesting as before but nothing new. It’s still impressive, the focus on DirectX 12 has allowed for some amazing visuals but this was the least interesting of the demonstrations (maybe I’m just still burnt from my last Fable experience).
Up until now Microsoft has been considered fairly hostile towards independent developers, at least by the general public, with Sony being the home of “freedom” and “ease” to develop. There have been attempts to counter this narrative including the ongoing project to turn any retail Xbox One system in to a dev kit (which is still in limbo) but the ID program highlighted dozens of games including Cuphead, The Mean Greens: Plastic Wafare, The Flame in the Flood, Phantasmal City of Darkness, The Solus Project, Westerado Double Barrled, Outward the Adventure Life Sim, Goat Simulator MMMore Goatz Edition, Mighty Number 9, Game 4 (by Bohemoth), Below, ARK Survival Evolved, Recruits, and Superhot.
Special time was given to the ID@Xbox partners for Fullbright creators of Gone Home and their new space mystery game Tacoma (the scene that oddly impressed me the most was the use of sign language for a password… this could be an amazing implementation of Kinect), Ashen by Aurora44 which had a very distinct Journey-esque vibe to the way you play co-op combined with the epic monsters of Shadow of the Colossus. Tiger & Squid’s title Beyond Eyes a very painterly take on the experiences of a blind girl’s attempt to imagine the world around her using sound and touch and lastly the astounding Cuphead, a retro-cartoon styled game that looked like Steamboat Willie on acid.
Now, you’d think this was enough for the show but atop all of these great gameplay videos and announcements Microsoft pulled some truly unexpected moves. The first was announcing that the Xbox One starting immediately would be Backwards compatible. Members of the dashboard preview program would have access to the system right away with the ability to test 100 Xbox titles including Mass Effect. This is a software emulation driven backwards compatibility but Microsoft have said the work is all done in house and the only thing required is the publisher/rights holder to give a thumbs up and they will release the title. This tied in to a later announcement that Rainbow 6: Vegas and Vegas 2 would come free with all copies of Rainbow 6: Siege. This was truly out of left field and took many people by surprise but for people who have yet to upgrade to the current generation this could be a big game changer!
The odd little cherry on the sundae though was the announcement of “Early Access” titles, Microsoft is implementing a system where developers can release early access games to the public with their Game Preview program. In a move that Valve should consider adopting, a requirement for a one hour demo was included in the process. This is another feature that went live immediately with Game Preview launching with four announced titles, The Long Dark, Sheltered, Elite: Dangerous and DayZ. The Long Dark and Elite: Dangerous were available for trial immediately that day and in the near future a new game by DayZ creator Dean Hall called Ion.
Microsoft came to the game needing to prove they weren’t an “also ran” but were in charge of their destiny and with some exciting and truly exclusive new IPs, some interesting new technologies, and a broad range of developers from small indies to respected professionals they were able to capture a range of audience that was not visible anywhere else. Something else that was appreciated was a bit of diversity with women playing prominent roles in both the main event with Bonnie Ross of 343 opening the show, Sherida Halatoe of Tiger & Squid the one woman development studio highlighting her title during the ID@Xbox presentation and Lydia Winters heading up one of the more important brands and most impressive announcements with the Minecraft/Hololens demonstration. This was an impressive display of technology, design and innovation that had the audience cheering wildly at points. The inclusion of backwards compatibility (and even allowing for a dig at Sony and their “Now” strategy charging people for games that they already own if they wanted to replay them) showed Microsoft has become nimble and responsive to the needs of the fans.
Notably absent though was the Kinect, Microsoft have since said that there were several titles in development that were not ready to show. The console has had a recent price drop with the announcement of the new 1TB edition and it would appear to some that the Kinect may be dead but Microsoft may be playing cagey. With all the functionality built in to the platform tied to the Kinect hardware they may well simply be waiting to make a case for the technology. With the Hololens wowing the crowd it would not serve the Kinect well to not show anything really impressive.
Sony’s announcement started out on a lame note, the pre-show hosts from the Sony social media team led us in to the live broadcast but they came across as overly earnest and they felt like they were trying to pitch a product to us. Compared to the Microsoft event of a few hours earlier this struck a harsh chord and immediately put me on edge.
Microsoft’s event was vibrant and yes, a bit showy, Sony out of the gate seemed very dry with words like “Zietgeist” thrown around and their hammering down on the talking points of “Gamers first” and “Entertainment Experiences”. They further pushed the importance of the Playstation as a Social experience.
This was several minutes of talking heads and very little buzz before finally launching in to their first demo. The Last Guardian was once again paraded out to show it was still alive with a shout out to the original developer (who has since left the team) they ran through a level with stunning animation but it really didn’t feel any different than the previous demonstrations from the last shows. Yes it was actual gameplay but there was very little context and very little framing of the story behind the game. I guess when it’s seen years of on and off promotion there’s no easy way to handle this but still for those getting their hopes up, there is still no launch date beyond some time in 2016.
Another exciting title we got to see more of (Finally) was No Man’s Sky, confirmed to have a 2015 release date we get a real taste of what’s going on. I’m immediately reminded of the “billions and billions of stars” quote apocryphally attributed to Carl Sagan. This is a universe that is massive in scale. Every planet is procedurally generated and we get to see the process of exploring and visiting these vast planets. The presentation was closed appropriately enough with the Sagan quote “Somwhere something incredible is waiting to be known.” You can’t get more right than that.
As well as these new and exciting titles we were treated to a pretty impressive cinematic trailer of a new Hitman entry. The game has always been problematic with its questionable narrative choices but what was shown here appears to be a move to draw back the series and do a soft-reboot maintaining the narrative momentum set in place by previous entries while starting fresh with a new series. In the same vein we got a touch of Street Fighter V, a sizzle reel with two new characters Cammie and Bridie (but of course they were coming to the game so how this is really a “Treat” is hard to tell). So little was actually shown it was almost would have been better if this wasn’t shown at all. With no gameplay for either title though it’s hard to decide what is going to come of these especially given the rough reception of the last Hitman and the terrible recent port of Street Fighter IV to PS4 the developers have a lot to prove with both of these titles.
Ubisoft also took a moment to show off more Evie gameplay, this is has a much more Batman vibe to the gameplay than previous Assassin’s Creed games had. With the obvious removal weapons like polearms and swords from the playing field it’s necessitated a change that may be a refreshing adjustment to the setting. The brawler is a nice change, the graphics are impressive but will this be enough?
Batman got his time in the light, dropping on the 23rd we’re in to the last push before release and Sony showed amazing gameplay with a truly amazing looking trailer. The noir vibe of the series was in full force and we got to see the introductory scenes. The Joker is gone but Scarecrow has taken up the mantle of Gotham’s greatest fear. This should prove interesting.
Up until this point the reaction (save for a couple of instances like The Last Guardian) has been pretty tepid, Square Enix decided to mix this up though. Introducing the fan service title World of Final Fantasy is a cute 16 bit styled adventure game incorporating a lot of fan favourites but the real shock announcement was a full rebuild of Final Fantasy VII. There was no solid release date on this (but it has this is not an exclusive but a “timed” exclusive like Microsoft’s Tomb Raider). Getting this announced during their stage is still a big coup and the timed exclusivity keeps it as a strong selling point.
Unlike Microsoft’s strong contingent of independent titles this year Sony, despite its pedigree as the home for indie development, only showed a handful of titles many from the same developer. Devolver, Ronin, Eitr, Mother Russian Bleeds, and Crossing Souls were all highlighted titles from indie publisher Devolver Digital. Again this was another sizzle reel with very little actual footage to be shown.
Disney did its best to wow towards the end of the evening with Disney Infinity 3.0 and Star Wars: Battlefront, both look exceptionally strong. Infinity announced an exclusive collector’s edition for the Playstation including characters from both the original trilogy and the prequel as well as a Boba Fett figure. EA showed some AMAZING footage of the upcoming Battlefront title including gameplay of the Battle of Jakku (the planet featured in Star Wars Episode VII).
Finally the last title we saw after two fakeout false endings was footage from Naughty Dog’s Uncahrted 4: A Thief’s End. This had live gameplay (one of the few instances of it through the entire presentation) and got to a rough start, they had to reboot the game due a problem where the game was unresponsive for a good solid minute of Drake standing in a crowd and the controller not responding. The graphics were great, we got an older Nathan Drake and the banter between Drake and Sulley continued to remain fresh and fun. This was a nice reminder of what the series is and what we can look forward to but with the high calibre of the series to date this is pretty much to be expected.
The Morpheus made a brief showing but unlike Microsoft there was no real example of technology in action. The only announcement was that “Couch co-op” would be supported with the Morpheus (which just sounds awkward) and that there will be more during the week. Later in the E3 proceedings after the big shows the Morpheus was able to acquit itself admirably showing off some strong titles but in the press conference it may as well have not been there at all. Additionally they took time to hype their “Vue” service, a carte blanche cable service that’s only really useful to people in the states.
Almost missing entirely was the Vita, like Microsoft's Kinect the Vita was flashed breifly in a couple of screens but not featured at all in many of the marketing materials or game announcements. Some references to cross play between the titles was made but not enough and certainly no dedicated mobilte titles were announced making the Vita a fairly disappointing product for those who have invested in Sony's mobile platform.
Coming out of the conference it was a marked difference between Microsoft and Sony, the calibre of the presentation by Sony was simply lacking. There were camera issues, stiff delivery of lines, a really noticeable lack of diversity in their featured developers (not one woman and almost entirely white dudes) and their “Exclusives” were either timed or even worse “console locked” content. One of the things that in prior years Microsoft has been hammered on is their “console locked” content and “timed exclusivity” this has been called “anti-gamer” by some Sony fans. Now Sony is relying on it with content tied exclusively to Sony in Batman, Hitman, Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. This was not a terrible showing on their part but it was definitely one where they were biding their time. They are going to need to bring their A game next year.
Nintendo, unlike the other big platforms, does a “Digital” presentation streamed on the internet this allows them to create focused experiences hammering on their narratives and focusing on the content they want to discuss. This year had a fun vibe and a theme of history and honouring the past of their brand (though obviously ignoring its connections to Love Hotels, the Yakuza, and gambling) while emphasizing transformation (and hinting at the new NX console but saying more information for that will come in 2016).
You can’t go far wrong with Muppets and that’s exactly what they did. The main “hosts” of the presentation were Muppet version of Iwata, Reggie and Miyamoto made by The Jim Henson Company during which the intro culminated in a cute Starfox gag to lead in to the announcement of Starfox 0. I have to say, coming out of this proceeding intense Iwata Muppet is intense!
This demo was followed up by a historical piece discussing Miyamoto’s past with the series, a shrine where he grew up which heavily features foxes and this love of the TV show Thunderbirds which all led to his inspiration for the game.
We got to see footage of the new Super Mario Maker, Nintendo’s answer to community content creation, which looks like a fun way to make your own Mario levels. This was followed up by some rather delightful behind the scenes history of the creation of the Mario games. An 8-bit mario Amiibo was shown off and the ability to import characters from other games in to Super Mario Maker using their Amiibos was displayed.
A new co-op Zelda 3DS game Zelda: Tri Force Heroes was shown off with some pretty fun gameplay featuring a costume based class system, simultaneous three player support or “doll” multi-player where you can switch between characters when playing alone. Aonuma and Shikata discussed building the co-op experience and the background of the game which gave us a look at the dedication these two have for the brand.
One of the lowlights of the presentation (at least on the part of the fans) was Metroid Prime: Federation Force a game that lets play in the Metroid universe with a first person co-op experience as well as a competitive e-sport game. This was considered “Sacrilegious” by many fans as it departed from the core of the Metroid gameplay.
Of course new Animal Crossing titles were on display including new Animal Crossing Amiibos, a career simulator where you work as a decorator/real estate agent in the Animal Crossing world and an Animal Crossing Amiibo board game on the WiiU called Animal Crossing Festival. Both of these look fun for an Animal Crossing fan but probably not something that would interest the general public. There was also the obligatory "sports" game with Wii U Mario Tennis which is pretty self explanitory (though Princess Peach's grunts were a little off putting).
Nintendo rounded the presentation out with Yoshi’s Wooly World was displayed and I have to say, that game is so cute it could melt the heart of the most pessimistic of gamers. The design is simple yet stunning in its detail, co-op looks engaging and heck it even has a plushie Yoshi. In addition the showed off Two Mario Worlds Collide a Paper Mario meets Super Mario 3D RPG title which has some fun looking "dimension" shifting gameplay. How can you go wrong there? For the fans of classic Nintendo IPs these look like must haves.
All said compared to the other two this was the lightest of entries, many of the games are not available until 2016 which continues the ongoing issue of a dearth of games for the WiiU platform and despite the emphasis on legacy with Mario's 30th anniversary and fans being an important part of the Nintendo community there was very little in this to give them hope. For a casual Nintendo fan this was something that was positive but for an industry follower this was disappointing with Nintendo appearing to pull away support for the WiiU when it is still relatively young.
This was an interesting year, there were good things to be taken away from all three platform holders. Microsoft made a difference by showing a strong variety with some truly surprising announcements and almost all games being shown being playable demos on stage. Sony’s presentation was functional and appeared to very much be a holding pattern, with far less impressive reveals and very few true exclusives they did convey a sense of “staying the course” which may serve them long term. Nintendo appeared to be the weakest of the three after all was said and done, many Nintendo fans demanded an apology (and a statement from Iwata was misconstrued as an apology for this year’s showing) which I don't think is entirely fair, the Nintendo showing while sparse for hard core fans for the newer more casual Nintendo players this was a solid enough entry. I don’t think there was a clear “Winner” this year with Microsoft and Sony both putting in strong showings Nintendo was pretty clearly the loser and in my opinion they appear to be coasting on their mobile market with the heavy emphasis on 3DS titles until next year when they hope to introduce a game changer with their NX platform.