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Jump In, Nobody Cares – Microsoft E3 2012 Press Conference Analysis

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If you’re looking for the Microsoft of 2009 you’ve come to the wrong place. They have E3 2013 booked instead. Thank you for your time.

Of all three console manufacturers, the next-gen white elephant in the room loomed no larger than it did at Microsoft’s E3 press conference.

While not quite a train wreck raging with the fires of fanboy discontent, the Microsoft press conference was nevertheless the weakest of the three (narrowly beating out Nintendo’s second time screw up at unveiling the WiiU). Of the three manufacturers doing press conferences at E3 2012, Microsoft had the least stakes to play for since they weren’t trying to reinvigorate a flagging handheld or attempt to relaunch a brand new home console in the eyes of Joe Consumer.

Still, while the bright-spots were very few and far between they nonetheless were still there, beginning unsurprisingly with 343 Industries Halo 4.

Halo 4 – The fight starts, again.

There really wasn’t anything else at the presser that even remotely approached the same level of gravitas.

It was common knowledge that regardless of whatever else Microsoft was going to announce, that Halo 4 would be the centrepiece of their briefing. It was generally accepted thinking that Halo 4 was to be the solid and dependable title that would back up more significant, surprising announcements.

As it turned out there actually weren’t any terribly significant or surprising announcements and as luck would have it, Halo 4 actually stepped up to the plate; sneaking up on us all and delivering some of the most solid looking gameplay the series has seen for a long time.

Boasting a dramatic live-action introduction which segued into an in-game cut-scene, followed by some sumptuous jungle based gunplay, Halo 4 boasted polished visuals, classic and brand-new weaponry and a completely brand new foe for the eponymous Master Chief to combat (the cool looking tech/insect hyrbid race known as the Prometheans) . In short, Halo 4 looked every bit like the presser centrepiece for the Redmond software and hardware giant at E3.

Besides ‘just’ having a solid presser centrepiece, Halo 4 fulfilled another mandate; it reassured gamers that the Halo franchise remains in safe hands since creators and long-time custodians Bungie, left the IP in Microsoft’s hands in 2010.

Indeed, new developers 343 Industries have made fired an indomitable opening salvo for the new Halo trilogy – laying the sort of blueprint that should give gamers a confidence restoring glimpse into the state of Halo for the next seven to ten years.

DLC Announcements – When Exclusivity Fails You Let Them On Stage Anyway 

A popular Microsoft tactic for the last few years has been to secure timed exclusivity on downloadable content for perceivably popular third-party releases. This year was no different with Microsoft getting first dibs on DLC for Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

One thing that did surprise was that two of the games at their conference didn’t have any DLC timed exclusivity tied in with them. The highly anticipated Splinter Cell: Blacklist, was simply demonstrated for nearly ten minutes with no mention of exclusive features or DLC for the Microsoft platform (interesting given Conviction’s 360-only release), and South Park: The Stick Of Truth, was talked about on stage briefly by series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but again, no exclusive 360-centric features or DLC were announced.

Unless I’m missing something, it seems a tad pointless for Microsoft to showcase multiplatform titles at their presser without the promise of any content unique to the Xbox 360 platform.

Effectively, they are freely showcasing titles that may be bought on competing systems with no unique differential (at this point at least) to convince customers to stick with the 360 SKU. That, ladies and gentlemen, is madness.

Like Clockwork – Social Apps & Nike Plus

Continuing their relentless crusade to ensure that the 360 is the centrepiece of the living room, Microsoft announced that more social apps would be available to users in the forthcoming months and that they had also entered into a partnership with sports label Nike, to create ‘Nike Plus’, a Kinect focused workout title.

Normally, multi-media and social stuff like this would be a sore-point of contention with many folk where press conference time should be dedicated to gaming, it’s innovations and additional related possibilities. In the context of their showing and realising the point of the Xbox 360’s life-cycle that we are in, it serves to fortify the notion that Microsoft are in a holding pattern until next year, where they get to announce and gleefully showcase their next lump of money-gobbling plastic to the world.

Essentially then, they can get away with devoting nearly a half a hour to this sort of the stuff now, but next year, where we expect to be over-fucking-whelmed by a cascade of quality first-party and third-party titles for the system that they would want us to purchase later that year, this sort of shit really isn’t going to fly.

Gears of War: Judgement – Entering The Breach Between Generations

Leaked just hours before the Microsoft presser was due to commence, this newest entry in the Gears of War saga was rumoured for good while, with the murmurings of both Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly and the game being a prequel, being accurately founded.

Set as a prequel to the events witnessed in the Gears of War trilogy, the primary protagonist has shifted from the gruff and muscle headed Marcus Fenix to the gruff, muscle headed and venom-tongued Baird. Based on the ever-so-brief snippets of video that have been released, gameplay-wise the game appears to have endured an equally conservative shift with People Can Fly taking the route of least resistance in showcasing a game that looks nigh-on identical to Gears of War 3.

For a developer new to such a big, blockbuster franchise this cautious and minimally risky entry in the series makes sense given the solid set of expectations that fans have for the series and also the fact that we’re in the twilight years for the platform that birthed this hugely successful IP in the first place. For those of us wanting to see the IP branch out and strike out onto some new ground, we’re very likely going to have to wait until its next-generation debut.

In actuality though, while Gears of War: Judgement looks like perfect franchise stop-gap fodder as we carefully make the leap between this generation and the next, the stigma of carrying such a moniker shouldn’t really be any cause for concern – it’s still a Gears of War title and by proxy of that fact; it still looks to be extremely solid.

In short, franchise-fans should remain entertained by this latest installment, but it won’t attract any new blood to their player base given the relatively safe road that the developers have travelled here in regards to the gameplay and new features.

Limp Wingmen – The ‘Other’ First Party Titles Forza: Horizon,  Fable: The Journey & Dance Central 3

Another franchise that is getting a spin-off title prior to its proper next-gen debut is Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport series with the introduction of Forza: Horizon. Distancing itself from the track-based simulation shenanigans that the series is known for, the Playground Games developed Forza Horizon is instead much more reminiscent of games like Test Drive Unlimited with its focus on open-world exploratory driving and motorsport lifestyle.

The official trailer for the game that was released at that show (which you can see below) was predictably showy; high on sizzle, low on steak and it’s really in the gameplay footage that managed to sneak out just before the show and after that we can get any sort of indication of the game’s quality.

To this end Forza Motorsport filled a strange a niche in the Microsoft presser – it appeared in trailer form to let everyone know that Microsoft have another first-party in the tube that isn’t called Halo or Gears of War, but did little else besides. Other than a mere, albeit flashy confirmation of it’s existence, no gameplay was shown or feature-set talked about on-stage – a somewhat troubling vote in confidence in the title given that we are now less than four months away from it’s launch.

Another game that only appeared in trailer format (and is also due for release in a few short months) was Lionhead’s Fable Kinect title, Fable: The Journey. Whilst they had the decency to make the trailer in-game, they should have had more decency to not even show it all. The game looked horrendous quite frankly – coming across as little other than a Kinect-driven light-gun title, the title looked uninspiring, rough and just downright awful. Take a look at the trailer below and cringe away:

Next up was Harmonix’s Dance Central 3 which was showcased by a combination of sizzle-reel trailer and Usher, of all fucking people, doing his jive-thang on stage and reminding us that A) Nobody can dance like him and that B) Nobody wants to. Really, his presence was merely there to market the ‘new’ feature of being able to mimic the dance routines of famous artists and also to reinforce the fact that Microsoft are THAT hip company who have their finger on the pulse on everybody under twenty-one years old.

In the end though, while certainly solid-enough based on the fact that little else will be changed over it’s highly accomplished predecessors, Dance Central 3 feels like more of the same instead of a little of something new.

Arguably, like the majority of the Microsoft first-party line-up, Dance Central 3 reeks of the fetid smell of conservatism; a smell bourne of Microsoft’s desire to save all of the really good stuff for their next-generation debut and as a result, serve as poor first-party wingmen for Halo 4 later this year.

Microsoft Smartglass – How To Make 2004 Seem New (and relevant) Again.

One thing that Microsoft made a rather large noise about at their conference was Microsoft Smartglass. Effectively a piece of connectivity tech, SmartGlass allows gamers to link their Xbox console to their smartphones and tablet devices for a number of different supplementary tasks and activities.

Microsoft believe that this is a difference-maker when it comes to new and involving gameplay experiences. It isn’t.

In one instance in which this was shown, EA had a player devising NFL strategies in-game on a Windows tablet, allowing instantaneous play of their chosen strategy in the game. In another example, Halo 4 developers 343 Industries displayed an interactive codex of information while Halo 4 was playing, in addition to a slew of matchmaking and other multiplayer features being done on the small screen instead of the TV.

While it sounds like a nice thing to have, it by no means sounds essential – it’s function and purpose consigning it to an extra-curricular augmentation of the gameplay experience rather than a meaningful addition to it. Smartglass then, provides Xbox 360 (and likely 720) owners with the sort of companion-like gameplay experiences that Nintendo DS owners have had for nearly eight years now. While the tech remains interesting at face value at least, I remain less than optimistic that many devs will look at the extra screen available to them and not proclaim “Yay! MAPS!”.

Microsoft @ E3 2012 – Conclusion

Boasting a barely perfunctory line-up of safe titles, you get the impression that only a small handful of folks at Microsoft give any sort of shit about the first-party fortunes of the console with the rest of the Microsoft Hive busying themselves for the unveiling of the next Xbox at E3 2013.

With the exception of the Microsoft SmartScreen – a tech that effectively gives 360 owners the same gameplay possibilities as Nintendo DS owners have had since 2004, everything else that was on display in their conference could largely be seen coming a mile off.

Halo 4 was a large (if unexpectedly spectacular) part of their line-up alongside an expected showing of previously announced first-party spin-off properties in Forza Horizon and Gears of War: Judgement. While Halo 4 certainly performed it’s vocation admirably as their centrifugal first-party offering, but backed up by some relatively limp and unexciting company in the form of Fable: The Journey, Forza: Horizon and Dance Central 3. Gears of War: Judgement was really the game that Microsoft should have positioned alongside Halo 4 to propel the 360 into next year where the veritable flood of triple-A third-party software would likely continue to buoy the platform to growth anyway, but alas, this was not to be.

Demonstrations of multiplat blockbusters such as Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6 and Black Ops 2 did the usual shtick of combining fresh looks at these games alongside announcements of timed exclusivity on DLC for the Microsoft platform, despite some of them being given precious show time without any exclusivity announced at all.

Continuing on, further exposition of forthcoming social and TV applications continued to be an unfortunate hallmark for Microsoft at E3 alongside showings of Kinect fitness title Nike + and naff looking Kinect exclusive titles like Fable: The Journey.

Really it wasn’t so much the content that was there that troubled, more instead; it was the content that wasn’t. Things that would have bolstered their anaemic software offering such as details of the forthcoming Summer of Arcade were omitted from the presser altogether (they were announced on the official blog hours later) in favour of having Usher flail about on stage for nearly ten minutes in some vague attempt to shill the dance routine features of the next Dance Central title.

Overall then, if Microsoft didn’t seem like they were trying to capture the hearts and minds of all us at E3 it’s because they weren’t. As I write this article, Microsoft is readying the next generation successor to the Xbox 360 and as sure as I am that Microsoft are glad that E3 2012 is over, I’m just as sure the next year, everything that they’ve held back will be brought to the fore to make that machine have the best debut possible.

Well, they better do at any rate.

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Written by bitsnark

July 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm

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