In A Limbo State: Microsoft's E3 2014 Press Conference

Xbox Phil Spencer LimboAbout two-thirds into Microsoft’s press conference, the head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, Phil Spencer, walked on to the stage wearing a Limbo shirt, unintentionally reflecting the current state of the Xbox One. This time last year, it was pitched as an All In One entertainment unit, the Kinect placed front and centre. Now, the console doesn’t even come with the Kinect.

It’s a testament to Phil Spencer’s new vision for the Xbox One (i.e. the polar opposite of Don Mattrick’s vision) that the Kinect was quarantined to a 60 second segment from Harmonix announcing the downloadable Dance Central Spotlight. No Kinect Sports, Kinectimals, “Xbox On” or any of that in sight.

So what is Microsoft to do?

Microsoft began, as is tradition, with a Call of Duty demo. Advanced Warfighter Advanced Warfare leans hard into its sci-fi trappings, more so than CoD’s previous near-future efforts: There are jetpacks, laser guns, rocket-propelled hand-grenades, and plenty of slow-panning vistas over future cities (as an aside, this pierced the illusion for me; CoD players don’t slowly pan over the scenery, they ignore the Campaign and go straight to camping on the MP maps). And as pretty as the game looks, it’s the sounds which really impressed me — the gun rapport and the general ambient effects really caught my attention.

After spending a brief moment pitching Forza Horizon 2 (which will be coming out on September 30), the press conference began to reel off titles that you wouldn’t expect to see in a Microsoft press conference. You wouldn’t think that Microsoft would spend time talking about Evolve, Dragon Age: Inquisition or to dedicate five minutes to an extended demo of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but those games were indeed featured.

As was Assassin’s Creed: Unity (ironically, not running on the Unity engine). We got an on-stage demo showing off some of the multiplayer, which allows four players to traverse around the world going through missions; think Far Cry 3’s multiplayer. Further differentiating Unity from previous AC titles is the seamless transition between outdoor and indoor environments. Though like every AC demo, and every Ubisoft demo in general, it ended with the camera zooming out into the sky.

Speaking of blue skies (and let’s just bask in this segue for a second…mmm, yes…wasn’t that a segue), we got a look at Sunset Overdrive. Insomniac Games appears to have found its mojo with this title, having lost it under the beige couch during the development of Fuse. It feel much more sure of itself than Fuse ever did: It’s colourful, the locomotion looks like it flows smoothly, it feels like it has an identifiable personality. Sunset Overdrive looks like a bright pop-punk game, a return to Insomniac’s glory days.

If Sunset Overdrive feels like a pop-punk track, Capcom’s Dead Rising 3 arcade-style DLC feels like someone making fart noises into a microphone, and I mean this in the most complimentary way imaginable. Given the abundance of Street Fighter cosplay and Capcom references on offer, it should have been called Dead Rising 3: Fanservice, but I’ll more than happily take the actual factual full title: Super Ultra Dead Rising 3’ Arcade Remix Hyper Edition Ex Plus α.

We also had debut trailers for Ori and the Blind Forest (which looks spectacular, even if Gametrailers continues to insist on calling it “Ori and the Bling Forest”), Inside (the new title from Limbo developers Playdead), Scalebound (Platinum’s take on How To Train Your Dragon), Rise of the Tomb Raider (new Tomb Raider game, same old Lara Croft getting Messed Up), and Phantom Dust, a remake of the 2004 fighter of the same name; if you heard a fist being pumped in the air, that was our resident Oldie Oz celebrating a new Phantom Dust.

And then there was Microsoft’s worst kept secret, Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Put on your best ‘surprised’ face as we go down the features: “All four Halo games” remastered for Xbox One (so no Halo Wars or Halo: ODST), 1080p at 60 frames per second, one-button switching between old and new mechanics, cross-game level playlists, Halo 2 multiplayer mechanics retained verbatim for this edition. Also, 4000 Gamerscore; if you ever thought the gaming community has advanced as a people, the whooping at the news of this Gamerscore count would prove a definitive rebuttal to that argument. The Master Chief Collection also unlocks a Halo 5 multiplayer beta when that is made available in December.

If that wasn’t enough games, the [email protected] sizzle reel featured a plethora of indie titles, including *takes deep deep breath*: Aztez, Knight Squad, Plague Inc Evolved, White Night, Earthlock, Cuphead, Hyper Light Drifter, Slash Dash, Fru, Lifeless Planet, Lovers In A Dangerous Space Time,  Mighty No. 9, Grave, Threes, Woolfe, IDARB, Hellraid and Below.

Going to more high-budget fare, Ubisoft once again took the stage, this time to show off more of Tom Clancy’s The Division. Like last year’s demo, this year’s reinforced the feeling that The Division is being pitched at MMO players. The patter between the players felt much like people planning out a dungeon raid (even if the exchanges between these people fell face-first into the dialogue-equivalent of the Uncanny Valley — nobody talks as cleanly and as on topic as these people did), and there were damage points and XP indicators popping over enemies’ heads. Even though modern military is old hat, it’s at least a novel setting for an MMO-like title.

Closing out the Microsoft press conference was the announcement of a new Crackdown — a sincere surprise. If the actual game can match the hot madness promised by the CG trailer, then I’ll be more than happy to jump extra high and dive into this game.

So here Microsoft are, in a state of limbo. How are they planning on going forward? With games, it seems, lots and lots of games. If Microsoft can deliver on this promise and be as open to change as Phil Spencer’s costumes (three costume changes, all up), then it might be able to claw back some momentum. Personally, I would have been interested in Sunset Overdrive, Ori and the Blind Forest and Dead Rising etc etc etc etc anyway — that Microsoft can get me interested in the new Call of Duty is definitely a sign of potential.