Something Old: Microsoft's E3 2015 Media Briefing

E32015 Microsoft press conference

At its inception, Microsoft was vocal in holding out the Xbox One as the future in game. It was the all-in-one entertainment centre with the next-generation Kinect. Since then, the company has slowly stepped away from these lofty ambitions, to the point where the Xbox One might as well be merely an upgraded Xbox 360; even the Kinect has fallen to the status of neglected peripheral. At today’s Media Briefing, the Xbox One took the next logical step and actually became an upgraded Xbox 360.

Kicking things off was noticeably not Call of Duty, but Halo 5: Guardians. The game sees Spartan Locke chasing after Master Chief; you will jump from squad to squad a la Halo 2. Today’s gameplay demo took us along one of Locke’s missions. There was a distinct flavour of Halo Reach and ODST to proceedings, something which was aided by the presence of Nathan Fillion Buck Nathan Fillion — a direction which I am very much in favour of. Unlike Halo 4, which felt like a cover version of a Bungie Halo game, Guardians looks more assured, with more ambitious level designs and scripted destructibility. This will all fall over once the game inevitable dives headfirst into its tome-like lore. Also shown off was Warzone, which looks to be a much larger scale version of Halo’s multiplayer; ships and explosions will ensue. The game will be released on October 27.

Halo 5 Guardians might have got the predictably brotastic “Wooos,” but  there were sincere cheers for the next announcement. Xbox head Phil Spencer took to the stage to announce that Xbox One will soon be backwards compatible with Xbox 360 games. Hundreds of older titles will be natively supported on Xbox One this holidays and more will be added afterward; no work needs  to be done for a game to be backwards compatible aside from publisher/developer approval. Players will be able to either download their previously digitally purchased game or put in an Xbox 360 disc into the disc drive; a digital download will then be offered. These games will function as they did on the Xbox 360, but will have Xbox One’s surface features including screenshot and footage capture. Considering the death-knell backwards compatibility in recent years, it’s impressive to see Microsoft leaning so hard back into it; if nothing else, I finally have another console on which to play Rez and Beyond Good and Evil!

The retrospective didn’t end there. Rare took the stage to announce Rare Replay, a collection of 30 of its classic titles from arcade to Xbox 360, including Battletoads, Killer Instinct Gold, Blast Corps, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Perfect Dark and Viva Pinata. The collection promises over 700 hours of gameplay and 10,000 Gamerscore points for US$30. Kinect Sports 2, however, will not be a part of this collection.

Sure, the Xbox One library (and piles of shame) may have just expanded exponentially with these old games, but there are still new games coming. Recode comes from Kenji Inafune and Armature Studio, which has roots in the Metroid Prime trilogy (an aside: Let’s note that a Nintendo brand was evoked to sell a Microsoft Studios title). Scant details were provided in the trailer, aside from a post-apocalyptic desert setting, a girl and an AI core transplanted into a robot puppy dog. The game will come out in Autumn 2016. We also got a glimpseinto Ion from DayZ creator Dean Hall, Dark Souls III (out Early 2016), Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 (I will be referring to it as 2 Grass 2 Furious) and Sea of Thieves, a perpetually online pirate game from Rare, complete with naval warfare; if the combat resembles that of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, then it would mark Rare’s first impressive release since, well,  Kinect Sports 2.

There was also an impressive show of force from the indie sector. On top of the perfunctory video montage set to power-pop, several developers were given a chance to show off their games. Fullbright is working on Tacoma, which is set in an abandoned space station and looks to follow the storytelling techniques established by Gone Home. Ashen comes from New Zealand studio Aurora44 and is set in a stylised world with faceless humans and flying monsters. Beyond Eyes is being developed by tiger and squid and allows you to guide a blind girl though an unfamiliar world using her sense of hearing, touch and smell. Finally, last year’s indie montage breakout Cuphead was given its time in the spotlight, as Studio MDHR explained its objective of emulating the look and feel of 1930s cartoons.

Indie developers were also given another avenue to develop for Xbox One. Microsoft announced its take on Early Access, the Game Preview program. It will function similarly to Early Access, except players will be given a free trial of every game in the program before deciding whether to buy into it. Some of the first Game Preview titles announced were Elite: Dangerous and The Long Dark, both of which will be available later today. It was also confirmed that the Xbox One version of Fallout 4 will support PC mods.

Of course, it isn’t an E3 press conference without the tent-pole on stage demos. The Rise of the Tomb Raider demo picked up where the last game left off and put Lara Croft in even more peril, this time on a snowy mountain which, of course, underwent an avalanche; she can never catch a break can she? It doesn’t appear to deviate too far from the Tomb Raider, which can only mean good things come its release. We got a look at the HoloLens version of Minecraft, which sincerely looks like some sci-fi movie made material in our world. The HoloLens wielder acted as an overseer to someone else’s game, giving them a god-like perspective on the world and the underground, and the ability to strike lighting upon the world. Somewhere in Godus HQ, Peter Molyneux was shaking his fist angrily at the demo (the anger from which probably gave him inspiration for his next game).

The conference closed off with Gears of War. Nobody even tried to act surprised with the announcement of Gear of War: Ultimate Edition, a visual upgrade to the original Gears of War coming on August 25. Finally, we got a first look at Gears of War 4 (Gears of Four? Ge4rs of W4r?). Sure, it mightn’t feature Marcus Fenix, and sure the characters aren’t walking slowly with their fingers held to their ears, but this demo was otherwise very traditional Gears of War. Like the Doom demo at Bethesda’s conference yesterday, it adheres to the classic formula, but given the innovations being pushed by Fallout 4 and even Halo, is this throwback gameplay enough?

Perhaps it is. The fact is: The most impressive thing to come out of Microsoft’s press conference this year was not a brand new game or IP (although Recore has my attention), but the old ones. Whether they be repackaged ones like Rare Replay, reimagined ones like Minecraft X HoloLens or literal last-generation games with Xbox One’s backwards compatibility, the thing that garnered the biggest reactions on Twitter and amongst the NG+ crew were the retreat to familiar titles. We gamers can be a notoriously conservative and nostalgic bunch — it’s taken a while but Microsoft has seemed to finally realise this.