To answer your first question: No, Microsoft did not reveal a new console at their press conference this morning. The briefing – which is the first major event of E3 week – did have plenty of intriguing first looks at some of the biggest games of the next year. In general, though, it felt a little bit like Microsoft was once again attempting to hard sell the XBox as a full-service entertainment device, complete with an in-depth look at a new second-screen system called “SmartGlass” and a tease about a new “XBoxMusic” system which immediately made “Zune” a Trending Topic. Here are the key details from the big event:
The Big Games: The conference kicked off with a Halo 4 teaser that saw returning protagonist Master Chief cast down onto a mysterious new planet. The jungle atmosphere looked intriguing – picture Avatar with more laser rifles – but for fans, the biggest takeaway from the video was the indication that Master Chief’s beloved AI helpmate Cortana might be suffering from a nasty case of space madness.
As far as franchise re-introductions go, though, it was hard to beat Tomb Raider, an origin story focusing on a teenage Lara Croft. The level we saw featured Lara sneaking around with a bow and arrow – Hunger Games zeitgeist alert! Game play looked to be a mix of Gears of War cover combat and Uncharted-esque adventure-platforming. In about five minutes, we saw Lara fall down a waterfall into a crashed airplane, then fall off a cliff, then parachute herself to safety.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Resident Evil 6 both showed up with remarkably loud trailers featuring collapsing cityscapes, exploding helicopters, and intensive stab-a-dude-in-his-throat action. (To quote The Simpsons: The best part was when the buildings fell down.) Meanwhile, the trailer for Gears of War: Redemption confirmed Internet rumors that the next entry in the series will focus, at least in part, on Damon Baird.
But Who Cares About Games, Anyhow?: A significant portion of the press conference was devoted to lots of new software innovations, many of them focused on the Kinect or on XBox Live. After announcing four new content partners – Nickelodeon, Paramount, Machinima, and Univision – Microsoft execs trumpeted the imminent arrival of two new major sports: The NBA and the NHL. (Guess which one earned more applause.) This holiday season will also bring a new collaboration with Nike Plus called Nike Plus Kinect Fitness, a clear attempt to scoop up some of that Wii Fit cash.
The biggest revelation of the day, though, was XBox SmartGlass, a multi-screen system that connects your smartphone and your tablet to your XBox. The examples given at the briefing sounded pretty straightforward – you can transfer a movie mid-play from your tablet to your TV, say. However, at the end of the SmartGlass chat, Microsoft showed off some concept video of how SmartGlass might be incorporated into upcoming games. It looked a little bit like some of the concept’s we’ve seen for the Wii U, which makes you wonder if SmartGlass will have a greater game focus than Microsoft is letting on.
Also, Internet Explorer is coming to the XBox, which is certainly the most exciting news of 2002.
The Sad-Trombone Award: Fable has always seemed better in theory than in practice. Based on the subdued reaction to the unimpressive-looking trailer for Fable: The Journey, the franchise may be running into rough water. It didn’t help that the video, which focuses on The Journey’s Kinect gameplay, made the game look uncomfortably like the sequel absolutely no one wants to Sorcery.
Celebrity Guest Stars: Beloved quarterback and true American Joe Montana swung by to try out Madden NFL 13, calling plays via Kinect. Conspiracy theorists in my part of the auditorium claimed he wasn’t really playing. Still, it was a definite highlight when Montana concluded: “I just might have an advantage, being a quarterback, at this current Madden stuff.” Current Madden stuff indeed! Meanwhile, ageless pop star Usher debuted some kickin’ new moves from Dance Central 3. He asked people to stand up. No one did.
Best Surprise: Next year’s RPG South Park: The Stick of Truth already looked interesting, if only because the game purposefully resembles the TV show’s low-budget aesthetic. But the whole press conference hit a high point when South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone walked onstage to introduce the game. As far as I can tell, they were the only people speaking without a script. Instead, while they were onstage, the teleprompter just kept sending warnings: “30 Seconds Remaining,” “10 Seconds Remaining.”
Which probably explains how Parker wound up scoring the quote of the day: “How many times have you been watching an episode of South Park and thought: I’d like to be able to watch this on my television, while hosting on my mobile device, which is being controlled by the tablet, all while sitting in the refrigerator?” And just like that, the Microsoft press conference succeeded in deconstructing itself.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich