The corporate realities of the videogame industry operate on massive, mega, epochal levels. Release dates are planned out years in advance. New brands are built carefully over the course of years, with the implicit promise that they could run for decades. You could think of the major videogame companies as giants, skyscraper-size creatures who move at their own pace. Or you could think of them as creatures out of an HP Lovecraft story, unthinkable many-headed monstrosities who live in cross-dimensional space dreaming up new nightmares. Either way, it’s hard to imagine that the events of a single day can change everything.
But one year ago today, Microsoft woke up on top of the world, and then everything got ruined. Or maybe they ruined everything. Hard to say: Their media presentation was shaky enough, what with the rape-joke controversy and the backpedaling insistence that the Xbox One’s Orwellian Always-On requirement wasn’t a requirement, just a suggestion for cool people who aren’t lame. But then a few hours later, Sony basically made the subject of their presentation: “Here’s why we aren’t Microsoft.” The PlayStation 4 let you play any games you wanted to play. The Playstation 4 was a videogame console built for videogames, not for weird tie-ins to ESPN. Above all else, the PlayStation 4 was a hundred dollars cheaper.
And so it was a chastened Microsoft – a kinder-gentler Microsoft, a Microsoft that is currently losing the sales race – that appeared at E3 on Monday. No one mentioned Kinect that I heard: Not a single ambient reference to the thing that Microsoft spent years saying was the future. Instead, head of Xbox Phil Spencer struck a humble note. He actually used the word “humble,” which in the context of Microsoft’s usual bluster sounded revolutionary. “We’ve been humbled and amazed by all your comments, ideas, tweets. By your support.” TRANSLATION: “We heard all your complaints, but we figured you’d shut up and buy an Xbox One. You didn’t. Now we’re actually taking you seriously.”
“This week, we share a common purpose with our friends at Sony and Nintendo,” said Spencer. “The purpose is to showcase the passion, creativity [et cetera, et cetera, non-combative buzzwords] behind the fastest-growing [et cetera, et cetera, reminding everyone that videogames are awesome].” There followed 90 minutes of Microsoft’s playbook for the next 18 months, including lots of familiar games and lots of familiar-looking new games and a couple of extraordinary-looking new games. They were:
1. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
There’s an opening cinematic which is basically the helicopter crash from Black Hawk Down, except with lots of cool view screens, because everything at E3 this year seems to have cool viewscreens . Then you crash through two buildings. Then you turn on your jump-booster, so you can double-jump, like in Titanfall. Then you get attacked by a lot of giant robots, like in Titanfall. Remember back in the ‘90s, when Microsoft would constantly defeat their competitors by just doing what they did, except slightly worse, but since everybody already had Microsoft they just used the Microsoft version? It feels like Call of Duty is trying to do that with Titanfall. And it feels like they might win.
Also, at the end of the Call of Duty cinematic, the viewpoint character gets dragged away from flaming wreckage, and his gaze turns behind him…and you see that his arm is still lying there, chopped off by debris. The audience audibly gasped. “Oh know!” the thought bubble seemed to say. “This anonymous protagonist we’ve just met, who spent the last ten minutes yelling out of these fantastic speakers, has just lost his arm!”
2. Forza Horizon 2
“An action-packed open-world driving game, filled with amazing vistas, music, and over 200 of the world’s greatest cars,” or something. Listen, I am not a driving-game person. I can’t even pretend to understand people who are driving-game people. This sure looks like a driving game with lots of driving.
From the makers of Left 4 Dead. You’re dudes and chicks with guns, and you’re fighting a monster. Twist: You can also play as the monster! This could be something.
4. Assassin’s Creed: Unity
So Assassin’s Creed is going full multiplayer, allowing you to go on assassination missions with up to three of your weird friends who also really enjoy Euro-historical action soap operas. (Which, guilty.) The action they showed off was set right in the middle of France’s “let them eat cake” period, with various assassins parkour-ing through a French villa and ultimately throwing the Evil Rich French Guy down to the rabble. It looked pretty fun but notably didn’t feature any high-seas action – and in the last two Assassin’s Creed games, the only redeemable part has been the high-seas action.
5. Dragon Age: Inquisition
Monsters, swords, green stuff, lots of talk about how the world is tearing itself apart and chaos has left its mark on you. I love BioWare’s Mass Effect series but could never get into their fantasy RPG. This looks like more of the same.
6. Sunset Overdrive
The most rapturously received trailer. A Call of Duty soldier ducked behind some crates while shooting at a bunch of guys who looked like the hero of Watch Dogs. Then, suddenly, the hero from Sunset Overdrive appeared and proceeded to eliminate the bad guys by skating across walls and firing firecracker-explosives. Implication: Sunset Overdrive ain’t your mama’s videogame. Unclear whether this is trying to be the Sonic the Hedgehog of 2014 or just Saints’ Row with more skating.
7. Dead Rising 3
Now you can play as every character from every Dead Rising ever, and you can dress them up as all your favorite characters from Capcom games of the past. So you can do the same old bullcrap in this game which is barely even a game, but now you can do it dressed as Ryu!
8. Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved
This is a music game, and the year is not 2008. This is a Kinect game, and Microsoft is running screaming from the Kinect. So, things are looking bleak for Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved.
9. Fable Legends
Four-player co-op has been added! Lots of four-player co-op this year. In the footage they show, you fight a lot of gnomes and you go through a really pretty green area. It sort of looks like The Secret Garden except with minotaurs.
Serious question: Does anyone still care about Fable? It feels like an idea that needed to be mind-blowing wasn’t, and so it got downgraded into a C-list brand that only exists because the modern videogame industry believes more in pre-existing C-list brands than potential new ideas. It feels like something that was supposed to be Lord of the Rings and turned into Snow White and the Huntsman.
10. Project Spark
The game creation system that lets you create everything you want. Probably not a good idea to demonstrate this “everything” with games that mostly look like Fable. But Project Spark still feels like Microsoft’s legitimate attempt to empower their users, “empowerment” being a common trope that almost never feels very empowering. Also, Conker is now involved in Project Spark somehow. To the children: Conker’s Bad Fur Day was the Sunset Overdrive of a million years ago.
11. Ori and the Blind Forest
A side-scrolling game that explicitly resembles a Miyazaki movie and accidentally resembles Child of Light, the great downloadable Ubisoft game that ruled my dreams last month. This was one of two game previews that didn’t feature any explosions, gunshots, gross dudes being stabbed in cool ways, someone being beaten with their own arm, or a skyscraper crashing into another skyscraper. It did feature a tiny cute forest creature trying to wake up a larger forest creature, and slowly realizing that the larger forest creature was dead. It was kinda beautiful.
12. That new Halo game
No gameplay, just a scene of Master Chief going into outer-space, throwing a mine at a gigantic star destroyer-esque ship, and then watching that ship explode. Someone was narrating over that video, and I’m 99 percent sure that it was Keith David, because Keith David is the voice of gravelly mentor-truth in videogames.
Also, they are re-releasing Halos 1-4 on the Xbox One. They showed off gameplay and said a lot of in-jokes I didn’t get. Everyone cheered at the idea of refurbished Halo games. Remember how excited everyone was for the Star Wars Special Editions? At one point, the guy onstage said that the new Halo collection included: “Every map ever released on Halo 1-4, all playing on 1080p at 60 frames a second!” People cheered like the phrase “60 frames a second” was the 11th commandment.
The new game from the makers of Limbo, which is one of the best games ever made. It looks maybe a little bit too much like Limbo: Same monochromatic color palette, same side-scrolling ambient-horror aesthetic. It was so quiet, though – and the quiet was so much more effective than the bombast of the other AAA games. Even more so than Limbo, it reminded me of the great old-school side-scroller Another World. I’m excited.
14. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft is back again, just in time for holiday 2015. Who cares?
15. Phantom Dust
Evidence that Microsoft is either very serious about feeding its most devoted fans or just struggling really hard to find pre-existing brands to remarketize. Phantom Dust hasn’t been seen since the very first Xbox. This game had the best tagline: “The Battle for Reality Begins.” Also, this lady:
16. Tom Clancy’s The Division
New one from Ubisoft, which looks like Watch Dogs without the hacking. Good news: Nobody really liked the hacking in Watch Dogs! Better news: As far as post-apocalyptic co-op city shooters go, this one looks pretty good.
So there’s a guy with a sword, and he’s fighting a rock monster, and then a dragon shoots a flame at the rock monster, and then a gigantic hydra appears, and then a lot more dragons appear. Looks like something from Platinum Games.
The final preview shown during the Xbox briefing showed a bad guy in a penthouse that was protected by heavy artillery. So then a group of guys attacked him. They did this by blowing up the building next to the bad guy’s building, and driving a truck filled with bombs at the building that was collapsing, and then they drove the truck off of the collapsing building like a ramp, and then a sniper shot the truck filled with bombs right as it ran into the bad guy’s penthouse.
It looked exactly like this.