E3 Press Conferences: Sony

I didn’t watch it in real-time.

I was out at dinner during Sony’s big pre-E3 press conference, so when I got back, I scrolled Twitter back a few hours so I could read people’s reactions to the announcements, and in the process got a preview of the insanity that had unfolded a few hours before. This dampened the impact of the hour-or-so’s many surprises, but I’d enjoyed getting real-time reactions during the Microsoft presser in the morning, so I decided it was worth spoiling things a bit.

Last night’s presentation was the perfect way to close out a day of pre-E3 press conferences that notably focused on games. This sounds kind of weird to say, considering that E3 is supposed to be all about games, but the creation and release of current generation consoles has been a distraction for the past few years, and too much time and energy has been devoted to talking about intuitive user interfaces, TV and media collaborations, and other things that technically fall under Electronic Entertainment (2 of E3, the third being Expo), but which are kind of boring to learn about. This is a weird point to make after noting yesterday that Microsoft should have announced TV DVR functionality if they are, in fact, working on it, but I see that particular feature as being a big differentiator, especially considering that the DVRs can be rented for $15 a month from cable companies generally have awful user interfaces, are draconian in what you can do with your recordings (usually nothing) and are generally terrible to deal with.

But I digress. Instead of simply talking about what we knew was coming, Sony willed three gaming unicorns into existence on their stage. They opened the show with an extended gameplay clip from The Last Guardian, a game originally announced in 2009 (!) and whose absence had been a running joke of the past few E3s. Its PS3 roots showed in the clip, with relatively sparse backgrounds and nice-looking-but-not-stunning character models, but Sony also confirmed a release date for next year, turning an infamous piece of vaporware back into the hotly anticipated title it once was. I wasn’t super impressed by the presentation (especially the young boy’s constant yelling for help from his weird bird/squirrel/cat companion), but I’m one of those weird people who hasn’t played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, the two other efforts from the first-party studio, so maybe I just don’t get it.

More interesting to me was the next announcement, from Killzone developer Guerrilla Games, Horizon: Zero Dawn. Set in the post-apocalypse, it follows a young huntress who gathers resources from and takes down robo-dinosaurs, among other things. The gameplay looked fun and exciting, and the whole thing felt a little like a mashup between Heavenly Sword and The Last of Us, in the best possible way. Guerrilla has always had a strong sense of technical acumen, but their games have always felt a little soulless, so hopefully this will give them a chance to do something a little more character-driven, while also delivering some of the bombast and set pieces that have defined Killzone.

After two fresh IP reveals, it was inevitable that some sort of sequel or reboot would sneak into the mix, and so, after spending most of an intriguing pre-rendered trailer wondering what was being announced, it turned out to be what looks like a reboot of Hitman, considering its lack of subtitle or numeral (pun entirely unintentional). Nothing else was revealed during the presentation, but apparently it’s going to be an ever-expanding open world sandbox, which could be fun. Next came a quick reminder that Street Fighter V is coming out fairly soon, and Sony made a big deal about an exclusive beta starting on July 25 (they announced a bunch of betas–their big Destiny alpha/beta exclusive last year must have been a success!).

Then, it was back to a fresh IP, albeit one that was shown off on the same stage last year. Hello Games’ Sean Murray came out to show off how No Man’s Sky is coming along, with a small taste of vehicular space combat before jumping to a random world and exploring for a little while. Considering everything is procedurally-generated, he had no idea what exactly he was jumping in to, and he warned the audience repeatedly that things might not work right, but never actually had any technical hiccups. Procedural generation is nothing new, but taking it to its logical endpoint (literally creating an entire universe from a few basic building blocks) was an impressive technical feat, even if the game itself doesn’t really look like my cup of tea.

This was followed by something new from Media Molecule, creators of Little Big Planet, a game/experience/thing called Dreams. Like LBP, the focus skews toward creation rather than actually playing, but the idea of creating and then playing in surreal dreamscapes seems like it’ll be a singular experience if nothing else.

Firewatch, a stylized first-person game from Campo Santo, came next. While it’s already been in development for Windows, Mac and Linux, the announcement that it will release on PS4 as well was nice, and it’s a game I hadn’t heard of but am now very interested in. The protagonist is a park ranger-type looking for fire in a watchtower over the summer, and looks to have some solid character development and mystery woven in. The art style reminds me a little of Outlaws, and it’s a reminder of the kind of experience that can be built today with a small team, the right development tools, and the support to realize their vision.

An expansion for Destiny called The Taken King was announced next, along with a fresh look at Assassins Creed: Syndicate focusing on the female protagonist Evie Frye. She looks like one more strong female lead coming to a AAA game this year, and I love it.

Next, a cutesy little adventure RPG (I think?) called World of Final Fantasy was announced for PS4 and PS Vita, but that was just a head fake to talk about the second unicorn of the night: a complete remake of Final Fantasy VII. When Square Enix released a CG movie in the FFVII universe called Advent Children in 2005, fans immediately began to wonder if the more detailed art style of the movie’s characters could be grafted onto the original game. Sony stoked the fire considerably by remaking the entire introduction of FFVII shot-for-shot as a tech demo to show off the power of the Playstation 3 in 2005, sparking years of rumors and clamoring that finally paid off last night. I love FFVII and I love replaying games, so I will be all over this, though it feels like kind of a ludicrous undertaking from a time and cost standpoint. Notably, no release date was given.

After a quick compilation of indie games published by Devolver Digital coming to PS4, the third unicorn surfaced: Shenmue 3. Yu Suzuki, original creator of the Shenmue series, took the stage to announce that he was going to use Kickstarter to fund Shenmue 3 with a goal of securing $2 million in funding. That seems like a modest goal for what ideally would be a massive undertaking (the original game had a budget of about $47 million, which translates to more like $67 million today). Granted, the same development tools that allow small teams to create games like No Man’s Sky and Firewatch will definitely streamline costs, and the game has already hit its funding goal, but there have been a number of high-profile Kickstarter projects that have failed spectacularly due to not being realistic about their budgets recently, and I’d hate to see Shenmue 3 join that particular pile of wreckage.

A quick demo of some exclusive content coming to Arkham Knight followed, along with an update on how Sony’s VR headset Project Morpheus is coming along (as I said yesterday, I’m not sold on the technology yet, no matter who is producing it). Sony then touted its Playstation Vue TV initiative, which they announced as beginning to offer channels a la carte, rather than paying for multichannel packages, the way that literally everyone does it now (even Sling TV, a service that offers greater choice than a traditional cable company’s bundles, but still makes you buy multiple channels together). They kind of downplayed just how big of a deal this is, but there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario here: if Sony can only convince relatively minor rightsholders to offer their channels individually, few people will purchase the service, limiting Sony’s clout to strike further deals. We’ll have to see how it plays out over the next year or so.

Next came a hilariously terrible demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, which offered glimpses of both single and multiplayer (the latter of which looked suspiciously like the on-foot combat of Titanfall), but which looked unimpressive compared to most of the other titles shown off and frankly pretty boring. I haven’t been interested in CoD for a while, and BOIII doesn’t look like it’s going to do anything to change my opinion. Sony announced a new partnership with Activision to bring maps and other content to PS4 first, ending a long relationship with Microsoft, but I find it hard to care, even though I know people who will be upset about it. Glimpses of Disney Infinity 3.0, featuring Star Wars characters and content, and Star Wars: Battlefront, which continues to impress, followed.

The night closed with a long, live gameplay demo of Uncharted 4, similar to the way Microsoft closed with Gears 4. The demo featured a mix of cutscenes, gun combat and vehicular mayhem, which really just means it’s definitely an Uncharted game. I wish it was coming this year, but considering the game seemed to crash after its opening cutscene, prompting a restart of the demo, perhaps it’s for the best. It still looks great and I’m excited to play it in 2016.

Overall, yesterday was a great day to be a gamer, and I’m excited for the holiday season and beyond.

 

E3 Press Conferences: Microsoft

I went to E3 once, in 2006. It was loud, crowded, and kind of insane, and from what I read later, it was one of the conference’s more restrained years, happening just before it was scaled back and nearly cancelled entirely. I had fun, but I did a pretty terrible job of really covering anything. The biggest thing that happened that year was the Wii was playable, but actually doing so required waiting in a line for 2+ hours. I declined to wait in line, but one of the guys I went with had his mind blown by some of the early demos.

Today, pretty much everything that could be gained by actually going to E3 can be experienced and consumed by watching the various streaming conferences, trailers and interviews that publishers put up all week. I wouldn’t mind going back at some point, but it doesn’t really seem necessary the way it once was.

This morning, I watched Microsoft’s press conference that has historically served as the official/unofficial kickoff for E3 (the conference doesn’t technically start until tomorrow, but gaming press and industry types have been flooding into the LA area since at least late last week), and it was pretty good! I wasn’t really sure what to expect, since their press briefings have been kind of boring since they announced the Xbox One, but this year they focused almost singularly on games, offering little in the way of comment or filler in between gameplay demos and trailers. What follows is a synopsis of some of my favorite bits.

Halo 5 was the first game shown off, with gameplay that… mostly looked pretty familiar. With 4 player drop-in/out co-op, it looks like there will be a stronger emphasis on team play, but Halo was always more fun with a friend anyway, so this isn’t a huge surprise. Everything looked pretty detailed and fluid, though, and after skipping The Master Chief Collection last year, I’m pretty stoked to revisit that overwrought sci-fi world this fall.

Next was a brief trailer for an intriguing new IP called Recore from Keiji Inafune, best-known for creating the Megaman series (among many other games) at Capcom. The game stars a girl and her robot dog, the latter of which is represented by an AI core that can be put into various other robot forms based on the trailer and its final teaser image.

At this point, Phil Spencer took the stage and offered the only real break in trailers and gameplay, announcing backward compatibility for Xbox 360 games (via emulation, which means it will roll out in waves, very similar to the way the Xbox 360 implemented it for original Xbox games) and a new “Elite” controller that looks very nice but will cost $150 for some reason. The price was not announced during the conference, but when their info page went live, I saw multiple tweets from people who liked the idea but were shocked by the price. Consider me among them.

Bethesda actually had their own press conference yesterday, but Todd Howard of Bethesda came out to talk about Fallout 4, which looks pretty great and comes out in November. Fallout 3 was one of my favorite games of the last generation, and FO4 looks like a worthy successor.

After a fairly boring segment from Peter Moore to talk about EA Access, a service of dubious merit to pay $5 monthly for last year’s games, announcements, trailers and gameplay demos started to come hard and fast. Forza 6, Dark Souls 3, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege (which will come with two previous-generation games, Rainbow Six Vegas 1 and 2, for free, a savvy move taking advantage of that new backward compatibility), and Gigantic were announced and/or shown off, followed by an indie games showcase that seemed tailor-made to combat Sony’s emphasis on indie games since before the PS4 launched. Some of the games looked pretty good, but Cuphead, a mashup of 1930’s-style animation and 16-bit platforming/shooting gameplay, was a standout.

A Microsoft riff on Steam Early Access called Xbox Game Preview was announced next, with The Long Dark and Elite: Dangerous available to download today. They also made it clear that you can download and try any game in the program before you commit to spending money on it. I’ve occasionally taken advantage of Steam Early Access, and the move is understandable, but it’s not a particularly exciting initiative at the moment.

After that, the deluge of trailers and demos resumed, with a 6-minute gameplay demo of Rise of the Tomb Raider being a standout. Rare announced a collection of 30 classic games that sounds like fun (in particular, I’m excited to play Blast Corps again, even though it has the potential to ruin my memories of how awesome it was when I played it on the N64 as a teenager. Rare also announced Sea of Thieves, an MMO-looking pirate simulator? The footage looked pretty early and more like a proof-of-concept than a working prototype, but it looked fun nonetheless.

Near the end of the show, Microsoft announced a bunch of different VR initiatives. They announced Xbox One to Windows 10 PC streaming previously, but today they said that you could also add Oculus Rift into the mix, streaming from Xbox to PC and then from PC to Rift. It all sounded like a great way to introduce and foreground lag, but a lot depends on how well the streaming works and how tolerant it is of network performance and interference. They also took the opportunity to talk about HoloLens, which led the audience to groan… until a demo showed it projecting Minecraft in 3D on a table. I think the whole thing looks pretty gimmicky (then again, I feel this way about all of the current VR initiatives) but I can see it being a platform seller among the tween set already immersed in all things MinecraftRegardless of how it plays out, it was an impressive demo of a technology that’s inspired almost nothing but skepticism since its announcement.

The show ended with Coalition Games (formerly Black Tusk Studios), who announced an already-rumored Gears of War remaster along with some early gameplay of Gears 4. The latter looked incredibly impressive for what must have been a pretty early demo, though it also felt just a little too beholden to the gameplay beats and concepts established by the first game in 2006.

I’ve read that Microsoft is working on adding TV DVR functionality to the Xbox One, which I’m super stoked about, and it felt like not touching on that (if it is, indeed, a thing) was a missed opportunity. There was a brief bit of lip service where we were told to “tune into our daily show to catch a preview of our new system interface” later today, but if DVR is a feature coming this fall/holiday, I would personally want to shout it from the rooftops.

But maybe that’s just me.