E3 2019: Microsoft

Note: The following article contains spoilers for The LEGO Movie, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Halo 3.

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There was something mildly irritating lurking in the back of my head as I came away from Microsoft last year. It's not that their conference was in any way a disaster; in fact, it had a lot of high points, but I didn't feel that buzz that most people seemed to on the back of their presser. For me, their presentations were marred by declarations that Microsoft was courting profound and diverse experiences when the ones they were showing were mostly the tried and tested empowerment fantasies that gaming has always relied on. There's nothing wrong with creating some meaty, heroic action games, and there's nothing wrong with trying to expand the boundaries of the medium and make something unique. However, when you try to sell the former as the latter, it comes across as a company with the safety of billions of dollars behind them posing as the vulnerable individuals and smaller studios that risk their livelihoods to advance the medium. That rubs me the wrong way. The tone this year felt more honest, and the press conference was better for it: Spencer wasn't claiming that the next DmC or Crackdown was going to reach across boundaries of cultures and nations to unite humanity. He was claiming that we could discover, acquire, and achieve in games to create personal histories with this media that we can be proud of.

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The show opened with a trailer for Outer Wilds, which, along with Bleeding Edge, Rage 2, Wasteland 3, and Borderlands 3, is a member of a new subgenre of game. There are few films that have been more influential on the medium than Mad Max, but that series is a little self-serious for the run-and-gun madness of most computer games. Borderlands took the Mad Max skin, cartoonified it, and in some areas, added a splash of colour, to give us a post-apocalyptic aesthetic more in line with traditional video game attitudes. Now, goofy-looking scrap worlds with bright plumage are a whole art movement in games. But more gorgeous than any of the Borderlands-likes was Ori and the Will of the Wisps; it's not easy to make your game look unsettling and alluring at the same time. Big spiders are still a creepy enemy because they're one of the few unseating creatures we come into contact with in our everyday life. Minecraft: Dungeons is fascinating if for no other reason than where it fits into Minecraft as a franchise. It used to be that when your media product hit big, you churned out all the sequels and merchandise you could, but the Minecraft series was an early example of a game achieving stardom and siphoning that success into more updates for the core game instead of spinning itself out into a lot of new products. Still, Fortnite has taught a generation of kids what loot is, so it's hard to imagine Minecraft: Dungeons not doing gangbusters.

We had another glance at Jedi: Fallen Order and I've seen community members compare it to Uncharted, but something Uncharted excelled at was blurring the line between play and cutscenes, and that line feels drawn so thick with Fallen Order. The Blair Witch game, we don't have enough info on to make a call on, but I hope it's not just a rebranded Outlast and I would say that you could never evoke the air of the original Blair Witch in the modern age. There was so much mystery around the film when it came out that it felt to viewers like a piece of found footage whereas now Blair Witch is a worldwide franchise and doesn't carry the same eeriness with it. That doesn't mean a Blair Witch game is going to be worse than that film, but it does mean that it has to do something different to appear as anomalous. The best case scenario might be that it plays more with concepts of recording and replaying.

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And then there was Cyberpunk 2077. I'm floored by the environmental design in this game every time I see it; it's a glowing neon slap in the face, but what I'm looking for now is a little more backup on CD Projekt Red's statement from last year that this is a political game. When there are so many studios treating explicit politics as a mark of shame, this studio leaned in, but I'd like to see that manifest in the game, or at least, I'd like to see more texture to that world. Emerging from its chrysalis of a tabletop roleplaying game, Cyberpunk 2077 has the potential to enliven its setting with the complex social dynamics that its appearance would suggest, but it's not apparent that those dynamics are extant here. However, the trailer suggested that the protagonist could carry out missions that were personally motivated to rather than just acquiring one from a random NPC. Also, I don't know what this means, but it is weird that Microsoft could show a guy getting his arms cut off and neck impaled but had to censor swearing.

Cyberpunk 2077's spot ended with both virtual and flesh cameos from Keanu Reeves, and I'm not above taking this as an opportunity to say that I'm loving the Keanu resurgence right now. He was the scientifically perfect balance of absurd to cool for the show, and it feels spiritually correct that big budget cyberpunk has looped all the way around to return Neo to us. Thinking about it, Microsoft had a lot of likeable people on stage this year from Reeves to Tim Schafer to Sarah Bond. It was a deft move to shift gears down from Cyberpunk 2077 to the fluffy indie adventure Spiritfairer. If you can't outdo your previous game, why not follow it with a different kind of game? Which I suppose is also the logic in transitioning from Spiritfairer to Battletoads, but Battletoads feels like such a relic of the 90s. I'm not entirely sure why Sonic is loathed for his outdated badittude while the Battletoads get a pass for the same, but I'd attribute part of it to the Battletoads having quit while they were ahead. Now they're back for some reason.

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Overall, I have to commend Microsoft for being better on smaller games this year than they were for the last couple. We saw more indie titles on stage, and you can't ignore how much of a get Double Fine is for them. They showed us that it's not all machismo and megatextures: there's some heart and soul in their lineup. The new Xbox Game Pass sounds like a great deal, although I'm also highly wary of any service that keeps us from owning our games. Despite the speech that Spencer made about us finding "our" games, for material purposes, the Game Pass games aren't ours. I feel the same way about the new Xbox cloud service, although, it is worth noting that Sony and Microsoft have a potential leg up on Google in this department. Even after two streams on it, we don't know a lot about the pricing and games available on the Stadia service, but the PlayStation Now and Xbox One libraries are known quantities, and we can be confident that both Microsoft and Sony have rich game collections going into the future.

The climate is right for the new Microsoft Flight Sim. Steam is full of successful games that are technical and dry but create a steady sense of productivity. Flight Sim scratches the same itch that Bus Simulator or Planet Coaster do. The Wasteland 3 trailer was a reminder that video game humour is often unfunny because subtlety and referencing the real world are not traditionally virtues in the medium. But also, you have to remember that adverts are generally unfunny. They're going for big, obvious jokes and characters because they need to grab attention from people who often aren't there to actively offer it. LEGO Star Wars: Starwalker Saga will hopefully be a pleasurable time for kids and brings the popular LEGO games full circle, but I can't help but feel that we are drowning in Star Wars at the moment. If you get a treat all the time, it stops feeling like a treat.

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12 Minutes is an example of a game that shows really well in a bitesize slot. It has a name and loop that combine to make it immediately apparent to the audience how it plays while laying out a compelling concept. The male voice actor in that trailer was stiff as a board, and I'm not sure that the overhead camera enables us to connect with these characters any better, but this is an Annapurna game, and so far, I don't think they've made a bet on a developer that didn't pay out. Way to the Woods looks adorable; it's one of those games where every frame is its own beautiful photograph. It has the undeniable charm of a Donut County with the lonely survivalist imagery of a Tokyo Jungle.

It's noteworthy that Microsoft ran the preview for Way to the Woods back-to-back with a concept trailer for Gears 5 and had the game about deer come out as more human than the game about humans. I remain baffled by the idea that Gears' triumph was in affecting players with emotional anguish rather than giving a sense of weight and power as it pioneered the cover shooter. I also don't understand the strategy of having a Gears 5 multiplayer demo that takes place long after the conference has ended. It's in the vein of EA's post-conference tournaments, but those always led seamlessly on from the show proper to guarantee maximum viewer figures instead of relying on people tuning out and then awkwardly back in part way between the Microsoft and Bethesda conference.

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I've talked a lot about the fallacy of thinking of games as wholly rooted in a piece of software, and how they're also fundamentally made by the peripherals we use to play them, so the new Xbox One controllers look to be transformative. You can see how developing controllers for the typical professional has taught Microsoft more about peripheral customisation and that they applied those lessons to working on controllers for the disabled. Conversely, you can see that working on controllers for the disabled has also taught them more about making input hardware for the mainstream. In both cases, customisation is an asset; there's no one player, so it doesn't make sense that there be just one controller.

Forza Horizon 4: LEGO Speed Champions looks fun. It's taking inspiration from the Forza 3 Hot Wheels expansion before it which in turn felt like it took leaves from Burnout Paradise's Big Surf Island and Toy Cars DLC. There is some irony in Playground Games taking a toy that is about customising and building original creations and using its aesthetic to sell you prebuilt, non-modifiable cars and tracks. The LEGO Movie's Everything is Awesome backs the trailer, but in the film, that's the uninspired mass-manufactured pop song that the protagonist clings to before he's learned to be creative instead of following everyone else's lead in his construction. You see this happen with the LEGO branding a lot.

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It feels like we barely got clear of the last FromSoftware game before another one appeared in the viewfinder, but then Elden Ring is probably at least a year out. The aspect that's turning heads is George R.R. Martin's attachment to the project, but the industry has had multiple forays into plastering big names from literature and film onto games, and it's never provided a guarantee that those creators will have a transformatively positive impact on a project. Think of Homefront and Jonathan Millius or F.E.A.R. 3 and John Carpenter.

And lastly, there's Project Scarlett. I think games have typically put the horse before the cart in often worshipping the tech alone without analysing whether it's being used to realise inspired visual art. However, if Microsoft can take the most powerful console on the market and quadruple its performance by late 2020, that's pretty mind-blowing. And by blending RAM into SSD storage, we're fast approaching an age when turning on your machine could feel more like turning on your monitor and opening a program will feel like pulling up a minimised window. Yet, to make it appear to the crowd as more than a tech spec, you have to show your hardware making good on your promises, and Microsoft got only halfway there.

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That Halo Infinite in-engine trailer looked pretty, but it didn't look four times as pretty as an Xbox One X game, especially considering that the environment was very enclosed. Worse, it just wasn't a confident closer or a trailer that gives me any faith in Halo Infinite. It's been almost four years since Halo 5, and we got a vague preview of the Infinite engine last year; it's time for something more. I suspect that this scene with the Chief's rescue is the working version of a cutscene from the final game; you can spot the moment when the pilot will ask the Chief to look up and down to calibrate inversion. But it doesn't tell you what the title will be as a shooter, it feels distant from the tone and themes of the series so far, and barely follows on from the cliffhanger at the end of 5. And god, I can't believe we're meant to be going back to a Halo. They had a whole trilogy to tell stories about the Halo arrays, and we've already seen what a broken version of them looked like in two different games. The trajectory of the series had been towards new ground, and that always felt like the right call.

Microsoft's conference was undulating in quality. You could see a promising young game one minute and then immediately be saddled with a complete dud, but then right around the corner find something ridiculous and fun. I like that lack of predictability and that improvement in variation. Overall, I come away from this show feeling good, Microsoft has a continued tendency to eschew communicative gameplay demos for the jumbled editing of video game adverts. This stems in part from their persona as the E3 presenter with the most games to show, more games than I can write about here. If they have a demo, they can put it on the floor or release footage outside the conference; their priority during the show is for you to simply know that each game exists, and to pack all those games into roughly one-hundred minutes, they can't linger on any of them. It's a recipe for volume of announcements over confirmation that what they're announcing is up to scratch. That's not necessarily a problem in itself, but only if we can see more demonstrative proof of those game's quality elsewhere in the expo. The press conferences can no longer be viewed as so self-contained when the companies are so reliant on their biggest fans connecting their dots for them. Thanks for reading.

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