The Xbox One X is going to be a beast. Amazing specs. Amazing look. Amazing tech chatter, a lot of which went over my head. It's built around power, compatibility, and craftsmanship, according to Kareem Choudhry, Xbox Director of Software Engineering, on stage at Microsoft's E3 press briefing, and somehow, it's a magic trick too, because it fits in the smallest box - the smallest Xbox - Microsoft has ever offered. Just look at how powerfully dinky this thing is, like an elephant squeezed into a service elevator. A controller leans insouciantly against one edge of it, and that insouciant controller pretty much towers over the machine. True 4K textures! True 4K assets! Enhanced visual fidelity, isotropic filtering and faster load times on the games you already own! Enough of this blather. Kareem is a man in a hurry. Let's see, he says, what this monster can do.
It can do cars, for one thing. Forza Motorsport 7 looks lovely: sharp and clear, the cars nice and shiny with all of it running at 4K and 60 fps on Xbox One X. But is Forza really the best way to introduce a console that is meant to blow you away? Is Dan Greenawalt banging on about a new Porsche really the strain of hype this behemoth deserves? I was more excited when Choudhry announced the new box had a new power management system so innovative that they named it after the person who designed it. That showed, you know, a bit of character. A bit of quirk. A little bit of humanity glinting from within the silicon.
All of which is to say that, in one way, Microsoft did almost everything right at E3 this year. New hardware priced and dated - $499 and it's out November 7th. Rich Leadbetter's seen it, and he's delighted by what he's seen. Choudhry and Phil Spencer both seemed to have nothing but good things to say for it. And the games? The show, once again, was all games. Wall to wall games. 42 of them, 22 with console exclusivity on Xbox One - or maybe that was console launch exclusivity. And many of the games seem great. So why is the whole thing just a tiny bit underwhelming?
We were promised diversity. The most diverse line-up to ever grace a Microsoft E3 stage. And diversity, in a way, was forthcoming. From Forza we rocketed off to Metro Exodus. Forza had dynamic puddles and "shocking" graphical fidelity. (I think it was the graphical fidelity that was shocking.) Metro has what looks like an open-world, and a giant rat that needs shooting. Outside you get a huge landscape to play in, a crossbow to play with, and a towering mutant bear thing to chase you onto a train and whisk you into the next demo. Man exits pursued by mutant bear! And the next demo takes you somewhere completely different. Ancient Egypt!
Except it's not completely different, because it's Open World Ancient Egypt. Assassin's Creed Origins lands with a decent in-game walkthrough and a trailer that hints that you can slide down the side of a pyramid. Beyond that, though, this looks like business as usual - pleasant business as usual, but still a little short on surprises. You can shoot people and then reclaim the ammo you used, which I think you might also be able to do in Metro. Elsewhere, the menus look a bit like the menus from Destiny. Again, this all looks fun, but it also has a hint of the big crunch to it, of the universe contracting as all games slowly become the same.
Games are flying past now: PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds is fantastic, but it's also on PC. Deep Rock Galactic is probably lovely: a lo-poly mix of crafting and shooting. Crafting and shooting? Here's State of Decay 2 with some more crafting and shooting. Here's The Darwin Project with more shooting, and here's Minecraft with more crafting! Minecraft is going to offer a united global community across devices, which sounds wonderful: mobile, VR, PC and console players all sharing worlds. There's a 4K patch on the way too, which sort of feels like it's missing the point of Minecraft's ethos, but it looks beautiful. Phil is back, and this is a little too on the nose: "We're searching for games that are fresh, new and in some cases familiar." He's been to Japan and Dragonball Fighter Z blew him away. Black Desert is on its way. Black Desert is Ł6.99 on Steam. I'm sure it's great, but some of these games are starting to look a little odd in a presser that began with the unveiling of a monster.
There are true gems in the line-up. As the games spin past, faster than anyone can really take them in, The Last Night looks like a glorious pixel-art Blade Runner, delivered in a way that makes pixel-art entirely fresh again - well, fresh, new, and in some way familiar. Ashen is a wonderfully evocative action RPG populated by frail, gloomy monsters. Sea of Thieves got a proper prolonged outing, complete with a charming, jokey voiceover, as knowing and winking as you would expect for a game that includes every pirate cliche in the book and revels in the sheer fact that including every pirate cliche in the book is a marvelous selling point. It was a high point of the presentation for me, not just because it is everything my Goonies-loving heart demands, but because it looks like a risk. It looks like it might not work. It looks like mad things might happen out there on the high seas, and in amongst all this familiarity and tight control, that feels valuable.
Not all games made such a striking impression. Crackdown 3 and Terry Crews is root beer and Pop-Tarts to a man like me - a man who loves root beer and Pop-Tarts - but little came across in the time it was given. Life is Strange had no room to stretch its long limbs and arrange its bed head. It was crushed in between epics: game trailers that all begin the same way, with beautiful shots of rugged landscapes from the air, and then end the same way too, with vast forces going at it.
Anthem, which concluded the show, coming right after the date and price for Xbox One X, and a welcome announcement that original Xbox games would be coming to Backwards Compatibility, seemed to sum things up. Anthem looks astonishing: a huge multiplayer game let loose on a beautiful, hostile alien planet. But beneath the bright foliage, craggy vistas and battering dynamic weather, Anthem also looks like a lot of other things. The wildlife is Avatar. The structure is Destiny. The exo-suits are, you know, all those other exo-suits. Even the simulated banter had been imported, from The Division, from Destiny. So much hard work and excellence going into this, so many familiar touchstones.
All of which is the point, of course. In some ways, Microsoft is still reeling from the days when it pitched big ideas and had to deal with the fact that nobody really liked them or wanted them. Now it's back in what should be safer territory: a technological wonder in a box, a load of games that are diverse in genre and - mostly - entirely safe in terms of themes and mechanics and delivery. Everything was on stage up there, except, perhaps, for a true sense of vision.