A school gym in England, mid-'90s, and two local rugby players await orders. One is small and wide and called Adrian, and one is tall and weighs about 20 stone. He's Big Dave. Adrian has been getting flattened by Big Dave all day but he keeps getting back up. It's the rugby training in him: you bloody well get back up if you're knocked down. But this instinct is starting to annoy the people he's in the school gym for, the people making the sports game. They're trying to motion-capture for a rugby game and would rather Adrian lay still. They should be careful what they wish for.
If there's one aspect of Xbox One X coverage we've yet to explore in depth so far, it's how enhanced first-party titles compare with existing PC and Xbox One versions of the same game. For example, all marketing of the beautiful Forza Motorsport 7 has been on X hardware, while other titles such as Sea of Thieves have only been demoed thus far running on the Xbox One S. The good news is that at Gamescom, we were given access to an early build of Halo Wars 2 running on Xbox One X, and armed with 4K direct feed capture, we're able to offer an early look at scalability on an established Xbox Play Anywhere title.
The original Halo Wars ends by putting itself in stasis, with the human warship Spirit of Fire coasting through void - its crew forced into cryosleep, its ultimate relation to the rest of the saga left open for debate. The in-game explanation for this uncertain denouement is the loss of the vessel's Faster Than Light drive. The creative rationale was perhaps Bungie's intense ambivalence about handing the keys to its universe over to Ensemble, developer of the Age of Empires games. Packed with all the floaty jeeps and energy swords a Halo fan could wish for, the plot of Halo Wars nonetheless sits at a careful remove from the numbered Halos, offering a separate cast and events that, for all their dizzying import, never quite overlap with the antics of Master Chief and co. Fast-forward to 2017, and even as the robust-looking Halo Wars 2 approaches release, there's the sense that the Spirit of Fire's fate has become that of Halo as a whole - a mass of trailing story threads and lost souls, waiting for somebody to give it a heading.
Creative Assembly is at its very core a PC strategy game developer. Here's a studio that enjoys words such as 'anti-aliasing' and 'mouse acceleration'. What, then are they doing with a real-time strategy franchise that can be played with a controller?
One of the things I love most about strategy gaming is its breadth, and few comparisons speak to that like the pairing of The Creative Assembly, architect of Total War, and Ensemble, the now-shuttered creator of the original Halo Wars. Total War's real-time battles hinge on the glacial spectacle of formations colliding, subject to a creeping alchemy of terrain conditions and morale. Halo Wars takes a completely different tack, adapted from Ensemble's Age of Empire series: it's fast-paced, abstract, finely poised between base management and combat, and more or less devoid of messy variables such as unit psychology. What could possibly happen when one developer takes over where the other left off? The answer, going by the Xbox One beta, is: nothing all that mind-blowing so far.
Microsoft's E3 media briefing was strong, I thought, although its impact was dulled by a pretty spectacular set of leaks that not only revealed the existence of the Xbox One S and Scorpio ahead of time, but the running order of the show.
What a difference one man and 18 months can make. Before Phil Spencer took over at Xbox, the brand was in troubled waters. Questionable policy decisions had shook Xbox and mired the early days of its new console in acrimony, and even though Microsoft wisely chose to listen to concerned consumers it's been working hard to regain the momentum lost ever since. As it heads into a vital fourth quarter of 2015, the momentum has definitely returned: the broadening of the Xbox brand to PC was helped by the relatively smooth roll-out of Windows 10, the Xbox division just turned a neat profit and, while it still falls short in sales to Sony's PlayStation 4, its line-up for the remainder of the year looks significantly stronger than its opposition's.