Microsoft woos the 360 crowd at E3 2015
Minecraft shines in a showing anchored in nostalgia.
There was no Call of Duty at Microsoft's E3 conference, but the platform holder seemed to be focused on another exclusive element that recently ran into trouble: its control of your friends list. With Xbox One still trailing the PS4, this year's solid but conservative selection of mega-games only truly made sense with Phil Spencer's sign-off. "If you've been waiting to move from the Xbox 360," he said, "now is the time." Lara Croft! Master Chief! Marcus Fenix! I finally get it! For the last 90 minutes, Microsoft hasn't been trying to capture a new audience so much as it's been appealing to the audience it once had.
If that's the case, Backwards Compatibility should be a big help. Announced early on, it's a smart move and one that allowed platform director (his real job title is waaaay longer) Mike Ybarra to score an easy subtweet against Sony's rather pricy PlayStation Now service: "We won't charge you to play the games you already own." The details that followed were kind of hazy, but we're promised over 100 titles by the end of the year, and you'll be able to both use Xbox One features like screenshotting, and play with people on the 360. This is a nice bit of housekeeping for a console that's still struggling, as was the announcement of a new Elite Wireless controller which included swappable parts.
Halo's also a nice carrot for the old fans, and so the conference duly kicked off with a lengthy in-game walkthrough of Halo 5: Guardians. We were offered a generous chunk of action as space marines explored an artfully shattered world, but it's hard not to feel that the magic of the series is in jeopardy with so many Spartans sharing the screen and bantering over comms. Halo 5's campaign will allow you to lead two different squads, which is lovely for variety, but a series that was once defined by lone heroics and vast environments now seems to be about travelling with a band through pretty corridors. Multiplayer should benefit from an increased headcount at least, with Warzone offering huge maps and - I think - blending PvP with PvE in a manner that suggests a glorious sci fi demolition derby. Now that's Halo.
343's work was quickly followed by a teaser for something new that swiftly started to feel like something old. A girl and her robot explore a dreamy, sandblown wasteland where the struts of old machines stick out of the ground like shattered ribs, it's almost a shock at the halfway point of the CG trailer when genre asserts itself and the guns come out. This is Recore, a new first-party exclusive from Keiji Inafune and Armature. It's already being touted as a potential franchise, but that's presumably a matter for the audience to decide.
Next came Fallout 4 (mods on console was one of the evening's loveliest pieces of news), Peter Moore pimping EA Access and throwing in a reveal for Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2, and Forza 6, which crystalised the theme of looking forwards by turning to the past with a moony archival kiss in the direction of the Ford Motor Company. Always dangerous to get the people synonymous with the production line involved when you're discussing creativity, but Forza shrugged it off rather well. Henry Ford the 3rd even joined Dan Greenawalt on stage to shed light on "the most beautiful, technically advanced, biggest" Forza game yet. Like the man said: any colour, as long as it's shiny.
Up next, the trailer for Dark Souls 3 would have technically been the announcement if Bandai Namco hadn't accidentally let it slip earlier, but it was CG and light on detail anyway. Worryingly, The Division wasn't given a very comprehensive airing either: it continues to look beautiful, its Manhattan covered in Christmas frost and filled with a weaponised virus (probably not Christmas-related, this bit), but it also continues to look like a project that has struggled to find its way. It's "a deep, realistic action RPG that feels personal," according to Laurent Detoc, the president of Ubisoft America. Just how it feels personal he would prefer not to reveal, alas, and he clearly felt much more comfortable discussing Rainbow Six Siege, which is out this year and will bundle Vegas and Vegas 2 on backwards compatibility - a weaponised approach to the vault which may prove increasingly popular with publishers.
New stuff thin on the ground, it was time for a quick injection of indies, with Gigantic - which seemed new, even though it was announced at GDC and everyone has already forgotten about it - a free-to-play fantasy action game seguing into a trailer of colourful download treats, a handful drawn out for closer inspection. (If this quick-fire treatment sounds like a slight after the time afforded to triple-A stuff, it could be worse. Just before the conference began, with next to no fanfare, Microsoft youtubed a deluge of trailers for indies that, as a group, give you the impression that the company bought the job-lot, sight unseen, from a man they met on a ferry.)
With Tacoma, it looks like Fullbright's having a fresh crack at twisting the BioShock formula with another investigation into a shattered world, this time a space colony of some kind. These guys are your go-to people for ludic inquests by this point; it's nice to have a niche. Elsewhere, Aurora44's Ashen sounded like a fantasy DayZ, Beyond Eyes drowned its pretty visuals and lovely concept - a blind girl explores the world through senses other than sight - with the cloddish application of Sensitive Piano, and brothers Chad and Jerry giggled through a deeply appealing demo of Cuphead, a hit from last year that combines 1930s animation with 16-bit precision. Hopefully they get that mixture the right way around. ID@Xbox boss Chris Charla closed out this year's indies segment with the news that, having seen its success on Steam, Microsoft has decided to invent Early Access. It's called Xbox Game Preview, and it comes with the crucial - and welcome - distinction that you get a free trial for every game. (Some might argue that, after that refunds policy business, you do on Steam, too.) The Long Dark and Elite Dangerous lead the charge, and they'll be available later today.
Meanwhile: "I want a game that is not a game." That's hardly up there with A Tale of Two Cities' opener, Dean Hall. No matter, the DayZ creator's game looked wonderful, even in the vague form he described it in. I think that with Ion he was talking about an open-universe game driven by serious scientific simulation and charting mankind's expansion into space, all of which sounds absolutely dazzling. The teaser gave very little away beyond a welcome ambition. When this lands on Xbox Game Preview this could be a brainy, difficult complement to No Man's Sky, and that would be a treat. Also I will be able to re-use my brilliant "any old Ion" joke, which Blizzard's Ion Hazzikostas already enjoys so much.
Onto the home stretch, we were back to the comfortably familiar for the most part. A lengthy Tomb Raider demo suggests that some very recognisable design ideas lurked beneath the delightfully crunchy snow and ice as Lara clambered up a mountain and then outran an avalanche. For a moment, a ruin glimmered on the horizon - a space to explore? - but the rest of the trailer hints that Rise of the Tomb Raider may be as intrusively scripted as the reboot. Next up was Rare, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a compilation package of 30 games, the announcement set to an old Fat Boy Slim track. Rare! Fat Boy Slim! It's enough to send me to AllDays for a Maverick Bar and a copy of VOX. Looking to the future, Rare's next project is a shared world adventure game that seems to cover every pirate cliche in the books, which I want to be clear is a very, very good thing. You can walk the plank and open chests of doubloons and blast enemy ships to pieces with canon, and the trailer even included the most family-friendly skewered skeleton you will ever witness. Sea of Thieves looks lovely, although lumping it together with Fable Legends highlights the worrying notion that, in Microsoft's world, Brit devs are essentially left doing theme pubs.
It's fitting, given the nostalgic bent of the conference, that its shock and awe moment should come with a beloved title. Not Gears of War, mind, which gets a remaster of the original game and a trailer for Gears 4 (suitably gothic and spooky), but Minecraft, brought to life on a table by HoloLens. I suspect this is the instance at the fingerpost for many when it comes to Microsoft's odd new tech: Mojang's classic is the perfect tool to make all the AR and "mixed reality" chat convincing and tangible. The banter was strained - it takes a serious lack of presentation charisma to find no life in the line "There you have it: zombie pigmen!" - but the proposition was dazzling: Minecraft spilling over the edges of the kitchen table, castles rising to the ceiling, while a quick flick of the hand lifts the whole thing to reveal a stronghold lurking beneath it. Minecraft!
All told, you can understand the doubling-down approach. A few years back when Microsoft genuinely had a bold new idea, it turned out to be more to do with TV and changing its audience relationship with the ownership of their physical media. The swift reaction to that would probably make anybody slightly conservative. There were signs here today, though, that the tumblers are turning again: this was in many ways a conference with one eye on console and another on PC. Now that's an audience that largely tuned Microsoft out a long time ago - and the fight to reclaim them is going to require some bold thinking sooner or later.