Sony had more wow moments, but Microsoft has closed the competence gap
A lack of 2014 titles on both sides of the console war favours Xbox.
First things first, congratulations to Microsoft. I have been on their case ever since that awful mess in Redmond last May, but Monday's E3 press conference was a vast improvement. The message may have taken a long time to go in, but the focus on games that everyone has been asking for was inarguable - so much so that even a cool new Snap mode app giving you more control over Achievements was relegated to the pre-show, presumably not to dampen the focus and risk incurring further wrath.
At the end of 90 solid minutes of games, I remarked on Twitter that it felt like a strong conference but would probably be judged on the strength or otherwise of Sony's a few hours later - and so it proved. It felt like Sony had more wow moments than Microsoft and, despite sagging a little in the middle, generated more positive headlines. A few hours later in the warm light of Tuesday morning, though, perhaps it's not so clear cut.
As is often the case on day two of E3 week, I awoke to find my friends on social media bickering merrily about the conferences. The object of their debate was Grand Theft Auto 5 on PC and next-gen. Is it a big deal? Yes, said one camp, because it will be nice to roam around such a beautiful and carefully constructed open world, one of the finest ever created, at a higher resolution and frame-rate. No, said the other, because we can't spare them another 50 hours for the same thing. Except: can't we?
Because looking back over Monday's events, one thing that stands out is that there is a lot of cool stuff coming down the pipes, but very little of it is going to keep us busy this year, something also borne out by the amount of CG filling all those conference minutes that we hoped would be devoted to live demos. Uncharted 4! Bloodborne! Crackdown! Scalebound! Put them to the back of your mind. You won't be playing them any time soon and, if this year's epidemic of delays is anything to go by, I wouldn't put money on 2015 for any of them either.
Sony and Microsoft didn't have a monopoly on this sort of thing, of course. It arguably reached its nadir in Electronic Arts' conference, in fact, where we were treated to the new phenomenon of "conceptual prototype" footage - live coverage of the beer mat as BioWare scribbles on the back of it, if you like. EA has clearly been paying attention to the rise of crowd-funding and Early Access - ways of means-testing ideas before they're too deep into production - but its approach was a bit, "You like this sort of thing, right? Is this what you like now?" (The Criterion prototype and approach felt altogether smarter and shouldn't be damned by association with the thinness elsewhere.)
So while you can make the argument that Sony had a stronger showing than Microsoft overall, the battle lines for this year don't quite support that narrative. Forget Halo 5 versus Uncharted 4, because the big fights of 2014 are between the likes of Sunset Overdrive and LittleBigPlanet 3. Elsewhere there's the battle of the stopgaps: Halo's Master Chief Collection versus The Last of Us Remastered. Or there's Forza Horizon 2 versus DriveClub - and by the way, the latter didn't even make the PlayStation conference, which hopefully isn't a reflection of Sony's confidence level.
There were plenty of moments of excitement to pick over, though. No Man's Sky from Hello Games continues to look like every sci-fi nerd's dream come true. Bloodborne is a new game from Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose RPGs are so all-consuming that playing them makes you wonder whether you need other games at all. Crackdown is coming back, and the CG trailer suggests Dave Jones has not forgotten what made it special. Meanwhile, Far Cry 4 and Rainbow Six: Siege - the pick of the third-party conferences, sorry EA - both look stunning for different reasons. (And it's something of a relief to see a smart, abstract tactical multiplayer game bearing the Rainbow Six name nowadays rather than the seemingly abandoned Patriots, a game that looked crass to say the least.)
But on the whole, Monday at E3 this year had two themes for me. The first was the lack of imminence, despite plenty of eminence. And the second was that you can argue the toss about who had the stronger showing, Sony or Microsoft. It probably won't do much to affect the number of boxes either company is selling, nor the power differential that continues to haunt coverage of every multi-platform game, but 12 months on from a disastrous month for Xbox - where the One seemed to implode in an ever-tightening corkscrew of U-turns and Sony danced around laughing in its face - Microsoft may regard the fact that who won is debatable at all as a small victory.