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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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The E3 Bulletin: Monday

Scarlett! Keanu! Deathloop!

The E3 bulletin runs each day of E3 week. Here are 2019's entries: Monday | Tuesday | Wednesday | Thursday | Friday

To LA, once again, where the industry's greatest marketing budgets come out to shine. This year's trends: mindless cheering, pre-rendered trailers and people trapped in a looping reality in which the same mistakes are repeated indefinitely, which is frankly a bit too on-the-nose as E3 metaphor and which we request be addressed in the rewrite.

Things started with a sigh on Saturday, when EA Play kicked things off not with a press conference (booo) but a series of livestreams about games which had already been announced. This was better for the away team but worse for everybody at home, because there was a disappointing lack of Slack messages moaning about incompetent queuing and embargo breaks to enliven the experience of sitting in the office at midnight. Instead we had to make do with a competent selection of game updates and a disappointing lack of theatre.

The highlight was Star Wars: Fallen Order. It's Uncharted with Force powers, a robot sidekick, Respawn-brand wall-running and carefully rationed cross-media references, which is pretty much what we were expecting. It also has some Dark Souls-ish elements, which we weren't, and will hopefully make up for the weirdly punchable leading man. Emma saw an extended demo and has helpfully listed all the things you need to know about it.

Sims 4 has a dolphin, and FIFA 20 has FIFA Street except it's part of the main game now, replacing the Mass Effect-ish The Journey mode and presumably leaving Alex Hunter on the bench indefinitely. The other new features are smaller tweaks which begged the question, which Chris asked, of why they couldn't just be patched into FIFA 19. Too complicated, apparently, although they can add the entire Pacific theatre to Battlefield 5 so maybe one day DLScience will find a way. The lack of formal press conference meant we were denied the formal Terrified Indie Developer Autocue Recital, although EA Originals is still a thing with several interesting new games in the pipeline.

Then to Microsoft, with expectations carefully in check. It is a testament to Microsoft's majestic history of PR disasters that even with Sony not attending the show, victory was not assured. The entire industry could sack off E3 - an outcome which becomes a bit more plausible each year - and leave an open goal that spanned the horizon, and we'd still brace for Microsoft to announce a Master Chief fitness tracker and a Gears plugin for Office365.

Phil Spencer is not a man to make such mistakes, though, bringing not only Cyberpunk 2077 but Keanu Actual Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077. A genuine celebrity stumbling over the marketing bullet points is a true classic of the E3 conference genre, and the unprecedented twist was that both game and celebrity are so adored. You couldn't ask for a stronger stage appearance, and the only problem was that nothing that followed could come close to matching it.

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Even the news that Microsoft is acquiring ur-indie Double Fine barely registered, although that might be because Tim Schafer's announcement video was a bald confirmation that, yes, they were doing it for the money. Microsoft's first-party organisation is starting to get a bit scary now, suggesting that GDC attendees should start having their own security detail lest they be forcibly conscripted into the coming Console Wars.

A partnership between Forza and a toy company sounds like the sort of #brand #synergy that is intoxicating to marketeers and just toxic to everybody else, but it's Forza Horizon and Lego so that's... good? Actually? Like Keanu and Cyberpunk, the pairing was unsettlingly well-judged, but it was followed by a trailer for a Gears Funko Pop mobile game which we hope delights all members of its target demographic but do not wish to consider for a minute longer.

The Infinite Power of the Cloud and Microsoft Flight Simulator was another worryingly neat pairing that everybody was extremely happy about, although this overlooks the fact that Microsoft tried to resurrect Flight Sim a few years back only to have it slide off the slab and into oblivion. Age of Empires 2 has likewise had an HD remake and a failed reboot appended to its gravestone, which makes us somewhat suspicious of its return in even higher definition alongside a new dedicated studio. We wish it every success but we won't put the masonry chisel away just yet. Elsewhere in What Year Is It news, there is a new Blair Witch game which actually looks OK in a sort of Outcast X Alan Wake sort of way. Neither The Outer Worlds or Ori and the Will of the Wisps were new but both looked good.

The MAN GUNS TANKS EXPLOSIONS WAR GUITAR RAWKKKK trailer for Crossfire X played like a very expensive parody of E3 conference trailers right down to not explaining what the game actually is, which is apparently "sort of like Counter-Strike but Korean". Nothing got lowered from the ceiling but some wrestlers got sent to hell, or something - the livestream wasn't terribly clear, but it was in service of Gears of War 5 which is out in September. It has the Terminator in it, because of marketing. There's some free DLC for Borderlands 2 which will set you up for Borderlands 3, and Phantasy Star Online is coming to the West, but not neccessarily Europe.

Minecraft Dungeons appears to be Minecraft Diablo, which would have been exciting but had leaked beforehand, along with Ninja Theory's unexpected pivot into multiplayer Bleeding Edge and pretty much everything you need to know about Game Pass: it's on PC, it's got loads of new games on it, and it's really rather affordable. We also already knew that From Software's next game is co-scripted by George RR Martin and the next Tales game is Of Arise.

There was a commendable deterioration of the previous habit of giving the indie games five seconds in a sizzle reel squashed between extended cinematics. The former now contained such low-key IPs as Lord of the Rings, and the latter was used to highlight things like 12 Minutes (Groundhog Day but with murders), Way to the Woods (the post-apocalypse, but you're a deer), and Legend of Write (Drawn to Death but with artwork by a child who doesn't bite people).

As has become the norm, there was barely time to parse what you were seeing before they threw to the next World Premiere, but the takeaway is that it's a good time to play video games and you have plenty to choose from. The audience was notably less moved when Spencer started talking about streaming, but in hindsight that was the most important thing on show: between Game Pass and XCloud, Microsoft will have its streaming stall live before Google Stadia arrives. Bandwidth optimisation is no Ryse vs. Knack, but we'll take what can get in these closing months of the current console generation before the knives come out next year.

On the subject of which: hey, how about that new Xbox? It's now formally badged Project Scarlett, the news on which amounted to promises of exponential performance growth by man with exponential beard growth. SSD is in, loading times are out, and a series of Dragon Ball Z-esque soundbites assured us that numbers are increasing to an unprecedented level. We will patiently wait for Digital Foundry to issue judgement.

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Then it was thrown to Halo to play us out, via a trailer that confirmed Halo Infinite will contain both Master Chief and sad dad emotions, thus ensuring feature parity with God of War. The soundtrack still stirs the heart, damn it, but otherwise it was another pre-rendered representation of a game that will one day exist, which is a far less welcome E3 throwback. It's understandable that companies are reluctant to show footage when they still haven't confirmed the spec of the machine it'll be running on, but there was a bit more sparkle than substance.

This proved preferable to what came next. Bethesda studded its conference with what felt like cover versions of some of E3's worst moments: incomprehensible technical banter, extended chat about mobile games, and a suspiciously hysterical "community" who gave a rapturous response to anything more evocative than a request to put their phones on silent. The live tech demo didn't suddenly crash or reveal itself to be pre-rendered video, so it wasn't a true classic of the form, but there was a lot of the stuff that Microsoft benefited from excluding.

In general the show was marked by aggressive penitence from executives and aggressive cheering from the audience. The former was dedicated to Fallout 76, which is getting human NPCs, additional quests, and Battle Royale. The later was directed mostly at dragons, which continue to be present in Elder Scrolls Online. This was one of three Elder Scrolls games on show, which is notable for the fact that none of them were the Elder Scrolls game people really wanted to hear about, which is still under wraps til further notice.

Starfield wasn't there either, although in fairness the Fallout 76 changes seem like they'll make the game more palatable to people who want to wander the earth talking to NPCs and then murdering them. We can't say this with confidence either way because the audience screamed at pretty much everything, suggesting a crowd filled with marketing plants or out of their mind on energy drinks, or both, although there was a noticeable pin-drop silence when they were invited to imagine a "Saturday morning kid's TV show as a free-to-play mobile game". This turned out to be a Commander Keen reboot, about which the kindest thing may be said is that it lived up to the description.

In better news, the new stuff was all-new and all very promising. Ghostwire Tokyo is the latest from Shinji Mikami's Tango Gameworks, which is good, although it was introduced by yet another pre-rendered trailer, which was bad. Creative director Ikumi Nakamura was extremely excited to introduce it, though, which was a cheeringly pure shot of human enthusiasm.

Arkane's latest, Deathloop, took us back to pre-rendered trailer territory and back to Groundhog Day vibes, but it looks more interesting than the grindhouse title suggests and it's just great to see Arkane get to keep doing its thing. Machinegames is still doing its thing, too, as demonstrated by Wolfenstein VR and a new Youngblood trailer that reaffirmed the unsettlingly novel assertion that Nazis are bad.

The discussion of Orion games streaming felt like an extended introduction to a splash screen logo that we'll be hammering buttons to skip, an option that was regrettably not offered for the presentation itself. The memory, and increasingly our grip on reality, was washed away by an extended run through Doom Eternal, a perfectly-on brand outpouring of violence and seemingly demonstrated using actual gameplay footage to boot.

Devolver came next but we've learned not to face that with day-one sleep deprivation so we gave it a miss - you can find all the announcements here. That's day one done, come back tonight to see what Square and Ubisoft have brought this year.