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Xbox E3 conference report: Microsoft is feeling bold again

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It starts with a console unveiling and it ends with a console unveiling, and between all that is one of Microsoft's most interesting E3 conferences in years. This is a year for subtle messaging and huge thunderbolts - and pulling everything together is games, games, games. Fighting games, racing games, card games (of course) and even pirate games. Microsoft was punished, still fairly recently, for trying to turn the Xbox into a cross-media platform. Since then, it's retreated to the old favourites, risk-averse and seemingly vision-averse. Not this year. This year it's saying something new. And it's saying it, for the most part, with games.

Not that absolutely all of it makes immediate sense. After an opening message that speaks of the Orlando shootings - "the gaming community mourns with you," said Xbox boss Phil Spencer - the first of those consoles is announced: The Xbox One S: a smaller, glossy white version of the Xbox One, with a slightly better controller. 4K, Blu-Ray, HDR gaming. Want one? Possibly. Sadly, an hour from its unveiling, Microsoft is going to leave punters confused and perhaps a little bit annoyed.

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Not yet, though. Next up, Gears of War: a warm bubble bath of pretty storm effects and brisk splatter, rendered ever-so-slightly toothless by familiarity. Still: so pretty, and so weighty. Heavy doors, heavy winds, heavy armour clumping around. Here's a new physics weapon that sends razor-edged disks pinging around the environment. Here's four-player co-op across game modes and a shot of good ol' Marcus Fenix at the end. None of this is the real message, though. The real message is Xbox Play Anywhere: buy the game digitally and you get to own it and play it on both Xbox One and Windows 10 - with saves and Achievements transferring, and crossplay between platforms. This is Microsoft's main theme for the evening.

And the theme is picked up everywhere. After Killer Instinct - super successful, apparently, possibly because it's super free - with a Gears cameo from nobody's favourite boss, General Raam, Forza Horizon 3 revs up. Glossy cars and antic little buggies jouncing across the varied terrain of Australia. It looks beautiful, Playground Games channeling some of the freewheeling spirit of Motorstorm, but once again the thing Microsoft wants you to remember is: Xbox Play Anywhere. Crossplay all over a huge open-world, enlivened with four-player co-op and seamless one-button drop-in. September 27th.

Up next, a slight variation: we get ReCore, a pleasant but rather anonymous robot action game that is consigned to an uninspiring video, and Final Fantasy 15, the series' greyest outing yet, if a three-way boss battle against a giant Titan, mostly visible in the arena as a large hand, is anything to judge it by. It's greeted with muted applause, as is The Division, which gets a video for its new expansion. "Our enemies didn't run away!" says some poor veteran of the Clancyverse. Shame your players did!

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Onward, and the messaging is wavering slightly. Here's DICE with the same Battlefield 1 trailer from yesterday. Here's Mike Ybarra, head of platform engineering, with some polite additions to Xbox Live: new features like the ability to listen to your own music or choose your own language regardless of region. Cortana! Then promises for the Autumn: clubs for like-minded fans, which sound a bit like a corporate take on the Miiverse, looking-for-group functionality, which will actually be incredibly useful, and Arena, a new tournament platform where you can register and compete on games like Fifa.

The theme starts to make a return with Minecraft. 100 million players across 14 platforms, all digging away in separate worlds. Not anymore. Here comes the Friendly Update - swoon, Minecraft: The Friendly Update - with Xbox Live allowing players to connect across mobile and tablet and who knows what else? Dedicated servers are coming too. Play together!

After this, and after a detour into Indie World, which still feels a little cursory, Inside from Playdead giving way to the typical montage minute and then a prolonged look at We Happy Few, we're firmly back in crossplay world: Gwent, the card game from The Witcher, which gets a "monumental" single-player campaign and a closed beta in September. The developer looks genuinely delighted with things, rather than stilted and quietly terrified, which is increasingly the E3 norm.

Tekken 7? Dead Rising 4, set at Christmas? Phew! Lots of games tonight, but here it comes: Shannon Loftis from Microsoft Studios. I figure she's about to wrap things up and go to get a biscuit. Big mistake. Here's the part where the message is really driven home.

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Scalebound, Platinum dragony goodness delivered straight from Kamiya, exclusive to Windows 10 and Xbox One. Sea of Thieves, Rare's incredibly exciting co-op pirate sim in which you team together with a gang of chummy idiots and take off on a goonie adventure set against secret isles and Turner skies - exclusive to Windows 10 and Xbox One. Xbox Play Anywhere. (Nice T-shirt, Craig Duncan from Rare.)

State of Decay 2: Windows 10 and Xbox One. Halo Wars 2, Creative Assembly filling in for Ensemble which is gone but not forgotten, WIndows 10 and Xbox One. Xbox Play Anywhere. (Play now, in fact, since a week-long Xbox One beta has just kicked off.)

Games, games, games. And the message? Microsoft is trying to make landfall on PC again: it's realised that the Xbox platform is worth more to it than hardware sales. Xbox Live is now a beast that spreads across Xbox, Windows 10, VR, mobile... Microsoft's fighting Valve as well as Sony. It's just dropped 26 billion on LinkedIn and it wants a fight. (And it wants to endorse you for those copyediting skills.)

Finally, the big finisher: even when it comes to consoles, Microsoft wants you thinking "beyond generations". This is a hard phrase to swallow if you've just dropped money on an Xbox One, perhaps, or if what you like about consoles is their reliability and stability, even when it comes at the cost of graphical power over time. But here to make the case is Project Scorpio. A new machine: 4K gaming and high-fidelity VR, 8 CPU cores, something stupid-sounding about the best pixels ever delivered. None of that matters. The headline's tucked inside a talking-head soundbite - "It's the We Heard You console", apparently - but I'm not sure contrition is what Microsoft has in mind here. Instead, it's hardware that exists between console cycles, the Apple approach, and the perfect fit, allegedly, for games that sit between platforms. "All Xbox One games and accessories will play on all three machines," says Spencer. Nice words, and the dual nature of Windows 10 and Xbox One releases will probably make that a reality. But beneath that, gaming beyond generations. Bold thinking. Bold thinking indeed.

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