Microsoft Xbox One at E3 2013: Impressions Before & After

xbox one press conference

Greg Tito provides commentary on what it was like to be in the room for Microsoft’s press conference, and what it all means.

At points, you could convince yourself that the event employees in pretty green dresses outnumbered the attendees. There were thousands of cameras and phones clicking, rolling, Tweeting. I saw a guy wearing a GoPro camera on his head to apparently record everything he looked at. He appeared Italian, but perhaps that’s just because I’d been inundated with foreign language speaking folks since I got to the Galen Center. The excitement in the air was sliceable with a Kinect hand chop. Hip Hop Gamer was there.

“Is wi-fi working for you?” the guy next to me asked. “No,” I replied.

The official name of this thing is the Xbox E3 2013 Media Briefing. Will it be brief? Will we media be impressed with the promise of a new experience? Or will the gathered cynics be justified in their skepticism of Microsoft’s used games policies, always-connected necessities, and Skype calling on the Xbox One.

I am split. I don’t actually use my Xbox 360 for anything other than a media machine. My wife and child use Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go to consume our content through the console almost exclusively. I use the same television for live TV through a broadcast antenna, and the promise of quickly switching between these services actually appeals to me more than the games.

But the question remains: Why do I need to invest hundreds of dollars into a new machine when I have one that already does it? Consumers who don’t have an Xbox 360 now might already have smart TVs which do most of what Microsoft proposes. Is the single selling point of the Xbox One that you can talk to it?

The next version of Kinect may well be worth it, at least for me. I personally don’t enjoy most of the motion gaming I’ve done, except as a novelty. If the Xbox One truly provides the promise we were shown at the Galen Center three years ago, then perhaps Microsoft has something you’d feel good about dropping hundreds of dollars on.

Kinect voice commands and TV-watching might be what I’m personally interested in, but games are what we really want from a game console, and Microsoft said it would be showing an ungodly number of them today. I sincerely hope there are titles that appeal to not only to the mainstream like shooters and sports games, but weird strategy titles or games which defy genre classification.

We shall see. Steve Ballmer is lubed up. The Call of Duty dog is shampooed. The indie music is waning. The press conference is about to begin.

Holy crap, that was a load of games. Microsoft mentioned the video stuff it focused on in its announcement three weeks ago only in passing, and brought out studio head after game designer after community manager to tout an impressive array of games. Of course, they all had to do with killing people in some fashion, but we’ll get to that later.

xbox one press conference

The cold open was great. At first, we didn’t know what game footage we were being shown as two men on horses exchanged dialogue on Afghanistan. The bleak, brown landscape was pretty stunning, and the horses’ movement seemed more lifelike and fluid than the excellent Red Dead Redemption. Eventually, the dialogue reveals that Solid Snake has to take Afghanistan back. Ok, we got it now. The new Metal Gear Solid is called The Phantom Pain and the imagery hearkening back to Red Dead Redemption is no mistake; this MGS is open world. The words flashed on the screen to drive this point home. You’ll have more “strategic freedom” and “real time tactical” and “dynamic CGC,” whatever that is. There followed more flashes of crazy characters true to MGS pedigree like Skull Face and Ocelot and Eli. I don’t have an investment in the franchise, but the game sure looks like fun.

Before we knew it, the lights came up and Hideo Kojima himself was on stage saying how much the Xbox One was going to rock. Of course, I imagine that’s what he said. The only words I could catch were “graphics” and “much worth” but I got that he was excited. And with Kojima’s brief appearance, that concluded the rock star game designer portion of the conference. Seriously, he was the only big name Microsoft brought out and the gathered press and executives ate it up with applause.

I was honestly surprised Microsoft spent any time on the 360, but Yusef Medhi came on stage to introduce a smaller form factor for the old console. He also didn’t want us to forget there’s a slew of games still coming to the old platform such as Batman: Arkham Origins and GTAV.

The big announcement I don’t think anyone saw coming: World of Tanks is bringing its huge PC multiplayer hit to the 360. You can download it for free, which leads me to believe Microsoft has figured out free to play games supported by in-game transactions is just as possible on consoles as it is on the PC. We’ll be meeting with the Wargaming folks later in the week and I’m sure we’ll get more information then. I hope this means we’ll be seeing more studios and publishers try their hand at bringing free to play MMOs and MOBAs to consoles. The CEO of Wargaming was certainly excited about it.

On to the 13 next generation titles for Xbox One. We saw a brief glimpse of an independent title called Max: The Curse of Brotherhood from the Copenhagen-based studio Press Play. It’s a colorful platformer with tons of imagination, and it almost got through the trailer without being too violent before we saw a child being electrocuted … Yeah, that was disconcerting.

Ryse: Son of Rome looked like a God of War clone, but with squad leading thrown instead of puzzles. The combat was visually interesting, until I noticed during the 8 minute demo a few repeated animations. I like the choice of setting; you don’t get a lot of games taking advantage of a declining Roman army fighting against the Germanic tribes. But, it’s still more stabby-stabby, killy killy.

The Rare franchise that’s coming back for Xbox One isn’t Conker’s Bad Fur Day after all, it’s Killer Instinct. The forced banter between Ashton the community manager and the producer of the game would be laughable if it wasn’t offensive. I really wish big companies like Microsoft would realize faking it just doesn’t work. Just let two people who clearly have a relationship or rapport try that sort of thing on stage. Like me and Susan Arendt playing a fighting game in front of people would be funny, I’m sure. These two clowns. No. But hey, more Killer Instinct. There were some cheers from the crowd, but overall I think the yawns filled the room.

xbox one press conference e3 2013

My friends over at Insomniac Games – a fellow Durham, North Carolina studio – have been playing the next game close to the chest. Sunset Overdrive looks like Saints Row and Vice City had a baby with Doom. It’s colorful, over-the-top, parkour-fueled gun violence in a stylized open world. The gun that shoots vinyl records was chuckle-inducing, and the villains were all demon monster things. The short trailer was enough to get me pumped, and I’m curious about how the open world will work.

Forza 5. Cars. I don’t love ’em, but I can see the appeal. Before Dan Greenawalt told me the footage playing behind him was in-engine, I thought it was pre-rendered video. It looks that good, and driving looks even better. “Driveatar” is the stupidest term ever – at least, before I got to the EA presser – but the idea of your individual behaviors forming an AI for others to drive against sounds neat. The fact that your AI can earn you rewards is also a great way to bring in the kind of non-synchronous multiplayer gameplay I enjoy. Of course, it’s also a way to bring value to the Xbox One’s cloud features, and your opinion on an always-connected console may vary. Read: you probably hate it.

Were you worried that Xbox One wouldn’t have indie games? Have no fear, Minecraft: Xbox One Edition is here. Bigger maps and expanded multiplayer features will be appreciated, but Microsoft said it’s also committed to fostering indie studios like with swery65’s D4, a cel-shaded animation stylized mystery game, Below from the guys behind Sword & Sworcery and Other than those big announcements though, Microsoft dodged discussing whether there will be a Xbox Live Arcade on Xbox One. They had the chance, but just didn’t commit to it, which I find odd.

Microsoft’s Marc Whitten did say it was abandoning the incomprehensible Microsoft Points and reverting to local currencies for all purchases made through the Xbox Live marketplace. Thank the maker. I hated having to mentally calculate how much that DLC purchase actually cost. You can also have more than 100 friends. Beyond those upgrades, new Xbox Live features sounded great. Twitch support means you can upload and edit videos all on the console, as well as queue up a multiplayer match of one game while you’re playing another.

After that was the first big gaffe of the usually flawless technical presentation at E3. The trailer for the next game from the Panzer Dragoon guys played without sound. Nothing. Silence in the crowd, that is until some professional colleague of mine screamed out “It looks great!” I was embarrassed for Microsoft, but it only got worse.

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt looked as awesome as the franchise ever has, and CD Projekt Red promised more than 100 hours of gameplay. There might even be Kinect voice commands to let you swap between weapons, signs and potions, which would be a huge improvement over the menu system in the last one. We have to wait till at least 2014 to play it, the bastards.

Project Spark is a game-making sandbox with a fantasy bent. The demonstration for this title was one of the most groan-inducing of the whole presentation, with game designer Claude winning the award for the most awkwardly delivered lines of E3. I get that it’s a big audience, and you might be nervous, but saying things like “Nice moves, rockman!” can only work if it comes out natural. Claude, you were not natural. Project Spark itself could be interesting, but I wonder if games like Minecraft encourage that creative spark – oh hey – in a much better way.

xbox one press conference e3 2013

Let’s watch the Battlefield 4 trailer! Oh wait … no sound. Again. Poor Patrick Soderlung from DICE. He was stuck on stage watching his game footage play with no sound. He tried to come off with bravado saying things like “I’m okay,” but after a minute of nothing happening, even he had to meekly go backstage to find out what the fuck was happening. The crowd of so-called professionals started out with embarrassed laughter, but then fell to openly mocking the technical difficulties. “Switch the red and white plugs!” one guy yelled out.

It was bad. Millions of dollars go into these presentations and to have it devolve into childish heckling by the press was just awful to witness. Having a background in theater, perhaps I was overly sensitive to the gaffe, but whoever was responsible should get good and drunk tonight before he gets fired tomorrow. That is, if he hasn’t already been tossed.

It’s not my kind of game, really, but after all the hullaballoo they finally got the Battlefield 4 bit going and it looks pretty stellar, with boats on realistically moving water and all.

The last game shown was predictable, but the trailer did a decent job at masking it until we saw well, that mask. Master Chief in hooded robes walking through a desert was a good decoy, and Halo 5 looks like it will put the iconic character in a whole new setting, at least for him.

Finally, we got the details everyone was waiting to hear. The Xbox One is coming out in November 2013, and it will cost $499 – or 499 euros and 429 British pounds if you’re in those markets. I think that price point is on the high end of consumer tolerance, surely, but it’s not outrageous. Journalists and gamers went all a-Twitter with complaints that $500 was too high, but I can’t see Microsoft really pricing a robust gaming machine with all the features it promises being much less. The Wii U was $350 at launch, did you think the Xbox One was going to be much less? The iPad was $500, a good gaming PC is 500 bucks. The Xbox One is pretty much on par with that level of hardware, so why wouldn’t it be priced accordingly.

The chance Microsoft missed was to unveil some kind payment plan or subsidized purchase option. The Xbox 360 is available for $100 down, with a 2 year contract for Xbox Live at $15/month, why wouldn’t Microsoft jump on business model that for its new console? Even if it was $200 or $300 down, the smaller commitment up front would alleviate a lot of the complaints people have been bandying about. I guess they are waiting on retail partners to unveil that kind of plan, and I hope in the months to come we’ll hear more about it. Because Microsoft would be crazy not to, in my humble opinion.

Beyond all that, Microsoft’s presentation was clearly focused on showing you all the fun games you’ll be able to play on its new system. No one on stage mentioned used games, and the only way they said “cloud” or “connectivity” was in a positive way. Did they alleviate our concerns on that front? Hell no. They just didn’t talk about it.

The games themselves look great. They have tons of visual fidelity, and seem to push the boundaries of how good games can appear. But I couldn’t help but notice all of the sameness. Every game seemed to involve tired mechanics like killing, shooting, jumping or bludgeoning. Beyond games with interesting story setups like Quantum Break and Ryse, there isn’t really anything groundbreaking in Microsoft’s library of launch titles for Xbox One. I wanted something to go beyond the shooter. I wanted more diverse gameplay genres like strategy represented or designers to create whole new genres. I got none of that. Even the demo for Project Spark, which is ostensibly about creation, involved nothing but killing dudes. (To be clear, I’m not down on violent games, far from it, but there was very little else shown by Microsoft and the lack of variety unnerved me.)

So – I’m still mixed on the Xbox One. I want to play many the games they showed, but I wasn’t completely blown away by anything. Nothing beyond the voice commands in The Witcher excited me about having Kinect 2. The features for Xbox Live like streaming and uploading of clips all are neat, but I won’t really use them, and I can’t justify investing $500 in another media machine when I have the 360 already for that purpose.

What did you think about Microsoft’s press conference? Will you buy an Xbox One to play any of the games above? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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