Though chock-full of games which included monster reveals like Star Wars Battlefront and Mirror’s Edge 2, something seemed lacking at this year’s E3 as Sony took its turn: hope. The fear that next-gen would impose tighter restrictions upon tired rituals – more sequels, more shooters, more ‘cinematic experiences’, more daft ancillary features – had gone nowhere. Sweet as its Project Spark might seem, Xbox One had not presented itself as an incubator for tomorrow’s breakthrough games and talents. Kinect, meanwhile, the “whole new beginning” introduced so breathlessly by Steven Spielberg in 2009, was merciful in its absence.
“All that I needed is something to believe in,” go the lyrics to Portugal. The Man’s ‘Purple Yellow Red and Blue’, used to introduce Sony’s customary opening montage of recently announced games. But is that what we would get?
Opening proceedings with the same cordiality that earned him that job hosting Jeopardy – no, wait, that somehow didn’t happen – SCEA president Jack Tretton cut a meek figure as he insisted that Vita “is just beginning its lifecycle,” backing up the claim with game/port announcements like Batman: Arkham Origins and the perfectly suited The Walking Dead.
Just as well-placed in those opening minutes was The Last Of Us, a game of proper next-gen values trapped, much like God Of War and Shadow Of The Colossus, in current-gen hardware. Quite the opposite of Beyond: Two Souls, then, with its apparently dated mechanics lacquered in Hollywood veneer. Playing an Amon Tobin track over slow-moving car porn is a little Top Gear 2005, too, but we’ll let Gran Turismo 6 off. “Not too shabby for a platform in its seventh year,” chirped Tretton, and indeed it’s not.
Introduced by SCE president Andrew House as “a console of unparalleled power,” the PS4 is a coolly retro-futuristic box which, we’re glad to say, retains the vertical option of its predecessors and looks considerably more comfortable doing so than PS3. Sony America CEO Michael Lynton wasn’t comfortable at all, delivering a stammering, buzzword-infused rundown of the various media services Sony does slightly worse than leaders like Netflix and Spotify. President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida, meanwhile, though reading from a familiar script, at least reminded us that PlayStation is a global effort in hardware, software, and on special occasions like this one.
With the show threatening to plod, few would have expected how special it would get.
With trusty Californian outfit Ready At Dawn, then, the announcements began. Fans of The Chaos Engine will rejoice at the shameless Victorian steampunk of The Order 1886, Yoshida assuring us that the purely cinematic trailer – booo! – would be joined by on-stage playthroughs later.
Guerrilla seems intent on making Killzone games until the law of probability makes one a classic. The same could be said of InFamous, the acting chops of which have at come a long way with Second Son.
The threat of twelve whole minutes of a new Quantic Dream tech demo was quickly dispelled by an abridged version dubbed The Dark Sorcerer. Running in realtime on PS4, it looked like one of those Atmosfear video boardgames from the 90s before pulling a pretty stunning twist – and suddenly we were ready for the other nine minutes. Well, maybe six.
From this point on, with its audience still unawares, Sony delivered what can only be described as a Hurricane Kick of announcements and assurances aimed squarely at its chief competitor, all of which connected.
Led by Supergiant Games and its rather irresistible follow-up to Bastion, Transistor, PSN’s ‘Indie Channel’ was all but sworn in by a parade of indie darlings, from Young Horses and Switchblade Monkeys to Klei Entertainment and even Oddworld Inhabitants, all pledging their self-published games to PS4 first. Not total exclusives, then, but exclusives with a cause.
Historically, Sony has prospered through its pursuit of exclusive in-game content rather than such ‘timed’ exclusives, and for the rest of the show it chopped away at pretty every multiplatform game shown, keeping a slice for itself.
Haymaker announcements followed. Diablo III to PS3 and PS4; Final Fantasy Versus XIII becoming Final Fantasy XV, a very busy RPG actioner with stirring CG; Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories, ready to wash away the insipid taste of two Epic Mickeys; Final Fantasy XIV coming exclusively to PS3 and PS4.
Who knows what skullduggery goes on in Ubisoft’s ‘live’ demos, but the one for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag suffered the first of several hiccups which struck other games later on. Watch Dogs has taken a hit in quality from its early pre-canned presentations, but not to the point where you’d confuse it for anything approaching current-gen. An additional hour of gameplay comes exclusive to PlayStation.
The Elder Scrolls Online beta is another exclusive to PS4 – though the more interesting implication there is that it’s coming to Xbox at all, almost a self-made MMO wasteland. Speaking of which, the confirmation that Mad Max is coming to collect gaming’s almighty outstanding debt would have been the highlight of many conferences even if it wasn’t being made by open world masters Avalanche.
Then the real bombshell, as simply stated as it needed to be. “PS4 supports used games.” Sony could have announced anything in the moments that followed: another PSN hack, a sequel to Lair, Frame City Killer… No one would have noticed. It didn’t, though. With gleeful malice cloaked by that opening hour, it systematically dismantled the assumptions upon which Microsoft’s controversial DRM policy rests, in the process restoring a gaming community’s faith in the authority of the platform holder over bullying triple-A publishers. All signs – and an incredibly cheeky video – point to there being no restrictions whatsoever on trading and sharing PS4 discs, nor online check-ins required. Shocking in its totality, in its spirit it was a masterstroke.
It was left to Bungie’s Destiny, a game criticised for getting a free ride from magazines based on little but concept art, to show off that tremendous scope in realtime. Not just epic scope, either, but the same mastery of proportion that helped build Halo into a brand that in turn built that of Xbox. A “longterm exclusive partnership” with Bungie and Activision is assured, perhaps completing the treachery.
Defusing the used game issue meant Sony could big up its Gaikai-powered cloud service during an unprecedented – in recent years, at least – moment of trust. This, declared Tretton, will deliver PS3 games to PS4 and Vita in 2014, hopefully opening the door to much, if not all, of PlayStation’s entire history.
The price? $399 (£349 in the UK) – $100 lower than Xbox One. And there was much rejoicing.
Whether or not it was deliberate – and you have to assume it wasn’t – the slow and nervous opening of Sony’s E3 was the perfect set-up for the sucker punch to come. Even the wording of the conference was smart, full of sly nods to gamer culture and the memes it trades, convincingly delivered by speakers who, for the most part, seemed honestly thrilled to be there. And why wouldn’t they be?
Just at the point where next-gen seemed totally out of surprises, Sony delivered perhaps the biggest in E3 history. Much of the credit goes to Microsoft, of course, whose evasion and borderline belligerence over its Xbox One manifesto saw it run onto Sony’s punches, thrown as they were with a fight not seen since its scraps with Saturn and Dreamcast. How – and even if? – Microsoft recovers will be a story just as fascinating.
Read our review of Microsoft’s E3 2013 press conference here.