Microsoft’s E3 2014 press conference: a solid but uninspiring start for Phil Spencer’s ‘new Xbox’

Phil Spencer

And with that, Xbox One is an Xbox again. To the relief of the millions watching around the world earlier today, Xbox One wasn’t referred to as an ‘all-in-one entertainment system’ at all during Microsoft’s E3 2014 media briefing; instead, we were presented with a string of new games intended to recapture some of the spark that made Xbox 360 the market leader and console of choice for the hardcore player last generation.

Without an awkward celebrity cameo in sight, this was a press conference full of familiar franchises and game concepts. They had next-gen polish, fourplayer online co-op and dedicated servers. What were intended as surprises weren’t all that surprising, and once again, Microsoft’s efforts to promote more alternative fare from the indie scene felt forced. But at least they’re trying.

Once part of the supporting cast, Phil Spencer is now in charge and was, amusingly, careful to distance himself from the previous regime. We’ve heard Microsoft talk of ‘listening to its audience’ plenty of times before, but here Spencer went one step further, wrapping up the briefing by referring to all that had unfolded as a look at “the new Xbox”. Without Don Mattrick, Marc Whitten or indeed Kinect in his way, Xbox One is now Phil Spencer’s console – it is his hand steadying the tiller and his tight focus on games made for a showcase which wasn’t quite impressive enough to get pulses truly racing, but enough to suggest that Microsoft now understands what players want.

These were games made for that resilient, faithful core of Xbox players who know what they like and just want more of it. It was appropriate, then, that first out the gate was the new Call Of Duty, which looked like a confident amalgamation of all the sci-fi shooters that have gone before it. It was also our first mention of “raising the bar”, while being “built from the ground up” was saved to describe Forza Horizon 2, an open world driving game with a strong social element. You can group together with friends to race in a club – a Drive Club, if you will – and that kind of connected, co-operative play would become a theme to run throughout this year’s showcase. New footage of Evolve, Assassin’s Creed Unity and The Division all revolved around co-op, and just as the presentation threatened to become a little too earnest and serious, Sunset Overdrive arrived to offer a welcome shift in tone, brimming with colour and cheeky self-referential humour.

The Fable’s series’ turn away from its roleplaying roots continued with new gameplay footage of Legends – a game of fourplayer co-op, naturally – that looked more thirdperson shooter than adventure game. The obligatory nod to Kinect was only really notable for Harmonix’s Alex Rigopulos sounding so utterly bored by the prospect of releasing Disney Fantasia Music Evolved and Dance Central: Spotlight, as if he was still mourning the loss of the device as a mandatory pack-in.

Another push for a different Microsoft Game Studios pet project, Project Spark, also misfired a little because it continues to defy clean, concise explanation, and the addition of old Rare mascot Conker might confuse matters further. A beautiful, heartfelt trailer for Ori and the Blind Forest from Moon Studios steered us into credible indie territory for a moment, before 343 Industries took to the stage to talk about the new Halo compilation due at the end of the year, the announcement of which perhaps wasn’t as well received as Microsoft thought it would be. It’s a formidable package, certainly, which includes Halos 1-4, beta access to the multiplayer portion of Halo 5 and the Ridley Scott-produced live action series Halo Nightfall. Halo 5 was what the crowd really wanted, though, not a ‘greatest hits’ compilation – it was telling that Microsoft considered one of the key points of interest to be that Halo 2’s multiplayer would return “exactly as it shipped ten years ago”. A few people in the crowd still felt that this repurposing of a decade-old game mode was worthy of a whoop, though.

Returning in a Limbo T-shirt, Phil Spencer introduced that game’s successor, Playdead’s Inside, which like Ori and the Blind Forest was another beautifully animated, emotive sidescroller with a muted colour palette. It played the role in this conference that Below did last year, the standout reveal from a highly respected indie, and one which led into the arrival of Chris Charla, head of ID@Xbox. He introduced an indie showreel which included Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime, Other Ocean’s crowdsourced #IDARB, the briefest sighting of Cuphead’s wonderful Disney-esque aesthetic, the similarly lovely Hyper Light Drifter, multiplayer romp Slash Dash, iOS smash Threes and Grin’s Woolfe, among others – a strong set of interesting new games sadly glimpsed all too briefly.

It would have been a smart gesture to pick out a few more of them for some extended airtime, but perhaps wary of following Sony’s lead a little too much, we quickly returned to the pre-rendered trailers – Crystal Dynamics’ Rise Of The Tomb Raider continues the the Lara Croft ‘origins’ story that began with last year’s Tomb Raider but won’t arrive until the end of next year, making the value of showing a teaser trailer questionable at best. What we saw of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was rather more tangible, the on-stage demo of a Griffin hunt showing some bloody combat and CD Projekt Red’s great outdoors to be impressively detailed.

Much-loved industry veteran Ken Lobb’s appearance on stage promised rather more than it delivered – his ‘revival of a much-loved franchise’ was revealed to be Phantom Dust, a game that many observers, including your humble scribe, had to Google straight afterwards to fond out exactly what it was. Its origins in Japan were a precursor to the later arrival of Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya, who grumpily announced Xbox One exclusive Scalebound in a manner befitting the owner of one of the most entertainingly aggressive Twitter feeds in the business. Was it Monster Hunter meets Devil May Cry? It was difficult to tell – it added to the increasing pile of games announced with a pre-rendered trailer and only the vaguest sense of how it might actually turn out.

We can all be confident in how the new Crackdown will turn out, however, and although that too was a reveal devoid of any real detail or gameplay footage, the presence of industry veteran David Jones, head of the new studio heading up development of the title, CloudGine, was reassuring. The trailer suggested that the series has lost none of its humour and vibrant cel-shaded aesthetic in the years since Ruffian’s Xbox 360 sequel, but again, this was little more than a CGI teaser video for a game not due for release for another year and a half.

As a finale, it was neither surprising or spectacular, an apt description of the showcase as a whole. This year Xbox One desperately needed a fresh start and a new outlook, and it has had those, but true redemption hasn’t quite arrived. When Spencer returned at the end to reiterate that Microsoft is continuing to listen to players and built its box around them, the atmosphere was a little flat; it was clear Microsoft hasn’t quite managed to stage the fightback it needed to.

This year’s Xbox One showcase needed more exclusives, more specifics, more ambition and more of the unexpected. It’ll only take a little more of each from Sony for PS4 to claim another clear victory once again.